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  • October 15, 2014

We Are What We Eat: Foraging in the Amazon Rainforest

Matthieu Paley’s visual food diary continues from frozen Greenland to the heart of the Bolivian Amazon. Over the coming weeks, we will be taking you with us as Paley travels the globe on assignment for National Geographic in search of our ancestral ties to the food we eat.

January 2014

Carefully, I push muddy clay into a suspicious looking crack in the bow of our large dugout canoe. The water leak slowly stops and I smile at our guide, “Looking good!”

Picture of the Amazon jungle
An aerial view of the Amazon jungle, home of the Tsimane

We have been going up the Maniqui river for two days now. Huddled together in the center of the canoe under a tarp to escape the intense sun and occasional rain shower are Asher and Kelly Rosinger, both research scientists, Ann Gibbons, the writer of the magazine story, our guide Dino, and myself. The river is swollen, and Dino carefully navigates floating pieces of wooden debris. I have some wilderness experience, but not in a jungle environment. I always felt closer to a high altitude yak than to a rhesus monkey. The heat is getting me. Sometimes on assignment, you have to fight to get yourself physically afloat, to carefully channel the energy you have left toward picture making. I have a feeling this is going to be one of those assignments.

Pictures of members of the Tsimane tribe in the Bolivian rainforest
Left: A Tsimane girl picks plantain in her family “chaco” (a field planted using slash-and-burn methods). | Right: Holding plantain cooked over open flames

Rounding the bend, Asher calls it: we have reached our goal, the tiny settlement of Anachere deep inside Tsimane territory. We settle into a bamboo house next to a Tsimane family. No phone reception, no electricity, no running water—the real definition of heaven for some. Except for the incredible heat, the ridiculous humidity, and the gazillion mosquitoes. You can shower yourself with DEET mosquito spray strong enough to melt your skin but it doesn’t matter. These mosquitoes will find a way to get you.

An in-camera double exposure of red corn and burned wood from the slash and burn agriculture practiced in the region
An in-camera double exposure of red corn and burned wood from the slash and burn agriculture practiced in the region

That night, a massive tropical storm decides to settle on top of us. Rain is blowing sideways through the cracks in the bamboo walls and an ingenious squadron of mosquitos has found its way into my net. Sweating—or am I wet from the rain?—I itch myself senseless. I will soon learn to worship antihistamine cream. I step out of my “bed”—a wooden plank propped up on stumps. My right flip-flop gets ripped off my foot. My room has turned into a muddy suction swamp.


Watch the video above for sights and sounds of the Tsimane people of Bolivia.

On the mosquito front, I have pretty much decided to give up. Same with doing the laundry. The river water is so muddy, it almost defies the purpose. That and the fact that after 2 minutes walking in the jungle, I am sweating down to my knees. I feel heavy and inadequate. We walk through the jungle to the next dwelling—to my surprise people from this tribe don’t live together in a village, but rather in single family units spread out from one another, sometimes as far as a half hour apart. A couple sits under an open bamboo hut, looking content, biting on a couple of guavas. I feel like I am somewhere in South East Asia—in Laos or a remote part of Chinese Yunnan. Tsimane have very Asian features. The Bering Strait is a long way from here, but I am certain this is the way they came down, a long long time ago.

Picture of an armadillo being prepared for cooking in the Bolivian rainforest
Following a full day in the jungle, Deonicio Nate came back from a successful hunt with three South American coatis and an armadillo, which is prepared for cooking.

I spend two days running around behind Julio, a strong young man. He doesn’t sweat much and looks right at home hunting for monkeys with his dogs and bow and arrow. The heavy rains have pushed the wildlife up to the hills, so we don’t find anything. It is, however, the best weight-watcher program. I am slowly feeling a bit more “adequate.” I pay a visit to our next door neighbors, the Deonicio family. I come here often and sit by the open fire. They are very much at ease with me and my camera. Daydreaming, a young boy scratches a mosquito bite off my arm, using a wooden needle. I am used to it by now. He manages to pop a small blood bubble, and then another. I start grooming others around me too. It seems like the appropriate thing to do. I watch the young kids playing with knives, something that would be frowned upon in Western society. This is better than watching a soap opera.

Picture of a bowl of chicha
Chicha, a traditional drink made from fermented manioc

What about other entertainment you might ask? Well, there is a mildly alcoholic drink, called chicha, made out of fermented manioc. It’s better to try it first before seeing how it’s made. Enzymes in saliva help start the fermentation process, so whoever is making the drink will chew pieces of manioc and spit it back into the main bowl. And repeat. Not a very elegant act to watch, but it does the job. Am I forgetting something? Oh yes … food! Right. Well, I eat a lot of plantain: baked plantain thrown straight into the fire—skin on or skin off—grated green plantain boiled in salty water, plantain in the morning, plantain in the evening. I come to like it very much. The Tsimane used to be solely hunter-gatherers but since the 18th century, they have also been practicing slash and burn agriculture—a “gift” from the missionaries. There is always a small patch of maize or plantains growing near a camp, usually half encroached by the invading jungle.

Picture of a Tsimane man in the jungle of Bolivia
Flood-driven debris clogs the Maniqui river shallows where Jose Mayer Cunay bathes. A great orange-tip butterfly, common in the Amazon, casts a shadow on his back.

But watching them gather food is the exciting part. It’s raining heavily. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, Albania and Emiliana, two teenagers, walk into the jungle that surrounds their hut. I throw on my poncho and catch up with them. I feel like a walking sweat lodge. My camera is fogging up and I skip over streams, trying not to fall in. They pick fruits on the ground and in the trees. These are sweet. When I suggest some other little red fruit, they chuckle. This one would probably kill me, I deduce. In the developed world, we would go for a walk around the block, one eye fixed on the latest Facebook update, the other on the oncoming traffic. These girls literally float through the jungle, their eyes everywhere, their senses in full alert. I am spellbound. Back at the fire, I am drenched and I count my bites—80 on my right elbow—but also my blessings, for having been so happily swallowed by the jungle.

Next, diving for food with the sea gypsies of Borneo.

*****

The Evolution of Diet“, featured in the September issue, is part of National Geographic‘s special eight-month “Future of Food” series. Follow Paley on Twitter, Instagram, and his website.

Related story: Spring in Crete Means a Feast of Wild Greens  
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Related story: Documenting Dinners Around the World

There are 20 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Tere Batham
    October 27, 2014

    When I visited the Darien as a child in the 1960, the Choco Indians who are in almost all respects like those in this article, wore only loin clothes and decorated themselves with elaborate blue patterned stains & old Spanish coins. Then the missionaries came…. and now they dress in stained and dirty cast offs. We call this a civilizing influence? Seems we have only taught them shame!

  2. Ryan
    October 26, 2014

    Just reading this article made me uncomfortable. Must have been awful.

  3. Isabel Hernández Tibau
    October 19, 2014

    Realmente impresionante las situaciones que viven en esta expedición.o es para cualquier persona, por eso es admirable el temple con que enfrentan las condiciones de vida en ese lugar. Muy bien relatado! Felicitaciones.

  4. Mariel
    October 19, 2014

    Outstanding

  5. Mariel
    October 19, 2014

    Save the rainforest and all its inhabitants. Leave them in peace.

  6. Lutske van der Schaft
    October 19, 2014

    Wonderful story. It takes me right back to the rainforests of Suriname. Did you see typical western products like soft drinks and candy being sold at the small village shop? I believe that part of the reason these people are so strong and energetic because of their ancestral diet full of root vegetables. However, because of western influences obesity and diabetes are becoming more common.

  7. Chez Boyardee
    October 19, 2014

    Where’s an In.N.Out when you really are craving a 4 x 4 Animal Style Piranha Rap?

  8. Junxiang Zhu
    October 18, 2014

    the lives and environments there in Amazon are so amazing

  9. Violet Skye’s
    October 18, 2014

    As I sit here being called dude for the umpteenth time, I would gladly trade places with you in a heart beat. Those people know what love, life and living in reality is about. We truly are a spoiled bunch here in the states!

  10. Doreen J. Pelletier
    October 18, 2014

    The Amazing Amazon. Preserve the forests..

  11. Jesus meza
    October 18, 2014

    I was born in this type of life.but my parents wanted a different life for us. so we moved to “the civilaced part of the world ” now I live in Chicago and I still wish I was in the tropical forest..

  12. Margaret
    October 17, 2014

    Great story, and love your photos beautiful…I love the corn and wood overlay, simple but really effective. Nice for you to have experienced the Bolivian rainforest. Mosquitoes and all.

  13. vijay sood
    October 17, 2014

    The poeple here are still so close to nature, infact they communicate with nature.

  14. Sudeep
    October 17, 2014

    While i read, I was with them visually experiencing the same. Thats the power of this article. Thank you NG!

  15. Suprabha
    October 17, 2014

    amazing

  16. Breinner
    October 16, 2014

    Awesome. Amazon is great place, the last year visit Iquitos very beatiful. Congrats.

  17. Becky
    October 16, 2014

    As I read this I am on my commute home from a stressful day at work, and for my dinner… A cup of coffee. How awe inspiring and important it is for us to understand and appreciate the incredible diversity of our planet and all the inhabitants who share it. Only with this understanding can we solve the challenges it faces. Thank you National Geographic.

  18. Linda Boyd
    October 16, 2014

    Interesting, wish I was younger. Find food fascinating.

  19. Iris
    October 16, 2014

    Amazing Story! Congratulations for the hard job and for the joy you had!

  20. Becky Peppers
    October 15, 2014

    Happy to read your inspiring story of these people. Happier I’m not sweating in the sticky humidity you are writing in while reading!

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