Nancy Marie Brown
June 01, 1987

The forest does not advertise itself; the overwhelming impression is of a green stillness. The newcomer sees little movement or color. It helps to be quiet, to have an eye for detail, and to know where to look; it is even better to have a companion who knows the forest well." —Catherine Caufield, In the Rainforest (1985)

At dawn, Ashtacara, some of the other Bari men, and Stephen Beckerman, the anthropologist, would duck under the low doorway and leave the cool, dark, high-ceilinged longhouse with its hammock-ranked perimeter and central row of cooking hearths. They would set off through the field circling the longhouse and enter the rainforest, into the shade of 150-foot trees, their slender boles, branchless to the heights, winged with buttressing roots, draped in vines, stranglers, lianas that loop from the canopy to the ground and up again, stitching together the layers of the forest.

Ashtacara was not the "chief" of this group of Bari Indians, even though the longhouse was called "Ashtacacayra," "Ashtacara's house." It was he who suggested they build a new longhouse and clear a new field, but if he began acting the chief, telling them what to do, he would awaken one morning to find them gone, scattered to other houses, the society dissolved out from under its government; then he would sit alone and sulk, and finding he was lonely, go join them. Fifty or more Bari share two to five houses. The people in any one house are not necessarily tied by blood or marriage. The Bari choose their "kin"—the people with whom they will share their hearths—through a ritual singing and exchanging of arrows (between men) and skirts (between women).

Going into the rainforest of a morning, the Bari men carried their six-foot palmwood bows and two kinds of arrows—blunt arrows for birds, barbed ones for small game—but Beckerman, living with the Bari, soon learned not to expect them to bring home any meat. The Bari were shkirayuna. Beckerman glossed the word as "hunting," but knew it literally meant "going on a trail." The men would skirt the river to see how high and clear the water was and would peer into pools for bocachico—thick, silvery fish that provided 50 percent of the protein in the Bari diet; they would gauge the ripeness of wild fruits and the richness of fibers for baskets, hammocks, and mats; they would scout for strangers; and they would scan the ground for spoor of tapir, peccary, monkey, guan, agouti, spectacled bear. Shkirayuna, Beckerman came to see, exemplified the essential Bari difference, the cultural outlook that allowed them to thrive in the raiforest, where "civilized," "modern" cultures starve.

Beckerman, now an assistant professor in Penn State's College of the Liberal Arts, was then (1970 to '72) a doctoral student at the University of New Mexico. He was studying the energy-flow patterns of the Bari, 800 to 1,000 people living in the rainforest of the Maracaibo Basin, nestled in the Andes Mountains between Colombia and the oil-producing region of Venezuela. He had gone to some trouble to find a South American society that was economically closed, in which the people did not trade or work for wages. Other scholars had told him he wouldn't find what he was looking for and, indeed, by 1970, nearly half of the Bari had died of measles brought in by the countrymen who "pacified" them. Missionaries, arriving in the wake of the disease and bringing the medical care that saved the remnant of the Bari people, were incidentally modernizing Bari culture. Enough Bari still lived in traditional longhouses, however, for Beckerman to document how a subsistence human society interacted with its environment: how energy, in terms of kilocalories of food, work, waste, and sunshine, flowed from earth to people and back. His would be one of the first energy-flow diagrams for a human population.

The Bari accepted Beckerman's arrival with aplomb. They were intrigued by this hairy, white man who, at 6-foot-4, was head-and-shoulders above the tallest of them. He was good for comic relief, he remembers, being too slow and clumsy to spear a fish, and he was willing to work hard when it didn't get in the way of his research—for instance, he could help clear a field, working until his hands bled, while still keeping track of the number of workers, the time spent, and the area cleared. For three years (with periodic breaks in Bogota to cure himself of various worms and amoebas and to contact funding agencies), Beckerman recorded what the Bari did and when, measured the size of their fields, weighed the manioc roots they harvested, counted the number of fish they caught.

The most intriguing discovery Beckerman made came when he handed a Bari woman a photograph turned upside down. She did not turn it around. Thinking about it now, 15 years later, Beckerman shakes his head. "At first you say to yourself, 'She doesn't understand what a picture is, she can't translate the two-dimensional representation into the three-dimensional being.' But she interrupts your thoughts. Looking at the picture, still upside down, she says, 'Yes, that's my husband, that's Ashtacara. He's looking well.' If I handed you a photograph five degrees, maybe 15 degrees out of true, you might not bother straightening it, but 180 degrees?" He spreads his fingers in a gesture of defeat. "The Bari don't live in our world of 'two blocks north then turn right.' They live in a world of polar coordinates, a world of concentric rings: the hearth, the ring of hammocks and the wall of the longhouse, the crop rings of the house-surrounding field, the rainforest. For months I lived with them thinking they were not very different from me. They made fun of me in a very understandable way. Then came this thing with the photograph. Every once in a while, you have an experience like this that makes you believe in culture again."

Beckerman returned to the States in 1973, finished his dissertation—400 pages of commentary on the 11-by-16-inch energy-flow chart, with, he says, "no punchline." He soon began seeing other things in his energy-flow data: It was the repository for the dying Bari culture. In it, he could uncover why the rainforest had been a comfortable home for them.

One theory about the success of rainforest Indians is that their fields and gardens—"swiddens'"—mimic the surrounding jungle. Like the "forest above a forest" that naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt described, the swidden is a field above a field—banana trees above pepper plants above squash vines above yams. The "exuberant jumble" of crops with different growth habits and root systems, writes one scientist, exploits all the light, warmth, moisture, and nutrients available, while denying pests and diseases a toehold. The tall crops' canopy, notes another, minimizes weeding and protects the fragile, tropical soil from searing sun and pummeling rain.

But Bari fields do not mimic the jungle. An "ideal" Bari field is planted in concentric rings. Edging the forest is a ring of banana trees; then a wide band of manioc; clumps of sugarcane, cotton, chile peppers, and perhaps tobacco form a ring further in; next a solid ring of bakira for fish poison; and an inner ring of squash, yams, and sweet potatoes edging the bare, swept earth outside the longhouse. The bananas do not shade the yams. The heights of the plants decrease, closing in on the house in a wide, shallow funnel. And an actual Bari field is even less diverse: The Ashtacacayra swidden, slightly larger than a football field, holds 56 new banana plants in a cleared band; a large patch of manioc, with seven older banana plants at its edge; a ring of bakira; and a broken ring of squash.

Is Bari agriculture inefficient? Is it destructive of the soil? Bari production of manioc seems far above the average for commercial production in the region, and far below the output of experimental plots. But our standards of production may not apply. A Bari field is never harvested all at once. Each hearth-group pulls up a few roots every week or so and replants cuttings immediately. The "harvest" may go on for 10 years. Modern homesteaders, discouraged by the poor yields, abandon their plots in two to three years. How could the Bari succeed when the homesteaders fail? A Bari field is divided into pie slices, each slice owned by one man and pointing to his hearth inside the longhouse. No fences or boundary markers divide plots; trails may border two, or run right through one's center. "People simply know their areas and their plants," says Beckerman. Food scraps and the Bird-of-Paradise leaves used as plates and platters are scattered onto the field every day; the Bird-of-Paradise plant is exceptionally high in phosphorus. Women and children almost always (and men at least half the time) relieve themselves in the house-surrounding field, supplying nitrogen and organic matter.

Ashes from the hearths are always taken back to the field ("back," because most firewood comes from the trees cut down when the site was first cleared). When the longhouse is deemed old—at 10 years or so—it is burned down and the ashes scattered. The people find a new site, almost never adjacent to the old one, and begin again, leaving a "pinprick in the jungle," as one researcher in the Amazon has said, covered with weeds and old crops and rich with the ashes of the longhouse. "How and why do these fields manage to return to forest? One answer," Beckerman writes, "may lie in the relation of the field to the forest." The pinprick is soon overwhelmed.

The Bari fields are small and do not demand much labor; even though the Bari get 80 to 90 percent of their calories through agriculture, they spend much more time hunting and fishing—and more on hunting than on fishing. To Beckerman, who studied "optimal foraging theory"—the theory that posits, among other things, that foragers should exploit a particular resource only when they cannot get a better return for their time by exploiting some other resource—Bari practices were at first puzzling. Fishing, in terms of meat per man hour, as he calculated, was almost always more profitable than hunting. Why were the Bari, as he wrote, "deliberately, almost perversely, foraging in a resolutely sub-optimal way" by continuing to hunt even in those seasons when fishing returns were several-fold higher? He found his answer when he pondered how the Bari fished.

On a day when the rain has been light and the river is clear and low, all the men, women, and children of the house (although the children aren't much help) go to the river, to a spot where the sun shines down on a cobble bottom, algae-encrusted, and an island sits midstream. The men heap up the stones of the riverbed into a dam (sometimes 100 feet long) on the upstream side of the island, bridging island and shore. The women do the same on the downstream side of the island. With the dams trapping the bocachico, the men slowly wade through the pool, careful not to stir up the clear water, looking for the school. When it is found they center on the point, thrust their palm spears—nine feet long, only a half-inch wide—chasing and spearing, says the watching Beckerman, with "extraordinary grace and speed," then toss the fish onto the bank to be scaled and cleaned by the women, and resume their slow, thoughtful wade to see where the school has regrouped.

Good fishing depends on knowing the forest: on knowing where the fish are in their migration route and how clear and low are the rivers. Shkirayuna—both the true expeditions when large quarry has been spotted, and those "pseudo-hunts" in the dawn forest—may be less profitable, in terms of meat per man hour, but the Bari, when shkirayuna, are keeping their eyes open. For hundreds of years, the Bari have lived in the rainforest as Ashtacara lives in his longhouse—knowing that if he attempted to rule his household, it would dissolve out from under him. "Apparently," concludes Beckerman, "it is considered important to monitor the environment constantly."

Last Updated June 01, 1987