Fieldwork in Brazil

Petrullo's Visit to the Yawalapiti

By: Eleanor M. King

Originally Published in 1993

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Matto Grosso was tirst entered, by way of the Paraguay river, in the latter part of the sixteenth century by Spaniards. Soon afterwards the Portuguese came from the east, succeed­ing in traversing the southern portion and even reaching the Andes…ln the early eighteenth century, towns were founded on the banks of the Cuyabá and the Paraguay rivers. Follow­ing the establishing of these settlements, the southern portion of the state underwent gradual exploration, and its aboriginal peoples inevitable subjugation…Mut generally the north resisted penetration, so that at the beginning of the twentieth century it still remained largely unknown. Petrullo 1932:94

Isolated, little-known regions have always drawn explorers. The northern portion of the vast Matto Grosso district, sparsely settled and difficult of access, was no exception. At the end of 1930 an intriguing consortium of individuals and institutions, including Vincent Petrullo and The Univer­sity Museum, set off to investigate this area (Fig. 1).

The Matto Grosso Expedition was no ordinary academic venture. It was in fact entirely organized and financed by pri­vate individuals, mostly from the Philadelphia area. The chief instigators included Captain Vladimir Perfilieff, a Russian-born artist and world traveler who claimed to be an ex-Cossack, and Alexander Siemel, a Latvian who had spent many years as a hunter, guide, and jack-of-all-trades in South America (see Fig. 6).

In the course of his travels, Seemed had learned the art of spearing a jaguar single-handed from the Guató Indians of Brazil. The story of Siernel’s prowess captured the attention of John Clarke, Jr., who was interested in using the develop­ing art of motion pictures for educational purposes. Together, the three decided to mount an expedition to the Matto Grosso for the primary purpose of filming Seemed in the act of killing a jaguar. They also wanted to document life as it was then in a remote and relatively untamed area of Brazil. The films were to be scripted and to combine pictures with sound.

The project captured the imagination and support of a number of young Philadelphians, most prominently E.. Fenimore Johnson, who added a more formal scientific focus to the proposed adventure. It was through Johnson that The University Museum and eventually the Academy of Natural Sciences took part in the Matto Grosso Expedition. Vincenzo Petrulto, a graduate student in the University of Pennsylvania’s Anthropology Depart­ment, was “scientific advisor” and Muse­um representative; he was to conduct archaeological as well as ethnographic explorations. James Rehn, who joined the Expedition as the Academy’s representative when it was already in the field, was to make comparative faunal collections. Other personnel included writers, sportsmen, and technical experts. Among the latter were two very talented photographers: Floyd D. Crosby, winner of an Academy Award in cinematography for Tabu (1931), and his assistant, Arthur P. Rossi. Together they provided the Expedition with an unusu­ally lively and extensive visual record.

First Explorations

Expedition members set sail by steamer from New York the lay after Christmas 1930. To reach the Matto Grosso with all heir equipment they had to take the circuitous but compartively easy river route through Argentina rather than the arduus overland trail from Sao Paolo in Brazil. Their journey took several weeks because they had to transfer to increasingly ;mailer (and slower) boats as they progressed, often pausing o wait for a steamer going in the right direction. By the time they arrived in Corumbá, Brazil, it was the height of the rainy season aftermath, and the flat savannah countryside was completely flooded for miles around (see Fig. 5). Water that was often breast-deep severely limited their activities and the possi­bilities for exploration.

Petrullo killed the time waiting for the flood to recede by applying to the Brazilian government for exploration permits. Meanwhile other Expedition members moved on to Descavaldos some 250 miles from Corumbá that was to be their base of operations. There, life settled into a predictable routine. The Expedition members met as a group for meals in the morning and in the evening, but otherwise, each person followed his own pursuits. Most spent their days hunting the abundant wildlife in the area (Fig. 5). Particularly prized were the big cats, jaguars and pumas, both for the danger of the hunt and the value of their pelts (Figs. 6, 7).

Once Petrullo and Rehn joined their companions in Descavaldos, they set hard to work collecting scientific data. Rehn prepared specimens for the Academy’s collections from animals the hunters brought in (Fig. 8). Petrulio, although ham­pered by the waterlogged countrysides, nonetheless conduct­ed archaeological excavations at two prehistoric cemeteries, one within the settlement of Descavaldos itself and one on a nearby knoll (Fig. 10). As the flooding subsided, he was also able to travel with a few other Expedition members to a Boro­ro da Cannpanha village (Fig. 9). They found the Bororo impov­erished and half-starved, with few of their old customs left; most of their cultural heritage seemed to have been forgotten. Petrullo then and there resolved to go as far into the interior as he could to reach groups as yet unacculturated to western ways. He chose to explore the headwaters of the Xingu River, northeast of Descavaldos, an area that was then little known.

The Xingu Expedition

By May the ground had begun to dry. Equally importantly, an amphibious airplane donated to the Expedition by Eldridge Johnson, Fenimore’s father, arrived in Descavaldos (see Fig. 19). With the arrival of the plane, Petrullo and other Expedi­tion members were able to travel easily to the town of Cuyabá to obtain final permits from the authorities, as well as infor­mation on the Xingu area. The use of the plane also permit­ted them a rare bird’s-eye view of the terrain Petrullo proposed to travel. The area was considered quintessential “wild coun­try” by Brazilians and foreigners alike. The way to the Xingu lay up a dramatic escarpment that rose some 2500 feet straight up from the lowlands of the Paraguay River to a plateau that fell off gently northward. Indeed, the abrupt southern face of this formation, known as the chapadáo, had given rise to legends of a “lost continent” and a “lost civilization” (Fig. 11).

Petruilo made two reconnaissance flights over the chapadáo and the Xingu area. He and his companions tried to identify known rivers and locate likely native settlements to visit. They found, however, that the village clearings were so insignificant in comparison to the surrounding rainforest that the dwellings were invisible. On the second trip they landed the plane on a clear stretch of water at the juncture of two rivers, got out, ate their lunch, and waited for natives to appear. No canoes materialized, however, and after several disappointing hours of inactivity they were forced to take off in order to return before dark, leaving behind some trinkets in sacks attached to bushes. That trip, however, was not entire­ly fruitless. On the way back they happened to fly right over a village, thereby discovering that there were settlements to be found, but only from directly overhead. They circled around for a closer view and were met by a hail of arrows from a group of men standing beside the central men’s hut of the village. They dropped more bags of gifts and continued on their way.

That second trip also helped establish an exploration plan and a rendezvous. It was decided that Petrullo would set out from Cuyabá for the chapadáo with a contingent of men that included some Expedition members and some locals. Once up and across the plateau, he was to proceed by river to the junction where the plane had landed and there wait for Johnson to appear by air. This plan would probably have worked well had they gotten their geographical coordinates right. As it was, they mistakenly identified the river junction as the confluence of the Kuluene with the Seventh of September. Thus, while Petrullo made his way to that spot, the plane waited at the original landing place, which turned out to be where the Kuluene met the Kuluseu, some 50 miles further north.

The added delay in the rendezvous, on top of a difficult journey, put tremendous stress on Petrullo and his crew. On the other hand, the longer the plane and its occupants sat and waited, the less fear and the more curiosity those living near­by felt. By the time Petrullo and his men finally rejoined their misplaced companions (Fig. 12), virtually every native group in the vicinity had come out of hiding and quite a multi-cul­tural gathering had coalesced around the gringo camp. Petrullo was thus able to do some quick comparative ethno­logical work simply by observing the members of each distinctive ethnic group as they moved around their camp­fires…and as they observed him.

Visit to the Yawalapiti

Shortly thereafter the plane took off, with plans to return soon, leaving the photographer Art Rossi at the camp. Petruilo began exploring the possibilities for fieldwork. He was well aware that he could conduct only the most perfunctory of studies, given his temporal and logistical constraints. His goal was to pick a likely group or groups and come back some day to conduct in-depth anthropological research. As it was, his observations, perforce superficial, were wonderfully enhanced by Rossi’s candid photographs, the first ever from this area.

Nearly every group represented in the makeshift settlement surrounding the camp wanted the honor of receiving a visit from the strangers. Indeed, Petrullo might have been able to make observations and collections in several villages, were they not located so far away. As it was, the single-file trails leading from the river to the villages were too narrow for shoes, as they had been made by bare feet. Both he and Rossi suffered severely from the awkward and extended walking.

Among the groups at the camp were the Yawalapiti, who were so taken with Petrullo that they offered to show him the secret waterway that would bring him directly into their village, avoiding the foot-blistering path that marked the for­mal entrance to their domain. Accordingly, he and Rossi went with the Yawalapiti and spent an idyllic few days with their most gracious hosts. After further explorations and encoun­ters down the Seventh of September River, they made their way slowly back to Descavaldos and shortly thereafter, appar­ently, Petrullo went home to Philadelphia.

Immediately upon his return, Petrullo wrote a formal, scientific account of his archaeological and ethnological fieldwork that was published as an issue of The Museum Journal (Petrullo 1932). It was only some twelve to thirteen years later, long after he had left the Museum, that he produced a much lengthier and more intimate account of his experiences, based upon his fieldnotes. This unpublished book, titled Uni after the Yawaiapiti word for water, is full of wry humor and sub­tle observations that convey Petrullo unmitigated love for the landscape, the life, and the people. A former English major, he was able to blend personal feelings and anthropological observations in lyrical passages such as the one reproduced here, recounting his visit to the Yawaiapiti. The bulk of this wonderful travelogue unfortunately remains unpublished due to lack of funding. The excerpt chosen, however, provides a glimpse of a master storyteller and a window on the wilder side of anthropological exploration in the 1930s.

Cite This Article

King, Eleanor M.. "Fieldwork in Brazil." Expedition Magazine 35, no. 3 (November, 1993): -. Accessed February 22, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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