The next day I was in the Nukak camp. We walked a hundred or so yards from the settler’s farm clearing, crossed a shallow stream, then found their encampment – four or five clusters of hammocks strung up in trees. There may have been 20 people between the children, women and men, and a dozen or so short legged short haired dogs. I assumed the clusters of hammocks were for family units. There were four or five hammocks in each cluster strung up around gently burning surface fires that simmered all day and night. The Nukak were happy to see us. Our guide, who spoke their language, talked to them. They all laughed and took me to a couple of trees next to one of the family clusters where I strung up my own hammock. And there I stayed for the better part of the next week.
There was a lot to see. I spent my day watching and taking photographs with my 35 mm Canon T70 camera. It was a good little camera and I was trying to take candid photographs that captured the daily lives of these last indigenous hunter-gatherers. The mornings started slowly. The young mothers woke first, yawning and stretching before gathering up their babies to nurse them. Then their husbands would climb from their hammocks, add some wood to the fire, and go about other business. Breakfast was a pot of fish stew, and a separate pot of milky white soup brewed from the pod of a plant that I never identified. The fish and plant pod stew simmered all day and night in aluminum and stainless steel pots. The Nukak had made clay pottery for countless generations. I was told they’d stopped making clay pottery when they were able to get metal cooking vessels from the Colombian settlers. Then, with little discussion, most everyone left for the jungle. The men and older boys departed carrying blowguns and fire hardened wooden javelins. Many of the women, with older girls and some of the younger boys in tow, left with fishing poles. The pregnant women and nursing mothers with young babies stayed behind in the camp. I would stay with them in the camp for a bit. They smiled and laughed at me. I wonder what they were saying?
I didn’t leave with any of the Nukak when they went into the jungle. They didn’t ask me to join them, and I didn’t venture too far from the camp or the Colombian settlers’ farmstead. I grew up in the mountains of western Arkansas and I’m confident of being able to find my way in the woods. But these were not my woods and the jungle was not friendly to North Americans. I’d spend the day photographing the camp and taking notes on what I saw. I’d venture over to the nearby settler’s farmstead and help the farming husband with his work on the crops. I’d spend a lot of time talking to the kids who helped me with my Spanish and also did their best to teach me Nukak. A dog in Nukak is “woo”. At least that’s what the kids told me, in between bouts of ecstatic laughter. Both the settler kids and the Nukak kids thought I was completely novel, like a visitor from another planet. I was a visitor from another planet.
In the afternoon, the Nukak returned to camp, laden down with what they had gathered and collected. The women brought strings of fish, baskets of more of the milky plant pod I never identified, and piles of reddish brown plant fiber. The men brought back other things they’d hunted including small birds and baby peccary. One man brought back a pile of fresh honeycomb dripping with a sweet, sharp, pungent jungle honey. He was the most popular person in the camp that day. I was glad not to meet jungle bees. In the afternoon, the women were active in the camp. They processed fish and added them to the boiling pots. They processed the pods to make the milky vegetable stew they drank. They also spent much of their time hand spinning the brown plant fiber they’d collected into twine. Each of the adult women in the camp wound the twine into enormous balls at least a foot and a half across. Most of the men scattered back into the jungle, or stayed in camp to make darts for the blowguns or to work wood into javelins. An older boy spent the week I was with them, shaping a length of wood and fire hardening it into a javelin, proudly showing me the process as he went. At night, everyone would gather back into their smaller family units, in their hammocks around the campfire. They would talk quietly as the fires burned down from a bright flame to a smoldering simmer and then, one by one, they would quiet into sleep.
That was a very long time ago. There is always more to say about such travels. I’m leaving a lot out. The travel back out of the jungle was not easy. Colombia was suffering through a civil war that had beleaguered the country for half a century. The Guaviare region was not a place for American students to linger. I never went back. I gave my photographs to my Colombian friend to use in his research and to help with the story he was telling and the research he was conducting. I tucked the experience away. The past decades have not been good to the Nukak Maku. The civil war continued to flare and most of the Nukak, if not all of them have been driven from their ancestral lands.
I may have been with the Nukak Maku for five days, not even a full week. But the intensity of that experience brings those days back into my thoughts every time I walk onto an archaeological site. When I look at a lithic scatter in a plowed field, or hold an Early Archaic Kirk Point, or a Middle or Late Archaic Matanzas point in my hand I wonder how the lives of those ancient hunter-gatherers in the Ohio Valley compared to the last hunter-gatherers in modern South America. One observation that lingers in my mind is just how ephemeral the traces of the Nukak encampment were. There was an older encampment not more than 50 yards from the Nukak camp where I stayed. I barely noticed it. There were dried palm frond baskets on the ground surface, but nothing durable that would survive in the archaeology record. And I was struck by the brevity of how long they stayed in any one location. They were encamped near our host settler family’s farm for less than a week. They left in part, so they told us, because of the smell and the bugs. As the days progressed at the camp, the fish and plant food remnants discarded around the outer edge of the camp site started to rot. I noticed the smell by the second day. A couple of days later the smell was a reek and the insects were growing into a swarm. They packed up and moved to another site because no sensible person would stay in those conditions.
There you have it. That’s the furthest place I’ve ever been. It took me further geographically than I have ever travelled. It also took me as far from late twentieth century post-industrial society as it was possible to go. The Nukak Maku are among the last people in history to live as hunter-gatherers, living the way that all of our ancestors lived for hundreds of thousands of years. It is humbling to understand that. Our brief encounter gave me a clearer understanding of what our jobs as archaeologists are. We collect artifacts and excavate sites to gather data. This is true. But artifacts and archaeological data are tools we use to help us know our ancestors, to understand how they lived, and to equip us to tell their stories. This is what we do.
By Michael W. French
Wood Environment & Infrastructure Solutions, Inc.