Uses of Palms

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Uses of Palms by South American Indians (1853)

Suppose then we visit an Indian cottage on the banks of the Rio Negro, a great tributary of the river Amazon in South America. The main supports of the building are trunks of some forest tree of heavy and durable wood, but the light rafters overhead are formed by the straight cylindrical and uniform stems of the Jarfa palm. The roof is thatched with large triangular leaves, neatly arranged in regular alternate rows, and bound to the rafters with sipos or forest creepers; the leaves are those of the Caranti palm. The door of the house is a framework of thin hard strips of wood neatly thatched over; it is made of the split stems of the Pashiuba palm.

In one corner stands a heavy harpoon for catching the cow-fish; it is formed of the black wood of the Pashiuba barriguda. By its side is a blowpipe ten or twelve feet long, and a little quiver full of small poisoned arrows hang up near it... it is from the stem and spines of two species of Palms that they are made.

His great bassoon-like musical instruments are made of palm stems; the cloth in which he wraps his most valued feather ornaments is a fibrous palm spathe, and the rude chest in which he keeps his treasures is woven from palm leaves. His hammock, his bow-string and his fishingline are from the fibres of leaves which he obtains from different palm trees, according to the qualifies he requires in them - the hammock from Miriti, and the bow-string and fishing-line from the Tucum. The comb which he wears on his head is ingeniously constructed of the hard bark of a palm, and he makes fish hooks of the spines, or uses them to puncture on his skin the peculiar markings of his tribe.

His children are eating the agreeable red and yellow fruit of the Pupunha or peach palm, (Bactris gasipaes?) and from that of the Assai he has prepared a favourite drink, which he offers you to taste. That carefully suspended gourd contains oil, which he has extracted from the fruit of another species; and that long, elastic, plaited cylinder used for squeezing dry the mandioca pulp to make his bread, is made of the bark of one of the singular climbing palms, which alone can resist for a considerable time the action of the poisonous juice. In each of these cases a species is selected better adapted than the rest for the peculiar purpose to which it is applied, and often having several different uses which no other plant can serve as well, so that some little idea may be formed of how important to the South American Indian must be these noble trees, which supply so many daily wants, giving him his house, his food, and his weapons.

Alfred Russell Wallace, (1853) describing the uses that palms were put to by the South American natives.

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