In a recent post I talked about the discovery of a new species of tapir in the Amazon. What is amazing to me is that there are still large mammal species being “discovered” in the region. Within the last ten years a new monkey species was described scientifically for the first time, after having been identified within 60 miles of Manaus, the largest city in the Amazonian river basin. Of course, local and native peoples are already well aware of these animals, which they have hunted for long periods of time. Now, not a month after the last such discovery of a large mammal species in Amazonia, a new dolphin species has been described in a scientific journal. It is the first new species of river dolphin discovered in a 100 years.
I regularly teach a class on the Amazon, and I always have a section on the folklore of the region, where dolphins are shape-shifters, who leave the water at night in human form to seduce young men and women. Candyce Slater has a wonderful book, Dance of the Dolphin, which describes this folklore in the context of Amazonian culture and history. For both men and women, their erotic assignations with the dolphin being are both alluring and ultimately terrifying, for in the end the dolphin undermines both their health and their sanity. In the Amazon these beliefs are not confined to the dolphin, for the anaconda can be a seducer as well. Their are parallels of this belief in many cultures globally, from the “Wilderness Woman” (Pakwaciskwew) of Cree belief in Canada (see Susan Elaine Gray’s excellent chapter on this figure in Recollecting: Lives of Aboriginal Women of the Canadian Northwest and Borderlands, pp. 245-262), to the “calling spirit” of Hawaiian tradition (although that does not always have the same sexual connotations). These stories also remind me of Celtic belief, and how young men could be seduced by fairy folk. In Celtic tales one could be drawn into a parallel fairy world, much as in Amazonian belief one could be brought to the Enchanted World (Encantante) under the rivers’ surface.
There are many other strange Amazonian beings, such as the mapingaury, a giant, hair-covered being, which some authors have suggested represents the survival of an ancient folk-memory of the giant sloth (see also Nigel Smith, The Enchanted Amazon Rainforest, p. 56). Most of these strange beings inhabit only the world of folklore. The mapinguary seems to play a role in hunting taboos in Amazonia, so as to ensure that certain territories are not over-hunted, much like the “Father of game.” Still, given the frequency with which new large mammal species are being discovered in Amazonia, I don’t doubt that we will learn of other animals in the region, which currently only are recognized in folklore. And much more ethnographic research needs to be done about the indigenous knowledge of local animal species.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University