The dream of paradise lost is as old as mankind.  As early as Sumerian mythology we encounter the concept of a place where animals live together in amity and Man is immune to disease – and we still dream of such a Utopia.  And perhaps there are even today places on this Earth which come close to the dream…


Ajaia ajaia
Geologists tell us that during the Tertiary the entire central part of today’s Amazon basin was a gigantic inland sea, bounded to the north by an Archaean island (now the Guianan Shield) and by another to the south (the Brazilian highlands). In the course of time tectonic activity dramatically altered the inland sea – land rose and fell, natural barriers came into being, rivers started to flow. Rainstorms of immeasurable proportions (such as still occur in the Amazonas, the largest forested region on earth), inundation after inundation, and repeated gales sculpted the landscape. And the Rio Grande el Mar Dulce, the Amazon, was born.


Ilha de Marajó – largest river island of the world

Eventually this “toil of Nature” gave rise to Marayó. Millions of years-worth of sediment, carried down from the Andes by the unbelievable masses of water that constitute the Amazon system (especially when the snows melt), and deposited by the river where it meets the sea, eventually produced the huge island we see today. Over the millennia Marayó has moved slowly eastwards towards the Atlantic as the result of a constant process of erosion and deposition, a process that still continues, year after year.  

As the island formed, the river was obliged to branch either side of it to reach the sea. Nowadays it actually flows through the verdant south-western part of the island, via channels and runnels known locally as furos and estreitos and the Canais de Breves (the Breves canals, Breves being the one large town in the area).  

Marajó is, in fact, a vast, picturesque, aquatic labyrinth, always changing, an entire dynamic world in itself. This is partly as a result of its origin and its island form, partly because the the waters of the Rio Tocantins, the last great right bank tributary of the Amazon, have for millennia continually undermined the soil, forever creating new canais. Some areas have been completely cut off to form separate small islands. The ebb and flow of the tides – whose effects are felt up to 1200 km upstream – have also played a part in the creation of this labyrinth.

It was such influences that created the Estreito de Breves, the only channel deep enough for ocean-going vessels (which can travel 3,000 km upriver), which lies to the southwest of the island and is regarded as the official boundary between it and the mainland.  Here the Tocantins joins the southern arm of the Amazon, which is called the Rio Para at this point, their waters now flowing together to the Atlantic.  In the north the mouth of the Amazon is called the Baia do Vieira Grande and the two main branches are named Canal Perigoso and Canal do Sul (the dangerous and the southern channels).

The almost innumerable canals which criss-cross the island have names recalling long-extinct Indian tribes, such as Anajás, Araraquara, Atatá, Atuá, Camará, Cajuúba, Camutím, Canaticú, Charapucú, Curuacá, Mapuá, Muaná, Paracuari, Pracuúba, and Tamaquarí, to name but a few. The aboriginals were familiar with this unique area at the mouth of the mighty river, comparable with a modern city only with streets of water, and gave it the name Marayó.  

But this wonder of Nature has its downside, as far as Man is concerned. During the approximately 5 month long rainy season most of Marajó is under water – the highest point on the island is only 15 metres above sea level. The Indians got around this problem by building their houses on stilts, and this is mirrored today by the buildings and landing-stages. The only way to get about is by boat!  During the dry period (roughly May to November), however,  most of the canais and igarapés (= streams) dry up completely, and canoes then give way to horses and 4-wheel-drives.

The aboriginals


Various earthenware items showing the still undeciphered geometric designs – bowls (1, 3, 4, & 9),
ornamental vessels (5 & 6), and traditional igaçabas (urns) (2, 7, & 8)

The best known aboriginals of the river island are the Aruã, famous for their elaborate pottery, some of which survives today. Together with the Anajás, the Guajarás, the Jurunas, the Mapuás, the Mamaiaucás, and the Sacarás (they form a single large family, the Aruak (or Aruaques). The Portugese called them all nhengaíbas (a term whose exact meaning is unknown), as each tribe spoke its own dialect and they didn’t understand any of them!  Each group also had its own culture and traditions.

The Aruãs were supposedly driven from the Antillean island of Lucaias by the Caraibas indians hundreds of years ago, and, after a hazardous voyage across the open sea, beached their canoes on Mbarayó. Here they made their new home and developed their highly skilled ceramic art. The meaning of the fascinating geometric designs painted on their earthenware pots has never been deciphered – the secrets of these markings and of their script died out with the tribe. Most of the treasures of the Aruãs now lie in the museums of Europe and America, as well as in the Goeldi in Belém. Vast quantities of bowls, pots, jugs, plates, and drinking vessels, and incredible numbers of igaçabas (urns) have been unearthed during the past 150 years, and there are no doubt further burial grounds on Marajó, still waiting to be discovered.

It is thought that the pottery and decoration were carried out by the women. Many vessels are decorated with clearly delineated lines, crosses, and triangles, as well as fishes, birds, eyes, frogs, snakes, spiders, axes, and bows. But we have no idea of their significance. The Aruãs left behind the greatest accumulation of archaeological finds in the entire Amazon basin. None of the other 500 or so tribes known to have once lived in the region achieved anything remotely similar; only the pre-Inka kultures and the highland indians produced anything comparable.

The splendidly painted igaçabas (funerary urns) are invariably found beneath mounds of black soil, a feature which indicates a connection with the huge group of South American tribes known as “mound-builders”. Many such mounds have been discovered: along just one river, the Rio Camutim, more than 40 cerâmios (the name given them by the anthropologist Domingos Soares Ferreira, founder of the Goeldi Museum – and the name has stuck) have been found. The most famous and best preserved ceramio lies on the eastern shore of Lago Ararí, close to the mouth of the Igarapé das Almas (= the stream of souls). The site is known as Ilha da Pacoval (Pacoval Island), although there is no island there – at least during the dry season. Among the local people ilha denotes no more than a group of palm trees, and there is such a group at the spot…

The Aruãs, like all the other tribes, had completely disappeared by the 18th century, and with them their language and the secrets of their highly developed culture. Slaughtered by the colonists, victims of the white man’s diseases, or perhaps they just disappeared into the vastness of the Amazonian forests. The last Aruã, an elderly man, was still alive on Marajó in 1877, but he knew only a few words of his native language, and even these had been corrupted by the Portugese influence…

Nevertheless one Aruã word has survived and is known all over the world:  mata-mata, the name for a bizarre prehistoric turtle, Chelius fimbriatus. The word was adopted first by the Tupí indians, then by the Portugese, and eventually by the whole world.  Unfortunately this now rare species is itself threatened with extinction, and if that happens, then indeed all that will remain of the Aruãs will be their name and their pottery…

The first Europeans  


The capybara generally seeks refuge in water, often hiding among floating vegetation

Officially the Spanish seafarer Vicente Yañez-Pinzón was the first European to reach Marajó. He landed at Porto Seguro, Bahia on the 21st April 1500, after dropping anchor off the island in the mouth of the river some time in February, before landing in north-eastern Brazil. In his log he remarks:  “La boca de Rio Grande el Mar Dulce que sale quaranta leguas en el mar com la aqua dolce.” (The mouth of the Rio Grande, the freshwater sea which pours its fresh water 40 leagues out to sea.)  But the Navarre document “Viagens de Américo Vespúcio” states that the latter (Américo) visited a large island south of the Equator in 1499 and was received with hospitality by the Aruãs. Nevertheless the credit goes to Pinzón. The island was at first called Ilha Grande de Joanes (= Yañez), before the earlier Aruã name was revived.

When the Spanish and Portugese kingdoms separated in about 1640 the Aruãs were still the undisputed rulers of Marayó, and had also developed a good relationship with the Dutch, who had built a fortress opposite the island, at Belém. The Portugese regarded this as an insult to their king and the Catholic church, and massacred the Dutch, and later the English and French. Then, on 23rd December 1655, they declared themselves the owners of the island and founded the Capitania da Ilha Grande de Joanes (after Pinzón). Antonio de Souza Macedo was installed as Baron (but he too failed to colonise Marayó).  As one unnamed author put it, “Right from the start the archipelago was for a long time the scene of bloody warfare. Several nations endeavoured to suppress the natives. Whole armies of Portugese (not to mention an armada with 130 cannon) were put to flight by the indians.” Only when the Jesuit Antonia Vieira paid a pastoral visit to the Aruãs in 1659 was the long sought-after pacification of the natives achieved. It was thus only through the introduction of Christianity that the Portugese were at last able to establish themselves on Marayó and begin their conquista of the Amazon region.

The Campos


The meat of the Asian water buffalo – introduced – is much prized

About 23,000 km2 of the island consists of campos, grassland without woods, ideal cattle country. A Portugese cabinetmaker, Francisco Rodriguez Pereira, was quick to recognise the possibility and seize his chance. He founded the first fazenda on the bank of the Rio Arari in 1680, importing his cattle from the Cape Verde islands on the other side of the Atlantic (see ag no. 5). At the beginning of the next century the Catholic priests began to build cowsheds, followed soon afterwards by the Jesuits and Carmelites. By 1746 there were already 480,000 head of cattle on the campos of Marajó, and cattle breeding had become so important that black slaves had to be imported from Africa via Cape Verde, as the forest indians declined to work in the fields.  

When, on August  2nd 1758, the King of Portugal, Don Jose I, exiled the Jesuits from the state of Para (in which Marajó lies) and confiscated their 60,000 cattle as well as some of the best pasture on the island, he could not have had an idea of the consequences.  The new men in charge had no idea about cattle farming, any more than did the officials and other “bigwigs” from Para who took over later on, and the fazendas of the Jesuits fell into wrack and ruin. But the members of the Order of Mercy, who owned the majority of the fazendas, continued to farm their cattle successfully, until in 1795 Pope Pius VI issued a proclamation ordering all members of the order back to Portugal. All the fazendas and cattle now became the property of the state, a situation that lasted for about a hundred years. In 1895 the state sold off all the land to private individuals;  the Sociedade Pastoril de Marajó was founded, and since then the farming of cattle, water buffalo (imported from Africa and India), and horses has continued virtually unchanged. The Sociedade still exists today.

The forest and other vegetation

Today, as in the past, the south-eastern part of Marajó is covered in dense rainforest, which ends abruptly where the campos to the east begin. Almost 26,000 km2 are cloaked in what is for the most part primary forest. Criss-crossed by furos, igarapés, canais, and varzea (inundation zones), this part of the island is typical of the Amazon region. Hevea brasiliensis grows wild here (plantations were created as long ago as 1840) but rubber is no longer harvested (unprofi-table). Major crops include palm oil and (regrettably, still) the much sought-after Amazonian hardwoods such as acapu, cedro, jaruba, angelim, bacuri, ipê, andiroba, maçaranduba, pau-marfim, itaúba, and cumarú.

As in many parts of Amazonia, the wealth of the flora is breathtaking. It provides the local people with oils from a number of seeds, wild fruits such as the açaí, bacaba, buriti, patauá, and pupunhá, and, something which is often forgotten, but which is currently the “in thing”, a host of medicinal plants. Marajó is home to ipecacunha, copaiba, salsaparrilha, tingui, assacu, canambi, timbó, mucuracaá, urucu, and many others. Plants which now form the basis for medicines used all over the world.

We must not forget the palmito plant, which yields palm hearts, a delicacy appreciated in all parts of the world. Unfortunately – as happened previously in the area around Belem – these palms have been felled indiscriminately without replacements being planted. Elsewhere whole forests are disappearing, and it remains to be seen whether this will happen on Marajó as well. We at ag sincerely hope that Man will think twice before wreaking such destruction…

Travel in this part of the island differs dramatically from the campos. There it is normal to proceed on foot, by horse, or by ox cart (there are virtually no roads on Marajó, except in the few towns), but here the dug-out, motorboat, or lancha (= houseboat) are the only forms of transport. The last of these is still the main method of transport throughout the immense Amazon region.

Reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and hunting


The green iguana is a beautiful, innocuous creature, which requires biotope protection

There is little published information on the animals of the island. The fauna is basically Amazonian, and there are no endemic species known. 

As in the rest of Amazonia, crocodiles are rarely seen, having been slaughtered, here as well as elsewhere, for their skins. There are two species, the spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus crocodilus) and the black caiman (Melanosuchus niger).(Iguana iguana), but the way things are going, not for long – the photos on these two pages illustrate the problems faced by these large lizards. They are hunted and butchered mercilessly. “We have to live” goes the excuse. Their skins are sold to the leather industry, for shoes, belts, and other leather articles (bikinis and skirts are “in” again at present), while stuffed specimens go to the souvenir shops. The flesh ends up in the market, and finally the pot.  It is cheaper than beef, after all – all it takes is a little time (or a bullet)…

There are still iguanas

Frogs and snakes are less endangered, although most of the islanders – like almost all Brazilians – are of the opinion that the only good animal is a dead one! (Admittedly city people often think differently, but they are not the ones doing the killing). The giant anaconda (Eunectes murinus), the largest snake on Earth, is commonly, indeed usually, found in water, and is generally left alone (in contrast to the other horror stories). The mammals include foxes (Dusicyon thous), which are common; onças and maracajás (wildcats) can occasionally still be seen streaking through the forest, likewise various monkeys and tamanduás (anteaters). Sadly the Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis) is no longer to be found, and has been seen only occasionally by the locals during the past few decades (see also ag no. 6),  An Antillean subspecies (T. manatus manatus), however, turns up now and then in the area of the river mouth and along the eastern shore of the island. Amazonian dolphins (Inia geoffrensis), on the other hand, occur regularly. The capivara (the capybara, Hydrochaeris hydrochaeris), the world’s largest rodent, is hunted relentlessly – it too is regarded as “cheap meat”. Other, smaller, rodents such as cotias and pacas do not provoke so much interest, but nevertheless still end up in the pot if they meet up with a hunter…

The avifauna


Eudocimus ruber

By way of contrast, Marajó is an avian paradise, a veritable treasure chest of birds.

When “winter” draws to an end and summer (the dry season) begins, the woods and pastures are transformed into an incomparable mass of colour. The sky turns red with the fantastic scarlet ibis (Eudocimus ruber), white with great white herons (Casmerodius albus, formerly Egretta alba), and pink with spoonbills (Ajaia ajaia). Hundreds of species traverse the island, en route to their nesting grounds. Hundreds of thousands of birds, in all the colours of the rainbow, transform the landscape into a painting such as no human hand could create.

The splendid photos (by Frenchman Roger Lequen) on these pages provide a glimpse of this paradise for – of! – birds and of the “Fazenda do Ibis” in the eastern part of the island. There can be nothing to compare with these incredible pictures, anywhere in the world – except of course, for the real thing, on Marajó, the largest river island in the world.

The fishes

ImageFish are more normal targest, and abundantly available, representing the most important source of income for Marajó.

They include ornamental species such as the uncommon black ghost (Apteronotus albifrons) (left below).
The much-feared piranhas (Serrasalmus sp.), which are found everywhere, are a special delicacy…
  Image        Image
Because of the unique intermingling of land and water on Marajó, the fish fauna is also incredibly rich, especially in the lakes, of which Lago Arari is the largest and best known. It lies almost in the geographical centre of the island and is more than 120 km long from north to south. Many rivers of varying size flow into this lake – and out of it – the largest being the Rio Arari. This labyrinth of waterways keeps the campos constantly supplied with essential moisture.

After cattle, fish is the most important source of income for the caboclos. Every morning they bring their (overnight) catch to the best known fish market in the whole of Amazonia, the ver o peso in Belém. The pescadores from the villages of Genipapo and Santa Cruz on the shore of Lago Ararí are the current representatives of an ancient tradition. They fish from September to the end of the dry season (December/January), which is not only the beginning of the spawning season but also a time when the water level rises so quickly, flooding the woods and campos, that further fishing is impossible. Marajó is transformed into one vast inundation zone – it is common for cattle to drown and stilt houses to collapse in the floods. This is the close season for fishing all over the Amazon region, and Nature is left to rule supreme.

The variety of fish species is enormous. The main food fishes include pescada (a sea fish here found in fresh water), tucunaré (peacock bass, Cichla sp.), traira (Hoplias malabaricus), acarí (the oscar, Astronotus ocellatus), aruãna (Osteoglossum bicirrhosum), aracu, apaiarí, mandí (Pimelodus cf blochi), tainha, tambaquí (Colossoma brachypomum), bodó (Hypostomus sp.), and piranha (Serrasalmus sp). Most of the local names are of indian origin. The Aruãs fished only with bow and arrow, using a different type of arrow for almost every species. For the world’s largest freshwater fish, the pirarucú (Arapaima gigas), sometimes called the fire-tailed fish, they carved hardwood spears. The caboclos use mainly the tarrafa (cast net), the arpão (a type of hand-thrown harpoon), rede, and special basket traps. The most specialised of these is the cacuri. These large traps, which are deployed in a heart-shaped formation with cleverly designed movable parts, are the happy invention of the Marajó fishermen, and work at both ebb and flood tide. The fishermen are so proud of their cacuri that they have composed a song about them: “Casamento e como cacuri:  Quem esta fora “que entra, Quem esta dentro” que sai”…

(Marriage is like a cacuri:  those that are outside it want to get in, but those inside want to get out”……!).

As well as food fishes there are, of course, large numbers of smaller species. A few are caught during the dry season for export to aquarists all over the world. One of the most unusual is the electric knife eel, Apteronotus albifrons, a velvet black fish shaped like a knife blade (without handle!), which has the ability to swim backwards.  Its only marking is a whitish stripe on the caudal peduncle, which, however, vanishes with age. A miniature monster which the Americans call the “black ghost”. The method used to catch them is extremely interesting:  naturally, as one would expect when dealing with a “ghost”, they are hunted at night. Powerful lamps are used to lure them out of holes in tree trunks lying in the water and from crannies among stones. They are nocturnal – possibly a defence mechanism, as most predators are inactive at night and knife fishes are a favourite prey item. They push their eggs into cracks during the night, again safe from diurnal predators.

The Gymnotioformes, the group to which the black ghost belongs, have a sixth sense. They are capable of producing an electrical discharge of low voltage but, in most species, of high amplitude. In Gymnarchus niloticus, an African spe-cies, the current is remarkably constant, and a little over 15 years ago this fact was put to good use by Professor Florian of L’Aquarium Tropical de Nancy to power an electronic clock, the electrical impulses produced  by the fish replacing the quartz vibrations. More recently the same researcher has been involved in the development of a biological pollution detector which utilises A. albifrons. The electrical emissions of a group of these fishes – some of them caught by the author – are constantly analysed, and the presence of any type of toxin, even in a weak concentration, in the water feeding the aquaria results in an alteration in the signal which in turn triggers an alarm. The system is now being marketed commercially. Today in Nancy tap water has to be approved by this Amazonian fish – tomorrow the world?!

That apart, the Marajó knife eel (there are different colour forms elsewhere, but most of them are considered to be one and the same species) has eyes, but they appear to be largely redundant;  not only is it able to produce an electrical discharge using modified nerve cells, but it also has a special sensory system in its skin, whereby it can detect outside electrical impulses. And thus find its way in complete darkness.

(For further information on the extremely interesting subject of electricity in fishes, see also ag no.1, Electric Fish.).

The muçum (Synbranchus marmoratus) is another unusual fish that deserves a mention:  it attains more than a metre in length and builds a unique bubble nest in the swamps. The female lays her eggs in this nest and guards them. Then there is the lungfish, which buries itself deep in the mud during the dry season in order to keep its skin moist and thus survive.  A few characins do likewise.

There are numerous other interesting species on the island, but we have run out of space and time. Hopefully the same is not true of Marajó. This unique river island is a geographical marvel, yet one which very few people have heard of. All the more reason to protect and conserve this astonishing agglommeration of Nature’s wonders, and to ensure that this paradise endures for many generations.

Text:  Heiko Bleher and the ag team.
Photos:  Roger Leguen, Burkhard Kahl

This post is also available in: Italian German French Spanish Português

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