ALTHOUGH ROOSEVELT and Rondon did not realize it, the Cinta Larga‘s strong independence was probably keeping the men of the expedition alive. Because the Indians did not have a traditional chief, they were forced to make all of their decisions by consensus. If it was time to move the village, for instance, they had to agree on the time and location of the move. When it came to dealing with the expedition, the Cinta Larga were divided. Some of them believed that they should remain invisible to the outsider. Others, however, argued that they should attack. These men had invaded their territory, and there was no reason to believe they did not mean the Indians harm. By attacking first, the Cinta Larga would have the upper hand. They would also be able to loot the expedition, which was carrying valuable provisions and tools—especially those made of metal.
War was not a rare event for the Cinta Larga. The most common cause was the death of one of their own, from an earlier attack or even from natural causes. The Cinta Larga believed that death was brought about by witchcraft. If a man became ill and died, the others in his village never blamed their healer, a man who used plants and religion to cure the sick. Instead, they looked around their own village, and if they did not find anyone suspicious, they assumed that someone from another village must have performed the dark magic. The only response was to avenge the death by attacking the offending village.
The Cinta Larga also occasionally went to war if the population of their own village had become so depleted by disease, murder, or both that they needed to steal women and children. Such attacks took place at night. The men would camp near their victims’ village, and then, after the sun had set, they would slip inside their communal hut. As the male members of the other village slept in their hammocks, the warriors would club them to death before rounding up as many women and children as they could find….
THE MOST striking fact about the Cinta Larga—and one that would have alarmed the men of the expedition had they known it—was that these Indians were cannibals. Unlike the type of cannibalism much of the world had come to know—among desperate explorers, marooned sailors, and victims of famine—the Cinta Larga’s consumption of human flesh was born not out of necessity but out of vengeance and an adherence to tribal traditions and ceremony. The tribe had very strict rules for cannibalism. They could eat another man only in celebration of a war victory, and that celebration had to take place in the early evening. The man who had done the killing could not grill the meat or distribute it, and children and adults with small children would not eat it. If they did, the Cinta Larga believed, they would go mad.
The most important rule of cannibalism within the tribe was that one Cinta Larga could not eat another. The tribe drew a clear distinction between its own members and the rest of mankind, which they considered to be “other”—and, thus, edible. An enemy killed during war, therefore, was ritually dismembered and eaten. While still on the battlefield, either in the enemy’s village or in the forest, the Cinta Larga would carve up the body just as they would a monkey that they had shot down from the canopy. First they would cut off and discard the man’s head and heart. Then they would section off the edible portions: the arms, legs, and a round of flesh over the stomach. They grilled this meat over an open fire and brought it home to their village for their wives to slice and cook with water in a ceramic pan.