Have you ever wondered who first explored the Amazon Rainforest? Here we get to know the historical pioneers of Amazon rainforest exploration, and the hardships they went through (and caused) to fully discover the most remarkable, mysterious, and alluring realm in South America.
Francisco de Orellana was a Spanish explorer born in Trujillo in about 1490. He was the first person to navigate the entire Amazon River and was also the founder of the city of Guayaquil in Ecuador.
Initially, Orellana joined Francisco Pizarro’s army in Peru in 1533 where he fought against Diego Del Amagro – this was one of many civil wars amongst conquistadors that tore the region apart. The pair developed a close relationship and in 1541, Orellana was ordered on an expedition lead by Francisco’s half-brother Gonzalo Pizarro.
Starting in Quito, the purpose of the expedition was to find the legendary ‘El Dorado’, a city in the east, which supposedly boasted an abundance of gold and silver. No such city, however, was found and in sharp contrast to the somewhat celebrated voyage they were expecting, they were attacked by angry natives, riddled by a variety of diseases, and starving. More than half of the expedition was wiped out within the first few months of the expedition.
To make matters worse, Orellana, the lieutenant of the expedition, and a handful of some 50 men became separated. Pizarro returned to Quito but Orellana and his small group continued to travel downriver. This lead to the entire exploration of the Amazon River originally called the ‘Rio de Orellana’. The group made it all the way to the Spanish-held island of Cubagua off the coast of Venezuela and having crossed the whole continent, Orellana decided to return to Spain.
Upon arrival, Orellana impressed the Spanish courts and fuelled rumors in the belief of ‘The Amazons’, a terrifying race of warrior women who inhabited the jungle. He captivated the Spanish people and around 9 months later, Orellana obtained a commission to conquer the regions he had discovered. However, shortly after his arrival in the Amazon, he died of disease. He will always be remembered as the first person (at least from the Western world) to navigate the length of the Amazon River.
Francisco Pizarro was one of the most notorious Spanish Conquistadors who is commonly known for his part in conquering the Incan Empire. He was born around 1470 and grew up illiterate having received very little education. In November 1509, he embarked on an expedition from Spain to the New World and sailed to Cartagena joining the fleet of Martín Fernández de Enciso. Pizarro gradually rose up the ranks and became mayor of Panama City between 1519 and 1523.
During his time in Latin and South America, reports of massive riches in Peru began to circulate, and consequently, in two separate attempts in 1524 and 1526, Pizarro tried to conquer the Incan Empire. Native hostilities, terrible weather, and scarcity of supplies all contributed to his failure. Some years later in 1528, Pizarro traveled to Northern Peru and he found the natives to possess an abundance of rich metals. This led him to plan a third expedition to conquer the Incas.
Initially being denied permission to carry out the expedition by the Governor of Panama, Pizarro returned to Spain and appealed to King Charles I. This proved successful and not only was Pizarro granted authorization for the expedition but he was also given significant authority over any land he did conquer. He returned to Panama before embarking on his expedition to Peru in 1530.
Due to native hostilities on the Peruvian coastline, Pizarro had to move inland and in turn founded the first Spanish settlement in Peru, San Miguel de Piura. Atahualpa, the last Incan emperor, heard of the ordeal and ordered a meeting with Pizarro. Atahualpa condemned Spanish presence and Pizarro consequently attacked the Incan forces in what became known as the Battle of Cajamarca. The Spanish were easy victors, despite being severely outnumbered, and symbolically killed Atahualpa’s 12-man honor guard and then took him hostage. Pizarro later executed him in what was a very controversial decision, an action even condemned by the King of Spain.
A year later Pizarro invaded Cusco with the help of indigenous troops and wrote back to the King of Spain stating: ‘this city is the greatest and the finest ever seen in this country or anywhere in the Indies… it is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would be remarkable even in Spain.” However, Pizarro appreciated that Cusco was not an appropriate capital for the country as it was too far from the coastline and he, therefore, founded the new capital, Lima.
Three years later in 1541, whilst Pizarro was in Lima, around 20-armed supporters of Diego de Almagro (another conquistador who was killed by Pizarro in the civil war years earlier) stormed his palace and killed him. He was believed to be 62-70 years old and his burial site can be seen in the Lima Cathedral. However, this ‘shrine’ is the subject of much controversy, as many Peruvians regard Pizarro in a negative light for destroying Peru’s ancestral Incan culture.
Alexander Von Humboldt was a Prussian geographer, naturalist, and explorer. Between 1799 and 1804, Humboldt traveled extensively through Latin and South America with his good friend, doctor, and botanist Aime-Jacques Bonpland. The pair collected a vast variety of flora and fauna and also made some significant discoveries. Whilst studying electrical currents, they discovered the first animal to actually produce electricity, the electric eel, and whilst completing the extensive mapping of South America, Humboldt was the first person to suggest that continent borders were once connected, South America and Africa most notably.
Humboldt also discovered new animals previously unknown to science such as the Uakari monkey; he was the first person to recognize the need to conserve the cinchona plant, which is used to cure malaria; and he was the first person to discover the importance of guano (dried droppings from birds which makes a great fertilizer). The pair were also the first people to discover the Casquiare canal that links the Rio Negro and the Orinoco River.
Their adventures and discoveries were so extensive that it was all published in a gigantic set of volumes over a 21-year period. These books hugely influenced Charles Darwin and he always claimed to be a huge admirer of Humboldt. Humboldt died at the age of 90 in Germany.
Henry Walter Bates was an English naturalist and explorer born in 1825. Bates is best known for his voyage into the Amazon and his well-known book, The Naturalist on the River Amazons. His journey began in 1848 when he traveled along with Alfred Russell Wallace to the Amazon to collect animals and study them.
For their first year, they lived in a villa near the city of Belem collecting birds and insects. After a year of working together, the pair split up to focus on different areas of the Amazon. Some 11 years later, Bates finally returned to England, and by this time he had gathered a sufficient quantity of animals that would occupy his time. It is reported that he sent back some 14,712 new species of animals (mainly insects) of which around 8,000 were completely new to science.
After returning to London, Bates was appointed as Assistant Secretary to the Royal Geographical Survey and instead of returning to the Amazon, he was stuck in an office for the rest of his life. The stress caused by the job is a possible linking factor to his death by bronchitis in 1892. Much of his work can now be seen in the Natural History Museum in London.
Interestingly, Bates mentioned that his worst experience in the Amazon was not with a dangerous animal or fighting a tropical disease but from the lack of news and information from the outside world. Although an animal lover and true rainforest enthusiast, he stated in his book ‘The Naturalist on the River Amazons that “[he] was obliged, at last, to come to the conclusion that the contemplation of Nature alone is not sufficient to fill the human heart and mind.”
Teddy Roosevelt is probably the most famous explorer to investigate the Amazon having been President of the USA between 1901 and 1909. Between 1913-1914, Roosevelt along with Candido Rondo and a small expedition was to be the first to travel the 1,000 miles long ‘River of Doubt’ in the Brazilian Amazon. The trip was financed by the American Museum of Natural History with the pair promising to bring back a vast variety of new animal species.
The expedition is described in Roosevelt’s very popular book ‘Through the Brazilian Wilderness. Problems arose for Roosevelt very early into the trip. During the trip downriver he suffered a leg injury that became infected and consequently gave him tropical fever closely mirroring malaria he contracted 15 years prior in Cuba. Furthermore, the bullet that had not been removed from his chest just months earlier from an attempted assassination aggravated the infection.
By this point, only six weeks into the expedition, he was finding it very difficult to walk, suffering from chest and leg pains and fighting a very high fever. He, therefore, had to be tended to day and night by the group’s physician as well as his son. This dramatically slowed down the expedition. During the journey, Roosevelt lost some 50 pounds and upon his return to the States, his friends and family were shocked at the consequences.
Roosevelt wrote to a friend that the expedition had ‘cut short his life by 10 years in somewhat of a proleptic state as he died some 5 years later. For the remaining few years of his life after his return, he required severe surgery on his leg, and malaria continued to plague him. Roosevelt was immediately questioned on the truth of his claims that he indeed explored and navigated the entire 1000 km long river, yet when he recovered, he defended himself in a convention with the National Geographic Society and proved he had indeed completed the adventure.
Percy Harrison Fawcett was a British artillery officer, archaeologist, and explorer. After being released from the army, he embarked on several trips to the Amazon river between 1906 and 1925. He is believed to have had a good relationship with the indigenous natives as he often brought gifts and held a very polite and courteous manner.
Fawcett was known to make some rather outlandish claims about native animals he encountered that were completely unknown to zoology. This includes seeing a huge anaconda, a small cat-like dog, and a giant Apazauca spider that poisoned locals. The two-nosed dog he claimed to have seen, however, is proven to exist, although very rare, and the species is commonly known as the Double nosed Andean tiger hound.
Fawcett embarked on his final trip in 1925 accompanied by his eldest son and his friend. Having studied many ancient legends, Fawcett truly believed that there was a lost ancient city somewhere in the Mato Grosso region in Brazil and consequently wanted to be the first to discover it.
Fawcett decided to travel very light and apart from a few basic supplies, they were to live off the jungle. Furthermore, his son and his son’s friend were to be his only travel companions so they would be less noticeable. Native tribesmen were often hostile to explorers and many had never seen a white man before.
The last known contact with the trio was in May 1925 when Fawcett sent a letter to his wife stating they were about to enter the unchartered territories of the Amazon. They were never seen or heard from again. Many theories suggest that they were murdered by local tribesmen but it is also believed that they might have died from the disease in the jungle. It is estimated that some 100 men have since died trying to locate Fawcett’s remains.
Sydney Possuelo is an explorer and social activist. He is an expert in isolated tribes of the Amazon and has won numerous awards. He started his career by helping the Villas-Boas brothers in their work with indigenous people in the Brazilian Amazon before becoming Director of the Department of Unknown Tribes at the FUNAI until 2006.
Possuelo has lead many expeditions to find uncontacted tribes to protect them from common threats including deforestation, drug trafficking, and violence, and disease. He is famously known for restoring peace with Korubo Indians who had previously killed FUNAI officials.
Although Possuelo has lead many successful campaigns, there have been recorded instances of him being shot by a bow and arrow. Possuelo is the protagonist in the book ‘The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes’ by National Geographic writer Scott Wallace.
These days, modern-day explorers may still come in search of lost cities, but most come in search of adventure, with Amazon river cruises and rainforest tours taking intrepid travelers on their own exploration of the Amazon Rainforest. Will you be one of them?
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