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The swimming postman

When thirty-year-old Alexander von Humboldt set off for South America in 1799, with his friend Aimé Bonpland, he had already studied a vast range of subjects, including botany, chemistry, mineralogy, and galvanism the theories of the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani. Naturalist, explorer, geographer and geologist, historian andpolitician, this Prussian baron (1769-1859) and polymath qualifies, through the objectivity of his descriptions ofthe Indians, as a founder of American anthropology, ethnology and archaeology. In 1802 he was in Peru, where he mapped the volcanoes around Quito (today the capital of Ecuador), almost reached the summit of Chimborazo (6,272 metres), described the remains of the Inca Empire, and stayedfor a short time in the Amazon region, where he may have seen the swimming postman. Humboldt later reached the coast of the Pacific, where he discovered the famous cold oceanic current which was subsequently named after him.

By Alexander von Humboldt

The inhabitants have a very singular way of using the lower reaches of the Rio Guancabamba, at the place where there are a great many waterfalls, in order to enable the area to communicate with the sea-coasts to the south. To speed on their way the few letters that are sent from Truxillo to the province of Jaén de Bracamoros, they use a swimming messenger. In two days, this unusual postman, who is as a rule a young Indian, swims down from Pomahuaca to Tomependa, following first the Rio Chamaya, the name given to the Rio Guancabamba in its lower reaches , and then the River Amazon . He carefully wraps the few letters that he must carry in a large piece of cotton cloth which he rolls like a turban around his head. When he reaches the waterfalls he swims ashore and enters the river again lower down, walking through the woods that shade its banks. In order to swim for so long without becoming exhausted, he often encircles one of his arms with a strip of very light wood (ceyba, palo de balsa) of the Bombacaceae family. Sometimes, too, he swims in company with one of his friends. Neither of them need worry about food and lodging, since they are sure to receive a hospitable welcome in the huts scattered among the splendid huertas of Pucará or Cavico, densely fringed with fruit trees.

The Rio Chamaya is not, fortunately, infested with crocodiles. In the Marañón itself, these animals do not travel further upstream than the Mayasi cataract; being indolent by nature, they prefer quieter waters. I have observed that from the ford or paso of Pucará to the point where the Rio Chamaya flows into the River Amazon, below the village of Choros (that is, over a distance not exceeding 22 leagues), there is a gradient of 542 metres. The governor of the province of Jaén de Bracamoros has assured me that the letters thus transported seldom get wet and are seldom lost. I myself, shortly after my return from Mexico to Paris, received a letter from Tomependa which had followed this route. It is the custom among many Indian communities living on the banks of the Marañón to travel in the same way, swimming downstream in a group. I once counted in the river the heads of thirty or forty men , women and children of the Xibaros tribe , just as they were arriving in Tomependa. The "swimming postman" returns on foot up the steep path of the páramo del Paredón.