World Rainforest Movement

‘La Fumee du Metal’: The health impacts of contact *

The 21,000 Yanomami who live in some 360 widely scattered settlements in the forested mountains and hills between Venezuela and Brazil were largely uncontacted by westerners until the middle of the 20th century. In their myths, the Yanomami recall a far distant time when they lived alongside a big river, ‘before we were chased up into the highlands’ but by the time their existence is first recorded, in the mid-18th century, they were already well established in the Parima hills between the Rio Branco and the Upper Orinoco.

Contact with the outside world has been driven by a number of different forces. Once the Yanomami discovered the value of metal goods, probably towards the end of the 19th century, they began to trade with (and raid) neighbouring indigenous groups to acquire machetes and axes, cloth and cooking pots. Metal tools reduced the labour of cutting down trees for construction and farming by about 10 times and made many other tasks much easier. Their agriculture intensified, their numbers increased and they began to move out from the highlands, north, south, east and west, pushed by their own expanding numbers and drawn downriver by opportunities for trade. At the same time, explorers, anthropologists and frontier commissions marched to the headwaters of these rivers to make these areas known to ‘science’ and mark the boundaries of expanding nation states. The Yanomami gained a reputation for fiercely defending themselves against intruders but this did not dissuade the adventurers. In the 1920s, British explorer Hamilton-Rice cradled a Thomson sub-machine gun in his arms, while being paddled to the headwaters of the Uraricoera and back.

Commencing in the 1950s, Protestant and Catholic priests established remote mission posts to bring knowledge of Christ to the Yanomami. Later, projects of nation-building led to roads being carved through the forests and proposals for the building of large dams. Above all, discoveries of gold and cassiterite led to massive invasions by small-scale placer miners (garimpeiros), driven there by their own poverty and opportunities of wealth.

Of course, like all human groups, the Yanomami were not disease-free in the past. Medical anthropologists presume they have long harboured minor viral infections like Herpes, Epstein-Barr, Cytomegalovirus, and Hepatitis. Tetanus was also prevalent in the soils and some non-venereal treponeme infections were probably endemic. Arboviruses, maintained in animal populations in the forests, were also present. Leishmaniasis, transmitted by sandfly, and yellow fever, which also infects monkeys, are also thought to have been present as the indigenous people show considerable resistance to these diseases. In short, the pre-contact situations were not a medical paradise but what diseases there were, were prevalent at low levels and rarely fatal.

Contact with the outside world, however, has exacted a terrible toll from the Yanomami. Already by the early 1900s, the northern Yanomami began suffering repeated epidemics of introduced diseases on the Uraricoera. In the 1960s, diamond miners invaded the Yanam (Eastern Yanomami) areas on the Upper Paragua in Venezuela and Uraricaa in Brazil, leading to massive mortalities. Late in the 1960s, workers brought in from the Rio Negro in order to expand the missions and build airstrips, infected the Yanomami of the Upper Orinoco with measles. The infection swept through the settlements, carried further upstream by frightened people fleeing outbreaks downriver. Fevers, aches and weakness prostrated whole villages, leaving the infected people lying prone in their hammocks, unable to go hunting, too weak to gather crops from their gardens, eventually too demoralised even to collect firewood or drinking water from nearby streams. Cold, hungry and weakened by disease the Yanomami fell easy prey to other illnesses. Respiratory tract infections brought on pneumonias, fevers, further weakness and mass deaths. Some villages lost as much as a third of their numbers in a single epidemic and repeated scourges of influenzas, polio, whooping cough, rubella, chicken-pox and the longer term degeneration brought on by tuberculosis, led to some groups being completely wiped out.

During the road building programme in Brazil, which involved the construction of a road through the southern edge of Yanomam (Southern Yanomami) territory, these repeated epidemics reduced local Yanomami numbers by up to 90%. The shattered survivors adopted a road-side existence begging from passing vehicles. Lay-by encounters with lorry drivers and construction crews then brought previously unknown venereal diseases into the villages, the gonorrhoea, in turn, making numerous women infertile and so slowing the people’s recovery to the population losses.

In the 1970s, Sanema (Northern Yanomami) from the Upper Caura began travelling downriver to work in the diamond mines on the middle Paragua and returned bearing a deadly haul of diseases. Epidemics led to massive losses and the abandonment of the once populous Catholic mission at Kanadakuni. By the 1980s, some 25% of the Sanema of the Caura were carrying tuberculosis, leading to a demoralising and constant loss of numbers to the deadly disease.

During the 1980s, the mass invasion of the Brazilian Yanomami’s territories by as many as 50,000 miners, led to further problems for even the most isolated groups. The miners not only trekked in across the forested hills, where rivers were unnavigable, they also flew in to mission airstrips using light planes. New airstrips were hacked from the jungles, in previously unpenetrated areas. As well as frequent viral epidemics and more problems with venereal diseases, the Yanomami also contracted all three forms of malaria brought in by miners – Plasmodium vivax, P. ovale and, the most deadly, P. falciparum. Volunteer medical teams, who came in to help counter this devastation, estimate that the Brazilian Yanomami, as a whole, lost some 15-20% of their numbers to the illnesses brought in by the miners.

These tragedies have, obviously, had more than medical impacts on the Yanomami. The trauma of mass deaths has scarred several generations and upset age-old concepts about existence, disease, curing and death. Customarily, Yanomami used to see most illnesses as the consequences of eating hunted game, while most deaths were seen as the result of shamans from distant villages sending spells over long distances or lurking in nearby forests to blow poisonous dusts over unsuspecting passers by. Mass deaths were previously unknown but, on several occasions, led isolated villages to assume they were under spiritual attack from neighbouring communities prompting them to undertake retaliatory raids to avenge themselves on the presumed killers.

However, it was not long before the Yanomami realised that the terrible epidemics they endured were consequences of their contacts with ‘whites’. Among the Brazilian Yanomam (Southern Yanomami), the belief grew that diseases were the ‘smoke of steel’, an odour of death that came from the boxes in which metal goods were stored, an exhalation in the very breath of their sinister white visitors, an enfeebling and sickening smoke like the exhausts of their aeroplane engines.

“Once the smoke was amongst us it made us die. We had fever. Our skins started to peal. It was terrifying. The elders demanded ‘what have we done to make them kill us?’ and they urged us, younger ones, who wanted to take revenge, ‘don’t go to avenge yourselves on the whites… Don’t go’ they insisted ‘don’t go and shoot them with arrows, for they are gunmen, and they will attack us with their rifles’.”*

As the epidemics continued some of the elder Yanomami urged a retreat to the headwaters to avoid further contact but diseases followed them even into the highlands brought in to the missions by government officials and Yanomami patients returning from hospitals, leading to a belief that the whites were insatiable cannibals feeding on Yanomami spirits.

If we can look beyond our own scientific explanations of the cause of sickness and death, we can see that the Yanomami’s diagnoses of the medical calamity they were enduring were close to the truth. They identified with acuity the rapacity of the civilization that was engulfing them heedless of the consequences of the intrusion.

In recent years concerted efforts have been made by missionaries, anthropologists, NGOs, government agencies and, increasingly, by the Yanomami themselves to bring medical assistance to the area and halt uncontrolled access to the region. In the 1990s, some 8.5 million hectares of the Upper Orinoco in Venezuela, were declared a Biosphere Reserve and, in Brazil, another 9.9 million hectares were designated an Indigenous ‘Park’. The Venezuelan government is now considering recognising a further 3.6 million hectares in the Upper Caura as an indigenous ‘habitat’. Whereas in Venezuela, medical programmes remain limited (despite lavish funding of the Biosphere Reserve by the European Union and World Bank), in Brazil a concerted campaign of inoculation and primary health care, coupled with measures to expel miners from the region, has led to improvements.

The Yanomami experience teaches many lessons, one of the most obvious being that uncontrolled contact can have terrible consequences for previously isolated groups. In the Yanomami case, contact with the outside world was being sought by the indigenous people themselves, but one-sided penetration schemes which gave little consideration for the medical effects hugely exacerbated what would anyway have been a demoralising and perilous encounter. In the 19th century and earlier, it may have been possible to plead ignorance of the likely results of such contact. We now know, beyond any doubt, that enforced contact with isolated indigenous groups in Amazonia is bound to lead to massive loss of life.

By: Marcus Colchester, Forest Peoples Programme, e-mail:

* The title and quote is from Bruce Albert, (1988, La Fumee du metal: histoire et representation du contact chez les Yanomami (Brazil) L’Homme (106-107): XXVIII (2-3) :87-119). For detailed information on the current situation of the Brazilian Yanomami see