The allure of pink dolphins, and the poetics of the Amazon

Dr Alice Samson tell us about her recent South American research trip
The allure of pink dolphins, and the poetics of the Amazon

Adventures down the Amazon


After travelling for several weeks through the wild rainforest which, they told him, was neither darkness nor light but a gigantic memory, he did not know exactly how far up the Essequibo river he had come. (p.96)

This is what Atorad Indians tell the son of a Scottish minister, Alexander McKinnon, settling in the interior of Guyana on the eve of WWI in Pauline Melville’s incredible novel “The Ventriloquists’s Tale”. The description of the rainforest as a gigantic memory sums up the indivisibility of myth and reality, the past and the present, and the way landscape inhabits us as we inhabit landscape. These were things I came to partially comprehend, or at least glimpse, as I accompanied my friend and colleague Laura Osorio on her work trip to the Amazon, a few weeks ago, as part of my study leave.

Diamante ferry
Life and sunrise on board the Diamante ferry to Manaus


When asked to write a short blogpost, I was quizzed as to whether my trip was work, and the answer is emphatically yes, and decidedly no. I’m a lecturer in archaeology, and a researcher in the archaeology of the Caribbean islands. Amazonia and northern South America are “not my area”. But then again they absolutely are, in terms of the intellectual and colonial development of Caribbean archaeology. The Amazon, and in particular the Orinoco delta, is traditionally seen as the ancestral homeland of precolonial Caribbean cultures, and the archaeology of indigenous societies of the Caribbean islands was, and still is, largely modelled on indigenous Amazonian societies today. This is posited on the logic that since Columbus depopulated the islands through disease and slavery, and since the Caribbean was populated 7000 years ago by South American migrants, indigenous Amazonia might be a good analogy for the pre-Columbian Caribbean. There is more to it than this, and there are many problems with these ideas, not least that Amazonian societies have their own histories, and Caribbean indigenous extinction is a Eurocentric myth (ask the Kalinago, Garifuna, Taíno, and Santa Rosa communities). But nevertheless, the memory of Amazonia permeates imaginaries of the Caribbean, and I was keen to enter the forests of the mind!

In search of pink dolphins, on the way to Lago Tarapoto, Colombia/Peru


Borders, boats, and refugee stories filled our journey, as well as the constant interweaving of myth and reality in museum exhibitions (check out the story of the devil with no ass, illustrated by Desana artist Feliciano Lana p.36), conversations, rock art sites, and the politics of day to day. Starting in Leticia, in Colombia, Laura took me to several of her meetings at swimming spots and dance parties with indigenous reps and students, members of communities who had fled the 19/20th rubber genocide, which opened up the Amazon to ethnographic collecting. One recurring story was that of pink dolphins, who sneak into villages at night, transform into people, don crab shoes, anaconda belts, and hats, to take human lovers.


Departing Tabatinga (the Brazilian half of Leticia), we slung our hammocks on the passenger ferry (a refurb of the boat in Fitzcarraldo) and followed the Amazon downriver for 4 days. In the jungle city of Manaus, with its gloriously camp opera house replete with snakeskin dome, we met Marta Cavallini, one of the few women in Brazil working on Amazonian rockart. We crossed the equator to visit her PhD site, place of the scarlet macaw, where forest clearance both reveals and destroys archaeology in yet more episodes of recollection and amnesia.

Rock art
Visiting rock art boulders with Marta and landowner Juriti, Roraima province, Brazil

After driving a thousand kilometres north towards Guyana, roadsides and towns full of Venezuelan families looking for safety and work, we were hosted by a community on the savannah of Brazil-Venezuela-Guyana. Here, after a visit to painted rocks, we met a community elder who told us how he and other Wapishana and Macuxi children of his generation were kidnapped by cattle ranchers as labourers. And hearing these stories, it dawned on me I was undertaking this journey at a time of critical juncture (though when is history not critical?) – increasing indigenous activism in the face of human rights violations, the rise of right wing popularism and unfettered destruction of the rainforest under Jair Bolsonaro, more than 3 million Venezuelan asylum seekers, and ongoing environmental collapse due to logging and mining across the continent. But in all of this, individuals and communities were subverting negative narratives – school teachers travelling far from home to revitalize indigenous languages, women leaders uniting communities through traditional forms of democracy, students planning how best to manage their cultural heritage.


So, was it work? HE critic Stefan Collini says that what makes universities distinct from other organisations is the search for deeper and wider understanding, with no directly measurable pay-off. When we emerged on the Caribbean coast at Georgetown three weeks later, the gigantic memory of the people and places experienced in this trip started to percolate, and back in Leicester these new memories are impacting my teaching, research, and the stories I will tell about the Caribbean.

Text and images by Dr Alice Samson, Lecturer in Archaeology.

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