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Alexander von Humboldt: „Account of the Great Cavern of the Guacharo“, in: ders., Sämtliche Schriften digital, herausgegeben von Oliver Lubrich und Thomas Nehrlich, Universität Bern 2021. URL: <https://humboldt.unibe.ch/text/1818-Cavern_of_Guacharo-02> [abgerufen am 18.05.2024].

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Titel Account of the Great Cavern of the Guacharo
Jahr 1820
Ort Edinburgh
Nachweis
in: The Edinburgh Philosophical Journal 3:5 (Juli 1820), S. 83–92.
Postumer Nachdruck
Alexander von Humboldt, Ueber die Urvölker von Amerika und die Denkmähler welche von ihnen übrig geblieben sind. Anthropologische und ethnographische Schriften, herausgegeben von Oliver Lubrich, Hannover: Wehrhahn 2009, S. 35–44.
Sprache Englisch
Typografischer Befund Antiqua; Auszeichnung: Kursivierung; Fußnoten mit Asterisken; Schmuck: Initialen.
Identifikation
Textnummer Druckausgabe: III.46
Dateiname: 1818-Cavern_of_Guacharo-02
Statistiken
Seitenanzahl: 10
Zeichenanzahl: 21211

Weitere Fassungen
Cavern of Guacharo (New York City, New York, 1818, Englisch)
Account of the Great Cavern of the Guacharo (Edinburgh, 1820, Englisch)
[Cavern of Guacharo] (Frankfurt am Main, 1821, Deutsch)
The great cavern of Guacharo, in South America (Hartford, Connecticut, 1822, Englisch)
Cavern of the Guacharo (Edinburgh, 1824, Englisch)
The Great Cavern of Guacharo, in South America (New York City, New York, 1826, Englisch)
The great cavern of Guacharo, in South America (London, 1826, Englisch)
Die Felshöhle von Guacharo (Bamberg; Aschaffenburg, 1827, Deutsch)
The great cavern of Guacharo, in South America (Exeter, 1836, Englisch)
The great cavern of Guacharo in South America (London, 1845, Englisch)
Die Felshöhle von Guacharo (Leipzig, 1843, Deutsch)
Die Grotte von Caripe oder die Felshöhle von Guacharo (Berlin, 1851, Deutsch)
Der Guacharo (Bad Langensalza, 1852, Deutsch)
Die Höhle von Guacharo (Mainz, 1854, Deutsch)
Die Höhle von Guacharo (Stuttgart, 1856, Deutsch)
Die Höhle von Guacharo (Leipzig, 1858, Deutsch)
|83|

Art. XV.—Account of the Great Cavern of the Guacharo. ByBaron Alexander de Humboldt *.

What gives most celebrity to the valley of Caripe, be-side the extraordinary coolness of the climate, is the great Cueva or Cavern of the Guacharo. In a country where the peoplelove what is marvellous, a cavern that gives birth to a river,and is inhabited by thousands of nocturnal birds, the fat ofwhich is employed in the Missions to dress food, is an everlast-ing object of conversation and discussion. Scarcely has a strangerarrived at Cumana, when he is told of the stone of Araya forthe eyes; of the labourer of Arenas who suckled his child; andof the cavern of Guacharo, which is said to be several leagues inlength; till he is tired of hearing of them. A lively interest inthe phenomena of nature is preserved wherever society may besaid to be without life; where, in dull monotony, it presents on-ly simple relations little fitted to excite the ardour of curiosity.
* Abridged from his Personal Narrative, vol. iii.
|84| The cavern, which the natives call a mine of fat, is not inthe valley of Caripe itself, but at three short leagues distancefrom the convent, towards the west-south-west. It opens into alateral valley, which terminates at the Sierra del Guacharo. Weset out toward the Sierra on the 18th of September, accompa-nied by the Alcaids, or Indian magistrates, and the greater partof the monks of the Convent. A narrow path led us at firstduring an hour and a half toward the south, across a fine plain,covered with a beautiful turf. We then turned toward thewest, along a small river, which issues from the mouth of thecavern. We ascended during three quarters of an hour, walk-ing sometimes in the water, which was shallow, sometimes be-tween the torrent and a wall of rocks, on a soil extremely slip-pery and miry. The falling down of the earth, the scatteredtrunks of trees over which the mules could scarcely pass, and thecreeping plants that covered the ground, rendered this part ofthe road fatiguing. At the foot of the lofty mountain of Guacharo, we wereonly four hundred steps from the cavern, without yet perceivingthe entrance. The torrent runs in a crevice, which has beenhollowed out by the waters; and we went on under a cornice,the projection of which prevented us from seeing the sky. Thepath winds like the river: at the last turning we came suddenlybefore the immense opening of the grotto. The aspect of thisspot is majestic even to the eye of a traveller accustomed to thepicturesque scenes of the higher Alps. I had before this seenthe caverns of the Peak of Derbyshire, where, extended in aboat, we traversed a subterranean river, under a vault of two feethigh. I had visited the beautiful grotto of Treshemienshiz, inthe Carpathian Mountains, the caverns of the Hartz, and thoseof Franconia, which are vast cemeteries * of bones of tygers,hyenas, and bears, as large as our horses. Nature in every zonefollows immutable laws in the distribution of rocks, in the exte-
* The mould, that has covered for thousands of years the soil of the caverns of Gaylenreuth and Muggendorf in Franconia, emits even now choke-damps, or ga-seous mixtures of hydrogen and nitrogen, that rise to the roof of these caves. Thisfact is known to all those who shew these caverns to travellers; and when I hadthe direction of the mines of the Fichtelberg, I observed it frequently in the sum-mer time.
|85|rior form of mountains, and even in those tumultuous changes,which the exterior crust of our planet has undergone. So greata uniformity led me to believe, that the aspect of the cavern of Caripe would differ little from what I had observed in my pre-ceding travels. The reality far exceeded my expectations. Ifthe configuration of the grottoes, the splendor of the stalactites,and all the phenomena of inorganic nature, present striking ana-logies, the majesty of equinoxial vegetation gives at the sametime an individual character to the aperture of the cavern.
The Cueva del Guacharo is pierced in the vertical profileof a rock. The entrance is toward the south, and forms a vaulteighty feet broad, and seventy-two feet high. This elevation isbut a fifth less than that of the colonnade of the Louvre. Therock, that surmounts the grotto, is covered with trees of gigan-tic height. The mammee-tree, and the genipa with large andshining leaves, raise their branches vertically toward the sky;while those of the courbaril and the erythrina form, as they ex-tend themselves, a thick vault of verdure. Plants of the familyof pothos with succulent stems, oxalises, and orchideæ of a sin-gular structure, rise in the driest clefts of the rocks; while creep-ing plants, waving in the winds, are interwoven in festoons be-fore the opening of the cavern. We distinguished in these fes-toons a bignonia of a violet-blue, the purple dolichos, and forthe first time that magnificent olandra, the orange flower ofwhich has a fleshy tube more than four inches long. The en-trances of grottoes, like the view of cascades, derive their prin-cipal charm from the situation, more or less majestic, in whichthey are placed, and which in some sort determines the charac-ter of the landscape. What a contrast between the Cueva of Caripe, and those caverns of the North crowned with oaks andgloomy larch-trees! But this luxury of vegetation embellishes not only the out-side of the vault, it appears even in the vestibule of the grotto.We saw with astonishment plantain-leaved heliconias eighteenfeet high, the praga palm-tree, and arborescent arums, followthe banks of the river even to those subterranean places. Thevegetation continues in the cave of Caripe, as in those deep cre-vices of the Andes, half excluded from the light of day; anddoes not disappear, till, advancing in the interior, we reach thir- |86| ty or forty paces from the entrance. We measured the way bymeans of a cord; and we went on about four hundred and thir-ty feet, without being obliged to light our torches. Day-lightpenetrates even into this region, because the grotto forms butone single channel, which keeps the same direction from south-east to north-west. Where the light begins to fail, we heardfrom afar the hoarse sounds of the nocturnal birds, soundswhich the natives think belong exclusively to those subterrane-ous places. The guacharo is of the size of our fowls, has the mouth ofthe goatsuckers and procnias, and the port of those vultures,the crooked beak of which is surrounded with stiff silky hairs.It forms a new genus, very different from the goatsucker bythe force of its voice, by the considerable strength of its beak,containing a double tooth, by its feet without the membranesthat unite the anterior phalanxes of the claws. It is the firstexample of a nocturnal bird among the passeres dentirostrati. In its manners it has analogies both with the goatsuckers andthe alpine crow. The plumage of the guacharo is of a darkbluish-grey, mixed with small streaks and specks of black.Large white spots, which have the form of a heart, and whichare bordered with black, mark the head, the wings, and thetail. The eyes of the bird are hurt by the blaze of day; theyare blue, and smaller than those of the goatsuckers. Thespread of the wings, which are composed of seventeen or eighteenquill feathers, is three feet and a half. The guacharo quits thecavern at night-fall, especially when the moon shines. It is al-most the only frugiferous nocturnal bird that is yet known; theconformation of its feet sufficiently shows, that it does not huntlike our owls. It feeds on very hard fruits; as the nut-crackerand pyrrhocorax. The latter nestles also in clefts of rocks, andis known under the name of night-crow. The Indians assuredus, that the guacharo does not pursue either the lamellicornousinsects, or those phalænæ which serve as food to the goatsuck-ers. It is sufficient to compare the beaks of the guacharo andgoatsucker, to conjecture how much their manners must differ.It is difficult to form an idea of the horrible noise occasioned bythousands of these birds in the dark part of the cavern; andwhich can only be compared to the croaking of our crows, which, |87|in the pine forests of the north, live in society, and constructtheir nests upon trees, the tops of which touch each other. Theshrill and piercing cries of the guacharoes strike upon the vaultsof the rocks, and are repeated by the echo in the depth of thecavern. The Indians showed us the nests of these birds, byfixing torches to the end of a long pole. These nests were fiftyor sixty feet high above our heads, in holes in the shape of fun-nels, with which the roof of the grotto is pierced like a sieve.The noise increased as we advanced, and the birds were affright-ed by the light of the torches of copal. When this noise ceasedaround us, we heard at a distance the plaintive cries of the birdsroosting in other ramifications of the cavern. It seemed as ifthese bands answered each other alternately. The Indians enter into the Cueva del Guacharo once a-year, near midsummer, armed with poles, by means of whichthey destroy the greater part of the nests. At this season seve-ral thousands of birds are killed; and the old ones, as if to de-fend their brood, hover around the heads of the Indians, utteringterrible cries. The young, which fall to the ground, are open-ed on the spot. Their peritoneum is extremely loaded with fat,and a layer of fat reaches from the abdomen to the anus, form-ing a kind of cushion between the legs of the bird. This quan-tity of fat in frugiferous animals, not exposed to the light, andexerting very little muscular motion, reminds us of what hasbeen long since observed in the fattening of geese and oxen. Itis well known how favourable darkness and repose are to this pro-cess. The nocturnal birds of Europe are lean, because, insteadof feeding on fruits like the guacharo, they live on the scanty pro-duce of their prey. At the period which is commonly called at Caripe the oil harvest, the Indians build huts with palm leaves,near the entrance, and even in the porch of the cavern. Ofthese we still saw some remains. There, with a fire of brush-wood, they melt in pots of clay the fat of the young birds justkilled. This fat is known by the name of butter or oil (man-teca or aceite) of the guacharo. It is half liquid, transparent,without smell, and so pure that it may be kept above a yearwithout becoming rancid. At the convent of Caripe no otheroil is used in the kitchen of the monks but that of the cavern;and we never observed, that it gave the aliments a disagreeabletaste or smell. |88| The quantity of this oil collected little corresponds with thecarnage made every year in the grotto by the Indians. It ap-pears that they do not get above 150 or 160 bottles (sixty cubicinches each) of very pure manteca; the rest, less transparent, ispreserved in large earthen vessels. This branch of industry re-minds us of the harvest of pigeon’s oil *, of which some thou-sands of barrels were formerly collected in Carolina. At Caripe,the use of the oil of guacharoes is very ancient, and the mission-aries have only regulated the method of extracting it. The mem-bers of an Indian family, which bears the name of Morocomas, pre-tend, as descendants of the first colonists of the valley, to be thelawful proprietors of the cavern, and arrogate to themselves themonopoly of the fat; but, thanks to the monastic institutions,their rights at present are merely honorary. In conformity tothe system of the missionaries, the Indians are obliged to fur-nish guacharo-oil for the church-lamp: the rest, we were as-sured, is purchased of them. We shall not decide either on thelegitimacy of the rights of the Morocomas, or on the origin ofthe obligation imposed on the natives by the monks. It wouldseem natural, that the produce of the chace should belong tothose who hunt: but in the forests of the New World, as in thecentre of European cultivation, public right is modified accord-ing to the relations which are established between the strongand the weak, the victors and the vanquished. The race of the guacharoes would have been long ago ex-tinct, had not several circumstances contributed to its preserva-tion. The natives, restrained by their superstitious ideas, haveseldom the courage to penetrate far into the grotto. It appears,also, that birds of the same species dwell in neighbouring ca-verns, which are too narrow to be accessible to man. Perhapsthe great cavern is repeopled by colonies, that abandon the smallgrottoes, for the missionaries assured us, that hitherto no sensiblediminution of the birds had been observed. Young guacharoeshave been sent to the port of Cumana, and have lived there se-veral days without taking any nourishment; the seeds offered tothem not suiting their taste. When the crops and gizzards of the
* This pigeon oil comes from the columba migratoria, (Pennant’s Arctic Zoo-logy, vol. ii. p. 13.)
|89|young birds are opened in the cavern, they are found to containall sorts of hard and dry fruits, which furnish, under the singu-lar name of guacharo seed, semilla del guacharo, a very cele-brated remedy against intermittent fevers. The old birds carrythese seeds to their young. They are carefully collected, andsent to the sick at Cariaco, and other places of the low regions,where fevers are prevalent.
We followed, as we continued our progress through thecavern, the banks of the small river which issued from it, andis from twenty-eight to thirty feet wide. We walked on thebanks, as far as the hills formed of calcareous incrustations per-mitted us. When the torrent winds among very high massesof stalactites, we were often obliged to descend into its bed,which is only two feet in depth. We learnt, with surprise, thatthis subterraneous rivulet is the origin of the river Caripe,which, at a few leagues distance, after having joined the small river of Santa Maria, is navigable for canoes. It enters into the river Areo under the name of Canno de Terezen. We foundon the banks of the subterraneous rivulet a great quantityof palm-tree wood, the remains of trunks, on which the In-dians climb to reach the nests hanging to the roofs of the ca-vern. The rings, formed by the vestiges of the old footstalksof the leaves, furnish as it were the footsteps of a ladder perpen-dicularly placed. The Grotto of Caripe preserves the same direction, thesame breadth, and its primitive height of sixty or seventy feet,to the distance of 1458 feet, accurately measured. I have ne-ver seen a cavern in either continent, of so uniform and regulara construction. We had great difficulty in persuading the In-dians to pass beyond the outer part of the grotto, the only partwhich they annually visit to collect the fat. The whole autho-rity of los padres was necessary, to induce them to advance as faras the spot where the soil rises abruptly at an inclination of sixtydegrees, and where the torrent forms a small subterraneous cas-cade *. The natives connect mystic ideas with this cave, inhabitedby nocturnal birds; they believe, that the souls of their ancestors
* We find this phenomenon of a subterranean cascade, but on a much largerscale, in England at Yordas Cave, near Kingsdale, in Yorkshire.
|90| sojourn in the deep recesses of the cavern. “Man,” say they,“should avoid places which are enlightened neither by the Sunnor by the Moon.” To go and join the guacharoes, is to rejointheir fathers, is to die. The magicians and the poisoners per-form their nocturnal tricks at the entrance of the cavern, to con-jure the chief of the evil spirits.
At the point where the river forms the subterraneous cas-cade, a hill covered with vegetation, which is opposite the open-ing of the grotto, presents itself in a very picturesque manner.It appears at the extremity of a straight passage, 240 toises inlength. The stalactites, which descend from the vault, andwhich resemble columns suspended in the air, display themselveson a back-ground of verdure. The opening of the cavern ap-peared singularly contracted, when we saw it about the middleof the day, illumined by the vivid light reflected at once fromthe sky, the plants, and the rocks. The distant light of dayformed somewhat of magical contrast with the darkness thatsurrounded us in those vast caverns. We discharged our piecesat a venture, wherever the cries of the nocturnal birds, and theflapping of their wings, led us to suspect that a great numberof nests were crowded together. After several fruitless attempts, M. Bonpland succeeded in killing a couple of guacharoes, which,dazzled by the light of the torches, seemed to pursue us. Thiscircumstance afforded me the means of drawing this bird, whichhitherto had remained unknown to naturalists. We climbed,not without some difficulty, the small hill, whence the subterra-neous rivulet descends. We saw that the grotto was perceptiblycontracted, retaining only forty feet in height; and that it con-tinued stretching to the north-east, without deviating from itsprimitive direction, which is parallel to that of the great valleyof Caripe. In this part of the cavern, the rivulet deposits a blackishmould, very like the matter which, in the grotto of Muggen-dorf in Franconia, is called the earth of sacrifice. We couldnot discover, whether this fine and spongy mould fall throughthe cracks which communicate with the surface of the groundabove, or be washed down by the rain-water that penetrates in-to the cavern. It was a mixture of silex, alumen, and vegetable detritus. We walked in thick mud to a spot, where we beheld |91|with astonishment the progress of subterraneous vegetation.The seeds, which the birds carry into the grotto to feed theiryoung, spring up wherever they can fix in the mould, that co-vers the calcareous incrustations. Blanched stalks, with somehalf-formed leaves, had risen to the height of two feet. It wasimpossible to ascertain the species of plants, the form, colour,and aspect of which had been changed by the absence of light.Those traces of organization amid darkness, forcibly excited thecuriosity of the natives, in general so stupid, and difficult to bemoved. They examined them in that silent meditation inspiredby a place they seemed to dread. It might be thought, thatthese subterraneous vegetables, pale and disfigured, appear-ed to them phantoms banished from the face of the earth.To me the scene recalled one of the happiest periods of myearly youth, a long abode in the mines of Freiberg, where Imade experiments on the effects of blanching, which are verydifferent, according as the air is pure, or overcharged with hy-drogen or azote. The missionaries, with all their authority, could not prevailon the Indians to penetrate farther into the cavern. As thevault grew lower, the cries of the guacharoes became more shrill.We were obliged to yield to the pusillanimity of our guides,and trace back our steps. The appearance of the cavern was in-deed very uniform. We find, that a bishop of St Thomas of Gui-ana had gone farther than ourselves. He had measured nearly2500 feet from the mouth to the spot where he stopped, thoughthe cavern reached farther. The remembrance of this fact waspreserved in the convent of Caripe, without the exact period be-ing noted. The bishop had provided himself with great torchesof white wax of Castile. We had torches composed only of thebark of trees and native resin. The thick smoke which issuesfrom these torches, in a narrow subterranean passage, hurts theeye, and obstructs the respiration. We followed the course of the torrent to go out of the ca-vern. Before our eyes were dazzled with the light of day, we saw,without the grotto, the water of the river sparkling amid the foliageof the trees that concealed it. It was like a picture placed in thedistance, and to which the mouth of the cavern served as a frame.Having at length reached the entrance, and seated ourselves on |92|the bank of the rivulet, we rested after our fatigues. We wereglad to be beyond the hoarse cries of the birds, and to leave aplace where darkness does not offer even the charm of silenceand tranquillity. We could scarcely persuade ourselves, that thename of the Grotto of Caripe had hitherto remained unknownin Europe. The guacharoes alone would have been sufficient torender it celebrated. These nocturnal birds have been nowhereyet discovered, except in the mountains of Caripe and Cumana-coa. The cavern of Caripe, situated nearly in the latitude of10° 10′, consequently in the centre of the torrid zone, is elevated506 toises above the level of the water in the Gulf of Cariaco.We found in every part of it, in the month of September, thetemperature of the interior air between 64°.6 and 66° of Fah-renheit; the external atmosphere being at 61°.2. At the en-trance of the cavern, the thermometer in the air was at 63°.7,but when immersed in the water of the little subterraneous river,it marked, even to the end of the cavern, 62°.2.