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Alexander von Humboldt: „Cavern of the Guacharo“, in: ders., Sämtliche Schriften digital, herausgegeben von Oliver Lubrich und Thomas Nehrlich, Universität Bern 2021. URL: <> [abgerufen am 18.05.2024].

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Titel Cavern of the Guacharo
Jahr 1824
Ort Edinburgh
in: John M’Diarmid, The Scrap Book; a Collection of Amusing and Striking Pieces, in Prose and Verse, with Occasional Remarks and Contributions, 2 Bände, Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd 1822–1824, Band 2 (1824), S. 159–170.
Sprache Englisch
Typografischer Befund Antiqua; Auszeichnung: Kursivierung, Kapitälchen; Fußnoten mit Asterisken.
Textnummer Druckausgabe: III.46
Dateiname: 1818-Cavern_of_Guacharo-05-neu
Seitenanzahl: 12
Zeichenanzahl: 20154

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)


What gives most celebrity to the valley of Caripe,besides the extraordinary coolness of the climate, is the Cueva, or Cavern of the Guacharo. In a country where |160|the people love what is marvellous, a cavern that givesbirth to a river, and is inhabited by thousands of noc-turnal birds, the fat of which is employed in the missionsto dress food, is an everlasting object of conversation anddiscussion. A lively interest in the phenomena of natureis preserved wherever society may be said to be withoutlife; where in dull monotony it presents only simplerelations little fitted to excite the ardour of curiosity. The cavern which the natives call a mine of fat, is notin the valley of Caripe itself, but at three short leaguesdistance from the convent, toward the West-south-west.It opens into a lateral valley, which terminates at the Sierra del Guacharo. We set out toward the Sierra on the18th September, accompanied by the Alcaids, or Indianmagistrates, and the greater part of the monks of the con-vent. A narrow path led us at first during an hour and ahalf, towards the south, across a fine plain, covered with abeautiful turf. We then turned toward the West, alonga small river, which issues from the mouth of the cavern.We ascended during three quarters of an hour, walkingsometimes in the water, which was shallow, sometimesbetween the torrent and a wall of rocks on a soil extremelyslippery and miry. The falling down of the earth, thescattered trunks of trees, over which the mules couldscarcely pass, the creeping plants that covered the ground,rendered this part of the road fatiguing. We weresurprised to find here, at scarcely 500 toises* of elevationabove the level of the sea, a cruciferous plant, raphanuspinnatus. It is well known how scarce the plants of thisfamily are between the tropics; they display in somesort a northern form, and as such we never expected tosee it on the plain of Caripe at so little an elevation. At the foot of the lofty mountain of Guacharo, we wereonly four hundred steps from the cavern, without yetperceiving the entrance. The torrent runs in a crevice,
* 3,200 feet English.
|161|which has been hollowed out by the waters; and wewent on under a cornice the projection of which pre-vented us from seeing the sky. The path winds likethe river: at the last turning we came suddenly beforethe immense opening of the grotto. The aspect of thisspot is majestic even to the eye of a traveller accustom-ed to the picturesque scenes of the higher Alps. Na-ture in every zone follows immutable laws in the dis-tribution of rocks, in the exterior forms of mountains,and even in those tumultuous changes which the ex-terior crust of our planet has undergone. So great auniformity led me to believe, that the aspect of the ca-vern of Caripe would differ little from what I had ob-served in my preceding travels. The reality far ex-ceeded my expectations. If the configuration of thegrottoes, the splendor of the stalactites, and all thephenomena of inorganic nature, present striking analo-gies, the majesty of equinoxial vegetation gives at thesame time an individual character to the aperture ofthe cavern.
The Cueva del Guacharo is pierced in the verticalprofile of a rock. The entrance is toward the south,and forms a vault eighty feet broad and seventy-twofeet high. This elevation is but a fifth less than thatof the colonnade of the Louvre. The rock that sur-mounts the grotto is covered with trees of giganticheight. The mammee-tree, and the genipa with largeand shining leaves, raise their branches vertically to-ward the sky; while those of the courbaril and theerythrina form, as they extend themselves, a thickvault of verdure. Plants of the family of pothos, withsucculent stems, oxalises, and orchideæ with a goldenflower spotted with black, three inches long, rise inthe driest clefts of the rocks; while creeping plants,waving in the winds, are interwoven in festoons beforethe opening of the cavern. We distinguished in these |162|festoons a bignonia of a violet blue, the purple dolichos,and, for the first time, that magnificent solandra, theorange flower of which has a fleshy tube more thanfour inches long. The entrance of grottoes, like theview of cascades, derive their principal charm from thesituation, more or less majestic, in which they are placed,and which in some sort determines the character of thelandscape. What a contrast between the Cueva of Ca-ripe, and those caverns of the north crowned with oaksand gloomy larch trees! But this luxury of vegetation embellishes not onlythe outside of the vault; it appears even in the vestibuleof the grotto. We saw with astonishment plantain-leaved heliconias eighteen feet high, the praga palm-tree, and arborescent arums, follow the banks of theriver, even to those subterranean places. The vegeta-tion continues in the cave of Caripe, as in those deepcrevices of the Andes, half excluded from the light ofday; and does not disappear, till, advancing in theinterior, we reach thirty or forty paces from the en-trance. We measured the way by means of a cord:and we went on about four hundred and thirty feetwithout being obliged to light our torches. Daylightpenetrates even into this region, because the grottoforms but one single channel, which keeps the samedirection from south-east to north-west. Where thelight begins to fail, we heard from afar the hoarsesounds of the nocturnal birds—sounds which the na-tives think belong exclusively to those subterraneousplaces. The Guacharo is of the size of our fowls, has themouth of the goatsuckers and procnias, and the port ofthose vultures, the crooked beak of which is surroundedwith stiff silky hairs. It forms a new genus, very diffe-rent from the goat-sucker by the force of its voice, bythe considerable strength of its beak, containing a |163|double tooth, and by its feet without the membranesthat unite the anterior phalanxes of the claws. Theplumage of the Guacharo is of a dark bluish gray, mix-ed with small streaks and specks of black. Large whitespots, which have the form of a heart, and which arebordered with black, mark the head, the wings, andthe tail. The eyes of the bird are hurt by the blaze ofday; they are blue, and smaller than those of the goat-sucker. The spread of the wings, which are compo-sed of seventeen or eighteen quill-feathers, is three feetand a half. The Guacharo quits the cavern at night-fall,especially when the moon shines. It is almost the onlyfrugiverous nocturnal bird that is yet known; the con-formation of its feet sufficiently shows that it does not huntlike our owls. It is difficult to form an idea of the hor-rible noise occasioned by thousands of these birds in thedark part of the cavern, and which can only be com-pared to the croaking of crows, which, in the pineforests of the north, live in society, and construct theirnests upon trees, the tops of which touch each other.The shrill and piercing cries of the Guacharoes strikeupon the vaults of the rocks, and are repeated by theecho in the depth of the cavern. The Indians showedus the nests of these birds, by fixing torches to the endof a long pole. These nests were fifty or sixty feethigh above our heads, in holes in the shape of funnels,with which the roof of the grotto is pierced like a sieve.The noise increased as we advanced, and the birds wereaffrighted by the light of the torches of Copal. Whenthis noise ceased a few minutes around us, we heard at adistance the plaintive cries of the birds roosting in otherramifications of the cavern. It seemed as if those bandsanswered each other alternately. The Indians enter into the Cueva del Guacharo oncea year, near midsummer, armed with poles, and des-troy the greater part of the nests. At this season, seve- |164|ral thousands of birds are killed; and the old ones, asif to defend their brood, hover over the heads of theIndians, uttering terrible cries. The young, which fallto the ground, are opened upon the spot. Their caulis extremely loaded with fat, a layer of which is conti-nued, so as to form a kind of cushion between the legsof the bird. This quantity of fat in frugiverous ani-mals, not exposed to the light, and exerting very littlemuscular motion, reminds us of what has been longsince observed in the fattening of geese and oxen. Itis well known how favourable darkness and repose areto this process. The nocturnal birds of Europe arelean, because instead of feeding on fruits, like the Gua-charo, they live on the scanty produce of their prey.At the period which is commonly called, at Caripe, theoil harvest, the Indians build huts with palm leaves,near the entrance, and even in the porch of the cavern.Of these we still saw some remains. There, with a fireof brushwood, they melt, in pots of clay, the fat of theyoung birds just killed. This fat is known by thename of butter, or oil of the Guacharo. It is half li-quid, transparent, without smell, and so pure, that itmay be kept above a year without becoming rancid.—At the convent of Caripe, no other oil is used in thekitchen of the monks but that of the cavern, and wenever observed that it gave the aliments a disagreeabletaste or smell. The quantity of this oil collected, little correspondswith the carnage made every year in the grotto by theIndians. It appears that they do not get above 150 or160 bottles* of very pure butter; the rest, less trans-parent, is preserved in large earthern vessels. Thisbranch of industry reminds us of the harvest of pi-geon’s oil, of which some thousands of barrels were
* Sixty cubic inches, or rather more than two English pints each.
|165|formerly collected in Carolina. At Caripe, the use ofthe oil of the Guacharo is very ancient, and the mission-aries have only regulated the method of extracting it.The members of an Indian family, which bears thename of Morocoymas, pretend, as the descendants ofthe first colonists of the valley, to be the lawful pro-prietors of the cavern, and arrogate to themselves themonopoly of the fat: but, thanks to the monastic in-stitutions, their rights at present are merely honorary.In conformity to the system of the missionaries, theIndians are obliged to furnish Guacharo-oil for thechurch lamp: the rest, we were assured, is purchased ofthem. We shall not decide either on the legitimacy ofthe rights of the Morocoymas, or on the origin of theobligation imposed on the natives by the monks. Itwould seem natural that the produce of the chace shouldbelong to those who hunt; but in the forests of the NewWorld, as in the centre of European cultivation, publicright is modified according to the relations which areestablished between the strong and the weak, the vic-tors and the vanquished.
The race of the Guacharoes would have been longago extinct, had not several circumstances contributedto its preservation. The natives, restrained by theirsuperstitious ideas, have seldom the courage to pene-trate far into the grotto. It appears, also, that birds ofthe same species dwell in the neighbouring caverns,which are too narrow to be accessible to man. Perhapsthe great cavern is repeopled by colonies that abandonthe small grottoes; for the missionaries assured us, thathitherto no sensible diminution of the birds had beenobserved. Young Guacharoes have been sent to theport of Cumana, and have lived there several dayswithout taking any nourishment; the seeds offered tothem not suiting their taste. When the crops and giz-zards of the young birds are opened in the cavern, they |166|are found to contain all sorts of hard and dry fruits, whichfurnish, under the singular name of Guacharo seed, avery celebrated remedy against intermittent fevers.—The old birds carry these seeds to their young. Theyare carefully collected, and sent to the sick at Cariaco,and other places of the low regions, where fevers areprevalent. We followed, as we continued our progress throughthe cavern, the banks of the small river which issuedfrom it, and is from twenty-eight to thirty feet wide.We walked on the banks, ar far as the hills formed ofcalcareous incrustations permitted us. When the tor-rent winds among very high masses of stalactites, wewere often obliged to descend into its bed, which isonly two feet in depth. We learnt, with surprise, thatthis subterraneous rivulet is the origin of the river Ca-ripe, which at a few leagues distance, after having join-ed the small river Santa Maria, is navigable for canoes.It enters into the river Areo under the name of Cannode Terezen. We found on the banks of the subterra-neous rivulet a great quantity of palm-tree wood, theremains of trunks, on which the Indians climb to reachthe nests hanging to the roofs of the cavern. The ringsformed by the vestiges of the old footstalks of the leavesfurnish, as it were, the footsteps of a ladder perpendi-cularly placed. The Grotto of Caripe preserves the same direction,the same breadth, and its primitive height of sixty orseventy feet, to the distance of 472 metres, or 1458 feet,accurately measured. I have never seen a cavern, ineither continent, of so uniform and regular a construction.We had great difficulty in persuading the Indians topass beyond the outer part of the Grotto, the only partof which they annually visit to collect the fat. Thewhole authority of the missionaries was necessary toinduce them to advance as far as the spot, where the |167|soil rises abruptly at an inclination of sixty degrees, andwhere the torrent forms a small subterraneous cascade.The natives connect mystic ideas with this cave, inha-bited by nocturnal birds; they believe, that the soulsof their ancestors sojourn in the deep recesses of thecavern. “Man,” say they, “should avoid places whichare enlightened neither by the Sun (Zis), nor by theMoon (Numa).” To go and join the Guacharoes, is torejoin their fathers—is to die. The magicians (piaches) and the poisoners (imorons) perform their nocturnaltricks at the entrance of the cavern, to conjure thechief of the evil spirits (ivorokiamo). Thus, in everyclimate, the first fictions of nations resemble each other,those especially which relate to two principles govern-ing the world, the abode of souls after death, the hap-piness of the virtuous and the punishment of the guilty.The most different and most barbarous languages pre-sent a certain number of images, which are the same,because they have their source in the nature of our in-tellect and our sensations. Darkness is every whereconnected with the idea of death. The Grotto of Ca-ripe is the Tartarus of the Greeks, and the Guacharoes,which hover over the rivulet, uttering plaintive cries,remind us of the Stygian birds. At the point where the rivulet forms the subterran-eous cascade, a hill covered with vegetation, which isopposite the opening of the grotto, presents itself in avery picturesque manner. It appears at the extremityof a straight passage, 240 toises* in length. The stal-actites, which descend from the vault, and which re-semble columns suspended in the air, display them-selves on a back-ground of verdure. The opening ofthe cavern appeared singularly contracted, when wesaw it about the middle of the day, illumined by thevivid light reflected at once from the sky, the plants,
* 1,534 English feet.
|168|and the rocks. The distant light of day formed some-what of a magical contrast with the darkness, that sur-rounded us in those vast caverns. We discharged ourpieces at a venture, wherever the cries of the nocturnalbirds, and the flapping of their wings, led us to suspectthat a great number of nests were crowded together.After several fruitless attempts, Mr Bonpland succeed-ed in killing a couple of guacharoes, which, dazzled bythe light of the torches, seemed to pursue us. This cir-cumstance afforded me the means of drawing this bird,which hitherto had remained unknown to naturalists.We climbed, not without some difficulty, the small hill,whence the subterraneous rivulet descends. We sawthat the grotto was perceptibly contracted, retainingonly forty feet in height; and that it continued stretch-ing to the North-east, without deviating from its primi-tive direction, which is parallel to that of the great val-ley of Caripe.
We walked in a thick mud to a spot, where we be-held with astonishment the progress of subterraneousvegetation. The seeds, which the birds carry into thegrotto to feed their young, spring up wherever they canfix in the mould, that covers the calcareous incrusta-tions. Blanched stalks, with some half formed leaves,had risen to the height of two feet. It was impossibleto ascertain the species of plants, the form, colour, andaspect of which had been changed by the absence of light.Those traces of organization amid darkness forcibly ex-cited the curiosity of the natives, in general so stupid,and difficult to be moved. They examined them inthat silent meditation inspired by a place they seemedto dread. It might be thought, that these subterran-eous vegetables, pale and disfigured, appeared to themphantoms banished from the face of the Earth. To methe scene recalled one of the happiest scenes of my earlyyouth, a long abode in the mines of Freiberg, where I |169|made experiments on the effects of blanching, which arevery different, according as the air is pure, or over-changed with hydrogen or azote. The missionaries with all their authority, could notprevail on the Indians to penetrate farther into thecavern. As the vault grew lower, the cries of the gua-charoes became more shrill. We were obliged to yieldto the pusillanimity of our guides, and retrace our steps.The appearance of the cavern was indeed very uniform.We find that a bishop of St Thomas of Guiana, hadgone farther than ourselves. He had measured nearly2500 feet from the mouth to the spot where he stopped,though the cavern reached farther. The remembranceof this fact was preserved in the convent of Caripe,without the exact period being noted. The bishop hadprovided himself with great torches of white wax ofCastille. We had torches composed only of the barkof trees, and native resin. The thick smoke whichissued from these torches, in a narrow subterraneanpassage, hurts the eyes, and obstructs the respiration. We followed the course of the torrent to go out ofthe cavern. Before our eyes were dazzled with thelight of day, we saw, without the grotto, the water ofthe river sparkling amid the foliage of the trees thatconcealed it. It was like a picture placed in the dis-tance, and to which the mouth of the cavern served asa frame. Having at length reached the entrance, andseated ourselves on the banks of the rivulet, we restedafter our fatigues. We were glad to be beyond thehoarse cries of the birds, and to leave a place wheredarkness does not offer even the charm of silence andtranquillity. We could scarcely persuade ourselvesthat the name of the Grotto of Caripe had hithertoremained unknown in Europe. The Guacharoes alonewould have been sufficient to have rendered it cele-brated. These nocturnal birds have been nowhere yet |170|discovered, except in the mountains of Caripe and Cu-manacoa. The missionaries had prepared a repast at the entryof the cavern. Leaves of bananas and vijao, whichhave a silky lustre, served us as a table cloth, accord-ing to the custom of the country. Nothing was want-ing to our enjoyment, not even remembrances, whichare so rare in those countries, where generations dis-appear without leaving a trace of their existence. Ourhosts took pleasure in reminding us, that the first monkswho came into these mountains to found the little vil-lage of Santa Maria, had lived during a month in thecavern; and there, on a stone, by the light of torches,had celebrated the mysteries of their religion. Thissolitary retreat served as a refuge to the missionariesagainst the persecutions of a warlike chief of the Tua-copans, encamped on the banks of the river Caripe.