Summer in the Rain Forest

During Which Milton's Research in Amazonian Brazil Veers Off on a Deadly Tangent

by Gretchen Kell

Screams rose from a grove of banana trees last June 4, interrupting Professor Katharine Milton's research. Near the border of Brazil and Peru, deep in the tropical rain forest, the anthropologist was studying the dietary ecology of a little-known indigenous group and the area's flora and fauna.

A 50-year-old woman had been bitten by a poisonous snake, and everyone in the village had run to help.

Milton watched anxiously as the moaning victim was carried home. Although she had access to an anti-venom kit, Milton hesitated, remembering what another indigenous group had once told her when one of them had fallen ill.

"If she dies, we will kill you," Milton had been warned.

"If they're going to retaliate, it's against the last person who comes into the village. It's that person who must have brought in the bad luck or sickness," she said. "I was the cow's tail, the scapegoat."

The snakebite incident capped two months of hazardous circumstances for Milton, who arrived there in April on a research grant from the Leakey Foundation. Sunstroke, fever, a village-wide virus, a tarantula residing in her hut and a Spartan diet of rice, oatmeal and sardines also challenged the professor.

On sabbatical, Milton also spent time in 1994-95 visiting a Berkeley graduate student studying black uakaris monkeys in Brazil, worked on her howler monkey project in Panama on Barro Colorado Island and was a visiting professor for two months at Emory University in Atlanta.

As a researcher who now has carried out ecological studies among six of the least-known indigenous groups in Amazonian Brazil, Milton is no stranger to life in the jungle.

But the snake attack was the most dramatic event she'd encountered. The woman was hemorrhaging from the mouth, her ankle was bloody, her leg swollen, and Milton couldn't turn away.

"I thought, 'This woman is dying,'" said Milton.

"If someone's dying, you've got to help."

She ran to the village clinic to retrieve the anti-venom kit, only to discover there was no needle or syringe in the box and that one of the bottles of medicine was cracked.

Racing back to her own hut, Milton found a needle and syringe, but accidentally bent the needle. Having only given one injection in her life, she struggled to fill the syringe with the antidote.

Under the watchful eye of dozens of villagers, flamboyantly adorned in their everyday beads and tattoos, Milton and the woman's son injected her with all the anti-venom in the kit, despite the crooked needle and the medicine's odd consistency.

"I hoped with all my heart that the woman would survive the snakebite--and the anti-venom, which can cause a toxic reaction," she said, "and that I would survive, too."

Milton retired to her hut, treating herself to an hour of reading Darwin in her hammock with her flashlight and its dwindling batteries. In the morning, she made herself an extra large bowl of oatmeal.

"I wanted to die on a full stomach," she said.

Feeling fortified, she nervously ventured outside and found the woman's son. His words stunned Milton.

"I think she's better," he said.

Over the next few days, Milton fed the woman broth and strong tea with sugar and soaked her wounded leg in salt water.

"The woman remained in shock, as if she had been struck mute," said Milton. "She didn't come out of the house for five days."

A few weeks later, Milton packed up her notebooks and equipment, her sap-covered field clothing and insect repellent.

With the villagers gathered at the shore, sadness overwhelmed her as she boarded a boat traveling out of this remote region to the Solimoes River, a large tributary of the Amazon.

She had spent three months forming attachments to these hunter-horticulturists, receiving their help as she identified trees, weighed their food, observed their hunting weapons, crops and rituals, and learned their vocabulary and names.

They had gone from calling her "Nawa," which means "old," since she had hair bleached almost white from the tropical sun, to calling her "Katarina," her name in Portuguese.

But Milton's departure also guaranteed her safety.

"I had witnessed a miracle that the woman didn't die," she said. "But I knew this wouldn't happen again. There was no more anti-venom. The next snake bite would not have a happy ending."


Copyright 1995, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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