Suckling monkeys

The women of a tribe in the Amazon jungle breast-feed small primates and other animals.

Published May 3, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

There is no human instinct as deeply rooted and personal as the desire to breast-feed an infant. Providing nourishment to a young, helpless baby is one of the infinite joys of motherhood, and studies have shown that babies who are breast-fed are happier and more content.

Deep in the Amazonian jungle, a rare Indian tribe extends this maternal instinct beyond its own species. In a remote village, shaded by giant trees, the breasts of female humans also feed the urgent lips of hungry baby monkeys.

For centuries, this monkey-suckling tribe -- called the Awa Guaja -- has survived in an isolated area of the Amazon rain forest in northern Brazil. Until recently, no outsider had ever been in contact with them. They communicate via a series of whooping sounds, and have never been studied by anthropologists.

And they are very definitely animal oriented. Whenever a tribal member dies, the Awa Guaja believe the person's spirit is taken by a jaguar. Also, women are expected to breast-feed jungle animals from puberty. If a woman's milk dries up, the tribe considers her to be cursed.

Monkeys are considered the most sacred of all creatures. While many other Indian tribes eat monkeys, the Awa take baby monkeys from their mothers after birth, and provide the infant simians with all the maternal comforts of home. Baby monkeys eat and sleep with the women, are breast-fed to their heart's content and are raised alongside human children.

But this strange nomadic tribe may soon be wiped out. Recently, a British journalist -- who had to navigate a muddy track from the northern Brazil jungle town of Santa Ines, then make a boat excursion on the Pindare River, to visit the tribe -- reported that the Awa Guaja are in dire straits. Many members of the tribe are seriously ill with malaria and tuberculosis. A nearby mining project also threatens their habitat, as do the ever-encroaching settlers, ranchers and loggers.

At first glance, the Awa don't appear to be much different from other tribes in the jungle. The males go naked except for headbands of bright orange toucan plumage and armbands of yellow and red macaw feathers.

And the females immediately give away their proclivity for primates. The women have small monkeys clinging to their bodies, with some perched on their heads like hats, their tails wrapped around the women's necks.

A female reporter from London's Telegraph described the bizarre scene: "At first I thought some of the women had fur decorations on their nipples. Then, hearing a rapid sucking noise, I realized they were actually breast-feeding baby monkeys. Watching the animals, several of which had sharp-looking teeth, I shuddered. Having endured the sore nipples that came with breast-feeding my own baby, it was hard to imagine the sensation of having a small primate sucking away. From the drooping state of the Indians' breasts, it clearly does little for the figure."

Not surprisingly, the Awa Guaja are a matriarchal society. Their female chief is an old wrinkled woman named Merikidia, who lives in a central hut and is responsible for everything from arranging marriages to delivering babies. As chief, she often wears a monkey on her head, perhaps a couple of them wrapped around her thighs, and she shares her home with 12 monkeys, which chatter loudly as she walks past.

But until an organization or government takes steps to preserve the tribe, extinction appears imminent for this unique society of monkey sucklers.

"Monkeys are a very important part of their culture," said Renildo Matos dos Santos, a guide from Funai, a government Indian agency. "I have also seen them breast-feeding small pigs and raccoons."

By Jack Boulware

Jack Boulware is a writer in San Francisco and author of "San Francisco Bizarro" and "Sex American Style."

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