Chapter 2. Hold a Blossom to the Light
While traveling through the Ecuadorian Amazon as an ethnobotanist, Wade Davis spent some time with the Waorani, known earlier as the Auca Indians. Among the last peoples of the Amazon to be contacted by outsiders, the Auca had made headlines around the world when, in January 1956, they speared and killed five American missionaries this despite the missionaries' practice of dropping gifts from an airplane before their disastrous attempt at personal contact. The incident was only one in a series of unfortunate exchanges between the Auca and those who intruded upon their territory. According to Davis, who records his own experiences in a remarkable, sprawling work, One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest (1996): "As late as 1957 there had never been a peaceful contact between the Auca and the outside world."
A couple of decades later, during his stay with the Waorani, Davis accompanied a young warrior named Tomo on a hunting excursion. Highly skilled with a blowgun, Tomo had already, at the age of five, been able to blow a dart through a hanging fruit at thirty paces. As an adult, he could "drive a dart clear through a squirrel at forty feet, knock a hummingbird out of the air, and hit a monkey in the canopy 120 feet above the forest floor."
After selecting a short blowgun (just over six feet long), Tomo led Davis and a companion into the jungle. As Davis tells the story, suddenly
Tomo froze, dropped into an attack crouch, and slipped away from us, moving silently and steadily through a thicket of heliconia until stopping at the base of an enormous tree sixty feet from the trail. In a single gesture he had withdrawn a dart, notched its tip, deftly spun the kapok fiber around the base, and placed it in the mouth of the blowgun that now hovered motionless above his head. His cheeks suddenly puffed out with tremendous pressure, which was released in an instant. A moment later he was lunging through the vegetation, laughing and shouting. By the time we caught up, he held a rufous mot mot in his hand. The bird was still alive. Tomo had managed to reach it before the poison took effect. He dropped the frightened creature into his basket and placed the dart conspicuously in the notch of a tree so that all would know an animal had been taken.
The use of the blowgun is a highly developed art. The Waorani routinely poison the tips of their darts with potent toxins they extract from plants. They notch the darts using the razor-sharp teeth of a piranha jaw, thereby ensuring that the poisonous tip will break off in the flesh of the prey even if the rest of the dart is swatted away. As for the gun itself, its volume is less than a tenth the capacity of the lungs, so "it is not force but control that counts, judging the distance to the prey, the angle of ascent, the proper trajectory." Up to a point, a longer blowgun produces a higher velocity in the dart, but beyond that point resistance in the gun takes over. "Finding that perfect balance, the right length, is what they're always looking for."