Saturday, 26 October 2013

The Girls With the Golden Bras

     Most of you will be aware that the Indians of Central America are not what they used to be. Rapid and massive depopulation was the immediate effect of contact with the white man's germs, even more than from the cruelties of the Spanish conquistadores. Where nothing but impenetrable jungle now stands in Panama's Darién Gap, there were once found vast native settlements with palaces of mahogany, and the casual use of gold the like of which the world will never see again.
     Thus, the first Spanish settlement at Darién commenced in September 1510, and within a quarter century, the Cueva Indians had been wiped out - but not before Gonzalo de Oviedo could write in his Natural History of the Indies (1526):
In the province named Cueva the chief has many wives. The women here try to avoid pregnancy, because it spoils the shape of the breasts; for they regard firm and prominent breasts as their chief ornament. Many of the women support their breasts with plates of gold, which are attached by cotton cords over the shoulders and under the arms. Each plate is the breadth of a hand, cunningly worked with beautiful ornament and worth 200 castellanos. The men paint themselves on the arms and breast, and slaves paint the whole face.
     The mind boggles! But I am left to wonder: surely wearing metal next to the skin has certain disadvantages in the hot tropical sun?
     To complement this, one might quote Pedro Ciza de León who, in 1514 (the same year Oviedo came to Darién) made an expedition to the Gulf of Urabá. He found clean and attractive Indians whose women wore cotton skirts from waist to ankle (but no bras), and a short cloak over the shoulders. In contrast,
[t]he men go naked and barefoot, with no clothes but what nature has given them, except for an ornament of fine gold hanging on a cord before their private parts. I have examined a number of these ornaments, and they weighed between forty and fifty pesos.
     Since a peso equaled 27½ grams, or almost exactly an ounce, this was no light matter.

Reference: cited by Per Høst (1956), Children of the Jungle, Pan, pp 45-6

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