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Meeting the Chair: Dr John Hemming

Meeting the Chair: Dr John Hemming

ACT’s blogger decided to get to know our remarkable Chair, Dr John Hemming, in a short interview. John has spent decades exploring the Amazon, meeting over forty indigenous tribes, undertaking research in unknown territories, and publishing prize-winning books.

What first took you to the Brazilian Amazon?

In 1961 my great friend Richard Mason decided to mount an expedition down the Iriri, a tributary of the Xingu.

This was 48 years ago, long before roads got anywhere near the region, let alone GPS or satellite: it was totally unexplored.  So much so that after initial hesitation the Brazilian mapping agency sent two of their staff and gave us permission to name the things we came across.  I'm afraid we rather blew that opportunity, naming waterfalls and rivers after our Brazilian girlfriends.  We surveyed the land using theodolites and star fixes.  Every step was unknown to Westerners – hundreds of miles from anywhere, like being in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

After four months of constantly cutting trails and moving camp, we were about ready to leave, when Richard Mason was ambushed and killed by an uncontacted tribe.  It was incredibly bad luck.  We'd been assured that the area was uninhabited.  To be able to get his body out, the government sent out teams from embalmers to crack troops straight from the night clubs of Rio – a charming bunch!

The tribe was eventually contacted in 1973, and found to be the particularly bellicose Paraná people: they were in a state of perpetual warfare with anyone outside the tribe.  After many years meeting other indigenous peoples, I met them in 1998.  They remembered every detail of the attack on Richard; it had been the first time they had seen clothes or metal.  A long-range hunting party had come across our trail and killed the first person they came across.  It could have been any of us, but happened to be Richard.

What has been your best experience?

That was my first experience of the Brazilian Amazon, but of all my expeditions to the Amazon I am proudest of the research in Maracá, from 1987-1988.  This was the largest Amazonian research effort ever by a European country, involving over 50 scientists and researchers, and 150 tecnicos and mateiros who assisted us.  It produced hundreds of scientific papers, numerous new discoveries, six or seven books, broadcasts and a beautiful, elaborate teaching pack for teachers, to help children understand the Amazon.