Early Twentieth Century Iowa Woman Explores Brazilian Jungle

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Botocudo Men in Brazil

“An eerie feeling came over me. Suddenly a piercing scream of a dying animal was heard. What it was we did not learn,” Elizabeth Steen, a Knoxville native, told a Des Moines Register Magazine writer in September 1927.

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Steen was recounting her expedition to the tropical jungles of Brazil, where she had traveled “with death lurking on every side.” She encountered deadly snakes, beautiful birds, curious monkeys and slow-moving sloths, as well as hordes of mosquitoes that forced her to wear coat, gloves and a netted veil in the torturous heat of the jungle. Steen’s diet consisted of beans, rice, toads, jaguars, plants and worms. One of her favorites was roasted ants.

In the interview Steen described her interaction with a group of native people called the Botocudos, who wore wooden disks in their lips and ears. And she talked about a village where the children were taught at an early age to become leaders. She said she had met children as young as ten who showed “as much poise and dignity as the average American man.”

Three years after that Brazilian adventure Steen was enrolled at the University of California in San Jose, where she was working on a degree in anthropology, and planning a return trip to Brazil. This time she was in pursuit of a study of the Tapirape people, who lived in central Brazil. This was the area where famed British explorer Col. Percy Fawcett had disappeared a few years earlier. It was a dangerous, remote region and one many believed was unsuitable for a woman traveling alone.

The Des Moines Register reported that many men offered to accompany Steen on her expedition—as protectors or as thrill seekers. But she spurned any help and instead began years of preparation. According to the Ames Daily Tribune, Steen completed a course in tropical medicine, “roughed it” for six months in the Rockies and learned to shoot a rifle.

Early in 1930, equipped with anti-venom serum, concentrated food and a variety of rifles, Steen stopped in Des Moines to visit her brother as she made her way to New York where she would sail for South America on the liner, Western World.

“I can’t say that I’m not afraid, but I hope to escape danger. I shall be armed against wild hogs, tapirs, monkeys and jaguars, if not against the snakes,” she told a Des Moines Tribune reporter.

Arriving in the city of Rio de Janeiro, Steen traveled by train, truck, mule, canoe and by foot throughout the jungle, getting closer to her destination. After seven months, as she neared the region where she hoped to find the Tapirapes, a government agent tried to prevent her from going further. She convinced him to accompany her. He agreed. After two days with no food or water, they reached their destination. (The New York Times reported an “Indian guide” and a “young Negro maid” traveled with Steen.)

“We went up the Araguaya (Araguaia) river in a big dugout canoe and one morning surprised the Tapirapes, 1500 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro, before breakfast. They were stunned at seeing a white woman. Never before had they seen a pale-faced human,” Steen said.

Steen spent two days with the Tapirapes. She reported that they were “powerful and agile,” slept in hammocks and that 80 to 90 year-old men appeared “less than half that age.” She saw none with gray hair. Steen brought back a trunk full of Tapirape weapons—bows, arrows, wooden clubs, spears and stone hatchets—which she donated to the University of Pennsylvania.

After her return, Steen, described as an anthropologist and lecturer, traveled around the country giving talks about her experiences in Brazil. She wrote a children’s book, Red Jungle Boy, published in 1937.

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Sources

“Ah! Utopia at Last!” Pottstown (Pa.) Mercury, May 23, 1933.“Brazilian Explorer Tells of Findings in Interior of Brazil,” St. Cloud Times, Oct. 21, 1932.

“Caviar? No, Jaguar Meat in the Jungle,” Des Moines Register, Apr. 12, 1932.

“Co-ed Explorer Is Out of Wilds,” Des Moines Tribune, Oct. 16, 1930.

“Courageous Knoxville, Ia., Woman Starts on Trip to Brazilian Jungle,” Des Moines Tribune, Mar. 11, 1930.

“Girl Anthropologist Returns to N.Y. From Jungles of Brazil,” Ames Daily Tribune, Jan. 17, 1931.

“Girl Explorer Goes to Chicago,” Des Moines Tribune, Feb. 17, 1930.

“Iowa Born Woman Is Saved From Tribe by Flashlight,” Des Moines Tribune, Dec. 10, 1930.

“Iowa Woman to Visit South American Cannibals,” Des Moines Register Magazine, Sept. 11, 1927. * http://www.karenmcintyre.com/

Lundevall, Dagmar. “Miss Elizabeth Steen Will Seek Lost Tribe of Brazilian Jungles,” Des Moines Tribune, Feb. 15, 1930. * National Museum of the American Indian, http://nmai.si.edu/explore/collections/object-collections/

“So Former Iowa Woman Will Sail for New York Saturday,” Des Moines Tribune, Dec. 31, 1930.

“Tells of Her Visit to Primitive Tribe,” New York Times, Jan. 18, 1931.

“Woman Off Alone for Brazil,” New York Times, March 7, 1930.

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