Tahua, Scrimshaw of The Rainforest
In the Peruvian Amazon, tribes people carve the nut of the yarina or ivory palm into a kind of scrimshaw called tahua. This tree, Phytelephas macrocarpa, yields a seed about the size of a golf ball and covered with a tough brown skin. Inside is a rock-hard core, white and translucent like ivory.
I walked with Horacio Flores and his father as they collected yarina nuts. Our trail took us a kilometer or so just above the high-water line of the Rio Manatee, a tributary of the Amazon. After a half-hour we came to a small grove of squat trees that Horacio said was yarina palm. At shoulder height, I saw brown volley-ball size clusters of nuts growing from the trunks. Horacio macheted off one of the clusters and it tumbled to the jungle floor. Horn-like thorns covered the surface giving the cluster the vicious look of a medieval weapon.
As he hacked a cluster in half, his machete rang like a bell as it cut through hard stuff. Then Horacio took the back side of his machete and broke off the individual nuts.
Later I watched as Horacio’s father worked with one of the yarina nuts. With a simple pen knife, he cut away half of the brown cover. Minutes later the high cheek bones of an Indian woman began to emerge from the ivory beneath.
Someone handy with a pen knife can carve one of these nuts into a skull or monkey face and sell it to whoever will pay a few soles. Serious craftsmen like Horacio’s father will labor over their work with a variety of odd cutting tools and, if the skill is there, have a fine piece worthy of a collection.
Often the artist will leave a portion of the brown skin as hair or hide, or have the image emerge from the untouched nut. The effect when done well is delightful. As the tahua ages, the piece takes on subtle tan shadings that adds to its look.
If you want to know more about these tahua, drop me an go to my contact sheet and drop me a note. Be sure to mention Tahua in the subject line.
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