A novel hypothesis about the route of Francisco de Orellana’s expedition

I strongly recommend a recent post by Zachary O’Hagan on his blog, Tseenti-Waturiu, where he brings to our attention a very interesting recent-ish paper by Polish historian Jerzy Achmatowicz, which argues that the river traveled by the expedition led by Francisco de Orellana during his famous river voyage from the Andean foothills to the Amazon proper, and then on to mouth of the Amazon River, was the Putumayo River, and not the Napo River, as has been believed for some 400 years. O’Hagan not only summarizes Achmatowicz’s arguments, but provides important additional evidence for what we can call the “Putumayo hypothesis,” based on distributions of indigenous groups in the early colonial period.

Much of the importance of the “Putumayo hypothesis” lies in the fact that Gaspar de Carvajal’s account of Orellana’s expedition contains some of the earliest written observations regarding Indigenous groups of the upper Amazon region. Given the tremendous and tremendously rapid negative impact of the European invasion on the Indigenous peoples of the upper Amazon River and its major tributaries, early records like those of Carvajal are essential for understanding aspects of the social and political organization, and sheer size, of the Indigenous groups of the region on the cusp to the European invasion. However, the interpretation of many of Carvajal’s observations are likely to change if it turns out that Orellana transited the Putumayo River, and not the Napo.

Since the original “Napo hypothesis”, due to Cristobal Diatristán de Acuña according to Achmatowicz, has been assumed to be correct for over 400 years, I imagine that the revisionist Putumayo hypothesis will face some significant headwinds. Some fifteen years ago, for example, I passed through the town of Francisco de Orellana, located near the mouth of the Napo (!) River. It was a quiet and modest down of maybe a 1000 people, and for its size it had an exceptionally elaborate monument to Francisco de Orellana. I imagine that the good people of Francisco de Orellana will hardly be alone in being skeptical about the idea that their town’s namesake passed nowhere nearby. Nonetheless, I find Achmatowicsz’s, and especially O’Hagan’s, arguments quite compelling. I encourage you to evaluate them yourselves.


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