For the Pemón, the tepuis are holy places, sacred guardians of the savanna. Each tepui, every waterfall and river in this country has some connection with Pemón mythology — as their names attest. Auyantepui means “Devil Mountain.” Matawi Tepui, also known as Kukeyan, means “place to die.” The word “tepui” (prounounced “tepwee”) itself means simply “mountain.” According to Pemón beliefs, spirits that can steal human souls — known as “mawari” — live on these mountains. Until fairly recently, that was reason enough to keep most Pemón from scaling their towering heights.
The Pemón, a Carib Indian people, are thought to have come to the Gran Sabana roughly 600 years ago. Prehistoric stone tools, though, have been found that suggest humans lived in the Lost World as long as 9,000 years ago. Today, about 75 percent of the nation’s entire population of 20,000 people live within Venezuela’s Canaima National Park.
Though Mount Roraima was included on a map published in Paris in the mid-17th century, the Pemón had no known contact with the outside world until the 18th century when Capuchin missionaries arrived in the Gran Sabana to convert them to Catholicism. A series of five books by the 20th-century missionary Frey Cesaro de Armellado still provides the best source of information about the Pemóns’ traditional shamanistic beliefs.
Other Europeans soon followed. In the mid-19th century, German explorers Richard Shomburgk and Theodor Koch-Grünberg wrote widely about their travels in the Gran Sabana, sparking much interest in the region. Scaling Mount Roraima became the goal. Supported by the Royal Geographical Society of London, British explorers Everard Im Thurn and Harry Perkins in 1884 became the first to accomplish this feat. Lectures by Thurn about their adventures prompted Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, to pen the bestseller fantasy “The Lost World,” published in 1912.
Other explorers followed. One of them, American pilot Jimmie Angel, was on the hunt for a supposed “river of gold” to which he had earlier transported another explorer. Angel never found the gold, but in 1933, he did find a waterfall. Angel Falls is the tallest waterfall in the world, tumbling some 3,212 feet from the top of Auyantepui. Seven years later, the Venezuelan Ministry of Development backed an ambitious exploration program of the so-called Lost World, largely bringing its isolation to an end.
According to Pemón legend, this animal represents the spirit that was instrumental in saving man’s fish supplies:
Wonder about supper in the Lost World? Pemón cuisine relies on what’s immediately available. Like bugs. Termites and ants are ground up with chilis for spicy sauces to add a dash of flavor to meat. (Read more in Wildlife.) Given the Lost World’s abundance of rivers, fish are also popular — a spicy fish stew called “tuma” with manioc wafers is one common repast. Meat such as agouti (kin to the guinea pig) or deer can also make an appearance. Breakfasts feature dumplings — reportedly quite fatty — and coffee. Kachiri, a manioc root liqueur, is the preferred alcohol. Food remains an issue for the Pemón, who are resorting more to growing their own produce rather than harvesting wild food items. In the 1990s, reports circulated that electricity companies involved in the construction of a major power line through the Gran Sabana to Brazil offered free food to counter local opposition to their project.