Exhibition traces Czech contribution to finding Amazon River source

Delta of Amazon

“Amazonka”, a new exhibition at Prague’s Karolinum, tells the story of how Czech scientists made significant breakthroughs in tracing the sources of the Amazon River – for which expedition leader Bohumír Janský of Charles University received Peru’s highest honour.

The exhibition, which runs till June 21, was launched on the occasion of the 20-year anniversary of the Czech expedition to search for the Amazon River’s chief water source. Professor of geography Bohumír Janský told Czech Radio what visitors can look forward to.

“In the cross hall of the Karolinum, you can find 16 panels and more on the room walls. In the apse, you can find the part of the exhibition that focuses on the role that Czech Jesuits played. There are also artefacts brought in from the Náprstek Museum of Asian, African and American Cultures, as well as items brought to Bohemia in the nineteenth century by [the Slovenian-Croatian poet] Stanko Vraz.

Bohumír Janský | Photo: Jindřich Nosek,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0

“However, the dominant feature of the exhibition is the focus on the search to find the chief source of the Amazon.”

This source was identified by the Czech expedition in 1999. Comprised of five men – two of them still students at the time – the team first analysed birds’ eye view images of the river. Prof. Janský again.

“The Amazon is more than 7,000 kilometres long. It pours through a wide variety of natural habitats.

“What you have to do first when looking for the source of the river is look at the satellite images. Once you’ve narrowed down the prospective tributaries, you look at them in more detail with areal images. Finally, you actually have to go there and measure the sources using geodesic methods.”

The team narrowed down the possible sources to four Peruvian rivers and then set out for South America to conduct precise measurements.

Source of Amazon | Photo: Jialiang Gao,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“It was there in the South of Peru, between 4,000 to 5,000 metres above sea level, that we traced four rivers, measuring their distance. The aim was to find out which river was the longest, which river had the largest surface area of water and the largest flow of water. These three criteria define any river. The most important of them is the length.

“Based on satellite images, we already knew that the Marañón is not the longest of these rivers, despite the fact that it is identified as the principal or main-stem source of the Amazon River. Nor was it Lake Lauricocha, which had been identified as the source by Czech Jesuit Samuel Fritz in 1693. We found out that the Ucayali River, in the more southern part of Peru, is about 350 kilometres longer than the Marañón.”

After another expedition, Prof. Janský and his team eventually found that the Amazon has no single source, but that its origins can be traced to several springs on the northern foot of the Cordillera and Chila mountain ranges. The most recent geographic research has confirmed that the Carhuasanta River is the main source.

In 2007, eight years after the original expedition, Prof. Janský was awarded a gold medal of distinction and a title of nobility from the Peruvian government.

Authors: Tom McEnchroe , Petr Král
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