History of the Xingu

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Pre-History First Contact and the Roncador Expedition A Different Story Downriver - Arara Panará The Wider Picture Further Reading


An intensive archaeological study by a team from the University of Florida, USA headed by Michael Heckenberger has revealed much about the ancient history of the upper reaches of the Xingu. Excavations have unearthed a sophisticated and highly-organised pattern of human occupation stretching back at least 1200 years. A series of satellite settlements were arranged along radial roadways converging on the central village. The total population was substantial enough to qualify as a town. This structured agricultural community of Arauak-speakers thrived and developed until the advent of European diseases, which preceded the arrival of the Europeans themselves and laid waste to the population. Of an estimated population of at least 10,000 people in 1500, only 500 survived by the 1950s. Their modern-day descendants, the Kuikuro, still number around  500.

First Contact and the Roncador Expedition

For five centuries after Europeans arrived in Brazil, the ferocity of the tribes of the Xingu combined with the difficulty of access to the area to keep the agents of destruction at bay. It was only in the middle of the twentieth century that the Brazilian government's Roncador Expedition made the first serious attempt to penetrate the area. The intention was to forge a trail through the region, laying out landing strips so that small planes of the Brazilian Air Force could provide nascent settlements with emergency assistance. Fortunately the expedition was led by the famed Villas Bôas brothers, Orlando, Claudio and Leonardo. These three tough but somewhat idealistic young men from São Paulo in the distant south-west of the country quickly learned a huge respect and sympathy for the Indians they encountered as they moved deeper into the uncharted cerrados shrublands and forests. Following the teachings of the remarkably enlightened Marshall Cândido Rondon, himself of mixed European and Indian descent and President of the Indian Protection Service, they managed to penetrate the Xingu in an almost entirely peaceful manner. With Rondon's blessing they went on to found the Xingu Indigenous Park in 1961, the first indigenous territory to be demarcated in Brazil. The Villas Bôas brothers continued to work in the interests of the Indians of the Xingu, establishing health posts and promoting the exclusion of non-Indians, controversially including missionaries, from the park. They recognised the sophistication and value of the indigenous social and cultural systems and were at pains to protect it from harmful contact with the mainstream, an objective which they succeeded in maintaining for a crucial fifty years. This allowed the tribal communities to develop an adequate understanding of the knowledge they need if they are going to protect their cultures from the onslaught of modern industrial society.

A Different Story Down River - Arara

Way down the river where the Iriri joins the Xingu, a very different story unfolded. The Arara were a fierce and warlike tribe who held everyone, Indian and white alike, at bay until the 1970s. But to Brazil's military dictatorship they represented just a small impediment to their grand plans for the development of the Amazon. They would not be permitted to stand in the way of 'progress'. FUNAI, the successor Indian agency to the Indian Protection Service, was tasked with 'pacifying' them, the implied alternative being their extermination. By the mid-1980s they were reduced - reduced in population, by violent confrontation and by introduced disease, reduced in geographical territory, and reduced culturally. This once proud and bellicose tribe were left a shadow of themselves, dependent on handouts from FUNAI and unable to maintain their traditions, culture or self-sustained livelihoods. They were left hemmed in by the grandly-named Trans-Amazon Highway, a muddy dirt road carved out of the jungle which was impassable during the rainy season, but which brought waves of settlers to invade their land.


The Panará also suffered during the same assault by the Military's roadbuilders. Nobody knows how large their population was before contact, but we do know that they occupied nine villages of between 350 and 700 people. Their lands lie in the region traversed by the BR-163, the north-south link which connects the Trans-Amazon Highway to the rest of Brazil, running from Santarem on the mouth of the Tapajos river to Cuiabá. [Not a valid template]Beginning in about 1968, roadbuilders and settlers arrived, sent by the expansionist government to occupy land in the Amazon. With them they brought the inevitable White Man's diesases. Wave after wave of infection swept through the villages of the Panará. Minor infections including the common cold would see off a large proportion of the people it infected, while influenza killed nearly everyone it infected. Survivors told harrowing tales: "We were in our village," Cacique Akè Panará recalled, "and everybody began to die. Others went deep into the forest and died there. We were sick and weak, and couldn’t bury our dead. They rotted on top of the ground.  The buzzards ate them all." By 1973 the population was reduced from the several thousand who lived in the 1950s to a mere 320, living in two villages. By the end of 1974 it was decided that the only hope for the few survivors was to move them to the Xingu Indigenous Park, where they would be far removed from the agents of violence and infection and where they would at least receive medical attention. In 1975 the last remaining survivors were airlifted from their ancestral land to the Park aboard Brazilian Air Force planes; many died during the transfer, confused an disoriented. By the end of the operation just 79 individuals were left; more than half had died. Although they recovered their health and some of their vitality, the Panará found it very difficult to settle in the Park, which is located in a very different ecosystem from their ancestral land. Even after twenty ywears had elapsed, they were restless and homesick, and they decided to return to their own land, to which they were entitled under the progressive laws and constitution of Brazil at that time, by then having returned to full democracy. They found that much of their land had been deforested and was now home to three towns and countless farming settlements, as well as an army of illegal gold prospectors - garimpeiros. But there remained an area of undisturbed forest large enough to support their small remaining population. They opted to forego a substantial proportion of the land over which they had a valis claim under Brazilian law in order to avoid the inevitable conflicts and violence which would have resulted had they regained their territory in its totality. With help from sympathetic Brazilian and international organisations they brought a series of cases against the Brazilian government, and won the rights to the land they had identified for re-occupation and a considerable sum in compensation for the loss of the land which was now deforested, degraded and poisoned with mercury from the extraction of gold. Despite attempts by landowners to dissuade the Panará by sending gunment to threaten them, they have now returned and their population has grown from 250 to around 450. But this is not the end of the story. In 2006, the Brazilian government began to improve the BR-163, transforming it from a barely passable muddy quagmire into a proper, modern tarmac road. Inevitably this will attract more settlers into the area, which is already seeing deforestation rates rise, making it Brazil's most intense hotspot for deforestation in the 21st century. This means that the Panará will come iner ever more intense threats from outside, with loggers, gold miners and settlers making ever more frequent incursions into their territory, bringing disease, violence and corruption. For as long as the Brazilian government continues to abrogate its responsibilities to the Panará, to the Amazon forest, and to the planet, the people of the rainforest will remain under threat.

The Wider Picture

These are just a few examples to give a context to the history of the Xingu. Within the Xingu Indigenous Park there are 14 different ethnic groups, speaking a variety of languages. Each has its own history. Some have been settled in the area for hundreds of years, others, like the Panará, have been transferred to the Park for their own survival. Outside of the Park, downstream to the north, lie the territories of other tribes. By far the largest and most ferocious is the Kayapó tribe, who number almost 10,000. The Parakaná are split between two populations,  one on the Tocantins River and a group of about 400 on the Xingu. They were only brought into permanent contact in the 1980s, having put up a fierce and extended resistance, mainly avoiding White Men for the whole of the twentieth century despite sporadic periods of greater contact. Similar to the Parakaná, the Araweté, the Asurini and the Xicrin were gradually drawn in to greater contact during the second half of the last century. Although they did not all suffer the kind of demographic collapse experienced by the Panará, they all suffered serious impacts from introduced diseases, and in many cases it was the need for medicines to combat these infections, which were alien and therefore untreatable by the traditional methods of tribal healers and pajés, which drove them to accept permanent contact. The Asurini suffered greatly immediately before they were finally settled in the village they occupy today, losing at least one third of their population as they were driven on a relentless trek for years by contact with White society and conflict with other tribal groups. For over a decade, having lost hope for their future, they voluntarily stopped reproducing, using traditional methods of contraception to avoid pregnancy. Today in the village of Koatinemo, an entire generation is absent, causing a rift in the community with the younger members lacking the discipline and guidance of a vigorous group of active older adults. Each tribe has its own story of contact, faithfully recorded in their oral history. Each story is different, but what they have in common is a deep sense of loss; loss of their culture, loss of their traditions, loss of ancestral knowledge, loss of territory and, universally, loss of population. In most cases, taking a period of contact beginning with the arrival of the first epidemics - usually some time before the first sighting of a White Man - until about twenty years after permanent contact is established, any tribe loses at least 75% of its population. The deaths of 90% are not uncommon, and as many as 90 Amazon tribes were completely annihilated during the twentieth century. It would not be unreasonable to refer to the history of the Amazon as one of holocaust or genocide, albeit one principally caused by the unintentional introduction of disease rather than the premeditated acts of other human beings.

Further Reading

A compelling an intensely readable account of the history of contact between Amerindian and European cultures which covers both North and South America, thoroughly recommended for the incomparable overview of the subject, is “1491″ by Charles C Mann, an American journalist: http://www.charlesmann.org/Book-index.htm John Hemming is a British historian, lately the Director of the Royal Geographical Society, who is probably the foremost European writer on the history of South American indigenous people. His book "Die If You Must" is meticulously researched and contains a wealth of detail and narrative about the history of Brazil's Indians in the twentieth century. Unfortunately the book is out of print, but there are scond hand copies availe. Here is an excellent review by William Milliken: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storyCode=183354 Adrian Cowell's book "The Tribe That Hides From Man" recounts his experiences in 1968 when he accompanied Orlando Villas Boas in his first attempts to contact the Panará to make a television documentary. This is also out of print, but available second hand. Also see below for details of the TV documentary.

National Geographic article about Michael Heckenberger's research into the archaeology of the Xingu Indigenous Park: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/08/080828-amazon-cities.html

One of Henkenberger's research papers: www.clas.ufl.edu/lueci/Xingu_Project.htm

 and the project's website with maps, photographs and satellite images: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/mheck/xingu.html

 Roncador Expedition and the Villas Boas Brothers

Obituary of Orlando Villas Boas in The Guardian by Jan Rocha: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2002/dec/14/guardianobituaries.brazil

- and one by John Hemming in an anthropology journal: http://digitalcommons.trinity.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1078&context=tipiti


An article by Steve Schwartzman in the Yale Forestry & Environmental Science Bulletin with in-depth history about the Panará: http://environment.research.yale.edu/documents/downloads/0-9/98schwartzman.pdf

In Depth: Tribes of Brazil

The first place to go for in-depth information about any of Brazil's tribes is the on-line Encyclopedia of Brazilian Indigenous People, maintained by the Brazilian non-governmental organisation Instituto Socio-Ambiental: http://pib.socioambiental.org/en . This incomparable resource brings together articles about the history, culture, population and language of each individual tribe, concentrating the knowledge of the formost anthropologists and Indianists in one place.

Adrian Cowell's "The Tribe That Hides From Man" was campleted in 1970. Made for the UK's ATV, it caused a stir of consternation when it was aired. It records, partly through reconstruction, the first attempts by the Villas Boas brothers to contact the Panará: http://youtu.be/HhAvuPlhdNA .  The programme is also available on DVD.