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- Linguistic family
According to the latest archaeological studies (Heckenberger 1996, 2001), the prehistory of the upper Xingu started around a thousand years ago. Radiocarbon dating indicates that the first inhabitants were Aruak-speaking peoples between 950 and 1050 AD. During this period the cultural patterns of the upper Xingu traditions were set. These can be recognised from the archaeological evidence by distinctive pottery and settlement pattern, and circular villages with central patios. The pattern continues until today. The upper Xingu is the only area of the Brazilian Amazon that clearly shows continuity of indigenous occupation from prehistoric times to the present day. By 1400 AD, if not before, the prehistoric villages had reached impressive proportions (20 to 50 hectares). This makes them amongst the largest in any lowland South American area in prehistoric times. They comprised a variety of structures including linear causeways along the margins of the main paths, central patios and deep ditches. These would doubtless have been accompanied by above ground structures such as palisades, bridges and entry gates. It is estimated that such villages could house around a thousand people and that more than ten thousand indians probably lived to the west of the Culuene river in the upper Xingu region.
From the work of Heckenberger and oral history studies (Franchetto, 1992 e 1990) we can hypothesise that the Carib-speaking peoples of the upper Xingu arrived in the region from the east during the first half of the 18th century. West of the Culuene they encountered Aruak-speaking peoples. Tupi-speaking groups would later arrive. There is archaeological evidence for a single occupation east of the Culuene between 1400 and 1500 composed of two or three population groups. The Tehukugu site has a circular house 55m in diameter and dates from 1510. It was subsequently occupied by Kamayurá and other upper Xingu groups. Further east on the Tahununu lake, the Kuguhí site dates from 1610. We therefore have a period for which we can identify an eastern Carib complex that included the now-extinct Yarumá (or Jaruma), and a western Aruak complex, separated by the Culuene river. We can imagine that in mid-18th century Carib groups speaking the same language began occupying the lands to the west of the Culuene, forcing the Aruak peoples living there to the west and the north.
The Kuikuro state that their origins start with the separation of a group led by a number of the chiefs of the former complex of oti (‘grassland’) villages located on the upper reaches of the Burití river, probably in the mid-19th century. Those that remained in the óti were the originators of what are now called the Matipu (Wagihütü ótomo). The language changed slightly, giving rise to the two variants or dialects (Matipu and Kuikuro). The new group (Kuikuro) settled in various locations, with successive villages on the banks of the lakes between the Buriti, Culuene and Curisevo rivers. The first was called Kuhikugu. The former villages were large and numerous.
As regards written records, the first ethnographer to visit the upper Xingu was the German Karl Von den Steinen. During his two voyages in 1884 and 1887 (Steinen, 1886/1942; 1894/1940) he mentions the upper Xingu Caribs, and amongst these the Kuikuro of the Culuene. Steinen is remembered in Kuikuro narratives as Kalusi, the first white man (kagaiha) who ‘came in peace’ bearing presents and goods to exchange. It is through him that we know that more than 3,000 indians lived in the upper Xingu at the end of the 19th century, in 31 villages, 7 of which were Carib. Kuikuro oral history extends back beyond the visit of Steinen and recalls the first encounters with whites on the upper Xingu. This was in the second half of the 18th century, the time of the bandeirantes (armed exploratory bands) who captured and killed indians during their expeditions to Brazil’s interior (see the Kuikuro testimony The Appearance of the Whites).
After Steinen other scientific and even military expeditions entered the region and recorded the presence of its inhabitants: Hermann Meyer (1897a; 1897b, describing his visit of 1896), Max Schmidt (1905; 1942, describing his visit of 1900-01), Ramiro Noronha (1952, describing his visit of 1920); Vicente de Vasconcelos (1945, describing his visit of 1924-25); Vincent Petrullo (1932, describing his visit of 1931). From the 1940s onwards a new chapter in the history of the Xingu peoples begins, closely linked to the history of the creation of the National Park.
From 1915 onwards exploration of the headwaters of the Xingu intensified and included the participation of soldiers of the Rondon Commission. The Carib groups continued to be found in the same locations recorded by Steinen and Meyer. All the reports make reference to an incredibly rapid process of depopulation. Agostinho (1972) provides us with a tragic estimate of the consequences of bacterial and viral contact. Between the end of the 19th century and the mid-1950s the population of the region had fallen from 3,000 people to 1,840 in 1926 and to little more than 700 indians by the end of the 1940s.
In 1943 the Expedição Roncador-Xingu (ERX) was created, the forerunner of the Fundação Brasil Central, for the settlement of the central regions of Brazil. The Villas-Boas brothers arrived in the region where the headwaters of the Xingu rise. They too observed that the peoples encountered in the Culuene region downstream to its confluence with the Xingu headwaters were the same peoples found there at the end of the 19th century by Steinen.
The scientific expeditions of the Museu Nacional starting in the 1940s also recorded a picture of substantial changes. In the century that followed the celebrated arrival of Cabral on the coast of Brazil the large Xingu communities suffered catastrophic population losses, most probably as a result of the first epidemics caused by infectious-contagious diseases arriving from the Old World. A marked demographic decline after 1500 until 1884, when the written history of the upper Xingu begins, is clearly indicated by the significant reduction in the size and numbers of villages across the region from the late prehistoric period to the 20th century. Between 1884 and 1960, when systematic vaccination programmes started on the upper Xingu, the population of the region dropped by almost 80 percent. Infections from the influenza virus and measles caused a violent drop in population, reaching its peak in the measles epidemic of 1954. As a result the Carib groups of the Culiseu and Culuene rivers were forced to move closer to the Posto Leonardo, to the north of their traditional territories, like the Kalapalo, Kuikuro, Matipu and Nahukwá indians who, decimated by the flu brought by the Expedição Roncador-Xingu, had come to depend on the medical aid provided by the Fundação Brasil Central posts. Subsequently, once demographic recovery started in the 1960s thanks to vaccination programmes, the various local groups began organizing for the recovery of their traditional lands. These had never been abandoned and were continually visited and used, as they contained historic sites, cemeteries, and vital natural resources. In the 1980s an opposite trend started, with the splitting of local groups and the establishment of new villages in a visible process of demographic recovery and return to the situation as documented at the end of the 19th century.
The limits of the Park as established in 1961, with an area ten times smaller than that of the 1952 draft proposal, left out the territories of several indigenous groups, amongst which the Aruak (Waurá and Mehináku) and the Carib (Kuikuro, Kalapalo, Matipu and Nahukwá). The 1968 Decree altered the southern limits, partially recognizing the error of the previous decade. The territories of the Aruak and Carib groups remained separate and were finally incorporated into the Park, but not in their entirety, by the 1971 Decree which located the boundary along latitude 13.1° South above the confluence of the Tanguro and Sete de Setembro rivers. Former Carib sites and pequi groves remained outside the southern boundary of the Park.