Foto: André Toral, 1998

Pirahã

  • Other names
    Mura Pirahã
  • Where they are How many

    AM420 (Funasa, 2010)
  • Linguistic family
    Mura

Contact history

piraha_5

The Pirahã, properly speaking, appear in chronicles and documents only from the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th. in 1921, Nimuendajú encountered a Pirahã village on the Large Stretch of the Marmelos and another on the lower course of the Maici. He tells us that, in 1921, the SPI ("Serviço de Proteção aos Índios" - Indian Protection Service, the governmental agency preceding FUNAI) set up a post on the Maici in order to deal with these Indians who, in his opinion, are “happy in their poverty, ...until today they have paid little interest in the advantages of civilization and, except for tools, almost no signs of permanent contact with civilized people can be found among them. They are extremely indolent, but peaceful, so much so that I can record no hostility against civilized people, invaders of their Brazil-nut tree stands, despite the frequent abuses committed by these intruders.” (Nimuendajú, 1982a:117).
Nimuendajú documented conflicts between the Pirahã, Matanawi and Parintintin in the region of the upper Maici. Also dating from this time is the information supplied by Gondin (1938), who attributes the Pirahã with the same bellicose attitude found among the Mura. According to this author, the Pirahã were at war in the upper Maici with the Torá and Parintinin, maintaining this state of open hostility until 1922, date of the installation of a surveillance post by the SPI (cf. Gondin, 1925).

1959 saw the arrival of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), which remained in the indigenous area until 1980. One couple worked there between 1960 and 1966, followed by another couple from 1967 until 1977. SIL based its Mission at three different localities: on the Large Stretch of the Marmelos, inland of the Maici river at a place called Tuxaua, and on a cliff named ‘New Post,’ close to the mouth of the Maici. Though the missionaries stayed in permanent contact with the Pirahã for more than 20 years, providing assistance and pursuing evangelical work, it is difficult today to identify any traces of their close contact with the group.

Information found in SIL’s reports reveals the difficulties it had in setting up a Mission, due to the fact the Indians were “scattered at various points along the rivers,” the women’s avoidance of dialogue with strangers, as well as the SIL’s conflicts with the regional population who did not want any kind of control over the territory.

In 1967, conflicts are reported between the Pirahã and Whites, provoked by commerce in Brazil nuts, resulting in the death of an Indian. In 1968, a measles epidemic killed 10% of the indigenous population, causing 14 mortalities. In 1971, more conflicts with regional workers took place during the Brazil-nut harvesting season, during which a Pirahã man is knifed and thrown in the river. After this episode, the Indians consider migrating to the headwaters of the Maici’s creeks, thus escaping further clashes with the Whites.

A report from 1979, written by a voluntary Catholic missionary who lived for 10 months with the Pirahã at the mouth of the Maici, estimated their population to be 107 individuals – 56 living on the lower Maici and 51 in the villages on its upper course. He also reported that in 1974 the group was hit by a measles epidemic, killing more than 30 people.

20th century information on the Pirahã – supplied by Nimuendajú, SIL missionaries, Funai workers and anthropologists – emphasizes that, although in close contact with Whites, the group succeeded in maintaining its cultural tradition and its own lifestyle. The region formed by the Marmelos and Maici rivers is still invaded today during certain periods of the year by commercial workers from Manicoré, Auxiliadora, Humaitá and Porto Velho. Since the start of the 20th century, these consulted sources describe the conflictual involvement of the Pirahã with the agents heading the Brazil-nut extraction. Movement of boats on the Maici is continual during the rainy season. Until 1985, the regional workers occupied production sites along this river, exploring the surrounding Brazil-nut tree stands.

Nowadays, the situation has changed considerably. After intervention from Funai and a team from CIMI ("Conselho Indigenista Missionário" – Missionary Indigenist Council), active in the area since 1991, the Pirahã were able to occupy the Brazil-nut tree areas in the Maici river area, collecting the product directly to trade for flour, ammunition, clothes and work tools with local merchants, in negotiations intermediated by the CIMI team.