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A thousand years of Aruak history in the Upper Xingu
The first historical notice concerning the Wauja was recorded by the German ethnologist Karl von den Steinen in the diary of his first expedition to Central Brazil, on the 24th of August 1884, after passing the fourth and last Bakairi village on the Batovi river: “we asked excitedly about the existence of other tribes. We were told clearly that the Custenaú and Trumai were found on the lower river. We were unable to understand what they meant by ‘vaurá.’ Could this be a tribe?” (Steinen 1942: 211). A week later he obtained confirmation among the Suyá – who drew a hydrographic map for him, in which were found represented the majority of the tribes of the Upper Xingu (Steinen 1942: 255) – that ‘vaurá’ was a large group inhabiting the lower Batovi.
However, the history of this Aruak-speaking people in the region of the Upper Xingu river basin began at least a thousand years before the arrival of Karl von den Steinen.
Archaeological investigations in the Upper Xingu, initiated by Dole (1961/1962), advanced significantly during the 1990s with the work of Heckenberger (1996), which enabled a precise and extensive depiction of the sociocultural changes and continuities in this enormous and archaeologically little explored area on the southern periphery of Amazonia.
The Aruak-speaking peoples – Wauja and Mehinako – who live in this region today are the direct descendants of various groups who migrated from the extreme south-west of the Amazonian basin and established the first Xinguano villages between 800 and 900 a.d.. The nature of the archaeological remains and radiocarbon datings during the interval between the years 1000 and 1600 indicate an occupation typified by a predominantly sedentary pattern of settlement based on large and populous circular villages (of 40 to 50 acres) with a central plaza, by wide-ranging transformations of the landscape, by the construction of public works intended to defend the villages – ditches, palisades and raised walkways – and by a ceramic technology particular to this region from after the referred date (Heckenberger 2001).
Pottery is one of the technological and artistic domains of greatest interpretative potential in terms of Pre-Cabralian history. In the Upper Xingu, domestic equipment has remained practically the same for the last 1000 years, providing evidence of an impressive cultural continuity. Platters for toasting manioc bread, conical supports and large pans with extroverted rounded or flattened borders continue to be intensely fabricated and used by the Wauja.
The evidence found at the Aruak sites in the Upper Xingu basin indicates that these are much more than isolated cases: they are linked very closely to a series of other sites with similar characteristics distributed across an extensive ‘corridor’ on the southern periphery of Amazonia – more precisely, from Mojos (Bolivia) to the Upper Xingu, passing through the Upper Madeira and the Upper Acre, pointing to a co-evolution of Aruak cultural systems around the 1000 a.d. (Heckenberger 1996).
The central and globalizing feature of these Aruak systems is the “regional sociopolitical integration based on common culture and ideology and developed patterns of exchange (intertribal trade, marriage, visits and ceremonies)” (Heckenberger 2001: 31); I would also include the dimension of war alliances.
According to the evidence from the various sites that have already been excavated, as well as Carib oral history, it is known that the model of the sociocultural multiethnic system known today was already consolidated by the mid 18th century. I should stress that in this area a gap in investigations still remains to be filled, namely the ethnohistory of the relations between the Aruak and Carib peoples in the Upper Xingu, the groups who gave rise to this multiethnic system.
Heckenberger (1996) undertook his research among the Kuikuro, a Carib group, and his interpretations therefore derive from the points of view that the Kuikuro imprint on Xinguano history. Now it remains for us to follow the leads given by the three last Aruak groups who still preserve their oral history, the Wauja, the Mehinaku and the Yawalapiti. Among the former, the only individuals capable of transmitting with any certainty stories of the past are in their last decade of life. Our understanding of Xinguano history will be further enriched by including these other points of view.
The study of rituals seems to be one of the best ways of achieving this, as demonstrated in the study by Menezes Bastos (1990) of the Yawari ritual among the Kamayurá. Ritual music, for example, performs an extremely delicate ‘language of historicization’ of the relations between the Xinguano peoples. For the Wauja especially, music is always history, whether it is about a recent past, involving simple facts of life, about encounters with other tribes, or about the time in which animals were people and used to speak. The extensive study of rituals will allow confirmation and extrapolation of the strong hypotheses indicating that the Xinguano social system rests on an Aruakan ideological base, since the elements actualizing the ‘etiquette of Xinguanity’ and the stylization of social relationships at a regional level are contained in these rituals. These elements can be clearly inferred from the ethnographies available on the topic. In a strict sense, there are only two ethnographies that may be considered ‘completely’ about the Xinguano intertribal rituals, one by Agostinho (1974) and the other by Menezes Bastos (1990). There exists a series of small articles and book chapters that partially or only very partially describe a few of the Upper Xingu rituals.