Foto: Beto Ricardo, 2002

Xingu

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History prior to the first expeditions

As the research by Michael Heckenberger (2001) has demonstrated, the prehistory of the Upper Xingu can be pushed back to the end of the first millenium of the Christian era. In the period between the years 800 and 1400 a population established itself there, and left behind certain vestiges of its culture, such as a characteristic form of ceramics and circular villages, which indicates the ancestors of the present day Arawakans of the Xingu, who would have migrated there from the west.

Between 1400 and 1600, large fortified villages were built, surrounded by ditches (up to 2.5 meters in length, 15 in width and 3 in depth), which covered a surface area of from 25 to 50 hectares, with earthworks to the side of the central plaza and radial trails, giving the impression, from the distribution of the black earth, that the population was denser in the center than on the periphery. It is worth remembering that earthworks are characteristic of the Arawak peoples in other regions of the continent. At the end of this period, the presence of a population with a different culture becomes evident, in an area more to the east, on the right bank of the Kuluene (or Xingu), which the oral tradition of the present day Karib-speaking peoples of the Xingu recognizes as being their ancestors. In convergence with this hypothesis, the ethnologist Robert Carneiro (2001) relates a Kuikuro myth referring to the origin of Lake Tahununu, on the banks of which they guarantee they inhabited. The dwelling-places were clearly different from the present pattern, consisting of one or two large circular malocas; as was the manner of producing ceramics different.

The period between 1600 and 1750 begins with the indirect effects of the European presence on the continent, on the indigenous inhabitants of the Upper Xingu, and ends with their face-to-face confrontation with the slave-hunting expeditions. Subsequently, the Arawak fortifications are weakened. At that time, the Tupi ancestors of the Kamayurá and Aweti arrive in the area.

The period from 1750 to 1884 begins with the so-called bandeirante incursions [slave-hunting expeditions] and ends with the first visit by Karl von den Steinen. An account by a Kuikuro chief (Atahulu) to the linguist Bruna Franchetto in the year 2000 (Franchetto, 2001) presents this period in a very suggestive way, focusing on the massacres which resulted from the bandeirante incursions, followed by a phase in which the Whites gave back the few indigenous prisoners that they had taken with them and even gave them presents, and, finally the arrival of Kálusi, that is, Carlos (Karl von den Steinen). In this period, the Trumai and the Bakairi moved closer to the upper Xingu, consolidating the upper Xingu multi-ethnic system, as well as other peoples, such as the Suyá and Ikpeng, who had remained peripheral to this system.