From Indigenous Peoples in Brazil
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Where they are How many
RO 121 (Siasi/Sesai, 2020)
Linguistic family

The information contained in this entry is taken from a single bibliographic reference since anthropological and linguistic studies of the Aruá people are extremely rare. Consequently the following texts provide more general information on the groups that, like the Aruá, inhabited and still inhabit the Guaporé river region.


The Aruá language belongs to the Tupi-Mondé family. Currently there are about 20 people who speak Aruá as a maternal language.


Foto retirada do vídeo Prêmio Culturas Indígenas
Foto retirada do vídeo Prêmio Culturas Indígenas

According to Eurico Miller (1983), who conducted pioneering archaeological research on the middle-upper Guaporé, the Tupi of the Guaporé originated from the dispersion of Tupi families coming from the Aripuanã. In the plateau area of the upper-middle Guaporé, groups of pottery-making agriculturists reached the shores of the river and its affluents around AD 900. These groups would have spoken languages from the Tupari family of the Tupi trunk.

The numerous Tupi groups on the right shore of the Guaporé river remained ‘unknown’ until the start of the 20th century since they were primarily located next to the Branco, Terebito and Colorado rivers, some distance from the shores of the Guaporé itself. They only approached this river after the disintegration of their traditional villages during the rubber boom.

Information on the Aruá was obtained from a single man aged about 70. He related that the Aruá villages were situated close to the ‘Gregório’ river, an affluent of the upper Branco.

The caucho extractors encountered the Aruá around 1920 and a short while later measles had practically exterminated the population. Those who remained left the traditional territory to live on the São Luís rubber area.

Today they live in the Rio Branco and Rio Guaporé Indigenous Territories in the state of Rondônia.

History of contact and occupation of the region

The Jesuits maintained for around 100 years what was undoubtedly the largest mission complex in South America – the Mojos Province – in the region drained by the western affluents of the Guaporé and Mamoré rivers. At a secular level, the province acted as a border guard for the King of Spain. This fact, discovered by the Portuguese when the missions were already firmly established and the societies inhabiting the area had been co-opted to defend Spain's interests, contributed inexorably to their extermination. The entire occupation of the eastern (Portuguese) shore of the Guaporé was directed towards assuming control of the area and destroying the missions.

The need to defend the frontier meant that the region was occupied in an intense and systematic form during the 18th century. Indigenist policies clearly expressed the interest and desire of the colonial powers to retain the indigenous populations in their own territories, since in this way they could be considered – and sometimes act – as border guides.

Due to the need to defend the border, navigation on the Guaporé was also particularly intense in the 18th century and employed a large number of indigenous people.

The rivalries between Portugal and Spain – which led to actual conflicts and the prohibition of exchange and mutual assistance – pushed some societies to extinction. There were two reasons for this: on one hand, the colonial powers imagined the indigenous ‘confederates’ and ‘nations’ to be natural frontier guards and mobilized populations for this purpose; on the other hand, the rival side strove to annihilate the societies that most stood in their way.

At the end of the 18th century, when the independence movements in the Americas began to form and the colonial boundaries lost their importance, the region rapidly emptied.

From the second half of the 19th century onwards, the region was once again intensively occupied, this time due to the demand for rubber. The indigenous peoples still remaining from the ancient Mojos societies – who had already experienced processes of cultural disintegration and demographic miscegenation – quickly joined the workforce. The indigenous populations on the right shore were mostly still in isolation, inhabiting less accessible areas, most of them on the headwaters of the eastern affluents.

The installation of numerous establishments for extracting rubber and caucho (Castilloa ulei) – the famous barracões, most of them owned by Bolivians – resulted in the occupation of these affluents and an immediate explosion in conflicts.

Along the Guaporé river, the occupation unleashed by the rubber economy can be clearly delimited: a 250km stretch of land from Forte Príncipe da Beira, passing by the mouth of the Guaporé, to the Mamoré, was monopolized by a subsidiary of the Madeira Mamoré Railway Company responsible for the project of constructing the legendary railway line. Meanwhile, from Forte Príncipe da Beira to Vila Bela – the former capital of the captaincy – the region was occupied by Bolivian – and later Brazilian – rubber bosses.

Information on the initial phase of this occupation in the 19th century remains scant, but some primary sources exist and future studies will undoubtedly provide new data.

At the end of the 19th century, Bolivian rubber bosses founded the Pernambuco seringal (rubber extraction area) near to the mouth of the Colorado river. Its installation and later that of the São Luís seringal on the upper Branco river, initiated a rapid process of contact with Tupian peoples who had thus far remained in isolation.

The seringal that exerted the strongest influence on the region, intensifying the contacts with Indians, was undoubtedly São Luís. This establishment was the local source of the measles epidemic that killed countless people with startling speed, leaving some groups on the brink of extinction.

The occupation of the Colorado and Branco rivers took place in the 1910s and 1920s with the installation of various barracões and rubber collection points. These establishments were responsible for the incorporation of the Makurap, Ajuru, Djeoromitxí, Arikapu and Aruá into the regional workforce.

The first contacts were probably with the Djeoromitxí, whose villages were located below the headwaters of the Branco river. The people nearest to the Djeoromitxí were the Arikapu, who also soon established contact with rubber tappers. The Makurap, situated on the headwaters of the Branco river and on both sides of the upper Colorado, must have been the next people contacted, along with the Ajuru, on the upper Colorado, closer to the headwaters. The Tupari were first contacted in 1928.

Contact intensified after the third decade of the 20th century, especially when the demand for rubber increased during the Second World War. The Tupi peoples and other indigenous populations inhabiting the territories between the affluents of the left shore of the middle Guaporé and the upper sections of the Mequéns, Colorado, São Simão, Branco and São Miguel rivers, were then severely hit. Their villages were invaded and they were struck by epidemics, forcing them to abandon their lands and settle at some of the main barracões.

Until the start of the second half of the 20th century, the Indians living near the barracões had frequent contacts with Bolivian Indians (the Baure and some Chiquitano). Later all the seringals on the Branco river, such as Laranjal, Colorado, São Luís and Paulo Saldanha, were purchased by a single proprietor, João Rivoredo. The latter was directly responsible for the dissolution of all the region’s indigenous villages, recruiting workforces, leaving the populations without medical care and failing to take any measure to prevent the measles epidemics.

Between the 1940s and 60s, there was a large-scale dispersion of Indians to the seringals. In 1940, the then governor of the Guaporé Territory stimulated the transfer of Indians from the Ji-Paraná to the Guaporé, intending to replace the workforce lost from epidemic outbreaks. The Indian Protection Service (SPI) had only the Ricardo Franco Post, which was not ready to cater for the new arrivals. The conditions for the transfer are unknown, but we do know that the mortality rate was dramatic.

Even with the creation of the 9th Regional Inspectorate of the SPI in 1946, the Indians continued to work in the seringals in servile conditions.

The situation only began to change from 1970 onwards when the surviving groups moved to the Guaporé Indigenous Post (formerly the Ricardo Franco Post). Some. though, were irreversibly close to extinction and proved unable to maintain themselves as distinct ethnic groupings.

The process of conquering and colonizing the region, oscillating between periods of intensive occupation and other periods of ostracism, led to a paradoxical outcome: entire societies disappeared while the fate of others remains completely unknown.

In September 1982 the Guaporé Biological Reserve was created in the southern region of Rondônia state, covering lands in the municipalities of Vilhena and Guajará-Mirim. Its creation occurred when the expansion of the colonial fronts was already irreversible, meaning that its southern limits had already been encroached upon by settlers.

Two years earlier studies had been undertaken for the demarcation of the Rio Branco Indigenous Territory, neighbouring the Reserve, which had identified the presence of isolated Indians in the region. The Funai team noted that among the objects found in these encampments were maricos. These are tucum fibre baskets woven in small or medium-sized weaves and manufactured in various sizes, which are both characteristic and exclusive to the indigenous groups that today inhabit the Guaporé and Rio Branco ITs. This was taken as an unequivocal indication that the isolated group belongs to a cultural complex that displays many similarities

Ratification of the Rio Branco and Guaporé ITs took place in 1986 and 1996, respectively.

Social organization

Although information on the Aruá is minimal, it is interesting to note that like other groups from the Guaporé basin, the society possessed internal divisions. The nature of these subdivisions remains unclear: all that is known is that they defined Aruá patrilineal affiliation. As far as can be established, these subgroups were as follows:

Aruá subgroups

Tirib ei
licuri palm
Kapeá ei
bird (?)
Bixid ei
a type of caterpillar
Nadég ei
a type of caterpillar
Andat kud ei
red-throated piping guan
Kuru ei
Gib ei
Poá ei
Aksosón ei
Jucan ei

In the Mondé languages, the suffix ei indicates a plural form. It is worth noting that other Tupi-Mondé peoples also possess subdivisions whose denominations carry the same suffix. This applies to the Zoró: Pangyn kirei (white people), Pangyn pevei (black people) and so on. And to the Cinta-Larga: Kakinei (from kakin, a type of vine) and Kabanei (from kaban, a fruit tree), etc. Both the Zoró and the Cinta-Larga use these denominations to classify subgroups that may have been predominant in some areas of their traditional territory, but were not necessarily territorial, meaning they permeated the local groups as a whole.

The Marico Cultural Complex

In terms of material culture, some elements attest to an unequivocal similarity between the peoples of the Guaporé region: the absence of bitter manioc cultivation and manioc flour in the diet; the consumption of maize chicha as an everyday drink and fermented chicha on ceremonial occasions; and the confection of the marico. These are tucum fibre baskets woven in small or medium-sized weaves and manufactured in various sizes, which are both characteristic and exclusive to the indigenous groups that today inhabit the Guaporé and Rio Branco ITs.

Another cultural element, aside from the marico, that can be considered exclusive to the peoples of the Branco, Colorado and Mekens rivers is the inhalation of angico powder as an intrinsic part of shamanic practice.

In relation to the indigenous groups of the Guaporé and the western affluents of the Mamoré, there are three characteristic cultural aspects: the absence of bitter manioc and manioc flour in the diet; the existence of clearly delimited and named territorial subgroups; and the consumption of maize chicha during ceremonies, which successively alternated the roles of host/guest between the subgroups and served as an important mechanism of solidarity and cohesion.

Due to demographic losses, the traditional social structure of the groups of the Guaporé region has come under serious threat in terms of its reproduction and perpetuation. However, a new social reality is emerging, based on the intensification of inter-society relations, at least within the Guaporé IT. Some cultural elements are being valorized and act as forms of solidarity between the distinct societies: the consumption of chicha, which involves a non-coercive rule of etiquette, and shamanism, with the joint inhalation of angico powder by individuals from different indigenous groups, including during curing ceremonies.

Undoubtedly, it was contact with national society that intensified inter-society relations, especially through two mechanisms: the chicha festivals and marriages. The chicha festivals were traditional practices of all these groups in which the villages alternated the roles of host/guest, creating uninterrupted networks of solidarity and reciprocity. After contact, the different peoples – rather than the different villages from the same indigenous group – began to alternate these roles. Inter-society marriages surfaced in response to demographic needs and over time served to produce closer ties between the region’s peoples.


The shaman’s actions are related to the hallucinogen used: angico seeds, which are crushed to make a powder and then mixed with a special type of tobacco grown for this purpose. All the indications are that the cultivation of tobacco for use in shamanism is a cultural element shared by all the indigenous groups of the Guaporé region.

According to Rondon (1916), what most drew his attention was the fact that the Indians ‘didn’t smoke’ the tobacco but used it to make a “snuff inhaled through an ingenious device, which consists of a tube of bamboo, two palms in length, with a small container at one end holding the tobacco powder. The person who will inhale the powder places the device near his nostrils and the other person used the free end of the tube to blow the snuff into the nasal passages of the inhaler, who helps the operation by breathing in deeply.” This description precisely matches the way in which the angico and tobacco powder – called ‘snuff’ by Rondon – is still inhaled today.

Various mythic narratives mention shamanic inhalation.

In addition, the shamans also use a special lexicon, apparently unintelligible to the uninitiated, recited during the curing process.

Sources of information

  • MALDI, Denise. O Complexo Cultural do Marico: sociedades indígenas dos rios Branco, Colorado e Mequens, afluentes do médio Guaporé. 1991


  • MINDLIN, Betty. Antologia de mitos dos povos Ajuru, Arara, Arikapu, Aruá, Kanoe, Jabuti e Makurap. São Paulo : Iamá, 1995. 67 p.