From Indigenous Peoples in Brazil
Photo: Felipe Ferreira Vander Velden, 2003


Where they are How many
RO 333 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
Linguistic family
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The Karitiana comprise one of the many groups located in the state of Rondônia still little studied by Anthropology. In recent years, their main battles in terms of their physical and sociocultural reproduction have been the demands for amplification of their Indigenous Territory and investment in school education, as a form of reinforcing teaching of the Karitiana language – the only surviving member of the Arikém linguistic family – and valorizing the customs and historical narratives that singularize them as a people.

Denomination and population

Rapaz karitiana trançando uma peça de cestaria a ser comercializada. Foto: Felipe Ferreira Vander Velden, 2003.
Rapaz karitiana trançando uma peça de cestaria a ser comercializada. Foto: Felipe Ferreira Vander Velden, 2003.

The origin or etymology of the word Karitiana remains unknown. The Indians themselves state that the name was given to them by rubber tappers who invaded their territory at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. The Karitiana call themselves simply Yjxa, the first-person plural inclusive pronoun – ‘we,’ also translated as ‘people’ – in opposition to the Opok, the ‘non-Indians’ in general, and the opok pita, the ‘other Indians.’

The current Karitiana population numbers around 320 individuals (Nelson Karitiana, personal communication). In August 2003, Felipe Ferreira Vander Velden conducted a census which recording 270 people, about 230 of whom lived in the Karitiana village, while the other 40 were living in the cities of Porto Velho and Cacoal.

The demographic collapse of the past [see Contact history] was successfully reversed and over the last thirty years the Karitiana population has been growing in spectacular form, as the data shows:

Population Year Source
64  1970 Monteiro 1984
65 1973 D.Landin & R.Landin 1973
78 1976 D.Landin 1988
109 1983 Leonel & Junqueira 1983
168 1994 Lúcio 1996
185 1997 Storto 1997
220 1999 ISA 2000
270 2003 Vander Velden 2004
320 2005 Nelson Karitiana (pers. comm)

In other words, just in the last decade (up to Vander Velden’s census) the Karitiana population grew by 60%! On a quick visit to the village, the visitor will be surprised by the high number of newborn infants and children, as well as the number of pregnant women. The Karitiana display their happiness and contentment at surpassing the earlier prospect of extermination, pointing out the active stance adopted by the group, which, though aware of birth control techniques, has abolished them as a form of encouraging the population to grow again.

Contact history

A fotografia mais antiga de que se tem notícia de um Karitiana. Foto: membro da Expedição de Carlos Chagas à Amazônia, 1912.
A fotografia mais antiga de que se tem notícia de um Karitiana. Foto: membro da Expedição de Carlos Chagas à Amazônia, 1912.

Very little is known about the history of the Karitiana prior to the start of the 20th century. The first reference to this group in the literature dates from 1909, in a report by Captain Manoel Teophilo da Costa Pinheiro, one of the members of the Rondon Commission. In 1910 Marshall Rondon himself mentions the Karitiana, then living close to the middle Jaci-Paraná river: this data was later used by Curt Nimuendajú on his Ethnohistorical Map. However, it seems that the first contacts with whites took place earlier, at the end of the 18th century, and intensified with the arrival en masse of rubber tappers and caucho rubber extractivists towards the close of the 19th century. Nonetheless, the Karitiana avoided systematic contact until the 1950s, the presence of whites becoming permanent from around the middle of this decade with the arrival of the SPI and Salesian missionaries.

The group seems to have been fairly mobile during the 20th century, possibly under pressure from the colonization fronts of the surrounding society. While Captain Manoel da Costa Pinheiro’s reference indicates the presence of the Karitiana on the Jaci-Paraná in 1909, a map sketched by J. Barboza in 1927 locates the Karitiana on the left shore of the middle and lower Candeias, between this river and the Jaci-Paraná. The area between the Candeias and Jamari rivers, important affluents of the right shore of the Madeira river, was declared the territory of the Arikém (Ariquême). In this same area, the records of the 9th Regional Inspectorate of the SPI from 1948 situate the Karitiana slightly further to the east. Between 1950 and 1953 they were located on the middle Candeias river in what appeared to be a new movement westwards; the group was probably visited by three Salesian priests in this location in 1958. Then in 1967-69 the Karitiana Indigenous Post was set up further west on the upper Das Garças river. Apparently some years later the group headed a little further westwards, eventually occupying the current site on the shores of the Sapoti river.

According to their historical narratives, the Karitiana experienced a brutal demographic decline after contact with the whites. Indeed Darcy Ribeiro considered them extinct in 1957. This situation led the group to adopt extreme measures to avoid their complete extinction. Firstly, an elderly leader, Antônio Morais, married various Karitiana women (7 or 10, depending on the different versions), including some women in principle interdicted by matrimonial rules. This event ended up generating a densely related population from the genealogical and genetic viewpoint: a study by the Federal University of Pará, in 1991, showed that the coefficient of average consanguinity – which measures the degree of genetic kinship of a population – of the Karitiana was 0.142 (between first-degree cousins, this figure is 0.125). Also according to the research, all the Karitiana below 16 years old descend from the chief Morais, very often by various genealogical lines.

The group led by the chief Morais lived on the middle Candeias, working for a rubber boss in exchange for industrialized goods. At some point, possibly around the 1930s or 40s, this group left the region, refusing any contact with the whites. They moved westwards, encountering another group – called Capivari or Joari, according to the different versions – from whom they had probably separated during the initial moments of contact at the start of the 20th century (when narrating the episode of the encounter, the Karitiana emphasize that communication was possible since the two groups spoke the same language). The two groups met in the area currently occupied by the Karitiana, which they today recognize as the former Capivari\Joari territory. In this region they entered into contact with the whites once again, at the end of the 1950s. Their historical traditions stress the vital importance of the meeting of these two groups: with the populations of both groups heavily reduced, the couples formed after the union proved to be fundamental to the subsequent demographic and cultural recovery of the people.

It is unknown why the group formed after the re-encounter of the Karitiana and Capivari/Joari kept the name of the former, but it is likely, judging by the memories of those alive today, that Antônio Morais had become a prodigious giver of women – since the Karitiana recount that Morais looked for men among the Capivari/Joari to marry his many daughters – and his prestige had grown enormously due to the many sons-in-law he brought to live with him. At the same time, Morais was already well-known as a leader in the region at the time of the first permanent contacts with whites, becoming a key intermediary between the latter and the Karitiana: in 1957 he was taken to Porto Velho with his son José Pereira, and the two became the first Karitiana to be baptized, according to the records held in the Cathedral in the city.

The indigenous territory and the village

Casa karitiana na aldeia Kyõwã. Foto: Felipe Ferreira Vander Velden, 2003.
Casa karitiana na aldeia Kyõwã. Foto: Felipe Ferreira Vander Velden, 2003.

The Karitiana Indigenous Territory forms a quadrilateral area 89,682.1380 hectares in size, located entirely within the municipality of Porto Velho, in Rondônia state. Decree 93.068 of 6th August 1986 ratified the administrative demarcation initiated in 1976. A considerable portion of the eastern part of the ratified territory overlaps with the Bom Futuro National Forest.

The area presents plant cover of open rainforest type with some areas of closed rainforest. Traversed by numerous creeks, affluents of the Candeias river, the terrain rises to the east towards the Serra Morais, a locale of historical and symbolic importance for the Karitiana. This area was left out of the demarcated territory, along with all the territory extending from the borders of the indigenous area to the Candeias river, and between the latter and the Jamari river, which the Karitiana claim as the traditional territory of the group and hope to recover one day. The recent attempt (2003) to reoccupy the area by building a village on the shores of the Candeias – outside, therefore, the current demarcated area – and the creation of a Funai workgroup to study the amplification of the territory were violently frustrated by local farmers who set fire to the maloca, destroying it (in September 2003).

At the present time, the Karitiana Indigenous Territory is free of invasions. In the recent past, however, it was targeted for logging and mining (cassiterite). Cattle ranches surround the northern limits of the area, but the remaining perimeter is wholly occupied by forest.

Located some 100km from Porto Velho, access to the single Karitiana village is via the BR-364 highway. At the 50km point of the highway, a dirt road leads for 45km through the middle of the forest to the village.

The current village – Kyõwã, literally ‘child mouth [smile],’ “because the village is as pretty as a child’s smile” – is divided down the middle by the Sapoti creek, an affluent of the Candeias river. Located on the left shore of the creek, where the road providing access to the village begins, are Funai’s administrative headquarters and other buildings, as well as the residences of some of the families. Situated on the right shore of the creek are most of the family residences.

The contemporary Karitiana houses adopt the regional model of a pitched roof, but the material used in their construction varies: some dwellings use wood, while others use wattle-and-daub and even in some cases bricks. The traditional buildings, fashioned from trunks, vines and babassu palm thatch – ambi atyna, ‘round house’ – were abandoned some decades ago, but the Karitiana remember their construction with pride: there are two such buildings in the village at the southern end of each of the creek's shores: the left shore house is much larger and represents a faithful model of the ancient houses, the kind taught to the Indians by Botyj, the creator divinity.

Built slowly with the effort of some of the older men, these imposing constructions function today not as dwelling places but as ‘churches’ (as the Karitiana label them): reinterpreted in terms of the religious opposition that splits the Karitiana today, the ambi atyna are literally ‘houses of God.’ In the past, people say, these buildings would have sheltered an extended family organized around a man of prestige – a’ chief’ – who together with his family occupied the part of the house furthest from the doorway; the married men were located in the central part while the unmarried youths were closest to the doorway. Most of today’s residences house a conjugal family.

The close proximity of Porto Velho has lead to intense mobility among the Indians, who frequently travel to the city, primarily to visit Funai and the health services. The government agency keeps lodgings annexed to its main building – the Indian House – which are almost always occupied by one or more Karitiana families passing through Porto Velho. Transportation is facilitated by the vehicles of Funasa, Cunpir (Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of Rondônia and Western Mato Grosso, an entity made up of the region’s numerous indigenous associations), Cimi-RO and Funai itself, which makes the journey between the village and the state capital at least once a week.

As a result, the Karitiana are able to rely on a reasonably effective healthcare system. The medical post is supplied with basic materials and medications for local care and – this is important to stress – is run by a nursing assistant and two health agents, all of them Karitiana. Some young people decided to learn basic nursing concepts so as to enable the community to become independent of white nurses. The local health post remains for various months in the hands of these members of the community, who know how to administer remedies for the main illnesses and diagnose cases of malaria with greater precision by examining blood samples. The more complicated cases are sent to Porto Velho. However, much still needs to be done. The incidence of malaria, for example, is still fairly high: as is well-known, Rondônia typically registers one of the highest rates of the disease in Brazil.

Economic activities

Mulher karitiana preparando a farinha de milho. Foto: Felipe Ferreira Vander Velden, 2003.
Mulher karitiana preparando a farinha de milho. Foto: Felipe Ferreira Vander Velden, 2003.

The Karitiana still largely depend on agriculture, hunting and fishing. Slash-burn cultivation – especially of manioc, maize, rice, beans and coffee – is undertaken in the area surrounding the village by the family units, though this does not exclude the exchange of labour between families. Some families maintain houses – called ‘ranches’ – in the swiddens to where they relocate for several days when the agricultural work intensifies. Both men and women are involved in this work, though the felling and burning of the plots of land is an exclusively male task (one myth collected by Rachel Landin emphasizes the considerable danger associated with this activity). Around the residences each family maintains what are called ‘yards,’ which are mostly planted with a wide range of fruit trees.

Hunting is an eminently male activity. Men generally hunt alone or in groups of two or three; they use guns, although some older men claim to still use a bow and arrows. Various kinds of traps are also utilized. The Karitiana say that monkey meat is the "prime meat of the Indians,” the most prized. Spider monkey, capuchin monkey, white-lipped peccary, collared peccary, paca, agouti, deer (red and brocket) and various kinds of birds (especially curassows, toucans, guans and different species of tinamous) are the most frequently hunted game.

Fishing is generally a collective activity that also includes children. People use nets, hooks, and bows and arrows. In the driest months – August and September – when the volume of the creeks reduces drastically, they organize fishing trips using timbó (fish poison). The abundance of fish during this period enables one of the most important Karitiana rituals to be held, the festival of the jatuarana (Hemiodus notatus), a highly prized fish.

It should be emphasized that the desire of the Karitiana to recover at least part of their traditional territory with the amplification of the Indigenous Territory, as well as having historical and symbolic importance, also relates to a practical concern. People in the village are unanimous in highlighting the exhaustion of the hunting and fishing stocks within the present area: the expeditions have had to venture increasing further away, very often crossing over the demarcated borders, while the results have been increasingly disappointing. In all events, the amplification of the territory would guarantee the Karitiana an invaluable reserve of resources necessary for the well-being of the group.

Dependence on industrialized foods and goods has led the Karitiana to sell some of the produce of their activities in the city. Maize, coffee and beans – as well as some fruits such as oranges and assai – are the main crops readily bought in Porto Velho. Craftwork – fairly diverse and produced by all the village’s families – is sold at the site of the Karitiana People’s Association (Akot Pytim’adnipa), with its own head office, or at permanent and occasional craftwork fairs in the capital of Rondônia or other cities of the region. The volume of sales is small, however, primarily due to the low numbers of tourists visiting Porto Velho. Consequently, the Karitiana have been looking for alternative places to commercialize their material culture.

The model of appropriating the profits obtained in the city mirrors that of the productive activities where each producer and his or her family receives the income from the sale of agricultural produce. Craftwork is an activity involving men, women and children. The same applies to the sale of the produce – the labels identifying the items on display and their price always include the name of the artisan – though a small portion of the sale price is kept by the Association to pay for its administration costs.

The Association’s prerogative also indicates an attempt by the Karitiana to deal with contemporary problems collectively. However, while the initiative of holding general assemblies of the people – held in the village in the presence of practically all the adults – is left to the young directors of the Association, during the meetings the dominant political structure in the village is revealed in the crucial importance of the speeches made by older men – especially the shaman and the traditional leader, byj – and in the active participation of women in the decision-making process.

Biopiracy and the unauthorized collection of biomedical samples

Banho de rio na TI Karitiana. Foto: Felipe Ferreira Vander Velden, 2003.
Banho de rio na TI Karitiana. Foto: Felipe Ferreira Vander Velden, 2003.

The Karitiana, like the Suruí, became victims in the race to profit from the genetic diversity and wealth that swept through Amazonia from the end of the 1980s. Samples were collected from their bodies on two occasions, events that, even today, have significant implications for the Karitiana history and conception of their relations with the white world.

The news that ten samples of Karitiana (and Suruí) DNA and cell lines were being sold on the internet by Coriell Cell Repositories (CCR) exploded in 1996 after a denunciation made by Ricardo Ventura Santos and Carlos Coimbra Jr., who visited the institution’s stand at the parallel fair to the congress of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, which took place in April of the same year. Genetic material from 15 populations from various parts of the globe were – and still are – available for sale on Coriell’s website, the prices varying between US$ 85 (for cell cultures) and US$ 55 (for DNA samples). The material remains stocked at the company’s head office under the label of ‘Human Variation Collection’ o’ ‘Human Diversity Collection’, and comes from the samples collected as part of the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP), which, in the wake of the Human Genome Project (HGP), proposed a large database on the variety of genetic structures representing the full diversity of the planet’s indigenous populations. The news quickly reached the headlines of numerous Brazilian newspapers and was followed by a wide-ranging debate involving Funai, the National Congress and different entities working in the defence of indigenous rights, as well as the Indians themselves. However, much of the information published in the press was inaccurate and even today some doubts remain concerning the trajectory of the blood samples from the Amazonian villages to their processing and commercialization on the internet.

All the evidence suggests that the five samples of Karitiana blood and another five samples of Suruí blood stocked and sold by the CCR were taken in 1987 by the geneticist Francis Black, one of the authors of an article from 1991 in which the collection of the blood samples from the two groups is credited to himself. This material had apparently been stocked in laboratories at the universities of Stanford and Yale in the United States, under the care of Dr. Kenneth Kidd, of Yale (Folha de São Paulo, 01/06/97).

Between the 3rd and 13th July 1996 there was a second collection of blood. On this occasion, a British television crew, accompanied by three Brazilians, requested permission from Funai to enter the Karitiana Indigenous Territory in order to produce a documentary on the ‘cultural importance’ of the mapinguari, a legendary monstrous creature present in the cosmology of many indigenous groups in Amazonia. On the 19th September of the same year, the Karitiana sent a letter to the Attorney General of the State of Rondônia denouncing that the team of Brazilians collected blood samples from all the Indians – both in the village and at the House of the Indian in Porto Velho – “to be examined for anaemia, worms and malaria.”

The fact that the unauthorized collection of blood by this team occurred during the same period as the denunciation of the sale of genetic samples on the internet led to a widespread confusion between the two cases. It was immediately hypothesized that the blood collected by the Brazilian doctors in 1996 had been sold to Coriell Cell Repositories. Soon after the denunciations exploded in the press, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through the Brazilian Embassy in the USA, as ked the US company to provide information on the commercialized material. Dr. Richard Mullivor, then director of the CCR, informed that the samples from the two Brazilian indigenous groups had been donated by the researcher Kenneth Kidd, then Professor of the Department of Genetics at Yale University, and that they had been collected in the field "several years ago by anthropologists" who had observed the rules of ‘informed consent’ on the part of the ‘donors’ (the terms are cited in this form in the report of the Commission on Biopiracy in Amazonia, in which the Chamber of Deputies presents the results of the investigations into cases of piracy of Amazonian biological and genetic resources). Mullivor also claimed that the samples were not sold by the CCR, since the institution was non-profit-making: the prices charged for the material on Coriell’s website merely related to the costs of packing and sending the items to researchers all over the world. In a press release dated 11th June 1997, the Brazilian physician who accompanied the British filmmakers defended himself against the accusations made in the newspapers, claiming that the blood had been collected as a precaution in response to the poor state of health of the Karitiana and the wish to assist the group through lab examinations of the collected material.

In the same letter, the physician informed that all the material collected by himself remained stored at a laboratory at the Federal University of Pará and had no connection with the samples sold by Coriell; the latter were collected, the physician stated, “in the 1970s [sic] by American researchers [sic], with the consent of Funai.” He added that the examinations promised to the Karitiana were not produced due to the precarious conditions for transporting and storing the samples, which had deteriorated rapidly, preventing their analysis.

Nonetheless, the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office filed a civil lawsuit against the two of the Brazilian who had accompanied the British crew, demanding compensation for the Karitiana community. The lawsuit also demands a complete ban on any sale of the material collected among the Indians by the researchers.

It remains to ask, though, how the Karitiana themselves experiences these two events and how they constructed a particular interpretation of them.

The case from the Karitiana perspective

One of the versions of the myth of Byjyty, grandchild of Botyj, the ‘great, chief’ God – collected in Portuguese from two informants in June 2003 – tells of a history of losses in the contact with the whites, though it places the Karitiana as the main agents of their own misfortune. In the ‘ancient time’ – the Karitiana form of, in Portuguese, establishing a rupture between the current time and the mythic time or ancient history – Byjyty lived among the Karitiana. One day he warned the Indians that he would die and a short time later return in the form of a large bird, which the Karitiana should not kill. He died and was buried inside the maloca. His spirit returned – as he had forewarned, in the form of a jabiru stork – and landed on top of the maloca. However the Indians forgot Byjyty’s warning and killed the bird. They were then punished for their 'sin:' Byjyty departed forever and was reborn among the whites. It had been Byjyty who had long ago removed the whites from inside the ‘large water,’ from the domain of Ora, ‘chief of the waters’ and his grandfather’s brother. Byjyty transmitted all his wisdom to the whites. Had they not ‘erred’ by killing the bird, Byjyty would have been born again among the Indians and today they would have all the much-desired goods possessed by the whites.

The Karitiana comment concerning this myth suggests the suffering experienced by the Karitiana over the decades of living with the whites. It also parallels a collection of narratives that describe the abundance of the ‘ancient time’ and the decline inaugurated by contact, especially in relation to the radical demographic collapse the people suffered with the emergence of unknown and much more aggressive diseases. The two events of collecting blood among the Karitiana must be seen from the perspective of these narratives.

The Karitiana ethnography has previously referred to the shallow time-depth of memory in this society. In fact, the Karitiana do not recall with any precision the 1987 event, which, for them, seems to fall into the temporal category of ‘some time ago,’ which apparently covers the period between the present and immediate past and the remote, mythic and historical past. Some fragmented information is given by a few people about the visit ‘many years ago’ of two “thin Americans with pinched (‘toad’) stomachs.” In this period the school village had yet to be completed, “it was small still.” The ‘Americans’ came in two airplanes and collected blood at the health post. This occurred in 1984 or 1985, according to some of the Karitiana. The references to their age at the time of the event – a common temporal landmark – also suggest the mid 1980s.

Many Karitiana recall the 1996 event in detail, in part because of the group’s active opposition at the time to what they considered harmful to their interests – a stance echoed by the concerns of Funai and the Public Prosecutor's Office and of other researchers and the wider public concerning biopiracy and the access of ill-intentioned researchers to indigenous areas. The Indians recount that the Brazilian medic and a team of ‘Americans’ came to the village and said that they would collect blood to undertake examinations, after which they would send medicines to the community every month. Over two days all the village’s residents, including children, appeared at the local health post where each one had two glass ampoules of ‘pure blood’ removed, sufficient to fill two large polystyrene boxes, which were later taken away. The physicians distributed sweets to the children and chocolates to the adults, which must have given the episode a festive air. The Karitiana recall the reluctance some people showed to give their blood, subsequently convinced by the seductive proposal to improve their access to health services. However, the promises made by the researchers were never fulfilled, according to the Karitiana, and – the biggest cause of revolt – after leaving the area, the medics never returned and the much-awaited medications never arrived in the village.

The Karitiana cosmology contains a series of elements that allow us to understand the problem imposed by removal of their blood and storage of the samples, above all in relation to the dangers associated with blood externalized from the body, especially where this blood – in some cases from now deceased persons – remains unburied. The blood’s polluting aspects are apparently emphasized in the failure to simply return the material: this would be the logical procedure in the eyes of the Karitiana, who do not understand the reasons for collecting human biological material and scientific and commercial potential involved in the enterprise. But at the same time, the impossibility of the blood being reused, placed back inside bodies, is obvious: the removed blood is ‘cold,’ dead blood, and moreover there is the fear that their blood may have been mixed with that of other people and even animals – “dogs, cattle and donkeys,” animals introduced by the whites and treated somewhat ambiguously by the Indians. For this reason, the blood in question is ‘dirty,’ in contrast to the ‘pure, clean’ blood circulating in living bodies.

This conceptions in mind, the Karitiana talk of compensation for the ‘stolen’ blood (their term): they want money in return. Having perceived that the blood, a sign in their cosmological code, was commercialized, the Karitiana conceive the return in merchandise as the most appropriate translation to render mutually intelligible the confrontation between their cosmology and a ‘capitalist cosmology.’

The unauthorized collection of their blood was, therefore, an affront to the Karitiana symbolic conceptions concerning the body and its proper functioning. However, more than this, it amounted to serious moral offence: the Karitiana speak of the tasoty, literally ‘great men,’ not only in terms of physical size but above all in terms of wisdom, thought and work: a ‘great man’ is one who does not ‘think along one path only,’ but ‘spreads out in all directions,’ a man who possesses wisdom and responsibility. In sum, the model of an appropriate and respected social persona: the man who ‘speaks well to people,’ welcomes them readily into his home, does not ‘tell lies or think and speak badly’ of others, and respects the rules of reciprocity, so important to the group.

Many whites fit into this category, since they are accredited with long years of study and a vast knowledge. For this reason, then, the Karitiana reflect with incredulity and resignation on the treachery to which they were victim, given that they would never expect such deviant conduct from a tasoty, especially doctors, where trust is fundamental and was perhaps fed by the relative efficiency of the health services offered to the Karitiana in the village and in Porto Velho. A breach of the ethics of exchange, founded on the swapping of blood collected in diverse contexts for remedies and medical care – an exchange that had been established for some time among the Karitiana. This breach left a strong feeling of resentment and the need to recover, in some form, what had been lost.


Social organization and cosmology

Refeição comunal na aldeia Kyõwã. foto: Felipe Ferreira Vander Velden, 2003.
Refeição comunal na aldeia Kyõwã. foto: Felipe Ferreira Vander Velden, 2003.

It is impossible to speak of the social organization of the Karitiana today without examining the religious fission that now defines the group. Between 1972 and 1978, the missionary couple David and Rachel Landin, linked to the Summer Institute of Linguistics, resided among the Karitiana, with the aim of studying their language in order to, subsequently, translate the New Testament. However, the work of conversion was only partially successful, as can be observed today: in effect, the community is divided into two distinct groups – each corresponding to roughly half of the village's population – which we can identify here as ‘the shaman’s people’ and ‘the pastor’s people’ or ‘believers.’ Currently there is just one shaman (who they denominate ‘pajé’) among the Karitiana. There are three pastors – although they be substituted by other trained individuals – and each of them ‘owns’ one of the three ‘churches’ existing in the village.

The Karitiana emphasize the low sociological yield of this opposition, saying that “it is the ‘spirits’ – Jesus, among the ‘believers’ and Itamama for the people ‘of the shaman’ – who don’t like each other,” and that people interact with each other normally in their day-to-day lives: they marry, work and have fun. However, this opposition, expressed at the level of the supernatural, indicates a notable differentiation in the symbolic universe and also suggest important sociological and political implications.

This being the case, the religious fission overlaps a significant political dispute opposing the main Karitiana leaders. In other words, the conflict is expressed in the language of religion. The most recent repercussions of this dispute can be traced in the attempt by the shaman to build a new village (a failed attempt, as can be seen in the item The Indigenous Territory and the village). Although many families expressed their desire to visit or spend some time at this new location, only those linked to the shaman – that is, ‘the shaman’s people’ – openly spoke of permanently leaving the present-day village.

Despite its existence and crucial importance, however, the conflict between the those ‘of the shaman’ and those ‘of the pastor’ remains mostly veiled in daily village life and never expressed in clear political terms. The eruption of differences in discourse appears recurringly at the symbolic-religious level or at the level of those practices closely connected to the supernatural universe. In the latter case, this is not only discursive: the main locus in which the religious fission manifests among the Karitiana are the so-called ‘festivals,’ rituals for celebrating the contact with the supernatural world to “request health and happiness for the people,” as they say. In these events, the community splits and the two groups become clearly apparent: although the rituals are planned by everyone and invitations are made to both sides, two ‘festivals’ are always held, one on each ‘side’ of the village, prepared and attended by each of the factions. The comments made by one faction concerning the other concentrate on this point, since both claim that their counterpart performs the rituals wrongly and that this is the main reason for the afflictions experienced by the Karitiana. Consequently, it is the very history of the group that is in play, since each of the factions claims the ancestrality – and hence the authenticity – of its rites and blames the opposite faction for the losses accumulated over historical time as a result of incorrect ritual procedures. In practical terms, it must be said, the rituals performed by each of the ‘sides’ show few notable differences.

‘Sides’ because, as the references of the Indians themselves indicate, the fission also takes the form of a geographic opposition: those on ‘this side’ against those on 'that side.’ The families 'of the shaman' mostly reside in the central section of the right shore of the creek: the houses form an integrated nucleus around the shaman’s dwelling. The families ‘of the pastor’ are for the most part distributed on the left shore and at either end of the right shore. It is worth noting that the left shore houses are close to the buildings installed by the whites; there too is the terrain used for community meetings. The three ’churches’ – ‘houses of God’ – are likewise situated at the ends of the village: two on the right shore and one on the left. Hence, we find a ‘central' nucleus occupied by the shaman, surrounded by peripheral areas occupied by the pastors.

Affiliation to one or the other faction seems to be based on the older men of the village and their families. On marrying, men are integrated into their father-in-law’s faction: even if their own parents belong to the other faction, the ‘festivals’ will be performed on their father-in-law’s side. Apparently the factional opposition does not play a significant role in marriage alliances, since marriages between people from different factions are commonplace – and indeed this is stressed by the Karitiana when they discuss the fact that the religious split has little effect on this system.

The preceding paragraphs summarize the mechanisms involved in the opposition between ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’ and the way in which they appear in rites and discourse on them and the supernatural universe with which they seek to interact. It remains for us the understand, therefore, precisely how this opposition unfolds at the cosmological level. The term ‘people of the shaman’ should be taken to mean the families who remain faithful (as they themselves put it) to the traditional way of life and beliefs of the Karitiana, as found prior to contact: for this reason, the shaman emphasizes that, in the planned new village, everything should return to how it was ‘in the past.’ However, the families of ‘believers,’ those linked to the pastors, also emphasize the original nature of their knowledge: for them, their religious conceptions are the true ones, those taught by Botyj and observed by the Karitiana since ancient times. Hence, the distinct ancestralities evoked by each of the factions ends up constituting distinct corpuses of myth and history, which inform current practices and are informed by them.

These distinct sets of knowledge, however, present some degree of coherence, which allows us to apprehend some of the effects of Christian religious discourse on the Karitiana cosmology, especially on their eschatological notions. In fact, the intrusion of Christian elements has apparently provoked a kind of evolution of Karitiana eschatology with the introduction of the concept of guilt, or sin, an idea central to Judeo-Christian thought. Here, the notion of the ‘soul’ (or one of them, given that the Karitiana state the person possesses four ‘souls’) leaving the body at death to rise to heaven in the company of God and to a life of plenty is expanded to contain the possibility of 'hell' for those whose conduct in life failed to comply with the correct precepts. It should be noted that the belief in four ’souls’ with distinct destines after the individual’s death persists: the change concerns the path taken by one of these ‘souls’ – the one which retains the blood and resumes, in the beyond, the relations with already deceased relatives – which may, depending on the person’s actions while alive, follow the path to God or to the ‘Dog.’

Likewise, the notion of ‘guilt/sin’ has prompted a reconfiguration of the mythic corpus describing the origin of the Karitiana, other Indians and the whites. As occurs in many other South American indigenous cosmologies, the asymmetric relation between Indians and whites is seen by the Karitiana to be the result of a bad action (a 'sin') realized by they themselves at the beginning of time. Significantly, the Karitiana also ‘killed God:’ they carry the blame for the death of Byjyty, grandchild of the divinity, transformed into an enormous bird in the ‘ancient past’ and killed due to their ignorance. Reborn among the whites, like Jesus, Byjyty gave the latter all the marvellous industrial goods and knowledge that the Karitiana today covet: automobiles, machines, guns and writing (see a summary of the myth in the item Biopiracy and the unauthorized collection of biomedical samples).

From the Karitiana perspective, the opposition between ‘the shaman’s people’ and the ‘the pastor’s people’ also operates in the field of therapeutic practices, although here again it must be nuanced. This observation is important since the group's ritual activities are focused on a ceaseless search for ‘health’ and the avoidance of the diseases that loom over the village. Those linked to the shaman are healthy because they believe in his power to contact the universe of the spirits and in this way cure the sick. For their part, the 'believers' prefer to appeal directly to the divinity, whether in the ‘festivals’ or in the 'services' – held on Wednesdays and Fridays and at the weekends; the entire ritual is officiated in the native language, including ‘hymns’ translated from Portuguese or composed directly in Karitiana. As mentioned earlier, though, the festivals performed by the two factions are virtually identical: in the hunt festival, for example, the climax involves bathing with an infusion made from leaves gathered in the forest, called 'remedies' (gopatoma) by the Karitiana. This bath is believed to keep disease away. The practical knowledge of traditional ‘remedies’ and medical practices is, therefore, possessed by most Karitiana adults.


The most complete data on the Karitiana kinship system are found in the study by Rachel Landin. The terms for the nuclear family, are ‘father’ (syp for a female ego and 'it for a male ego), ‘mother’ (ti for both sexes) and ‘children’ (a man refers to his children by the term 'it, while a woman uses the term 'et). Note that the term for ‘father’ and ‘child’ are identical ('it). Hence it is as though the child of ego calls his father ‘child,’ since grandchild and grandson assume identical points in the system.

The ‘sibling’ category is divided by the sex of ego and alter; same-sex siblings are divided by the sex of alter: the term for the older alter is haj, while the term for the younger alter is ket if ego is male, and kypet is ego is female. Siblings of the opposite sex to ego are divided by ego’s sex: a man calls his sisters pan'in, while a woman calls her brothers syky.

The 'father' category is extended to ego's 'father's brothers' and the 'mother' category to ego's 'mother's sisters.' The ‘siblings’ of individuals in this category are considered to be ego’s ‘aunts/uncles.’ Ego’s paternal ‘aunts/uncles’ are divided by the sex of alter. The paternal aunt is called sokit, while the terms for paternal uncles are divided according to alter’s age: older uncles are called sypyty, while younger uncles are divided according to ego’s sex (sypy'et for a man and sypysin for a woman). Maternal uncles are divided by ego’s sex: a man uses the term ta 'it and a woman uses the term syky'et. Maternal aunts are divided according to alter’s age: an older aunt will be called tiity, and a younger aunt ti'et. The ‘nephew/niece’ category is divided according to the relation with ego (maternal or paternal line) and ego’s sex: a man will call his paternal nephew 'it ongot and his paternal niece ti ongot. All the other ‘nephews/nieces’ of a male ego are called saka'et. A woman calls her maternal niece ti ogot and all the other ‘nephews/nieces’ are divided according to the relative age of their mother, the woman’s sister, to ego: the children of an older sister will be called haja'et, while the children of a younger sister are called koroj'et.

In Dravidian systems, a male cross-cousin of ego’s mother is usually ego’s father and a female cross-cousin of ego's father usually ego’s mother. This stems from the fact that, in these groups, preferential marriage is with cross-cousins.

In the Karitiana kinship system, ego is identified with his or her paternal grandfather or grandmother (depending on ego’s sex). This fact can also be observed in the naming system. However, as restrictions apply to the use of personal names among the Karitiana, people use kinship terms for reference. The term used by a boy to refer to his paternal grandfather or by a girl to refer to her paternal grandmother is ombyj, in which we can recognized the root byj, ‘leader/chief.’ This child will receive the same name as his or her ombyj, or if the name has already been given to an older sibling, the child will receive the name of a brother/sister of the ombyj. Those grandparents who are not called ombyj by ego receive the kinship terms owoj (male) and timoj (female). The category ‘grandchildren’ is primarily divided in accordance with their relation to ego and secondarily by ego’s sex: ongot is the name used by ego for a grandchild of the same sex on the paternal line, to whom he or she gives the name. For other types of grandchildren, the terms used are sokite'et (male ego) and ete'et (female ego).

Rachel Landin states that there is no kinship term for cross-cousins in Karitiana because this category is constituted by those individuals who comprise ego’s preferential spouses. Hence traditionally the terms used to designate such individuals may have been ‘husband’ (man) and ‘wife’ (sooj).  

Language and school education

Liderança karitiana. Foto: Felipe Ferreira Vander Velden, 2003.
Liderança karitiana. Foto: Felipe Ferreira Vander Velden, 2003.

Karitiana is the only surviving language from the Arikém family, which in turn is one of the ten representatives of the Tupi linguistic trunk. This family occupies a special place in the history of Tupian languages by being the only family in which a complete change can be identified in the vowel system in relation to the Proto-Tupi language. However, the theoretical interest of Karitiana is not limited to diachronic aspects. From the synchronic perspective, phenomena of interest include the ergative case, the variable order of constituents, the predictable interaction between tone and accent, spread of nasality and pre and post oralization of nasal consonants.

Study of the Karitiana language may contribute substantially to our knowledge of indigenous populations in Brazil prior to contact. Luciana Storto presented, in co-authorship with Philip Baldi, an article at the annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, in January 1994, which identified a regular concatenated shift in the vocalic system of the Arikém family in relation to Proto-Tupi. This paper considered lexical items from the Arikém language (which, as far as we know, is an extinct member of the Arikém family) obtained from two lists compiled in the 1920s and compared with original Karitiana data obtained in fieldwork. The process was described as a historical concatenated shift in the five-vowel system in anti-clockwise direction, where Proto-Tupi (PT) *a becomes Proto-Arikém (PA) *o, PT *o becomes PA *i, PT *i becomes PA *e, and PT *e becomes PA *a (the vowel *i from Proto-Tupi continues as *i in Proto-Arikém). Sawada & Storto (2004) confirmed the changes presented by Storto & Baldi with a large number of cognates from all the families in the Tupi trunk.

An understanding of processes such as the vowel change described above is fundamental for the reconstruction of Proto-Tupi, a project in which Luciana Storto currently participates in association with researchers from various institutions coordinated by Denny Moore from the Emílio Goeldi Museum. This type of reconstruction provides access to a wealth of information on the pre-history of the peoples in question (who lived approximately 4,500 years ago), which is unique since it reveals social and cultural aspects of this ancient population that cannot be known in any other form. For example, through the reconstruction in PT of words for swidden, manioc and planting stick, we know that the Proto-Tupi were agriculturists.

The linguistic study may also contribute to our knowledge of the pre-historical peopling of Brazil, since various features can be identified in a language that do not have a genetic origin. but derive instead from contact with other peoples. In this aspect, Karitiana is especially interesting since there is cultural evidence indicating a period of contact in which they lived in close proximity with a non-Tupi people. For example, they do not produce manioc flour, a practice typical to Tupian groups. Instead of manioc flour, they process maize. The instrument used is a horizontal mortar and a rectangular stone. Until a few generations ago, they practiced ritual skull deformation through the use of an apparatus made from wood and cotton, which, used from an early age on children’s heads, produced a flattening of the front portion of the skull. This type of mortar and skull deformation are not, as far as known, characteristic of Tupian peoples. Thus it can be assumed that these instruments were acquired via contact. It is possible that the hypothesized contact also gave rise to the vowel change described above, which affects only the Arikém family among the ten linguistic families of the Tupi trunk.


The large-scale literacy project was initiated in 1994. The village school, which had a white teacher employed by Funai in 1991, and just one Indian teacher in 1992 (Nelson Karitiana), became primarily indigenous in 1995 when two Indian teachers were hired by the local council and the state government to run classes at the school. Currently (May 2005), the school teachers are Inácio Karitiana, João Karitiana, Luiz Karitiana, Nelson Karitiana and Marcelo Karitiana, who give classes in the village’s bilingual school.

In January 1996, funded by the project, Nelson Karitiana spent 20 days in Belém to visit the Goeldi Museum, learn to use the computer (specifically the text editor program Word) and help elaborate a new version of the Learning to Spell Guide. Nelson returned to the village with 80 copies of the guide, which he handed over to Luiz Carlos Karitiana, who had been named head of the Language House by the association.

The period between February and December 1996 saw a huge qualitative and quantitative leap forward in the participation of the Karitiana in the literacy project. Led by Luiz Carlos Karitiana, some young people worked on the written documentation of the culture and produced five texts, several recordings, and some studies of lexical items already extinct in the day-to-day spoken vocabulary of the language.

In January 1997, Luiz Carlos Karitiana helped organize the work on the dictionary, assisted by 15 members from the community. Teachers trained over previous years contributed to teaching 24 students to read and write. Three texts (a ritual, a myth and a historical narrative) were produced (transcribed, typed onto a computer and translated).

The literacy project, which received funding for just four years, came to a conclusion in 1997 having received a  positive assessment from an external auditor. However, despite its success, it was impossible to continue the educational work without a source of permanent funding.


Notes on the sources

Time de futebol karitiana. foto: Felipe Ferreira Vander Velden, 2003.
Time de futebol karitiana. foto: Felipe Ferreira Vander Velden, 2003.

The ethnographic material on the Karitiana is fairly scarce, as for most of the indigenous societies of Rondônia and the southwest of Brazilian Amazonia. In this sense, it contrasts with the excellence of the analyses of the language, as well as the genetic, biomedical and bioanthropological studies conducted among the population.

Although the material produced by the Rondon Commission – deposited at the Indian Museum in Rio de Janeiro – provide the first references on the Karitiana, the first (extremely brief) description of their culture is found in the memoirs of Father Angelo Spadari, who visited them in 1958. These were published by Vitor Hugo, in Italian, in the German journal Anthropos (56, dated 1961), and later in Portuguese and with small alterations in the second volume of his monumental Desbravadores.

After Angelo Spadari, the missionary couple David and Rachel Landin – linked to the Summer Institute of Linguistics, SIL – lived among the Karitiana in the 1970s. Though interested on translating the New Testament into the Karitiana language, the missionaries left a collection of linguistic analyses, published mainly in the SIL Linguistic Series, as well as a dissertation, 'Kinship and naming among the Karitiana,’ and a short article on mythology (‘Nature and culture in four Karitiana legends’), both by Rachel Landin. They also produced two manuscripts on lithic technology and economics by David Landin.

Carlos Frederico Lúcio produced the first detailed ethnography of the group in his master’s dissertation, presented in 1996 at Unicamp (‘On some forms of social classification: an ethnography of the Karitiana of Rondônia’). This centred on the analysis of the intersection of the classificatory systems of genealogy, onomastics and kinship. Karitiana kinship is also studied – from a comparative perspective within the universe of Tupi groups from families other than Tupi-Guarani – in the master’s dissertation by Carolina Araújo, from 2002, at UFRJ (‘The dance of the possibles: making one self and making the other among some Tupi groups’). The history of contact between the Karitiana and the whites, based on the narratives of the Indians themselves, was examined by Lilian Moser in her master’s dissertation at UFPE, completed in 1997 (‘The Karitiana in the process of developing Rondônia from the 1950s to the 1990s’). The cases of unauthorized collection of biological samples, as well as the symbolic and political implications of these actions for the Karitiana, are analyzed in the master’s dissertation by Felipe Ferreira Vander Velden, presented at Unicamp in 2004 (‘Where the blood circulates: the Karitiana and biomedical intervention’).

The Karitiana language was previously studied by David and Rachel Landin. Daniel Everett published 4 articles based on their material. Luciana Storto – who has worked on the description and analysis of the Karitiana language since her first professional visit to the village in mid 1992 – produced a detailed analysis of fundamental aspects of Karitiana grammar in her doctoral thesis, presented at MIT in 1999 (‘Aspects of Karitiana grammar’), and has published various articles in national and international journals.

The oldest known photograph of a Karitiana person – taken by the Carlos Chagas Expedition to Amazonia in 1912 – introduced the group into the field of bioanthropological and biomedical research. From an initial curiosity concerning the skull deformation – once practiced by the Karitiana, but today abandoned, though many older individuals still present the artificial flattening of the skull – interest turned to a set of investigations into the group’s epidemiological and sanitary conditions and, finally, to studies focusing on the genetic structure of the people. From the first studies we can highlight the master’s dissertation by José Odair Ferrari, completed at USP in 1995 (‘Indian health: a challenge for whom? The Karitiana of Rondônia) and various articles published in journals in the area of public health and human biology. Among the second set of studies, we can highlight the research of Gilberto Araújo, published in Ciência Hoje (v.13, n.76, 1991), a scientific journal of mass circulation, as well as a large number of articles, almost all in international journals, which discuss Karitiana genetics and molecular biology. The latter works do not deal specifically with the Karitiana, but analyze the material collected among them in comparison with samples collected and studies made among other indigenous populations in Brazil and the rest of the world.


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