Foto: Giovana Acacia Tempesta, 2007


  • Other names
  • Where they are How many

    MT, PA850 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
  • Linguistic family

Concept of the person


From an Apiaká perspective, a full person is someone capable of acting in accordance with the parameters established for each age and gender.

Small children are given special care since they are extremely vulnerable to the actions of people and supernatural entities. The child become seen as a true person after he or she starts to walk and speak. The separation between genders gradually increases and reaches its peak after the age of ten, when the adults begin to speculate on potential spouses for their children. Normally a boy of fourteen and a girl of twelve are physically and socially capable of forming a relatively autonomous social unit since they have already acquired the basic techniques and knowledge for life in the village; everything they need to know has been learnt from a young age through direct but gradual observation and participation in adult activities and topics. Older people are not expected to contribute intensely to productive activities, though many are happy to do so.

There is no rigid gender dichotomy; instead there are activities associated with women (looking after the house and children, cultivating swiddens and gardens, preparing and distributing food, making items from seeds and beads, slings, and so on) and activities associated with men (preparing the swidden terrain, obtaining food through hunting, fishing and gathering, making canoes and wicker baskets, fabrication of headdresses, spears, harpoons, bows and arrows, interaction with outsiders, formal politics and so on) carried out in a relation of complementarity.

The interdependence between genders is manifested in all spheres of social life, including:

  • in the socialization of children, where the mother looks after their day-to-day needs while the father provides them with animal-based foods and industrial items, especially clothing;
  • in production, where the man is basically responsible for obtaining food from outside the village (in rivers, the forest and the city), while the woman is responsible for transforming these into food within the household: everything men capture, kill or gather in activities combining a mixture of danger and adventure, the woman domesticate, ‘treat’ or alter;
  • in material culture, where men fabricate tools from plant material (baskets, cargo baskets, shoulder baskets, sieves, etc.) for the women, while the latter make adornments (necklaces, bracelets and rings – though not headdresses) for the men;
  • in the political organization of the community, which allocates positions in pairs, that is, the post of ‘cacique’ (male leader) is paired with that of the ‘cacica’ (female leader) and the post of ‘vice-cacique’ with that of ‘vice-cacica,’ although ‘politics’ is conceived as a male activity;
  • in cosmology, since a menstruating or pregnant woman can provoke ‘panema’ (in Apiaká: ipareún) in her husband if she touches the game he killed, or his gun, fishing rod, bow or arrow. Panema is a widespread concept in Amazonia and involves a state of general dejection in the man and bad luck in hunting and fishing trips.


Interaction with ‘other’ beings (animals, spirits, non-Indians) and extra-domestic spaces is a male prerogative. Men are responsible for felling the area of forest to be used as a swidden, gathering wild fruits and honey, toasting flour, providing the house with game, fish and industrial goods. Women plant seeds, cultivate (the swidden and vegetable patches), carry (firewood, wild fruits, swidden produce), raise (children, pets and xerimbabos, ‘wild pets’), harvest (although men help their wives, care of the swidden is the woman’s responsibility), sieve (flour, the wild fruits used to make wines), clean (the house, yard and swidden), cook (for daily meals and feasts in the hall), and process Brazil nuts intended for sale.

In the Apiaká language ang signifies ‘soul,’ ‘spirit’ or ‘shadow.’ A healthy person is someone whose soul is closely attached to the body. The Apiaká believe that for various reasons the soul can become disconnected from the body, provoking serious problems in the body (diseases), which can lead to death. From their point of view, people are responsible for their own sickness and for that of others, meaning that a person can make the soul of another separate from his or her body.

Thus a person can become ‘desmentida’ (that is, clumsiness, aches and fever, a state in which the soul can separate from the body) as a result of an immoderate action, such as climbing a tree that is too tall. In this case, the person turns to a ‘puller’ from the village who gives him or her massages with creams made from animal fat. ‘Desmentido’ is an affliction that deeply concerns the Apiaká, covered in a supernatural aura. On the other hand, a man who throws stones in the river when he catches sight of a river dolphin can be attacked by the animal and sicken (his soul separates from the body and begins to live in the subaquatic world); in this case he must turn to a healer who uses chants and a bundle of leaves shaken over his body, or prescribes baths with infusions from particular wild plants.

The Apiaká value self-restraint and are wary of people who are out of control. They explain that anyone, man or woman, can transform into an ‘animal’ (a synonym for spirit), needing only remove their human ‘clothing’ since the reverse of every person is animal, such that in the animal state the head is where the rear is usually found, and vice-versa. However only those initiated into shamanism and motivated by malignant intentions can metamorphose in a controlled way, which reveals the phenomenon of a shaman-less shamanism since the Apiaká claim that they have been without this type of specialist for a long time.

Despite denying the existence of Apiaká shamans, shamanic beliefs and the seeking out of shamans from other ethnic groups remain alive. Moreover they claim that their isolated kin in the São Tomé region possess powerful shamans who guide them during their journeys. They also explain that the leaders of the past were also shamans, but “being a shaman is not good, the shaman does not see things as we do: the yam for him is maize, potatoes are rats, shit is a jaguar.”

The stories of people temporarily transforming into animals are an idiom of sorcery accusations, part of a flux of veiled hostility and violence – elements that are not completely suppressed by the ethics of generosity and pacificism preached by influential people in the Apiaká villages. A person who turns into an animal is called a ‘bad shaman’ or ‘sorcerer’ (paséa is the term designating both sorcerer and good shaman in Apiaká) and acts always at night. This is not a theme about which the Apiaká like to talk, a fact that makes evident an emphasis on the moral and pragmatic aspects of knowledge: “knowing how to talk about,” knowing, always implies a know-how evaluated according to strict moral parameters.

The accounts of “people who turn into animals” expresses the instability of the human condition for the Apiaká. The belief in temporary transformations for malignant purposes is a way of claiming that humanity is acquired when the animal potion of the person is tamed and, reciprocally, of claiming that negatively exceeding the limits of sociality is also a way of ceasing to be human. The persistence of this symbolism, which finds echoes among other Tupi-Guarani peoples, even after decades of territorial dispersion, social disruption and missionization, is a rare expression of social resilience.