Enciclopédia dos Povos Indígenas no Brasil - Instituto Socioambiental

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Enciclopédia dos Povos Indígenas no Brasil

Julio Cezar Melatti
Universidade de Brasília

December, 1998


In Marubo cosmology, new entities are formed through the aggregation or transformation of parts of dead and mutilated beings. In just the same way, the Marubo people seem to have resulted from the re-organization of indigenous societies decimated and fragmented by rubber tappers at the height of the rubber boom. But this movement of dispersion and regrouping may well extend back into more ancient times, since the names of Marubo sections appear among other neighbouring Pano peoples.

Name and language

As they are generally known by this name, the Marubo accept its use. However, it is not a self-designation, of which none in fact seems to exist.

Their language is a member of the Pano family. The ethnologist Philippe Erikson, based on the linguistic and cultural similarities between the Marubo and the Katukína-Pâno, Nukiní (Rêmo) and Poyanáwa in Brazil, as well as the Kapanáwa in Peru, classifies the set of their languages as the central branch of the Pano family.

The Marubo say that their language is that of the Chaináwavo. This claim raises a number of questions about their past, since Chaináwavo is the name of one of their sections (see below), nowadays extinct. As a section, the Chaináwavo could not have lived in isolation since they would have had to marry members from another section; and there would have been at least two more sections along with whom they must have been living: namely, those of their fathers and mothers. Did each of these sections speak its own language? Or did these four sections speak the same language, distinct from that of other aggregates of sections? Are the contemporary Marubo a result of a fusion of various four-section aggregates, each speaking its own language which ended up adopting just one of them? Or was the situation actually similar to that found in north-western Amazonia, where each exogamic group has a distinct language?

The contemporary Marubo language possesses a ritual counterpart. A parallel vocabulary exists in myths and curing chants, substituting many of the words of daily use. In formal discourses, exchanged between the maloca owner and his visitor at special moments, phrases are pronounced with a musicality distinct from profane situations.

Nowadays, young Marubo men are able to communicate with each other in Portuguese. Since the region was explored in the past by Peruvian rubber tappers, older people tend to know some words in Quechua and Spanish.


The Marubo live on the upper course of the Curuçá and Ituí rivers, in the Javari basin, situated in the Amazonian municipality of Atalaia do Norte. The region is full of small hills, with peaks often linked by ridges and covered by tropical rainforest. To reach the urban centres, their first option is to journey down these rivers, arriving at various towns where the Javari enters the Solimões: Atalaia do Norte (location of the regional headquarters of Funai dealing with the group), Benjamin Constant and the Colombian town of Letícia. The second option lies in the other direction, crossing the watershed separating them from the Juruá, to arrive at Cruzeiro do Sul in Acre state. In fact, the latter town is much closer to Marubo lands; however, as part of the journey has to be made over land, it is only possible to reach it carrying small loads.

Since establishing the first contacts with the gum and rubber extraction fronts at the end of the 19th century, the Marubo have remained in the same geographic position. At the start of the 20th century, there were some Marubo on the Batã river, an affluent of the Jaquirana (the upper Javari), but perhaps they were there as auxiliary workers for the rubber tappers. The creation of Funai posts on the middle Curuçá (close to the mouth of the Pardo river) and on the middle Ituí (set up to provide assistance to the Matís), led a part of the Marubo population to move down river.

Discussion has been ongoing since the 1970s concerning the creation of a Javari Indigenous Park which would include the eastern extent of the river’s basin and would shelter various indigenous peoples in addition to the Marubo, such as the Korúbo, Mayá, Matís, Matsés, part of the Kanamarí and the Kulína. The most recent step taken in this direction was the Funai President’s approval of the conclusions of the “Report Summary on Identification and Delimitation of the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory,” presented by the organization’s Land Identification Department.


The table below gives an idea of Marubo population growth during the last quarter of the 20th century. It has been copied with a few modifications from a survey by the anthropologist Walter Coutinho Jr., which distributed the local groups into four sectors, each separated from the others by a pronounced spatial interval:

a) on the Ituí river, directly above the mouth of the Novo de Cima river, close to a Funai post originally set up to attract the Matís;

b) on the same river, above its confluence with the Paraguaçu close to the headwaters, including the concentration of malocas from the Vida Nova mission headquarters;

c) on the Curuçá river directly above the mouth of the Pardo where there used to be an attraction post, as far as a concentration of local groups known as São Sebastião found below the mouth of the Arrojo; and

d) on the Maronal creek, an affluent of the upper Curuçá. The column referring to the year 1998 presents data from a census by the ethnologist Javier Ruedas.












Ituí River

a)Above mouth of Novo de Cima






b)Above mouth of Paraguaçu







Curuçá River

c)Between mouths of Pardo and Arrojo







d)Maronal creek






















In 2000, the total population was 1.043. But there is no especification as far as the diferent regions are concerned. Interethnic marriages with non-Indians or Indians of other ethinies only make up a few isolated cases.

History of contact

Marubo contact with non-Indians can be divided into three phases. The first, starting at the end of the 19th century, was marked by contact firstly with Peruvians who descended the rivers in search of gum trees, a terra firma species that was felled in order to extract its latex, and secondly with Brazilians, who journeyed upriver in search of rubber trees, a tree more frequently found on the fertile várzea land bordering the lower courses, which was not felled as making incisions on the trunk is sufficient for collecting the sap. This seems to have been a period of considerable disorganization for the indigenous peoples of the Javari basin. The Amazonian system of dispatching was in operation locally, involving advance shipment of industrialized goods to be paid for with forest products. It was not free trade, since each river was the ‘property’ of a rubber boss who set up a barracão at the river mouth, that is, his store with his administrative workers and hired security who would prevent rubber tappers from passing the site without making their transactions. Not only Indians were exploited: in 1900, the rubber boss who dominated the Ituí river violently repressed rubber tappers who attempted to flee from him with the rubber. Members of the New Tribes of Brazil Mission who began to work with the Marubo in 1952, were still able to find purchase coupons from 1906 among the population.

However, after the collapse of rubber prices in 1912 the region began to be abandoned by the rubber companies and by those who worked for them. Some left their companies to become managers, but even so the withdrawal of the population continued. Adventurers appeared, who not only continued with the kind of exploitative measures imposed up until then but even increased the bad faith in their relations with Indians. Until finally the Marubo found themselves abandoned. During the 1930s and 1940s they reverted to living in isolation from the whites. This was probably the time in which the Marubo, then withdrawn to the upper Curuçá, re-organized themselves as different sectional aggregates joined together. They accredit João Tuxaua, only recently deceased, with promoting and establishing peace between the Marubo people as a whole. This was the second phase in the history of contact.

The third phase began when the Marubo, lacking metal tools which by now had been used up, went in search of whites once more, southwards on the Juruá river. They made contact with the Boa Fé rubber plantation at the mouth of one of its affluents, the Ipixuna river. There they ended up exchanging raw rubber and wild animal pelts for industrialized products. This relationship attracted the New Tribes of Brazil Mission, which set itself up among them. Soon after, loggers moving upriver on the Javari and its affluents also entered into contact with the Marubo.

As the transportation of timber could only be made down river and the extracted rubber was also more easily transported in boats rather than on the shoulder, while simultaneously the missionaries ended up constructing a landing strip next to the Ituí river and ran a storehouse, interest in contact with the Juruá waned, although it was never completely abandoned.

While the Marubo seem to have resulted from pacts between the remnants of several culturally similar indigenous peoples thrown into disorganization after contact with whites, the intertribal relation for which they remained most famous was hostile in nature: namely with the Matsés. Around 1960, the latter attacked a small group of Marubo individuals who were searching for turtle eggs on the beaches of the Curuçá, killing one man and abducting three women. This incursion provoked a retaliation from the Marubo, who undertook an expedition that killed – so they claim – fourteen Matsés with the use of firearms, since contact with whites had been re-established. Several years later the Matsés were contacted by the whites and two of the abducted women were able to return to the Marubo, the third having probably died.

The maloca

Anyone arriving for the first time at a place inhabited by the Marubo would make a mistake in attempting to estimate the population by the number of constructions. In fact, the only construction actually inhabited is the oblong long house in the centre, located on the top of the hill and covered by ivorypalm straw from the ridge of the roof to the ground. This is where the village residents sleep, prepare meals, eat, receive visitors, sing curing chants, and observe the shaman’s sessions. The maloca even has an origin myth, that of the hero Vimi Peya, who learnt to build it after living for a period at the bottom of the waters with the alligators. Although each example varies in size, the maloca is always made in the same way from the same fittings and bindings.

Other constructions are located on the surrounding slopes, erected on stilts with their floors and walls made from rufflepalm bark and thatched roofs. These buildings serve more as deposits and are individually owned. Generally, the deposits are used to store items acquired from whites: iron tools, firearms, aluminium pans, steel cable to bind timber logs, tin bowls for latex, knives to incise rubber trees, clothing and textiles, sewing machines and so on.

Swiddens extend outwards from the hill where the maloca is built towards the nearby valleys and hillsides. Various shades of green can be seen according to the cultivated plants: on the upper slopes and on the ridges linking the hills on both sides of the paths there are strips of manioc and papaya; in the depressions, maize and banana groves.

The maloca shelters various nuclear families under the leadership of the house’s owner. Like any other man, the latter may also be married to one or more of his spouse’s sisters. His wife’s brother may live with him, as well as married sons or nephews (sister’s sons) married to his daughters. Each woman and her children occupy a rectangular space, more or less nine metres square, marked by four house posts, two central and two lateral. Here they hang their hammocks, build a small shelf to store objects, some simply thrust into the thatch of the wall, and maintain a cooking fire by the side of this area facing the maloca’s centre. A man who has more than one wife may be found in the space of one or the other. The house owner usually suspends a hammock in a corner close to the main door. Two long benches form a corridor through which a person entering through this door must pass: these serve as seats for the men of the house during the two daily meals, one taken before leaving for the day’s activities and the other on their return, during the nightly conversations, when they consume snuff and ayahuasca and act as assistants to the shamanic sessions. Women eat in the centre of the house seated on mats on the ground. A hollowed trunk is placed next to the rear door, some three metres in length, as a trough where the women pulp seeds and fruits with the use of a flat rectangular stone. When no men are about, some women move closer to the doors, the only places where light enters, in order to perforate small pieces of gastropod shell from which they make beads for various pendants and necklaces.

Three elements appear to mark the maloca as a social unit: each one has its ‘owner’ (the man who initiated its construction) as well as its trocano (a percussion instrument made from a tree log with a deep rectangular cavity) and invites others for meals and rites. However, as the ethnologist Javier Ruedas noted, closely situated malocas have joined together in recent years to form wider units. And it is these larger groupings, each with its Portuguese name and overall leader, which interact with external agencies such as Funai (the National Indian Foundation), Médicos sem Fronteira, the Javari Valley Indigenous Council, and others.

The sections

The Marubo divide into eighteen sections, each a group of kin related in a female line of alternate generations. Although the Marubo prefer to think in terms of these sections, for us it is easier to group them two by two, taking each pair as a matrilineal clan. In other words, the system of sections among the Marubo operates as in the following example: a woman belonging to the ‘Red Macaw People’ section gives birth to children of the ‘Wood Rail People’ section; in turn, her daughters will once again produce children of the ‘Red Macaw People’ section. In this way, the generations will alternate over time. The ‘Wood Rail People’ cannot marry the ‘Red Macaw People.’

Kinship terms apply according to this alternation in generations. The mother of a member of the ‘Wood Rail People’ belongs to the ‘Red Macaw People:’ he or she will therefore call any other women from this section ‘mother,’ whether she is older or younger, or in the first or third generation above or below. The kinship term take is applied to any member of either sex from a person’s own section. However, even when less inclusive terms are used for them, it should be noted that they apply to kin of more than one generation. Thus, the term for ‘older sister’ is also used to refer to the maternal grandmother, while the term for ‘younger sister’ can also be applied by a woman to her daughter’s daughter.

Personal names are generally transmitted within the same section from the maternal grandmother or her sisters to the daughter’s daughter and from the paternal grandfather (who is not always from the same section) or his brothers to the son’s son.

The Marubo say that the preferred marriage is with the daughter of a koka, a category that includes the maternal uncles or sororal nephews older than the person using this term. The koka of a man from the ‘Wood Rail People’ belongs to the ‘Red Macaw People,’ and the daughters of these koka are from other sections.

There are two aspects that should be highlighted in Marubo marriage:

a) a man, in marrying a woman, becomes a prospective spouse to her sisters as well, who eventually become his wives or those of his brothers; the interposition of another man who is neither part of this group of brothers nor from his section is met with hostility;

b) there seems to be a certain ascendancy of a man over his wife’s younger brothers, which sometimes contributes to forming the nucleus for the formation of either a domestic group – the house-owner with his wife (or wives), supported by her (or their) brother(s) and his wife (or their wives) – or timber extraction teams.

Age and gender distinctions

Rites of passage are little in evidence, but there seems to be a distinction among men relating to the use of tobacco snuff and ayahuasca, since even those who are married and have children only begin to use these substances after the age of thirty or so.

Before this, they limit themselves to serving older men with them. As well as occupying the maloca’s spaces in different ways, men and women are distinguished in terms of their participation in productive activities. Men are responsible for clearing forest for the swiddens, making holes for the planting of banana trees with digging sticks, hunting, and making canoes, log drums, benches and wooden mortars. Curing chants and shamanism, activities which require a constant supply of tobacco and ayahuasca, are also male tasks.

Women are responsible for tending swiddens, harvesting bananas and manioc, making pottery, sleeping hammocks (with wide meshes) woven from palm fibre, and the close-fitting cotton skirts. Also cooking, notable for the variety and elaborate nature of the meals, as well as the order and appropriate occasion for their presentation. They spend much of their time fabricating gastropod shell beads, used to make necklaces, pendants and chest bands, indispensable elements in Marubo attire. Body painting, whether aesthetic or magical in aim, is done by women.

Subsistence and commercial activities

The clearing for new swiddens is opened collectively by men from the maloca and then divided between the nuclear families who plant three basic staple crops – maize, manioc (aipi cassava) and banana – in addition to papaya and guava, as well as those plants intended for other uses, such as tobacco, nettles and cotton. Since the crops have different cycles, the swidden is productive over a long period: maize grows quickly, being collected three months after planting; manioc takes at least a year for its tubers to appear; banana trees, once the first bunches are harvested, leave buds that will produce other ones. The papaya tree lasts several years. Perhaps the crop with the longest cycle is the spiny peachpalm, which only gains height after the swidden has been abandoned but then produces its fruit for many years. As new swiddens become necessary, they are cleared in locations further away from the maloca. But it is not just the distance from swiddens which leads to the construction of new malocas: the deterioration of the thatch covering and the impermeability of the roof caused by the soot rising by the cooking fires, which impedes the smoke from escaping, are also other reasons, as well as the death of the owner of the house, at least in the past.

Hunting trips, today undertaken with firearms, focus primarily on the spider monkey (Ateles sp.?) and the wooly monkey (Lagothrix sp.), the only two species of primates considered edible. The collared peccary (Tayassu tajacu) is also frequent, while tapir (Tapirus terrestris) and white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari) are more rare. During the drier season it is fairly common for a hunter to return with a paca (Cuniculus paca). Among bird game, the piping guan (Pipile sp.) and curassow (Crax sp.) are frequently killed.

Individual fishing is done with hook and line, while collective fishing makes use of a cultivated fish poison, whose leaves are mashed with earth in holes, so that small balls of the mixture are formed: these are then dissolved in the water.

The drier part of the year running from May to September, subject to occasional ‘chills’ (spells of two or three days when the temperature falls dramatically), is the time when latex is extracted from the rubber trees. Each adult man has a hut to smoke the rubber and his own ‘roads’ (paths that link the rubber trees, leaving from the hut and eventually returning to it). The rainy season is the period for extracting timber. Sale of these two forest products is negotiated with the river merchants, the regatões, who frequent the Marubo malocas on and off, depending on the rigour with which Funai prohibits their access. The missionaries also run a storehouse in Vida Nova, though they buy neither rubber nor timber. Although they sell their goods at cost price, they only do so for cash, which the Marubo only can only acquire by working for the missionaries themselves. However, they have little work to offer. As a result, the Marubo have to resort to the river merchants or travel to the towns.

The cosmos

The Marubo describe the Universe and how it was formed through their mythology. In general, beings are always made from parts of other beings, starting with the terrestrial surface, which is composed of soft parts of the bodies of dead animals and enriched by their bones. The water of the rivers and the fish within them are also made from other beings, as well as the forest plants. Cultivated plants emerged in the same way according to one of the three different myths telling of their origin. The Universe is composed of various layers, the upper ones called skies and the lower ones called earths. Human beings live on the earth lying above the other ones, that of the Mist.

Humans have various souls which can be summarized, however, as two kinds: the soul of the right or heart and the soul of the left. After death, the latter wanders on this layer of the cosmos, but the other is sent to the Path of the Mist (Vei Vai), which leads it through many trials and dangers – to which it cannot succumb lest it remain there forever – until it finally arrives at the place where the souls of the members of its section live. There its skin is changed by Roka (saki monkey), and it begins a well-fed, healthy and happy life. The term designating the sky where this change takes place is the same term used for the relative to whom a name is given: shokó.

The Marubo emerged from the ground, each section from a different hole, stimulated by some event that was happening on the surface: falling leaves, feathers, drops of sap. This occurred on the shores of the mythological estuary where all the water from the known rivers eventually drain. From there they journeyed inland along the river until they reached the region where they live today. Along this route they acquired their culture: which peachpalm is edible, which tree frog secretion is most appropriate for eliminating laziness and bad luck, how to have sexual relations, the incest prohibition, kinship terms, the adult way of crying, cultivated plants, the curing chants, and personal names. In the beginning the living could come and go via a path called Yové Vai to the Shoko Nai. However, a woman mistreated by her husband managed to close this path and the opening to the Vei Vai with the help of spirits. This ended up separating for once and all the common humans from the yové spirits.


House-owners who gain prestige for their moderate and peaceful way of acting, sponsor festivals, cultivate peace and become sought out as advisors merit the title kakáya.

Perhaps the least formal and more frequent rites are the meals and drinking festivals to which a maloca invites its neighbours when there is abundant animal meat and sufficient manioc, maize or peachpalm available. More elaborate and rare is the Tanaméa festival, in which the host maloca clears the paths leading to the invited malocas, and opens a number of clearings to receive the guests with drink as they arrive. Their entry into the host maloca is aggressive, excavating the outside patio and destroying the thatch of the walls. In compensation, the maloca residents may remove the decorations worn by the arriving guests.

The maize harvest festival is held annually in each maloca: most of the rite is taken up by the application of nettles or tocandira ant stings to men and jesting which imitates the different phases of venatorial activity so as to promote the successful outcome of the collective hunt.

The transportation of a new log drum from the forest where it was made to the interior of the maloca also comprises a ritual event. The heavy instrument is bound to the middle of a large trunk, whose ends are placed on the men’s shoulders. The carriers, using sticks as supports, in addition to having to walk on the slippery paths turned to mud by the rain, have to put up with tickling from those women who classify them as husbands.

In terms of a person’s life cycle, the most visible rite is the funeral. In the past this involved cremation, pulverization of the bones and their ingestion by kin in the form of a paste, followed by the parade of parts of the deceased’s body so as to help his or her ‘heart soul’ find the post-mortem path of trials. Nowadays, the corpse is wrapped in the person’s hammock and carried by the people who had the most distant relationship to the deceased to the cemetery, located far away from the village, where it is deposited in a grave. A small hut is constructed above it.


However, the most frequently performed rites are found in the area of magic and appear in two forms: the curing chants and the shamanic sessions. Any mature man feels obliged to sing the chants, sat with others on small benches surrounding the hammock of a sick person, when the latter is close kin. But there also exist recognized specialists in these chants, the kenchintxô or ‘curers.’ Their chants last at least forty-five minutes, repeated or substituted by others at intervals for the number of times demanded by the seriousness of the affliction. Before singing for the first time and during the intervals the curers drink ayahuasca and ingest snuff.

The practice follows a regular sequence: an introduction narrating how the spirit of the sickness was formed, made up from parts of different beings; a narrative on how the sickness entered into the patient; the invocation of beings and qualities that enter the patient’s body to combat the sickness, foremost among them being the female spirit Shoma; and the recovery of the sick person. Another method for singing curing chants is over a porridge pot whose contents are later consumed by those desiring the positive effects. It is also possible to sing malefic chants over a pot: the content is then secretly applied to the person intended as victim of the sorcery.

Shamanic sessions are also frequent, but only in the malocas where one of the few Marubo shamans live (in the 1980s there were no more than three), called romeyá or ‘pajés.’ When a session is planned, the shaman begins to ingest snuff and ayahuasca from early evening along with the men who act as his assistants, all of them sat on long benches at the entry to the maloca. Towards midnight, the shaman, now in a hammock slung next to the door, receives the first spirit; he then receives other spirits in succession until just before dawn, when he terminates the activity. Each spirit received by the shaman uses his body in order to speak, converse and dance.

As this takes place, the shaman’s soul visits the maloca where the spirit lives, after journeying along one of the various cosmic pathways. The aim of shamanic sessions is not merely to cure sick people or find lost objects, as some spirits undertake to do. It is an act of communion with benevolent beings, the yové, from other layers of the cosmos, who gratify, support, teach and even entertain the men accompanying the shaman, as well as the women and children who listen from their hammocks.

Note on the sources

Ethnographic documentation of the Marubo began with Delvair Montagner and Julio Cezar Melatti, who undertook various periods of fieldwork in the 1970s and 1980s. The Marubo classification of sicknesses and remedies and their curing rites were studied in Montagner’s doctoral thesis for the University of Brasília and later summarized in the book A Morada das Almas, published by the Goeldi Museum. The articles published by this researcher also deal with Marubo adornments, pottery and cuisine. Melatti’s articles tackle questions relating to kinship, mythology and interethnic contact. He also wrote the chapter on the Marubo in the volume Javari, published by CEDI, an entity that today has been incorporated into the Instituto Socioambiental. The two researchers have written articles together concerning the construction and symbolism of the house and childcare.

A personal report by Terri Valle de Aquino and another, approved by the Funai presidency, by Walter Coutinho Jr., relating to the identification and delimitation of the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory, include substantial data on the problems faced by the Marubo in terms of land, health, education, commerce and demography.

More recently Delvair Montagner has been involved in the production of videos. He acted as advisor to the film Marubo, by Nilson Araújo, which gives a general idea of this people’s way of life, and directed Meninos Nus, about the indigenous children, and Passado Presente, with testimonies from three women captured by the Matsés, including a Marubo woman.

Two new research projects on the Marubo are in progress: one, on internal political relations, by Javier Ruedas, a doctoral student at the North American University of Tulane; the other, on music, by Guilherme Werlang Couto, a doctoral student at the Scottish University of Saint Andrews.

The Pastor John Jansma has dedicated himself to learning the Marubo language since the 1960s, with the aim of translating biblical texts, preaching the gospel and producing school text books. Research of a more academic nature is being developed by Raquel Costa for her doctoral thesis on the Marubo language.

Sources of information

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  • RICCIARDI, Mirella. Vanishing Amazon. Londres : Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991. 240 p.


  • Marubo : uma tribo na Amazônia. Dir.: Nilson Araújo. Vídeo Cor, Betacam, 27 min., 1991. Prod.: CPCE


  • Meninos nus. Dir.: Delvair Montagner. Vídeo Cor, Betacam/Betacam SP, 9 min., 1995. Prod.: CPCE


  • Pau-Brasil. Dir.: André Luís. Vídeo Cor, HI-8 e U-Matic, 5 min., 1992. Prod.: CPCE


  • Pintura corporal : uma pele social. Dir.: Delvair Montagner. Vídeo Cor, HI-8/Betacam SP, 20 min., 1994. Prod.: CPCE


  • Yoranawa : gente de verdade. Dir.: André Luís. Vídeo Cor, HI-8 e Betacam SP, 17 min., 1993. Prod.: CPCE; Cosai; Ministério da Saúde