Foto: Beto Ricardo, 2002


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From the first expedition to the creation of the Park


The Indians who inhabit the Park have a history of contact with the non-indigenous society which is peculiar in comparison with most of the other Indians in Brazil, since they had an ethnologist as their principal mediator of contact (Karl von den Steinen), instead of slave-hunting expeditions, ranchers, goldpanners or missionaries. Moreover, they weren’t assisted directly by the SPI (Indian Protection Service), but by the Central Brazil Foundation, represented by the Villas Bôas brothers. And, in the case of the Upper Xingu, long before contact, they developed an interethnic complex of rituals and specialized trade, creating strong links amongst themselves which made it difficult for the cultural universe of the Whites to penetrate.

The two expeditions of the German ethnologist Karl von den Steinen, in 1884 and 1887, made the whites aware of the existence of the indigenous peoples of this region. Starting from Cuiabá and crossing the Paranatinga river, in the Xingu-Tapajós watershed, the team reached the Bakairi of Paranatinga and made brief contact with the Suyá in the first voyage. In the second, the team went up the Kurisevo and stayed awhile among the peoples of the Upper Xingu.

After Von den Steinen, several explorers made visits to the region such as Hermann Meyer (who published several written works about his trip in 1897, 1898, 1900), Hintermann (1925), Petrillo (1932) and Max Schmidt (1942). These expeditions stimulated the Indians’ desire for metal tools (such as knives, scissors, axes) as well as spread contagious diseases among the Xingu peoples.

In general, the peoples who inhabited the region more to the south of the present-day Park have not moved from their location very much since the time of Von den Steinen, with the exception of the Bakairi and the Trumai, not to mention those groups who became extinct  since then: the Kustenau, Naravute, Tsuva and Aipatsé. The Bakairi served as guides for the first ethnographic expeditions, and for that reason they are  held responsible by the upper Xingu peoples for the introduction of diseases and are accused of witchcraft. Besides that, the Bakairi, who lived in at least eight villages in the Xingu basin, began looking for metal tools among members of their people living outside the basin, such as those who lived to the southeast (on the Paranatinga River). They progressively began settling with them, also being stimulated to do so by the SPI with the creation of a post in 1920, such that by 1923 they had withdrawn totally from the area of the feeder rivers of the Xingu (Cf. Barros, 2001).

The Trumai, occupied the territory between the feeder rivers of the Xingu and the region on the banks of this river, which left them vulnerable to repeated attacks by groups who inhabited these áreas, such as the Suyá and the Ikpeng. The ethnographer Karl Von den Steinen found them already quite weakened in 1884. After occupying several different locations, during an agitated history, today they have four villages located midway between the Leonardo Villas-Bôas and Diauarum posts.


The area to the north of the Park, in turn, fell within the radius of action of the Suyá, who had their villages on the Suiá-missu River, right bank tributary of the Xingu. The Yudjá, coming from the north also began to settle on it (Von den Steinen, in his descent of the Xingu in 1884, found them in Pará, on the stretch between the von Martius and the Piranhaquara Rapids). It is probable that the Yudjá had been moving for more than two centuries from the banks of the Amazon, from which they withdrew due to the pressures and persecutions of the colonizers at the end of the XIXth Century.

In the first half of the XXth Century, the peoples of the Xingu continued to be reached only by land, from the south. It was also in the south that the Indians went to look for iron instruments, at the post set up on the Paranatinga. Research expeditions were scarce, but it was from this period that the first study of a specific people from the Uppper Xingu, the Trumai, was done. They were visited by the ethnographer Buell Quain in 1938, although he never finished his research; after his death, his data were analyzed and published by Robert Murphy.

In this period, the Suyá suffered setbacks which drastically reduced their population. The Yudjá, sometimes allies, sometimes adversaries, armed by a rubber-boss, attacked a Suyá village sometime after 1915. Awhile later, during a pequi gathering expedition in the place where the Diauarum Post is located today, the Suyá suffered an attack by the Menkrãgnoti, from which only a few men escaped, who remained practically without any women. In their search for marriage partners, the Suyá then attacked the Wauja, but they suffered retaliation from these people, who organized an expedition against them, with the help of the Mehinako, Trumai and Kamaiurá.


In 1946, the FBC (Central Brazil Foundation), product of the “March to the West” promoted by the regime of the New State, began to establish itself in the region, thus initiating the era of the Villas Bôas brothers. For Cláudio, Leonardo and Orlando Villas Bôas, the peoples of the Xingu represented "Indians of pure culture”[i.e., unacculturated], who should be preserved from the economic expansion fronts that were already becoming evident in the region. In this sense, they began, with the support of Marechal Rondon, the medical doctor Noel Nutels, and the anthropologist  Darcy Ribeiro, among others, but with strong opposition from the government and the ranchers of Mato Grosso, a campaign for the demarcation of the local indigenous lands.

In this period, a Brazilian Air Force base was built in Jacaré, on the Kuluene River, between the mouth of the Kurisevo and the Batovi. The first airstrips were opened in the area of the feeder rivers of the Xingu and researchers, employees of the FBC, medical doctors, filmmakers, and other agents of contact  started to come into the area by planes of the National Airmail Service. The access route by land, which passed through the Post of Paranatinga, lost its importance. Anthropologists of the National Museum, such as Eduardo Galvão and Pedro Lima, resumed ethnological research. Foreign ethnologists also came back to research in the area, such as Robert Carneiro and Gertrude Dole among the Kuikuro.

Ironically, despite the facilities that were being created, in 1954 there was an outbreak of measles that affected all the villages of the upper Xingu, causing the deaths of 114 people. Out of the approximately 3,000 people of the upper Xingu in the time of von den Steinen, the population dropped to one of its lowest points: 574 people. Despite efforts to improve the health situation, conditions continued to be precarious, such that the upper Xingu population reached its lowest level in 1965, when there were only 542 people (Cf. Heckenberger, 2001).

If the region had until then been occupied by Indians who migrated, not exactly in a spontaneous way, but rather forced by the adverse circumstances in their regions of origin, now they were sought out in the neighboring areas and transferred to the Park, if they were thought to represent an obstacle to the opening of roads and to colonization. This was what happened with the Kaiabi, Ikpeng, Panará and Tapayuna, all of whom were settled in the northern part of the Park.

The Kaiabi lived in the region bathed by the upper courses of the feeder rivers of the Tapajós: the Juruena and the Teles Pires. On the Juruena, they were on the Upper Arinos and its tributary, the river of Fish; on the Teles Pires, they were on the upper course of this river and on its tributary, the Green River. Heavily pressured by different expansion fronts since the last decades of the XIXth Century, such as rubber extraction, goldpanning and agricultural colonists, they became strangers on their own lands and their population decreased. Having entered into contact with the employees of the FBC, which advanced in the direction of their territory by way of the Manitsauá-missu River and which provided them with good health care, part of the Kaiabi accepted the invitation to be transferred to the Park. Their transferal took place on several occasions in 1955, 1966 and 1970, and their agricultural production began supplying the Diauarum and Leonardo posts. The Catholic missionaries of Diamantino, however, were against the migration of the Kaiabi to the Xingu. Thus, a part of the group stayed on their original lands, which made the recognition of a Kaiabi Indigenous Land possible.

The Ikpeng (also known as Txikão) are presumed to have belonged to a larger ethnic group which included the Arara Indians. Taking a southerly direction, they would have emerged on the Iriri River, tributary of the Lower Xingu in the first half of the XIXth Century. They later lived in the Teles Pires basin, near the Kaiabi, Panará and Apiaká. At the end of the XIXth Century, they reached the Batovi River, attacking the Wauja, Nahukwá and Mehinako. They also reached the Paranatinga and Novo rivers, staying near the Bakairi.

In 1960, the Wauja and their allies attacked the Ikpeng with firearms and killed twelve men. Besides that, half the Ikpeng population died in a flu epidemic. The survivors fled to the upper Jatobá River, tributary of the Ronuro, where the Villas Bôas brothers found them in 1964. Confronted by the penetration of goldpanners in this territory, they accepted being transferred to the Park in 1967. Taken to the Leonardo Post, they married with the Wauja, Kamayurá and Mehinako. In 1979,  they built their own village in the central part of the Park, between the Trumai and the Kaiabi.

Two other peoples, the Tapaiuna and Panará (both of the Jê language family), were also brought by backwoodsmen to the interior of the Park, but, after a few years, they decided to leave. The Panará recovered part of their traditional territory, ratified as the Paraná Indigenous Land, and the Tapayuna moved in 1987 to the Metyktire and Kremoro villages, of the Metyktire people, on the Capoto/Jarina Indigenous Land, where they stayed.

Since the creation of the Park in 1961, Orlando Villas Bôas was director for 17 years, establishing a program of medical assistance for the Indians through an accord with the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp), which exists up to the present day. He also took a series of measures which sought to prevent by all means contact between the inhabitants of the Xingu Park and the outside world, a controversial policy which led to accusations from various sectors that he was being excessively paternalistic, especially with the transferal of the Kayabi, Ikpeng, Tapayuna and Panará peoples to the Park, as though this represented the only option for their future.

The establishment of the indigenous post as a mediator of the relations among the villages had complex repercussions, as it imposed a fixed centre on a decentralized system. It discouraged hostilities between the peoples of the Upper Xingu and the ethnic groups to the north of the Park, becoming a political reference point. But it also interfered in the internal power structure of the villages, by promoting a new social category: a person who mediated between the group and the post (and the Whites in general, since the post also assumed the position of a center for “redistribution” of visitors). Those who came to occupy this role did not necessarily coincide with the leaders of the villages. There was thus a tendency to duplicate positions of control and mediation, and the village/post mediators received more support from the administration of the Park, for they had a greater command of the Portuguese language and greater facility at adapting to new conditions, among other factors (Cf. Castro, 1977).

In any case, the administration of the FBC made it possible to provide a different kind of assistance than that provided to other indigenous peoples in Brazil, guided by a strong personal component and supported by the prestige that it had earned from the national society, in being able to maintain the Park relatively isolated from the influences that customarily and bruskly alter indigenous cultures and from the invasions that put them in a situation of dependency. It thus promoted a posture of greater respect from the rest of the society towards the Indians of the Xingu, in contrast with what has occurred in other parts of the country and the world.