Tropical forests cover thirteen percent of the earth’s surface, despite being home to over half of the world’s species; they are characteristically teeming with life and are one of the last bastions of the preindustrial world. Close to two thirds of these tropical forests can be found in the Amazon Basin – a vast region which is, to many modern minds, the antithesis of the interconnected world of today. Within the endless tracts of jungle, dotted along the hundreds of thousands of miles of waterways, exist numerous indigenous cultures that have evaded the homogenizing impact of modernity and maintain practices and customs which predate European arrival. One such culture is the Yawalapiti of the Xingu River region in Matto Grosso, Brazil.
Here are the 10 things you need to learn about the Yawalapiti tribe:
- The first recorded contact between Europeans and the Yawalapiti was in 1887, when a German anthropological expedition encountered them. Prior contact may well have occurred, however, through trade or warfare.
- Like many indigenous cultures, European contact had disastrous consequences for the Yawalapiti: imported diseases, increased logging and forced movement all took their toll. The population fell to a low of 25 in 1954, but the establishment of the Xingu Indigenous Park in 1961 and a developed immunity to disease ensured a recovery.
- Archeologists have suggested that the Yawalapiti may be descended from inhabitants of Kuhikugu, an abandoned city which was home to tens of thousands of people and a complex system of governance. The city was established around 200AD, but fell shortly after Europeans arrived.
- The Yawalapiti speak both Portuguese and Yawalapiti, a pre-Colombian language which shares many elements with those of surrounding indigenous cultures, with whom they maintain trade relations.
- Yawalapiti villages consist of distinctive communal wood-framed houses which are covered in palm fronds and resemble very large, rounded loaves of bread. These are arranged around a central plaza, in the middle of which is a men’s house.
- The men’s house is where Yawalapiti ceremonial flutes are stored and is the exclusive preserve of males. The flutes are long and intricately carved, and are likewise for men alone – being played outside only after the women have retired for the night.
- Labor is organized by sex amongst the Yawalapiti: men fish; plant manioc and carve wood whilst women care for and harvest manioc; cook and work with textiles. The textile work involves the weaving of Yawalapiti hammocks, identifiable by their unique designs and bold dyes.
- Hammocks are usually woven from the cured flax of buriche palms, which provides a durable yarn, although those of chiefs and other important figures are woven from supple cotton. The latter are highly prized hammocks and coveted status symbols. Dyes are produced from local plants using traditional processes.
- Whilst Yawalapiti life mainly focuses on the village, there are larger gatherings for Quarups – funerary ceremonies for important figures. These events are held in the deceased’s village and involve dancing, the playing of ceremonial flutes and wrestling. Participants are adorned with intricate body paints and the ceremonies culminate with the placing of a carved and painted totem log, signifying the deceased, in the village plaza.
- Yawalapiti today are not only standard bearers of their culture and language, but also guardians of the environment in which they live. The practice of traditional crafts such as hammock making are inextricably interwoven with the maintenance of the woodlands from whence the materials come. In the face of encroaching deforestation, pollution and consumerist culture, support for the Yawalapiti means support for the maintenance of indigenous diversity and cultural continuance.