Jim Peterson, Anthropology Department, University of Vermont
As I briefly reported in the 2003 newsletter, I have intermittently visited the Upper Xingu region in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil, with Michael Heckenberger ’88 over the past 10 years or so, and I did so again this summer. The Upper Xingu lies astride the southeastern margin of the huge Amazon basin, with jungle arrayed along the rivers and coalescing to the north, and grasslands to the south and east. Much of the core area of the Upper Xingu is protected in an indigenous reserve, or “park,” and the relatively remote roadless reserve covers an area roughly the size of Vermont. There are over a dozen native cultures, each typically based in a single village, represented in the core of the Upper Xingu. However, most of the surrounding areas are rapidly being deforested, as elsewhere in the Amazon. Whether you drive to the borders of the reserve to begin a long boat ride into it, or if you fly in from a nearby boomtown, it’s depressing to see massive heaps of cut logs and recently cleared fields smoldering all around. Not only the forest is threatened – the indigenous people are likewise under threat from outside forces. These people have been living there continuously for over 1000 years, as established by recent archaeological research.
Mike Heckenberger’s current archaeological and ethnoarchaeological work there has been funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) on the strength of his dissertation research there 10 years ago and a more recent NSF grant. Mike recently co-authored a summary article on his recent discoveries and GIS mapping of extensive pre-Columbian earthworks in the journal Science (September 2003), along with two indigenous chiefs of the Kuikuru Indians, a few Brazilian anthropologists, and several of Mike’s current students at the University of Florida. This article brought Heckenberger and his colleagues acclaim here in the US, but it was an even bigger event in Brazil, where it was news on national TV broadcasts. Kuikuru support and participation in the archaeology were emphasized in these reports. Hence, the Kuikuru were greatly excited to have Mike and other anthropologists back for another research stint this year.
In June and July 2004, locally the “winter” dry season (since it is south of the equator), I went back to stay with Mike and the Kuikuru in the village of Ipatse. About 350 Kuikuru live at Ipatse, which is a large circular village with a central plaza. I was there to help Mike set up another two-year project studying various pre-Columbian sites in close proximity to the contemporary Kuikuru, or at least within walking distance. It was quite a sight to see daily parades of 40 to 50 Kuikuru and three archaeologists leaving the village on bicycles early each morning to work on one of the largest pre-Columbian sites a few kilometers away from the present village. It was often still chilly as we left the village, but once the sun rose substantially (in an hour or two) we were dripping with sweat.
For me perhaps more exciting than the archaeology was the opportunity to witness a javarí spearthrower festival held during the time of my stay with the Kuikuru. This was the first javarí held by the Kuikuru in about six years, and they had invited two other Native villages of the Kalapalo and the Matipu peoples (both Carib speakers, like the Kuikuru). This festival is, in effect, ritualized warfare, and it is part of a complex series of over a dozen festivals. The javarí takes more than a year to arrange. After the initial invitations, for which the hosts travel to invited villages, the host village builds up a store of food and goods for trading. In this case, the Kuikuru Chief, Afukaka, was the “owner,” or sponsor, of the festival and so all stops were pulled for a special event.
We witnessed the last week of the preparation and the javarí itself. About 150 people from the Kalapalo and Matipu villages came to the main Kuikuru village at Ipatse. About another 50 visitors from the two other Kuikuru settlements came as well. Most visitors were only in Ipatse for a single night, but some stayed as long as a week. In reality, most of the visitors did not stay in the village itself, but were instead assigned bivouac spots outside of the village, where their hosts provided them with firewood, food, and other gifts. Visiting, trading, sexual liaisons and the like were all intertwined.
I can’t go into all the details here, nor could an outsider understand all of them anyway, but the bottom line is that the javarí functions as Durkheimian mechanism of solidarity in the Xingu area. Sporting competitions with atlatl and spears, verbal heckling and abuse, and other forms of social interaction are involved, but the most dramatic preparations involved the daily dances of the idiosyncratically painted and adorned men for an hour or two late each afternoon for about the week prior to the festival. Related prayer sessions also followed after dark to protect the participants in the coming contests.
Led by two older men singing ceremonial songs, the late afternoon dancing involved as many as 80 to 90 men and boys in one long line. As the preparations progressed, the dancers’ decorations became more elaborate by the day. Each time, they danced back and forth in front of the ceremonial men’s house in the center of the village plaza, with bells and nutshell anklets rhythmically marking the beat. Then they danced to the sponsor’s house and crowded inside. The Kuikuru chiefs and other elders, and the few non-Native visitors, would watch from the shade of the central men’s house. Women and children watched from shady spots in the outer ring of houses.
The daily line dancing was followed by an assembly of the participants in the center of the village plaza. The crowd formed a half circle around a “straw man” about 1.5 meters tall (made of bound sticks and grass, with an aluminum kettle for a head) on the shaded side of the men’s house. The men who planned to take part in the competition danced out of the group for a minute or two to attack the straw man while rhythmically hopping and stomping. Each attacker insulted the straw man as he danced up to it, and they often launched a spear at it. Each insult-filled assault brought a resounding cheer from the whole group. Once everyone had attacked and insulted the straw man, the group gave one last, long cheer and broke up. They walked back to their houses, dripping wet from the heat.
They followed the same script when the Kalapalo and Matipu guests came for the festival. They arrived late in the afternoon and were formally received by the Kuikuru leaders and led to their camp spots. After dark, the Kuikuru reassembled and danced in the center of the plaza, while the visitors gathered opposite the men’s house. Then, first the Kuikuru attacked the straw man (and shouted insults about the Matipu and Kalapalo at it) while the visitors watched and listened in the dark. Then the Matipu took their turn, and then the Kalapalo had their turn attacking and insulting. The visitors marched back to their campsites, and we heard them singing late into the night.
Shortly after sunrise on the second day of the festival, the Kuikuru men reassembled for the initial line dance as their own families and the visitors trickled into the plaza. Once all had assembled, the ethnic insults and attacks on the straw man of the night before were repeated, but this time in full regalia. This time the insults were more elaborate, barbed, and sometimes targeted the visiting anthropologists. The attacks on the straw man were more violent, and axes, clubs, and a few shotguns were used along with the more typical spears. Once these formalities were complete, the Kuikuru and Matipu each called out their eight pre-selected champions.
The two groups of champions lined up about 20 meters apart, and then drew together to a distance of five meters. As each pair of champions faced off, the other champions formed an oval around them. The first Kuikuru champion prepared his atlatl as his Matipu opponent held upright two shoulder-high sticks. The Matipu could only move his upper body and the sticks. The Kuikuru champion launched his spear and missed, then stood behind his two sticks as his opponent returned fire. Sets of champions came forward and repeated the volleys until everyone had thrown their spears.
When a champion from the home village finally hit a Matipu with a spear, a great cheer went up and the Kuikuru marched around the other competitors chanting. The competition resumed for about an hour, and then the Kuikuru faced off against the Kalapalo. The Kuikuru side hit six or seven of their 35 to 40 Kalapalo opponents, and they claimed overall victory. The javarí ended with the ceremonial distribution of manioc bread and fish paste to the visitors. Soon many of the visitors began their four to six hour journeys back to their home villages. No one is supposed to get seriously hurt in the javarí, but even observers risk injury; one University of Florida graduate student stood too close to a champion who leaned out of a spear’s path. The student was hit on the foot and limped for several days. As many of you will recall from Anth 24, a spearthrower vastly magnifies the force of a projectile.
The functional significance of the javarí was not overtly discussed by the participants, but it sure looks like a substitute for war. When asked why they take part, several Kuikuru said that it was because they (and other Xinguanos) have always done so. Others said the javarí was an innovative regional response to the arrival of the Trumai people in the area. The event also formed an important aspect of socialization into male gender roles. The Kuikuru children played with toy spears for several weeks after the javarí, shouting insults at each other, and stomping about like they had seen the adults do. They even shared the same cheer they had heard the adults make after one of them had assaulted and insulted their opponent particularly well. Given the economic, social, and political aspects of javarí, it is likely that this will not be the last javarí in the Upper Xingu. In fact, a Kalapalo village is now organizing one for 2005.