ETHNONYMS: Emereñon, Emerilon, Emerion, Mereo, Mereyo, Teco
The 100 or so remaining Emerillon live in settlements in French Guiana on the Camopi, a tributary of the Oiapoque River, and on the Tampok, a tributary of the Maroni (near Brazil and Suriname respectively), and speak a language belonging to the Tupí-Guaraní Family.
The first records of contact between the Emerillon and Europeans appear in the early eighteenth century, when the Emerillon were in approximately the same region that they now inhabit. It is not known where they may have lived before migrating to French Guiana. In 1767 they were reported to have a population of 350 to 400 and to live in villages on the left bank of the Maroni. They were harassed by Galibí Indians who captured women and children to sell as slaves in Suriname.
Early observers wrote that the Emerillon were more nomadic than other Indians of the area: primarily hunters, the Emerillon grew only enough manioc to supply their bare needs. Because they did not grow cotton, they made their crude hammocks of bark. They manufactured manioc graters for trade, however. In the nineteenth century they were weakened by warfare to the point of serving the Oyampik, their former enemies, as slaves. By the late nineteenth century the Emerillon had developed a close relationship with Creole gold prospectors, epidemic diseases had diminished their numbers, and they had become considerably acculturated, speaking creole and wearing Western clothing. They had guns, which they had acquired from the prospectors in trade for flour made from the manioc they grew in their gardens.
Almost 100 years later, the 60 or so surviving Emerillon were described as being in a very poor state of health. Several adults suffered from a kind of paralysis, and infant mortality was high. Their greatest problems came from cheap rum, with which the prospectors supplied them in exchange for manioc flour. The Emerillon were apathetic, and even their houses were carelessly built. Having lost much of their own culture, the Emerillon had failed to assimilate a new one, although they spoke creole fluently and were familiar with creole customs. By the late 1960s, the prospectors had left and the Emerillon were receiving some health care from the clinic at the French Indian post. Trade had declined, but through the post the Indians exchanged manioc flour and handicrafts for Western goods.
Because of the decline in numbers, the Emerillon were unable to maintain their ideal of proper marriage, preferentially with a cross cousin. Although they continued to reject marriage outside the tribe in principle, a number of children were the offspring of intertribal unions. Several families were also raising children whose fathers were Creoles. The Emerillon accept a wide age difference between spouses; not only may an old man marry a young girl, but some young men also marry elderly women. Polygyny is still common; one community of 19 people consisted of a man, his two wives, their children, and the man's son with his wife and her half-Creole daughter. The couvade is still observed: a man abstains from any kind of heavy work for eight days after the birth of his child.
Little is known about Emerillon cosmology, although they have shamans. Their leaders, one of whom receives a salary from the French government, have little prestige.
Houses of the early historical period were of the beehive type, and more recently other styles have been built. Present-day Emerillion houses are rectangular, open on three sides, with a sloping palm-leaf roof and a floor raised 1 or 2 meters above the ground. The house is entered by means of a ladder cut from a tree trunk. Furniture consists of benches, hammocks, and store-bought mosquito nets.
Basketry includes the manufacture of tipitis (manioc presses), sieves, fans, mats of various sizes, and large carrying baskets. Dugout canoes are made from one large tree trunk hollowed out by fire. Bows are up to 2 meters long and made according to a style common to many groups of the Guianas. Arrows are as long as the bows, and nowadays usually have a steel point. The Emerillon no longer use the blowgun and do not make pottery.
Subsistence is based on horticulture, hunting, and fishing, whereas collecting is a minor activity. Bitter manioc is the staple; the Emerillon also plant maize (red, yellow, and white), sweet manioc, sweet potatoes, yams, sugarcane, bananas, tobacco, urucú (a red dye derived from Bixa orellana and used for body paint), and cotton. Among the groups around the French Indian post at Camopi, each family clears a field of 0.5 to 1 hectare. Clearing and harvesting are done by collective work parties: men cooperate in clearing fields, and women in the harvest. The Emerillion include the Oyampik, who also have villages at the post, in these work parties.
Men fish primarily with bows and arrows but sometimes with hooks and lines or poison. Formerly, the Emerillon used an aboriginal gorget form of hook, traps, nets, and spears. Transport is by dugout and bark canoes.
The principal hunting weapon today is the rifle. The Emerillon traditionally used bows and arrows, as well as spears, harpoons, and traps. With the assistance of trained dogs, the Emerillon hunted agoutis, armadillos, anteaters (killed for their hides rather than for their flesh), peccaries, deer, manatees, monkeys, otters, sloths, tapir, and capybaras. The Emerillon traditionally kept dogs and now breed them especially for trade, exchanging them with the Wayana for beads.
The Emerillon also gathered wild fruits, honey, insects, reptiles, hog plums, palm cabbages, guavas, mushrooms, Brazil nuts, and sweet tree beans.
Even when their population was larger, the Emerillon lived in small villages, usually of 30 to 40 people, and only rarely as many as 200. Villages were moved frequently, owing to a number of factors: soil exhaustion, warfare, necessities of trade, and several customary reasons to abandon the village (such as the death of an inhabitant). Villages were located at a distance from rivers for protection from raids. Politically independent, a village was under the leadership of a headman and, rarely, a council. Intertribal warfare was fairly common. Warriors were armed with bows and arrows (which were occasionally poisoned), spears, shields, and clubs, but almost never with blowguns. The Emerillon went to war to exact revenge for past attacks and to acquire captives and slaves; captive men often wed their captors' daughters. The Emerillon practiced cannibalism as a means of revenge.
Puberty rituals signaled impending marriage. Boys were subjected to work ordeals, and girls were secluded and required to observe food taboos.
The dead, wrapped in their hammocks and also placed in wooden coffins, are buried with their personal possessions.
Arnaud, Expedito (1971). "Os indios oyampik e emerilon (Rio Oiapoque). Referencias sôbre o passado e o presente." Boletim do Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi, n.s., Antropologia, no. 47.
Coudreau, Henry Anatole (1893). Chez nos indiens: Quatre années dans la Guyane Française (1887-1891). Paris.
Hurault, Jean (1963). "Les indiens emerillon de la Guyane Française." Journal de la Société des Américanistes 2:133-156.
Métraux, Alfred (1928). La civilisation matérielle des tribus tupí-guaraní. Paris: Paul Geutner.
Renault-Lescure, Odile, Françoise Grenand, and Eric Navet (1987). Contes amérindiens de Guyane. Paris: Conseil International de la Langue Française.
NANCY M. FLOWERS