Mehinaku - Orientation

Identification. The Mehinaku village is located approximately four-fifths of a kilometer east of the Rio Kulesau (one of the major tributaries of the Rio Xingu) in the Xingu National Park in central Brazil. The Mehinaku are similar in their technology and culture to tribes of the South American tropical forest, but they are located just beyond the southernmost extension of true rain forest in central Brazil.

Location. The appearance of the environment is heavily dependent on the season of the year. During the dry season (May to August) there is hardly any rain at all. The rivers retreat to narrow channels, which are typically bordered by a narrow band of permanent gallery forest. Beyond the forest is a hard, sun-baked floodplain extending as much as 1.5 kilometers or more to permanent dry forest, where the Indians of the Upper Xingu region make their villages. During the wet season (September to April) the rivers overflow their banks, cover the floodplain, and inundate portions of the forest. The villagers take advantage of the abundance of water by taking shortcuts in their canoes across the floodplain and through the forest.

Demography. As of the fall of 1989 there were approximately 135 Mehinaku, all but a few of whom were living in the village of Uyaipyuku (the Mehinaku name for the Jatoba tree). At the time of first recorded contact with Europeans in 1887, the Mehinaku lived in three separate villages with a population that probably exceeded today's by two or three times. At that time, they were virtually free from epidemic disease. During the following years, waves of illness—including flu, whooping cough, and most devastating of all, measles—swept through the Xingu villages. In one measles epidemic that occurred a few years prior to 1967, at least 15 individuals died. By the early 1960s the Mehinaku population was reduced to approximately 75 persons. Since that time, however, there has been a rapid recovery owing to relatively excellent medical services, vaccination against measles, and, perhaps, newly acquired resistance to outside illnesses.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Mehinaku language is a member of the Arawakan Language Family and is closely linked to the language of two other tribes in the Xingu National Park, the Waurá and Yawalapití. Speakers of Waurá and Mehinaku can understand each other, but their dialects of the Arawakan Family are understood by no other groups.

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