The approximately 200 Tapirapé live in a single village at the mouth of the Tapirapé and Araguaia rivers in north-eastern Mato Grosso, Brazil. They speak a language that belongs to the Tupí-Guaraní Family. The Tapirapé share a reservation of 661.7 square kilometers with a group of Karajá, riverine Indians who speak an unrelated language.

The remote ancestors of the Tapirapé were probably the Tupinambá, who lived in the coastal region of Brazil at the time of European discovery. The Tapirapé, like the other small Tupí-speaking groups in central Brazil, probably migrated from the coast sometime after 1500. The coastal Tupí were practically wiped out during the first 100 years of Portuguese colonial rule. Although many aspects of Tapirapé culture indicate that they are closely related to the Tupinambá, the Tapirapé have also acquired a number of traits from their neighbors, the Gê-speaking Kayapó and the Karajá.

Around 1900, when the Tapirapé were still isolated, their population consisted of 1,500 to 2,000 individuals living in five villages on the Rio Tapirapé and neighboring tributaries of the Araguaia. Contact was sporadic until the 1940s, yet epidemic diseases to which they had no resistance, such as malaria, influenza, and even the common cold, rapidly reduced their numbers. In 1940 only 200 Tapirapé remained, living in one village. By 1947 there were only 100. In that year the Kayapó attacked their village, and the surviving Tapirapé scattered. Most of them reassembled and founded a new village at the mouth of the Tapirapé, but one small band, believing they were the only survivors of the Kayapó attack, wandered for twenty-five years in the forest until they were discovered by chance and reunited with their relatives. Since the 1960s, the Tapirapé population has gradually been recovering.

The Tapirapé are primarily a tropical-forest horticultural people who also exploit resources of the savanna and the river. In their habitat, wet and dry seasons are pronounced, with most of the rainfall between November and April. During the dry season, family groups would camp on the savanna while hunting, fishing, and collecting wild nuts and fruits. As horticulturists, they grow an extensive repertoire of crops, of which the most important is manioc, both sweet and bitter (twelve varieties). Among the others are maize, brown and lima beans, a variety of sweet squash, bananas (seven varieties), sweet potatoes, yams, peanuts, and cotton. Dry rice has become an appreciated crop. The Tapirapé clear their fields from June through September, either in groups or individually; planting areas, however, are always individually owned. Gardens are planted for two years and then abandoned; in the second year, only manioc is grown. Every five to seven years, as garden land within easy walking distance from the village was used up, the Tapirapé would move their village and not return to the same site for about twenty years, giving the forest time to grow again. On their reservation, they no longer have the same freedom to move, and suitable garden land may be several hours' walk from the village; some families therefore camp in their fields at planting- and harvesttimes.

The rainy season is best for hunting, when high water drives game onto islands of high ground in the savanna and in the forest. Men hunt individually or in groups, but group hunts are more productive. Until recently, the hunting weapon was the bow and arrow, although men would run down game animals, especially peccaries, and kill them with clubs. Game includes monkeys, armadillos, birds, and coatis in the forest and deer, peccaries, ducks, and geese in the savanna. Traditionally, certain game animals were tabooed food to different categories of people; in particular, parents of young children could not eat deer. These rules favored a wide distribution of meat, since a hunter who killed an animal tabooed to him and his wife gave it to those who were permitted to eat the meat.

Fish were available primarily in the dry season, when people were encamped on the savanna. The Tapirapé used fish traps and fish poison. Because their present village is on the river, fishing has become a more important food source. They have acquired canoes by trading with the Karajá, and some Tapirapé have become excellent canoers.

Severe depopulation brought a number of changes to Tapirapé social organization. Residence was formerly matrilocal, and the extended family in a longhouse consisted of related women of two or three generations and their husbands and children. The Tapirapé are monogamous, although marital infidelity is commonplace. This is socially recognized by a term equivalent to "co-father," by which a child may address men other than the mother's husband who acknowledge having intercourse with the mother during her pregnancy and are therefore considered to have a biological role in producing her child. Kin terminology, which apparently once reflected a preference for cross-cousin marriage, is now Hawaiian in Ego's generation, so all cousins are addressed by the same terms as siblings. Only a negative rule regulates marriage, forbidding it within certain degrees of genealogical relatedness. In a shrinking population, people tend to be related in many different ways, making it difficult to find a spouse. Some Tapirapé men have married into the neighboring Karajá group.

For some time after the birth of a child, both parents were subjected to taboos limiting their activities, including sexual intercourse, and the foods they might eat. Formerly, the Tapirapé limited their family size to no more than three children, and no more than two of the same sex; any further children born were killed at birth. They cared greatly for the children they already had and gave as the reason for infanticide that three was the maximum number of children for whom a couple could adequately provide food. Before contact, this policy probably kept the population in balance with available food resources, but once diseases had diminished the population, it contributed to its rapid decline. By the 1950s infanticide was abandoned, in part owing to the efforts of missionary nuns, and at present couples often have five or six children.

The Tapirapé divide the life cycle into a succession of age periods, which determine how an individual should behave and how he or she should be treated by others. When a boy became a young adolescent, his body ornaments were changed, and he began to wear a penis band, the only clothing worn by Tapirapé men until recent times. Boys of this age status were expected to live in the men's house for up to a year while they were trained in manual arts and techniques of escaping from an enemy attack. The coming-of-age ceremony that followed was a test of endurance: a boy was expected to dance with the other men for hours wearing an elaborate feather headdress, beads, and other ornaments weighing more than 9 kilograms. After this ceremony he was allowed to marry and began looking actively for a wife. Girls had no equivalent ceremony to mark the transition to womanhood, and by the time of their first menstruation, they were usually already married. When women were young wives, they were subjected to painful facial scarification, which in Tapirapé eyes added to their beauty.

The dead were wrapped in the hammocks in which they had died; they, along with their personal possessions, were buried in the floor of the house where they had lived. House burial is no longer the custom; there is a small cemetery just outside the village.

The Tapirapé have a nucleated settlement pattern. In former times, the longhouses, which had the form of elongated overturned bowls, were placed in a circle around the village plaza, with a large men's house in the center. Houses were made by lashing together with bark strips a framework of wooden poles, which was covered with palm fronds. This circular village arrangement is still maintained, and there is still a men's house, but the dwellings, which are much smaller, now house only one or two nuclear families and are often built of wattle and daub in the rural Brazilian fashion.

Before contact the five Tapirapé villages were independent communities linked by kinship ties. Intervillage marriages occurred, and families occasionally migrated from one village to another. The same nonkin associations were also found in each of the villages, helping to tie them into a sociocultural whole.

The men's house in each village was the center of activity for the six Bird Societies, which were divided into two ceremonial moieties. The three societies in each moiety were related to male age grades, one for young boys, one for mature men, and one for older men. A boy usually entered the moiety to which his father belonged. The members of each society were "hosts" to specific spirits that came to inhabit the men's house, and one of their tasks was to construct the masks that embodied those spirits. In ceremonies, many of the spirits were represented by pairs of masked dancers wearing elaborate costumes. The Bird Societies had economic as well as ritual functions. They formed work parties to clear garden sites and joined in communal hunts. The Bird Societies have continued up to the present; today men often manufacture masks and other traditional artifacts for the tourist trade, selling them to Brazilian traders who purchase them for resale to collectors.

Each Tapirapé village also had Feast Groups, which included both men and women. Generally, a man joined his father's group and a woman her mother's, although people could change membership, especially to keep a man and wife in the same group. Feast groups met specifically to eat together, each at its appointed place in the village plaza. This helped to distribute the food supply: a group would be called together whenever one of its members had an unusual amount of food (e.g., a large game animal) on hand.

In another redistributive ceremony, those people who accepted and drank what has been described by observers as a "nauseating beverage" earned the right to claim personal possessions, even the most prized, from those who spat the drink out. The givers, however, gained prestige from their generosity.

According to Tapirapé cosmology, the world is filled with spirits of all kinds, most of which are dangerous to humans. The importance of the shaman lies in his ability to manipulate and control these spirits. The culture heroes, who made and organized the world as we know it, are believed to have been master shamans. The dream experiences of living shamans parallel those of mythical culture heroes: in both, spirits are outwitted and subdued. In an annual ceremony, the shamans as a group would pit their powers against those of the formidable thunder spirit. Shamans have healing powers, but when a person died from disease, which traditionally was always assumed to have a supernatural cause, a shaman was often suspected of having caused the death and might be killed by the victim's relatives. During the epidemics, this led to a series of revenge killings. The Tapirapé say that the shamans of the present day are only "little shamans" who can treat children and minor ailments but cannot cure the sickness of grown people, who are more likely to resort to Western medicine.


Baldus, Herbert (1935). "Ligeiras notas s√ībre os √≠ndios tapirap√©s." Revista do Arquivo Municipal de S√£o Paulo 1683-95.

Baldus, Herbert (1970). Tapirap√©, tribo tupi no Brasil central. S√£o Paulo: Companhia Edit√īra Nacional.

Oliveira, Roberto Cardoso de (1959). A situação atual dos tapirapé." Boletim do Museo Paraense Emílio Goeldi , n.s., Antropologia, no. 3.

Shapiro, Judith (1968). "Tapirapé Kinship." Boletim do Museo Paraense Emílio Goeldi , n.s., Antropologia, no. 37.

Shapiro, Judith (1968). "Ceremonial Redistribution in Tapirapé Society." Boletim do Museo Paraense Emílio Goeldi, n.s., Antropologia, no. 38.

Wagley, Charles (1977). Welcome of Tears: The Tapirapé Indians of Central Brazil. New York: Oxford University Press.


User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: