Sweet Leaves, Human Flesh

Agricultural Practices of the Tupi-Guarani Tribe

January 6, 2006

They who first lived in the rainforests and plains of Brazil kept no record of their passing. There were no temples, monuments, or holy scrolls. The acidic soil and humid climate of the region destroyed what little there was left, including wood and bones.


What we do know about the first settlers in the area can be inferred from their pottery, or the weapons they left behind. There are also the chronicles of the first Europeans who landed on the shores of the region, which tell of copper-skinned natives who sweetened their brews with the addition of mere leaves; who consumed their human prey and made sport of their enemies.


The tribes’ beginnings, however, are not as gloomy, nor as sensational. Brazil was actually home to hundreds of different tribes, which could roughly be divided into two groups. The Marginal or Semi-Marginal peoples depended on hunting, gathering, and small-scale agriculture. The Tropical Forest peoples, inhabitants of the rainforests, relied heavily on agriculture and fishing to supply their needs.


One such Tropical Forest tribe was the Tupi-Guarani, a major ethnic family whose territories spanned Central Brazil and Paraguay sometime in the first millennium AD. Their lands stretched from the Amazon to the Rio de la Plata, and from the foothills of the Andes to the Atlantic Ocean.


The Tupi-Guarani were rootcrop growers, hunters, gatherers, and warriors. They had no religious institutions, no social classes, no power structure, or system of taxes. Unlike most sedentary agricultural societies, they were scattered widely across their lands; but like progressive societies, they were often at war with each other.


The Tupi-Guarani dressed little, wore next to nothing, but adorned their skin with dyes and feathers. Their warriors were virtually hairless, but were painted in stripes corresponding to each enemy they had killed.


Life in a Tupi-Guarani village was simple. Tribesmembers were united by common ancestors, although they rarely had a chieftain to rule them. They shared huts, where they slept in cotton hammocks, and lounged in separate rooms. One hut would house would typically be 250-300 feet long, 30-50 feet wide, and would house as many as 30 families.


As rainforest soil was not especially favorable to the cultivation of food crops, the Tupi-Guarani practiced slash-and-burn agriculture. They would clear sections of rainforest away by hacking tree trunks and slowly burning away at the base of the trees. Since the Tupi-Guarani had no domesticated animals to help them out with their tasks, all their work was done manually; and since rainforest soil was not rich in nutrients, the early farmers planted two to three crops together, and, upon harvest, abandoned their field.


Although a short-term solution to what should have been a great problem for the security and stability of the tribe, slash-and-burn agriculture surprisingly did not destroy the Amazonian rainforest. If anything, it taught the Tupi-Guarani the concept of taking only what they could, and no more. Fore instance, maize was used sparingly, and only to produce fermented beverages. Manioc, or cassava, an important rootcrop, was not instantly harvested, and was left in the ground until it was immediately needed.


Men cleared out forested areas for planting, a task which would keep them busy for about two months. The planting, weeding, and harvesting were the work of the women. Thus, for at least ten months out of every year, men were free to hunt, gather, go to war, or simply while the days away – something which conquerors would later take to mean idleness, a trait they rather incorrectly ascribed to generations of natives.


The Tupi-Guarani planted cassava, yams, cotton, gourds, tobacco, maize, pepper, beans, squash, pineapple, and sweet potato. They imported maize from other tribes west of the Andes. They fermented maize and cassava to produce an alcoholic beverage called cauim. They also planted a sweet herb called kaa he-he, known today as the stevia shrub. Natives used stevia to enhance the taste of bitter mate or their medicinal potions – long before the conquerors brought the plant to Europe; centuries before food manufacturers used the herb, and its sweet component stevioside, to produce today’s sweeteners, such as saccharin and aspartame.


War was especially important to the Tupi-Guarani, although they were not keen on amassing lands and territories. Enemies were as trophies to them – enemies were also food. Prisoners of war would be kept for several months, treated well, given a wife, and, in a sense, fattened for the feast. At the end of an appointed time, he would be killed and laid out, roasted, for the village and its guests to partake of. Old women would drink his blood; mothers would smear his blood upon their breasts; the unfortunate wife, though mourning over him, would still eat his flesh. Only the executioner would be in hiding, away from the feasting, to protect himself from the victim’s – meal’s – ghost.


It was this aspect of Tupi-Guarani culture that frightened Europeans the most. One such account was penned by a German mercenary named Hans Staden, who spent three years amongst the Tupi-Guarani. They reportedly tied his legs together and forced him to hop through the huts, taunting him all the while with, “Here comes our food hopping toward us!”


The accounts of the conquerors, though exciting, generalized the state of the Tupi-Guarani. Only a few tribes practiced cannibalism; outside of the immediate conquered, only a few other tribes engaged in such brutal warfare.


What did last after the conquest, however, was the Tupi-Guarani language. For some time, after the first landing in the year 1500, Tupi, along with Portuguese, became the general language of the colony. The Tupi-Guarani were also the focus of Jesuit missionaries, who learned to speak the tribal language, and who used it to preach Christianity to several different tribes. The Portuguese conquerors also carried back some words to Europe, including abacaxi (pineapple), mandioca (cassava flour), caju (cashew), tatu (armadillo), and the piranha.


There were once five million of the Tupi-Guarani tribe scattered throughout the rainforests and mountains. Today, there are only two hundred thousand left behind. Their legacy – their words, crops, sweets, even bizarre, otherworldly tales of their rites and rituals – lives on.


For more information on the Tupi-Guarani, visit http://www.primitivism.com/society-state.htm, http://www.datamex.com.py/guarani/en/marandeko/brief_history.html, and http://www.instituto-camoes.pt/revista/revista8in.htm.

Brazil Today

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