Jacare - Parque Indigena do Xingu - Mato Grosso

The reservation "Parque Indígena do Xingu", which was founded in 1961, is located in the federal state of Mato Grosso. Here live 16 Indio tribes with different languages, which migrated here from other parts of the country, running from settlers or having been forcibly resettled. The Xinguanos have integrated themselves into modern times without giving up their cultural identity. They use fishhooks, have radios and bicycles, trade in timber and hunting spoils. Until the mid-20th century their numbers declined to less than 1000, due to flu, measle and malaria epidemics. Today the Xinguanos themselves estimate the reservation population at over 3500, half of them younger than 15.

As inhabitants of the Parque Indígena do Xingu, the Jacare are distinguished for their unique ceramics, the graphic design of their baskets and bowls, their artful feather processing and interesting dancing masks. Besides the diversity of its material culture, this tribe possesses a fascinating and very complex mythological and cosmological culture as well. In it, the relationships between things, animals, humans and supernatural creatures shape their understanding of the world, and are of basic importance for the practices of shamanism.

Language and habitat

The Jacare are representatives of a “Mairupe group” from the Aruak family and, together with the Mehinako, the Yawalapiti, the Pareci and Enawene Nawe, make up the “central Mairupe” (according to Payne, 2001). The Jacare inhabit the area around the “Piyulaga” lagoon (“Piyulaga” translates to “place” or “fishing camp”), which is also the name of their village. The lagoon is connected to the right-hand shore of Rio Batovi by a canal. It is located in the occidental region of the Rio Xingu headstreams, in the federal state of Mato Grosso, about 300 km linear distance from Canarana.

Aruak history of the upper Rio Xingu

The first historical record of the existence of the Jacare goes back to the notes of the German ethnologist Karl von den Steinen – it was taken from the journal he kept on the first expedition through central Brazil. The entry was made on the 24.08.1884, when he passed the fourth and last village of the Bakairi by Rio Batovi: “We asked them, curiously, about other existing tribes as well. Their clear reply was that the “Custenaú” and the “Trumai” dwelt by the lower course of the river. However, we did not understand what they meant by “Vaurá” – could it be a tribe?” A week later he received confirmation of this from the Suyá, who drew him a hydrographic map charting most of the tribes by the upper Xingu – and the “Vaurá” were to be a large group living by lower Rio Baávi.

The history of this tribe, which used the Aruak tongue and lived in the headwaters of Rio Xingu, began at least one thousand years before the arrival of Karl von den Steinen. Archaeological investigations by the upper Xingu, initiated by Dole (1961/1962) were to yield significant successes in the 1990s. Headed by Heckenberger in 1996, the results up to that point were used to paint a precise picture of the sociocultural changes and continuities in this vast and little-explored area of the meridional periphery of Amazonia.

The Aruak tribes of the Jacare and Mehinako, which today populate this region, are direct descendants of various immigrated groups from the very south-west of the Amazon Basin. These groups built their first villages by the Xingu between 800 and 900 A.D. The quality of the remains and their radio-carbonic dating between 1000 and 1600 A.D. suggest a population that can by and large be characterised as “settled” – in big and densely populated round villages (40 to 50 hectares) with a central square and public defensive fortifications such as moats, palisades and paths built on banks. A feature exclusive to this region was a special ceramic technology (Heckenberger, 2001).

Ceramic findings are always particularly telling when it comes to research into a people’s history. By the upper Xingu household equipment has remained virtually unchanged for a thousand years and thus is proof of an impressive cultural continuity. Pans for roasting the “Beiju” flatbread, conical bowls and big pots with the edges bent outward are manufactured and used by the Jacare to this day.

Evidence found in the ancient dwellings of the Aruak tribes in the headwaters of the Xingu is by no means an isolated occurrence, but connects perfectly with similar evidence found on other sites. These findings occurred in a broad “corridor” in the meridional periphery of Amazonia – from Mojos in Bolivia all the way to the upper Xingu, including the “Alá Madeira” and the “Alto Acre” – this suggests a co-evolution of the Aruak culture that took place around the year 1000:en sie auf eine Co-Evolution der Aruak-Kultur hin, die um das Jahr 1000 herum stattgefunden hat.

As the historical villages that have already been excavated and the oral traditions of the Karib tribes suggest: as early as in the mid-18th century the model of a sociocultural and multiethnic society as we know it today existed in the upper Xingu region. It has to be mentioned that an investigative gap in this area has yet to be filled. It concerns the ethnological history between the Aruak and Karib tribes – those groups that once started this multiethnic system.

In 1996 Heckenberger conducted research among the Kuikuro, a Karib group, which is why his interpretations are biased by the Kuikuro perspective. It is now becoming necessary to investigate the past of the last three Aruak groups that have preserved their oral traditions: the Jacare, the Mehinako and the Yawalapiti. Among the former are the only people who can give a proper account of their history, in the last decade of their lives. That is why it is high time for according research.

The study of rituals seems to be a good approach, as suggested by the results of Menezes Bastos’ study of the "Yawari“ among the Kamayurá (1990). For the Jacare in particular, music is always synonymous with history – whether it tells tales of the more recent past, of simple things of life, of encounters with other peoples or even from the time when animals could talk to humans. An intensive study of rituals would shed some light on hypotheses claiming that the social system of the Indio culture of the upper Xingu harks back to an ideological Aruak basis. All the elements necessary for an update of the “Xingu etiquette” and for the stylisation of social relations on a regional level can be found in the rituals – and these differ significantly from the ethnological essays available on this topic. In fact, there are only two that can be called “complete” in terms of the intertribal rituals of the Xingu Indios, one of them by Agostinho (1974), the other by Menezes Bastos (1990).


About 320 people live in a typical Xingu village, with a central square and the “man house” (or “house of flutes”) in its centre. 51 people live in other localities.

Territorial conflicts

The Jacare territory encompasses the south-western part of the “Parque Indígena do Xingu”. Along its long, straight boundary it is lined with pastures and cleared areas belonging to the neighbouring facendas of the north-east of Mato Grosso. Towards the end of the year 1980 the Jacare were faced with armed facendeiros from the “Alto Batovi” region, who set fire to the three only houses of a small village called “Ulupuene”. The Indios had constructed the village there for strategic reasons. It was supposed to protect this area from an invasion, since it had been forgotten in the official demarcation in 1960. Only in 1998 was this small enclave between the rivers Batovi and Ulupuene awarded to the Jacare (as “Terra Indígena Batovi”). As their chief (amunaw) Atami explains it is not only the land itself the Jacare care about, but also a “holy place” with rock paintings they call “Kamukuwaká” – about 40 km to the south from the mouth of Rio Ulupuene.

While the court verdict of 1998 alleviated the conflict between the Indios and the neighbouring farmers for the time being, it did not end it. According to Jacare information they are approached on every occasion by anglers and hunters for permission to exploit the natural resources in the south-west of the reservation, an area that is under Jacare control and responsibility. The issue of securing all reservation borders is vital to its inhabitants, who feel increasingly besieged by ruthless exploiters of natural resources, and the boundaries are only respected when the Indios guard them.

Culture and economy

In spite of the technological process of change started in 1884 – when Karl von den Steinen first made contact with the Jacare and encounters with non-Indios increased – many features of their traditional material culture have survived, including those that could easily be replaced by items made of plastic, glass or metal. However, for symbolic reasons – not functional ones – the traditional items have retained their role in the representation of Jacare culture.

Their special material culture is also responsible for the outward projection of the Jacare people – not only on the “white man’s market” but also on the internal market of the Xingu tribes. Their entire handicraft is highly regarded, and they sell their products on all markets featuring Indio handicraft in Brazil. Their peerlessly attractive ceramic is a trademark among their people and is of great importance in the tribe’s economy and for the acquisition of industrialised commodities.


Besides ceramic, the Jacare have a very special sense for graphic effects in their items braided from fibre material. Their graphic system structurally consists of five basic graphic elements: triangles (irregular and isosceles), dots, circles, quadrangles (squares, rectangles, trapeziums and rhombuses) and lines (straight and curved).

As in every system of ornamental art it is the different combinations of these basic elements that determine the shape of a motive. The graphic model of the Jacare employs approximately 40 to 45 shapes that are used exclusively for body painting.

The Jacare have three preferred types of baskets: “mayapalu”, “mayaku” and “tirumakana”. The first one, with open tissue and without design, is used to carry loads and to store manioc for the short term. The two others are close-meshed and display a surprising diversity of graphic motives. All baskets are made exclusively by men. Their use principally follows the usual separation of sexes in their specific work: braiding used for fishing is reserved for the men and braiding used at home is the province of the women. Those “mayaku” of particularly large dimensions (60x50x20 cm) are used by special request as payment for the ritual services of sponsors of the mask and flute celebrations. The large baskets, the manufacture of which requires a good technique and lots of experience, have a higher symbolic value than smaller specimens – the latter are mostly made by young apprentices in this art, and are mainly supposed to meet the growing demand among tourists.

Headdresses: The Jacare consider the birds’ feathers as their “clothing”. After being shot down the birds are “undressed”. Their feathers are then processed as “shreds” to one or more ornaments. For this the feathers of various birds are mixed – according to visual composition patterns. Worn by humans the feather-made ornaments conceptually resemble a costume. The headdresses bear a special significance in rituals. It rarely happens that a grown man dances with anything less than his complete set: ear stud, diadem and bracelets. And even when they use masks they still wear their entire headdress. Together with the body painting it is the expression of a beauty that contributes decisively to the joy and animation of the festivities.

Music: As is the case among the other Indios of the upper Xingu, the Jacare have a true musical vision of the universe. Music is one of the highest domains of a symbolic world order – the connection between man and woman, human and non-human beings (Yerupoho, Apapaatai – masked monsters and animals). By arousing joy and at the same time unleashing other forms of expression (dances and body movements), music subtly creates a model of balanced and productive communal life. Among many peoples of Amazonia the term “joy” – which in most cases involves music – is linked with a profound philosophical resonance that is conducive to the native society.

The Jacare have a distinct repertoire, both instrumental and vocal. Every ritual involves music of their own making – be it a funeral, an initiation or a mask ritual.


The mythology of the Jacare tells about the demigod Kwamutõ who once, threatened by a “jaguar man”, offered him his five daughters for marriage. But when he returned to his village his five daughters refused to fulfil the promise. So Kwamutõ had an idea: he cut five tree trunks to size and painted them. Then he blew tobacco smoke at them and sang before them, accompanied by the rhythm of the rattle. Early in the following morning the trunks came alive. Kwamutõ commanded the daughters made from the trunks to meet with the “jaguar man” – three of them died on the way and two married him. One of the two, who was heavily pregnant, was killed by her mother-in-law in an argument. Two twins were taken from her belly. These were raised by their aunt, whom they called “mummy”. When the twins had grown up they learned that their real mother had been killed even before they were born. Filled with sadness the lads – they were called “Sun” and “Moon” – cut down a tree trunk to commemorate and say goodbye to their mother. Thus the twins staged the first “kwarup”, which in the course of the centuries became the major death ritual among the peoples of the upper Xingu, dedicated to leader personalities of high lineage and admired deeds.

Thus, since they were aware of the lack of humans in this world, the two mythological heroes Sun and Moon decided to cut more kwarup tree trunks and give birth to the first human beings – using the same methods as their grandfather Kwamutõ. They created the Xingu Indios, the wild Indios (from the perspective of the Xingu) and the white people – who left this land and did not return until much later with their firearms.

Origin and activities of the supernatural beings

In the lives of the Jacare there is a permanent presence of numerous supernatural beings, which goes back to the time when animals were similar to humans and could talk. One of the principles which their presence is based on is the continuous connection between the “Apapaatai/Yerupoho” and the animals. This connection concerns the Jacare every day, most of all in their nutrition cycle and in their theories on sleep and disease.

At the dawn of time there was a total darkness over and in the world. On the surface of the earth there lived the “Yerupoho” – anthropomorphic and zooanthropomorphic beings – while humans (the ancestors of the Jacare) lived in termite hills where they lived their lives in a complete vacuum of cultural goods: without fire, pots, baskets, food, etc.

One day the Yerupoho received word that the heroes of the Jacare culture would send the sun to the sky for it to illuminate the world. In terrible fear of the imminent cosmic change the Yerupoho frantically manufactured jewellery, masks and protective body paint against the burning and inevitably destructive rays of the sun. The Yerupoho created uniforms that went beyond simple clothing and were more like protective suits. Upon putting it on they assumed the identity of the respective piece of clothing and thus became “Apapaatai”: an ontological reality that hasn’t changed since and which corresponds to the different classes of animals the Jacare meet every day; but also a number of ritual items such as flutes, clarinets and rattles and other monstrous creatures that one only sees on special occasions, for instance in the dreams of shamans or the very sick, during sex and before death. Sometimes they also show themselves during the manufacture of the Apapaatai masks for festive occasions.

The Yerupoho were affected by two kinds of transformation which corresponded to the two different categories of “Apatapaatai”: those who managed to finish and put on their uniforms in time became “uniforms” or “garments” which corresponded to the supernatural beings in both visible and invisible form. The visible beings are the animals around us and the invisible ones are their “supernatural duplicates” – and these are of a monstrous nature that the visible ones lacked. Those among the Yerupoho who did not finish their uniforms in time and remained “naked” were punished drastically and definitively by the appearance of the sun: they turned into “Apapaatai ivajo” (proper Apapaatai, who don’t wear “clothing”) – extremely dangerous beings who simply devour or kill other, weaker creatures – among them the humans of the Jacare.

The ontology of the Jacare comprises three macro-categories:

Iyãu – humans or human-like creatures
Mona – animals, plants and objects
Kumã – a category best described as monsters, which are separated into three further categories:
“Yerupoho”, “Apapaatai ivajo” and “Apapaatai ona~i” or simply “Apapaatai”

The terms “Mona” and "Kumã" serve as linguistic modifiers of the nature of things and the entities in their world, and organize them into a continual and flexible scale of species and subspecies. This model of classification was described in a very similar manner by Viveiros de Castro in 1977 among the Xawalapiti, another Aruak tribe from the upper Xingu. The category "Kumã" (kumalu, female) – meaning extraordinary, monstrous, gigantic, dangerous, mighty and/or invisible – is applied both on the Apapaatai and the Yerupoho, but in particular contexts. Large predator animals, for instance, can also be considered as furnished with a Kumã nature.

The majority of the real Kumã beings also has, besides their monstrous size, a visible and frail dimension that is represented by the Mona beings and objects – a term that can be denoted as “visible, ordinary and commonplace” in this particular case. It refers to objects, plants and tangible animals which are identified by the Jacare according to their steady life habits and their food. On the whole it is a system of classification in which every object or creature has a co-existing double of a monstrous nature. These monsters are endowed with extreme intelligence, a world view of their own and a special artistic sensibility. They reveal themselves to be dangerous, deceitful and creative – in most cases they are sorcerers, some of them cannibals.

The Yerupoho, being impressively ambiguous “animal men” “or object men” with transformative abilities, are the more complex of these categories of beings. With their double nature "~iyãu" and "kumã" (many of them are also known as "~iyãu kumã" and "~iyãu kumalu" – “monster man” and “monster woman”), the Jacare perceive them as both humans and monsters.

The transformative nature of the supernatural beings is based on the idea of the “uniform” (Na~i), which assumes that supernatural, anthropomorphic beings (the Yerupoho) are able to “clothe” (or transform) themselves in animals, plants, household items, musical instruments and natural phenomena. In other words: their “uniform” – or “clothing” – is the appearance of an animal or monster covering an anthropomorphic or zooanthropomorphic inner life, known as “Yerupoho”. Its “uniform” is a work of art of transformation, a unique outer shell, creatively constructed by supernatural authorities for the differentiation of diverse identities. I would like to stress once more that the “uniforms” are not bodies (Omonapitsi). Only the Yerupoho, the humans and the Apapaatai ivajo are bodies, all other beings, including the smallest insects, are “uniforms” or “garments”.

The diversity of these beings is immense: they can be created by the thousands, and each individual can be equipped with other graphic motives and different anatomic forms. Among the most important components of a “uniform” are the graphic (geometric) motives and the colours which make it unique – as a fabric becomes unique through the design of its maker. For the Jacare many “uniforms” possess subtleties of a formal perfection, which prove to be objects of special aesthetic and ritual interest. Birds, and snakes after them, are considered as the most beautiful creatures in this respect. By means of their “garments” the Yerupoho are capable of changing their appearance, they can transform from fish to bird, from insect to reptile, from mammal to water animal, from fox to snake, etc. – this suggests a seemingly infinite flow of transformations in the cosmos of the Jacare.

In the Jacare ontology the relation between the supernatural beings appears as a triad involving the Yerupoho (the anthropomorphic being which turns into Apapaatai), the Apapaatai themselves (the "garment“ the Yerupoho wears for his transformation) and an animal or plant, a natural phenomenon or object (corresponding to the body of the Apapaatai). This, however, is a relation that only exists between a particular species and its “supernatural owners” – it is not an indeterminate one that simply includes any species. An example is the triad between the animal pig (a Mona being), the monster pig (Apapaatai ona~i and Apapaatai iyajo) and the man pig (Yerupoho, anthropomorphic being) – the two latter ones are the owners of (or rulers over) the animal pig.


The Jacare have three classes of shamans: "Yakapá“, "Pukaiwekeho” and “Yatamá”. The Yakapá have the greatest therapeutic power and the most significant ritual prestige, thanks to their specialising in retrieving souls that have been abducted by the Apapaatai and Yerupoho – in this way they bring the sick back to life from their dangerous state.

“Yakapá” literally means “he who runs with half a consciousness”, his purpose is to save souls. His skill in this field is deeply connected with his identification and diagnosis of the sickness, with the knowledge of their human or supernatural causes as well as with his being on good terms with his “Apapaatai helping spirits”.

A shaman Yakapá session in the village of Piyulaga is an event that not only the family members of the sick person attend, but also children and curious adults from other living units. Watching the shaman performance and the extraction of the spell and listening to the Yakapá’s answers concerning the cause and progress of a sickness, the normal individuals (non-Yakapá) learn and understand something about the cosmology of the group. This is one of the most important purposes that shamanism serves in the Xingu society.

Another significant class of shaman is the "Pukaiwekeho”, the master (or lord) of the shaman chants (invocations). Among the Jacare there are seven Pukaiwekeho, one of them with an unusual expressive power – he is famous in the entire region. Among these seven there are two that also work as Yakapá, which brings them double prestige. Combining these two kinds of shaman in one person is very lucrative: the teaching of the chants alone, which happens “in secret”, merits high payment and requires a long time of dedication from the student. If an apprentice wants to acquire all the knowledge that will later bring him status and special privileges he has to pay his teacher in luxury goods or, under less common circumstances, his own labour.

The third class of shaman are the “Yatamá”, those “who only smoke”, they command the healing powers in tobacco smoke. Yatamá is also the common name for the shaman – he is as it were on the lower end of a long scale of classes, which culminates in the complete command of the trance techniques, soul saving, clairvoyance and the entire repertoire of healing chants. That is why the Yakapá and Pukaiwekeho are also familiar with the techniques of the Yatamaki – the tobacco shamanism. In the Jacare society Yatamaki knowledge is not only passed on to men. Until the middle of the past decade a “Yatamalu” – a female shaman – pursued this profession, probably since a heavy measle epidemic swept the area in the year 1950. Nonetheless the initiation of women to shamanism is limited, since they do not attain the required high standard of the Yapaká – that is what their collected historical records of the past 150 years say.

The frequency of illness in the village of Piyulaga is relatively high when taking into account the small population of 270 individuals and the impressive number of shamans in constant activity: 15 altogether – six Yatamá, seven Pukaiwekeho and four Yakapá (two of which are also Pukaiwekeho). Even diseases of small significance – such as dermatosis, an affliction that often occurs among the Jacare – require treatment by a shaman for the extraction of the spell

Diseases are the way of opening the complex relations between the Jacare and the Apapaatai and Yerupoho. Especially in the case of the Yakapá it was their own courage and resistance to serious diseases that enabled them to receive from the Apapaatai (who had made them sick) the power that their visionary and healing abilities are based on. In other words: these shaman powers stem in parts from their decision to leave within their bodies the very spell that the Apapaatai put inside them when they were sick. This means that the shamans carry the Apapaatai around inside themselves. It is a constant co-existence which makes the shamans themselves “eternally sick”. A severe illness has the potential for an experiment of power – while it occurs only temporarily in some, it takes others into a supernatural world and allows them to move in spaces and times different to their everyday life. Thus the Apapaatai, who on the one hand can kill the sick person, become his allies (~iyakanãu, "Apapaatai helper“) and turn him into a Yakapá. They protect him and give him therapeutic, visionary and supernatural powers.

Most of the shamans’ actions have the goal of reversing states of falling ill which, as the Jacare believe, manifest themselves under the following given circumstances: 1) the production of wickedness by human sorcerers (~iyãu opotalá) – 2) the intrusion of sorcery into the sick person’s body through the influence of the Apapaatai and the Yerupoho – 3) the stealing of the soul by those two classes of beings – 4) infection through epidemics of the white people. The latter two kinds of affliction are linked with the second, for all illnesses, even the slightest, are to do with different qualities and quantities of pathologic objects (sorcery) in the sick person’s body. However, illnesses caused by the " ~iyãu opotalá" are exempt from this rule – they belong in the category of "external sorcery“. At present the epidemics are under control, from a sanitary point of view. But for the Jacare the problem of severe illnesses lies solely in the circumstances 1) and 3) – and when they occur then in most cases, simultaneously and progressively, all four circumstances mentioned are involved.

The restoration of health starts with the extraction and neutralisation of the spell as well as with the saving of the soul, if it has been abducted by the Apapaatai. In case of very dire illnesses, the goal of a session with shaman chants (Pukayekene) is to remove tremendous amounts of sorcery from the ailing person’s body. To accompany the chant the shaman uses rattles, instruments of great therapeutic effect. According to observations by Mello (1999): “The healing of a sick person depends on the contentment of an Apapaatai with the music by the sickbed“. But that is not all: the music of the Pukayekene serves as an extractor of the pathologic objects.

Festivals of the Apapaatai

To achieve an effective therapeutic healing in case of a serious illness, it is essential to organise a festival for those Apapaatai that have inflicted the harm on the sick person. Various ritual objects need to be constructed, these can be “Beiju shovels”, masks, flutes, clarinets, digging sticks for the manioc harvest, mortars, baskets, pots, arrows, etc. Even after the soul has been saved it is still in danger. Only after the festival for the specific Apapaatai that caused the sickness has been held is it completely safe – this festival stabilises a new pact between a human being and an Apapaatai.

The sick person’s presence at the festival is not essential for his healing; neither does he have to wear any special body painting or specific attire to be healed. Instead, he has to be the festival’s sponsor. It is said among the Jacare that the Apapaatai are greedy for food and festivals, and that they would protect the one to sponsor such a feast from the influence of other Apapaatai as well. In this way the sick person recovers more quickly and does not only strengthen his relations with the supernatural forces but also becomes enmeshed in a web of ritual services to his cohabitants, which he later has to “pay” one by one.

The ex-invalid should repeat the festival in honour of his "Apapaatai protector” after a certain time – this can be a few months later or even a few years. For this he has to make sure to keep the flutes or masks of the “Apapaatai” that are now his and are kept in his house or the “house of flutes” (Kuwakuho). These flutes are kept with extreme care, until they dissolve or can be burned on the shaman’s initiative.

Other names: Wauja, Vaurá, Aurá
Language: Wauja, family Aruak, group Mairupe
Population: 415 (as of March 2012)
Region: Mato Grosso (Parque Indígena do Xingu)

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