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ETHNONYMS: Mahibarez, Mambyuara, Nambikwara, Nambiquara


Identification. The name "Nambicuara" was given to this group of Brazilian Indians by neighboring Indian groups. It means "hole in the ear" (nambi, "ear," and kuara, "hole"). Nambicuara subgroup self-names are based on local ecological features.

Location. Aboriginally, the Nambicuara occupied the northern parts of what is now the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil, in the region of the Rio Guaporé, primarily near the tributaries of the Juruena and Roosevelt rivers, between 11° and 14° N and 57° and 61° W. As of the early 1990s, the following groups are reported as occupying the Guaporé Valley from north to south: Mamainde, Negarote, Hahaintesu, Waiksu, Alakatesu, Alentesu, Wasusu, and Sararé.

Demography. An expedition led by General Cãndido Mariano da Silva Rondon in 1907 estimated the number of Nambicuara at 20,000. In 1912 only 1,000 to 1,500 were reported, and by 1985 the number had decreased further to 658.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Nambicuara speak an independent language with several local dialects.

History and Cultural Relations

There is no trustworthy information as to from where the Nambicuara arrived and when they first settled in their homeland. The first European contact was evidently with Antonio Pires de Campos, who found them at their current location between 1718 and 1723. The first ethnographic description of the group was provided by Karl von den Steinen at the end of the nineteenth century, although they are considered to have been "officially" discovered by Rondon in 1907 and first described by Edgar Roquette-Pinto. Contact with the group was often difficult, as they were considered fierce and aggressive and often were at war with neighboring groups. Later in the twentieth century, Nambicuara groups suffered relocation and further depopulation as the result of non-Indian migration into the area made posssible by the 1,600-kilometer-long paved road cut through their territory.


The two forms of Nambicuara settlement represent adaptation to different seasonal conditions. In the rainy season they live near rivers, in villages consisting of one or more beehive dwelling huts and a smaller ritual hut, the "flute-hut." Since the 1950s, the pitched roof has been replacing the beehive design. Many everyday objects common to tropical groups are not found among the Nambicuara. For example, the sleeping hammock is not used, leading one neighboring group, the Paressi, to call the Nambicuara "those who sleep on the ground." In the dry season, the Nambicuara lead a more nomadic existence and dwell in simple shelters constructed from palm leaves attached to a frame of poles.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Nambicuara live in an ecologically marginal environment. The region is criss-crossed by rivers and streams; the vegetation is mostly of the savanna type; the red, dry soil is barely suitable for farming; and game is not especially abundant. The Nambicuara subsist through a combination of hunting; gathering berries, fruit, and insects; fishing; and slash-and-burn horticulture. The bow and arrow is the main hunting weapon, and the digging stick is used for gathering and planting. During the rainy season, they slash and burn plots in the gallery forest and plant maize, beans, tobacco, cotton, and two varieties of bitter cassava. Cassava is the staple food; cassava flour is often stored for later use as the main ingredient for chicha (a fermented drink).

Industrial Arts. Compared to those of other tropical groups, the Nambicuara tool kit is rather limited. As a rule, pottery making is absent, although crude pots were found among the Western Nambicuara. The primary materials for their tools are palm wood, bast, leaves, various types of reed, shell, bone, tusk, claws, wax, and cotton thread. Baskets and gourd vessels are used for food storage and transport. Objects are sometimes decorated with thin straps fingerwoven from spun cotton. Ornaments are made from shells, teeth, nuts, berries, and feathers.

Trade. Trade among the various subgroups was important in aboriginal times. The Western Nambicuara groups traded pots for wax, feathers, and bows and arrows.

Division of Labor. Men hunt, fish, prepare the garden plots, build the huts, and make baskets and hunting weapons. Women gather, prepare food, transport firewood and water, and care for the children. Both men and women make shell earrings, which are emblematic of tribal membership.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is matrilineal, and the traditional kinship terminology is of the bifurcate-merging type.

Marriage. Marriage between cross cousins is preferred, although marriage between a father's brother and brother's daughter is common. Most marriages are monogamous, but a chief may take two or three wives, depending on the size of the band. Postmarital residence is virilocal; however, upon reaching puberty, girls return to their mother's band.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Eastern and Western Nambicuara were divided into eight groups with a chief for each. The chief's authority was limited to matters such as assigning band members to build huts or to hunt and conducting religious rites if the band had no shaman. Chieftanship is not hereditarya chief selects his successor, usually someone who is an especially able member of the band, such as a successful hunter. The names for the Eastern groups lend support for the presence of territorial bands. The bands were never unified under a single chief, however, and interband relations were based mainly on trade, intermarriage, and joint rituals.

Conflict. In the past the Nambicuara had a reputation for being extremely aggressive, with frequent wars against neighboring groups as well as much interband conflict.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. Despite contact with missionaries since the 1930s, the traditional Nambicuara religion has changed little. "Power" is a basic religious concept and it is believed to be present in all humans, animals, and inanimate objects. According to Lévi-Strauss, the Nambicuara consider lightning to be a Supreme Being. Additionally, the forests, bushes, and hills are thought to be inhabited by spirits and demons, which can be exorcised or propitiated in times of need. In the rainy-season settlements, men gather in the flute-hut to make music and to ask ancestors for fertility. Major events in the life cycle are marked by ceremonies, with name giving to the newborn and initiation of youths especially significant events. Almost every territorial group has a shaman who leads the ceremonies, contacts the supernatural forces, and heals the sick.

Arts. Instrumental music and singing are important activities, both for ritual and recreational purposes.

Medicine. Illness is believed to be caused by malevolent spirits. "Easy" ailments, such as headache or indigestion, can be treated by massage administered by anyone in the community. More complicated disorders require intervention by the shaman, who uses herbs and the sucking out of the evil from the victim's body. To appease the spirit causing the illness, he must also chant, as he must win the assistance of the spirit in order to discover the cause of the illness.

Death and Afterlife. The dead are buried in a hunched or a fully extended position, with their feet toward the east. The souls of the dead are thought to linger about the grave for a few days before finally departing to the rocky hill that the Nambicuara consider their original homeland.


Boglár, Luiz (1971). "Zur kulturgeschichtlichen Stellung der Nambikwára-Indianer." Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 96:226-270.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1948). "La vie familiale et sociale des indiens Nambicuara." Journal de la Société des Américanistes 37:1-131.

Price, David (1989). Before the Bulldozer: The Nambiquara Indians and the World Bank. Cabin John, Md.: Seven Locks Press.

Roquette-Pinto, Edgar (1938). Rondonia. Biblioteca Pedagogica Brasileira, vol. 39. São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.