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ETHNONYMS: Agah've (in the Kalapalo and Kuikuru languages), Iaualapiti, Yawalap'h (in the Mehinaku language), Yawaraveřesha (in the Awati language), Yawarawiti (in the Kamayura language)


Identification. The Yawalapití are a South American Indian group living in the Brazilian federal state of Mato Grosso. The name "Yawalapití" is derived from the Yawalapití word for a certain type of nut, yawala, so they call themselves "People of the yawala nut." Any Indian who marryies a Yawalapití man or woman, lives in their community, and learns the Yawalapití language is considered a Yawalapití.

Location. The Yawalapití traditionally occupied the territory of the lower Rio Kuluene in the region of the upper Xingu, which is now a part of the Xingu National Park. At present there is only one Yawalapití village, located near the Rio Totoari (in the Yawalapití language, Tipatipa, the River of Stones), a small tributary of the Rio Kuluene. The settlement is near the Leonardo Villas Boas Indian Post.

Demography. According to their own statements, the Yawalapití were near extinction not long ago. The family of the former chief, Parù, and the Mapukayaka, Sariruá, and Yacao familiesa total of 17 peoplewere the entire population in the 1950s. In 1977 there were 77 people; in 1979, 100; by 1989 the number of the Yawalapití living in their village had increased to 160.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Yawalapití language belongs to the Arawaken Family, as do the languages of their neighbors, the Mehinaku and Waurá.

History and Cultural Relations

There is no archaeological evidence bearing on the prehistory of the Yawalapití. It is thus impossible to determine precisely how long they have lived in the upper Xingu. The region has been occupied by many small Arawakan and Caribbean ethnic groups before settlement by Tupían, Gê, and some isolated groups. The upper Xingu River Basin was not a main migration route but was inhabited by many small ethnic groups. In the past, wars among the groups and raids from the east (especially by the Trumai group) were common. First contact with Westerners was relatively late. Karl von Steinen's first expedition in 1884 discovered unknown groups on the Rio Batoví, and on his second expedition in 1887, navigating the Rio Culiseu, he met the Yawalapití.

The Roncador-Xingu Expedition in 1949, led by the Villas Boas brothers, was the beginning of stabilization for the Yawalapití. The Xingu National Park, founded in 1961 by the Villas Boas brothers, was transferred in 1967 to the Fundação Nacional do Índio (National Indian Foundation, FUNAI), a part of the Ministry of the Interior. Because of the vast forest surrounding the Yawalapití settlement, it is very difficult for tradesmen, settlers, and even missionaries to gain access. The Yawalapití and other groups of the upper Xingu retain their traditional cultural languages, although the influence of Portuguese and Brazilian consumer society is now felt. The Yawalapití live very near the Leonardo Villas Boas Indian Post, which has a small landing strip and radio contact with the headquarters of FUNAI in Brasília, so they are becoming intermediaries between Brazilians and other groups of the upper Xingu.


Until the twentieth century the Yawalapití lived in dispersed extended-family homesteads; only since the 1950s, with the help of the Villas Boas brothers, have they built their own village. Today the village consists of nine communal dwellings (maloca ) forming a circle around the small men's house, which houses the sacred flutes (yakuí ). The village is located on a beach about a kilometer from the river. The number of inhabitants of a maloca varies widelyabout fifty people live in chief Aritana's maloca; another maloca has only three inhabitants. Malocas are built according to an ellipsoidal ground plan, measure 30 by 30 meters in diameter, and reach up to 6 or 7 meters high. A complicated roof construction rests on a few central columns and many lower 1to 2-meter-high side piles. Roofs made of sapé grass reach to the ground. Two small entrances in the middle of the longer walls are covered during the night with wooden boards; in the past, thatch from sapé or a skin was used. The common kitchen is located between the two entrances, where there is also a large cylindrical storage basket for manioc flour, water vessels, and utensils for cooking and roasting.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Yawalapití are primarily fishers who practice slash-and-burn agriculture to produce bitter manioc. Their diet is occasionally supplemented with meat (monkeys, birds) and with wild foods collected from the forestpineapples (Ananas sativus ), piquí (Caryocar villosum ), buriti (Mauritia flexuosa ), grasshoppers, and ants. Some Yawalapití also grow peanuts (Arachis hypogaea ), peppers (Capsicum ), and tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum ). Bananas, sweet potatoes, abóbora (Cucurbita ), calabashes (Crescentia ), cotton, limes, gourds (Lagenaria ), and other products are acquired by traditional exchange with their neighboring kin in Kalapalo, Kamayurá, Waurá, and Mehinaku villages.

Industrial Arts. The Yawalapití are well-known producers of pottery and baskets. They manufacture small baskets to keep fine things using a coil technique; large cylindrical storage ones; big flat ones (mayako) to carry manioc roots using a common plait technique, twilling; and rucksacks and carrying baskets by interweaving two freshly cut palm leaves. They also make mats to rinse manioc flour, fans, fish traps, mostly from buriti material. Men still manufacture bows and arrows, spindles, canoes, paddles, and the like. The raw material for basketry is mainly different parts of buriti-palm leaves. Men like to work with wood; often they carve stools in the form of birds or armadillos. These are made for sale, mostly to pilots of the Brazilian Air Force (FAB) and FUNAI, and occasionally when the Yawalapití have a chance to visit Brasília. Fibers of buriti leaves are prepared by women, who twist them on their legs to make a thread from which they net hammocks and loin strings. For netting, women use two low posts fixed in the ground. The making of utensils from calabashes is also a woman's task.

Trade. Today, as in the past, the Yawalapití trade with their neighbors in the upper Xingu. They exchange, above all, fruits and products that are not locally available for their products such as piquí fruits, manioc, baskets, hammocks, and men's decorations made of snail shells, which are highly regarded and are very often given as presents. When the Yawalapití occasionally meet Whites who are flown in to their settlement by FUNAI and FAB aircraft or in Brasília, a trade occurs. The Yawalapití sell their basketry, feather decorations, stools, and necklaces, and buy football equipment (shoes, gym pants, T-shirts, etc.), aluminum pots and utensils, radios, tape recorders, and other small items such as scissors, needles, fabric, razor blades, fishhooks, and nylon strings.

Division of Labor. The traditional division of labor by sex is still followed. Men fish and hunt, prepare the field by cutting down and burning the trees, and cultivate tobacco. Women do the rest of the agricultural work, process manioc, take care of the children, and do most of the housework. They also net hammocks, make pottery, and manufacture salt from certain water plants. Together with children, they collect fruits, buriti leaves, brushwood, and fish poisoned with timbó. Honey gathering is men's work. Men occassionally help women during the manioc harvest and carry the roots in baskets to the village. The storage of piquí is a task for men. Piquí fruits are boiled and placed in angular bark-and-palm-leaf containers sealed at both ends and placed in a pool of cool water. Men also build houses (malocas) and manufacture weapons, adornments, basketry, and all woodwork. The fire inside the maloca is looked after by women, but outside, where broiling and roasting are always done, it's a task for men.

Land Tenure. Men are responsible for the field (roca ) preparations; then the roca is given for use to women. Nevertheless, when talking about a particular roca, the Yawalapití refer to it as the property of a man.


Kin Groups and Descent. There is no evidence of clans, fictive or real.

Kinship Terminology. The merging of kin terms for brothers (nusheri ) and sisters (nisheso ) with parallel cousins (nusheri and nisheso) suggests that Yawalapití kinship terminology can be classified as Iroquoian.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The Yawalapití are exogamous: they can't marry a person from their village, so they look for partners in neighboring villages belonging to the Kamayura, Kalapalo, Kuikuru, and Mehinaku groups. A young Yawalapití man lives with his bride's family for one year and helps his future father-in-law. He is not allowed to talk directly to his father-in-law, laugh in his presence, or call him by his name. Looking at his future mother-in-law is also forbidden, but he has to give her the best fish from his catch. He presents his future father-in-law with a loin-string made of snail shells. This is the bride-price. Only then is he allowed to take his bride to his village as a wife. Sometimes the couple settles in the bride's home. Polygyny is common, and not limited to chiefs. Men, as a rule, have two or three wives, who are often sisters or cousins.

There is no marriage ceremony. Men marry at the age of about 20 years, girls after completing the female initiation ritual. Although unmarried young women are allowed to have sexual intercourse with anyone, an unwed mother is not acceptable in the community; the newborn baby must be therefore killed. The unmarried woman is not assisted during labor and she kills the baby herself. After this, she is again accepted in the community.

For girls, the choice of a marriage partner is made by their parents. When adultery is committed and the husband finds out, he beats his wife. When the husband is caught, his wife laughs at him. Childless marriages are dissolved, and the partners have to remarry. The community does not tolerate unmarried adults. A disabled baby is killed, as a rule, by his or her uncle.

Domestic Unit. Each maloca is occupied by one extended family. Residence is bilocal or, more often, patrilocal.

Inheritance. Each man and woman own their personal belongings such as weapons, hooks, and hammocks. Large manioc-flour containers and ceremonial adornments are kept by the head of the maloca and are given to anybody who needs them.

Socialization. Children are raised at home, where infants are looked after by their mothers. When they get older, grandparents and older brothers and sisters are also involved. A boy of 11 to 12 years of age already does and knows things as a man. He gains his knowledge by observing his father. A father never teaches or punishes his son. They talk together as adults. The Brazilian government is exerting pressure on Chief Aritana to send the Yawalapití children to schools in Brasília. Teachers have on occasion come from the Leonardo Villas Boas Indian Post to instruct children.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Yawalapití society was traditionally and remains egalitarian. Nearly all the chiefs of the maloca or the village are menbecause of men's greater knowledge of nature and of Yawalapití history. It is the men's craftsmanship (woodcut, basketry, making feather adornments and flutes), language ability (the current chief, Aritana, is fluent in nine languages, including Portuguese), or fishing skills that are important. These abilities have a positive reflection in the political and sexual life of the society. There is marked segregation of the sexes. It is forbidden for women to visit the men's house and attend evening meetings or to smoke in front of the men's house. Women try to influence the society by influencing their husbands and fathers. The Brazilian government made an effort to offer benefits for chiefs and their families.

Political Organization. Kinship and marriage are still the primary links in the community. Each maloca has its own chief, as does the village.

Social Control. Rules fixing the relationships between kin are recognized. One rule that is strictly followed is the extreme respect shown by a man to his in-laws. A man is not allowed to speak directly to his parents-in-laws or to call his brothers-in-law by name. Sometimes a fight between men occurs over a woman, but fatal injuries rarely result.

Conflict. In the past the Yawalapití were at war when defending against raids from the east, especially from the Trumái group and later from the Chikão group. These events are now recalled only by the elders, who heard of them from their parents. The battles were commemorated in the war game (irharáka ), in which men painted as jaguars fought among themselves by throwing long arrows with a wax-ball tip instead of a point. These games no longer occur: men vent their anger in wrestling (hukahuka ) or in soccer matches.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Christian influence on the Yawalapití has been negligible, owing to the absence of Christian missions in the region. For this reason, traditional animism prevails. The Yawalapití believe in many spirits. The common name for all spirits is apapalotápu. The aquatic spirit, kwahalu, is hairy and the spirit of the earth, yacula (which also means "a shadow"), is very dangerous. To meet him means death to the Yawalapití. In this context, it is strictly forbidden to pronounce a dead person's name is strictly forbidden, for fear of his or her soul's reappearance.

Religious Practitioners. The Yawalapití distinguish different types of shamans (pajé ) : the rulers of demonic spirits, the rulers of magic, and herbalists. The shaman's healing treatment consists of smoking tobacco cigars, blowing tobacco smoke over the patient's body, and sucking out the evil, which he wrecks with the purgative fume and crushes with his foot. The shaman himself becomes narcotized and reaches a level of ecstasy. Other pajé use biomagnetics, and the herbalist uses medicinal plants.

Ceremonies. The initiation ceremony of Yawalapití girls is called Yamuricuma. Prior to her initiation, a girl lets her hair grow to her chin. When the ceremony starts, the girl's hair is cut. The girls are decorated and painted like men, their heads are adorned with diadems, and they dance and sing and use bows and arrows. Later the girls wrestle and they also undergo the rite for clarifying the skin on their arms, thighs, and backs with a fish-tooth instrument. Initiation is a ceremony during which an exceptional girl can be chosen to be the future wife of a future chief. Boys, before their initiation, are isolated for two to three years in the corner of the maloca beyond a mat, where the fathers and grandfathers are in charge of preparing them for adulthood. The Pihiká ceremony is given after piquí fruits drop (October to November). The feast starts with dances, which last for two or three days. After that, the boys have to stand for the whole night, during which their auricles, in order to get anestethized, are smeared with juice from the jumu tree. The following morning the pajé performs the piercing of their earlobes with a sharp point of jaguar bone. In the successive two to three days the boys fast; they conclude the fast by taking a medicine that causes vomiting. The ceremony ends with new names being given to the boys.

Other feasts of the Yawalapití are Tapanawana (Festival of the Leaves), Takwara (Festival of the Flutes), Ihraráka (War Festival), Kuarup (Burial Festival), and Apapálu (Feast of the Sacred Flutes), when the men dress in a strip of jaguar's skin and blow the sacred flutes, which the women are not permitted to see. During the feasts and festivals, the Yawalapití drink a very slightly fermented juice from boiled fruits (piquí), which is held for some months under water. Scarifying the bodies of boys and girls is a prevalent custom, executed many times during their lives.

Medicine. In case of illness, the Yawalapití prefer the help of their pajé even if it is possible to call for medical care at Leonardo Villas Boas Indian Post. In cases of serious illness, one can fly to the hospital of São Félix de Araguaia or to Brasília in FUNAI or FAB airplanes. The Yawalapití believe that pain and illness originate in evil, which reside in the body of the patient in the form of small wooden pieces, stones, seeds, thorns, and the like. To get rid of the illness, the pajé has to remove the objects from the patient's body. He does so by shamanastic means: smoking, blowing the smoke over the patient's body, muttering chants, and sucking out and destroying the evil.

Death and Afterlife. All possessions that belong to a deceased man are buried together with him. The corpse is wrapped in its hammock and mat and is buried in front of the men's house. After one or two months of mourning, the Yawalapití men surround the burial ground with a low fence, the dead person's "house," made of logs of the sacred tree (mhári ). When the mourning period is ended, the Burial Festival (Kuarup) commences.


Ribeiro, Berta G. (1979). Diário do Xingu. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra.

Villas Boas, Orlando, and Cláudio Villas Boas (1975). Xingu: Os índios, seus mitos. Rio de Janerio: Zahar Editors.

Zarur, George (1975). Parentesco, ritual e economia no alto Xingu. Brasília: Fundaçao Nacional do Índio (FUNAI).