Monday, June 14, 2010

The Charrúa

Another major group of southern hunters who were to have early hostile relations with the Europeans were the Charrúa. These peoples consisted of five distinct groupings, all of whom were related linguistically and who inhabited the region of present-day Uruguay, southern Brazil, and northeastern Argentina. The Charrúa, like other southern hunters, shared a disdain of agriculture and lived on game, fish, wild fruits, and roots. They made their houses of woven mats hung between pole frames. The Charrúa dressed in skins during the winter and wore a leather apron in the summer; the males tattooed and painted their bodies, particularly before battle. The Charrúa also pierced their lips, ears, and noses, in which they placed feathers and shells. They built large canoes for fishing on the rivers and in the estuary of the Río de la Plata. The canoes of the Charrúa, according to an early European mariner, measured “10 to 12 fathoms [approximately 69 feet] in length and half a fathom [a little more than 3 feet] in width; the wood was cedar, very beautifully worked; they rowed them with very long paddles decorated by crests and tassels of feathers on the handles; and 40 standing men rowed each canoe” (Steward 1946, I:193). The men of the Charrúa hunted with bows and arrows, spears, and bolas. They were also very skilled at slinging jagged stones at game.

Political and social decentralization was the rule among the Charrúa also. These hunting groups resided in small dispersed groups on the grasslands of Uruguay and on the riverbanks of the lower Paraná Basin. Eight to 10 people inhabited each family hut, and a band of nomads comprised eight to 12 families altogether. Two or more groups might band together for warfare but otherwise kept to themselves. According to the first European missionaries who attempted to convert them to Christianity, the chieftains did not have a great deal of authority in the hunting bands, where fistfights between individuals sufficed to settle disputes. In battle, the warriors were merciless to enemy warriors and incorporated captured women and children into their bands as slaves or family members.