Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Guaraní

To the east of the lands of the Diaguita, beyond the Gran Chaco, lay the homeland of yet another agricultural warrior people, the Guaraní. Known for facilitating European encroachment rather than resisting it, the Guaraní’s origins and survival strategies explain their later reaction to the Europeans.

Bands of Guaraní occupied the semitropical forests of present-day Paraguay, southern Brazil, and northeastern Argentina. They had probably emigrated from the Amazon Basin of Brazil around 200 b.c., displacing and marginalizing the previous indigenous groups. The Guaraní peoples of the forests and rivers developed a civilization based on hunting, fishing, and slash-and-burn horticulture. They cut the trees, burned off the underbrush, planted and harvested crops for several years, then moved on, leaving the forest regrowth to replenish the fertility of the soil. Cultivation fell to the women, who raised maize, beans, sweet potatoes, peanuts, squash, and cassava.

Living patterns in the forest differed from the Andean pattern of the Diaguita. Extended families of Guaraní lived together in large, long straw-thatched huts. As many as 50 family members might live in the house of an important leader. They slept in hammocks suspended from the poles that supported the roof. Wooden palisades surrounded a village of 20 to 30 long houses, reminders of the incessant competition for resources and territory among native groups. Clothes made of feathers and animal skins warded off the winter’s cold. In the summer months, men and women customarily went about their chores entirely naked. Spanish men later mistook the casual style of dress as a sign of libidinousness.

The Guaraní, much like other indigenous groups throughout the Americas, observed strict roles defined by gender. Besides working in the fields, women took charge of preparing the meals, rearing the children, making pottery, and weaving baskets. Guaraní women also made the beverage chicha, which they infused with their own saliva before cooking and fermentation. Men developed skills as warriors and contributed to the diet through hunting and fishing. Guaraní boys customarily carried bows and arrows from childhood and used hunting as a way to perfect their combat skills. Chieftains and the more accomplished warriors practiced polygamy, having extensive households of several wives. Most men, however, had only one wife. Women faced death if caught in adultery, though they were allowed to separate from abusive or neglectful husbands.

Like their Brazilian cousins, the Guaraní were animistic in their religious beliefs. They identified natural forces such as the sun, sky, thunder, lightning, and rain as deities. Deities took on the forms of animals, especially birds, which held sacred meanings for the forest peoples. Shamans invoked these spirits in order to bring success in love, battle, and the harvest. Offerings, ritual dances, chants, and charms were used to ward off the darker forces of the universe.

Politically, the Guaraní maintained decentralized political units within their territories. Each group inhabited a defined area of territory throughout which its clans could fish, hunt, and engage in slash-andburn cultivation. Fighting between groups was not uncommon. Raiding and stealing formed part of the struggle for survival, and individual warriors shared political authority with shamans and chieftains. They used bows and poison-tipped arrows, wooden clubs, and spears as the weapons of choice for hunting and raiding. Few material possessions seemed to separate the Guaraní leaders from the followers, for tropical agriculture yielded the same low level of surplus as intermontane tillage did among the Diaguita. The hereditary chiefs and shamans did enjoy some material advantage over commoners, a difference counted in the number of wives they had since each wife represented field labor and personal service.

The more-or-less permanent settlements of these agriculturists made the Guaraní prey to raids and depredations of the nomadic peoples of the Gran Chaco and boat peoples who thrived along the riverbanks. The precariousness of life among the Guaraní explains why they later accepted Spanish warriors, who seemed to have magical weapons, as allies against their traditional rivals.