Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Tupian and Tupi-Guarani

    The Tupían language family is one of the widest spread in South America, and its largest branch, Tupí-Guaraní, was one of the first indigenous American language families to be encountered by Europeans. Some Tupinamba people - Tupí speakers from the Brazilian coast - were likely some of the first indigenous Americans to visit Europe, arriving in Rouen to dance in the streets for the gawking townsfolk in 1550.  Tupían-speaking people were probably encountered on Francisco de Orellana's tragic, extraordinarily violent, somewhat-accidental exploration of the Amazon in 1541/2.  Gaspar de Carvajal's chronicle of the trip seems to have preserved a couple of Tupian words, likely of Omagua origin, spoken in a large kingdom that Carvajal named 'Aparia'.  Guaraní, a reasonably close relative of Tupí, is one of the national languages of Paraguay, and may be the only indigenous American language to be spoken by a large number of non-indigenous people.

    All of which makes me want to write about it.

Possibly the classic image of cannibalism, and the ultimate origin of the pervasive motifs of cannibals cooking European explorers in large pots, this is an original woodcut from Hans Staden's mid-sixteenth century account of living as a captive among the Tupinamba, one of the more prominent groups of Tupian-speaking peoples in the historical record.

    From Tupí we get the words jaguar and mandioca, from which we derive the English 'manioc' (Manihot esculenta), a rot-resistant and nutritious staple food that is now the second most important tropical crop in the world.  Like other largely riverine Amerindian groups, Tupían speakers are commonly associated with canoes, bows and arrows, and manioc agriculture. Tupí-Guaraní speakers use(d) a device called a tipití, a woven tube that compresses shredded bitter manioc through gravitational force to leach the poisonous juices from the tuber.  (Tipití is also the name of a prominent journal focusing on lowland South America.)  It is unlikely that bows were present in Amazonia when the family expanded, so they must be a later addition.

A tipití.  Shredded or pounded manioc is put inside with water added, and it is hung up for the poisonous fluid, tucupi, to leach out.  h/t Wiki, Flickr.

    The Tupían homeland is generally believed to have been in what is now Rondonia, Brazil, a part of southwestern Amazonia associated with the botanical origins of manioc and peanuts.  This is the centre of Tupían linguistic diversity (most branches of Tupían are found there), and it is also considered probable that Tupí-Guaraní originally set out from slightly south and east of the same area.  Peter Bellwood, who has written about almost every language family under the sun, believes that Tupían languages spread with the origins of manioc agriculture, and there don't seem to be any strong reasons for objecting to this.

    Dates for Tupían are hard to establish; Aryon Rodrigues originally suggested a date of c.5000 BP for Tupían, but 3600 BP has also been suggested.  Ceramics are reportedly not particularly useful for dating Tupían, although there is a ceramic tradition common to Tupí-Guaraní speakers, known unsurprisingly as the Tupiguarani tradition, that has proven useful in reconstructing their past distribution.  American archaeologist Michael Heckenberger says it is
most clearly hallmarked by its thin bi-chrome painting (red on white slip), body corrugation, and thin-walled vessel forms.
    A timeline for the Tupí-Guaraní expansion can therefore be established based on the radiocarbon dates of this ceramic tradition: Heckenberger gives 2500-1500 BP (up to about 500 CE) for the phenomenon, corroborated by the Brazilian archaeologist Francisco Silva Noelli.  Dates after 1 CE have been given for Tupiguarani finds up and down the Brazilian coast and into Paraguay, indicating that Tupí- and Guaraní-speaking tribes were almost certainly present in these areas for a good thousand years before the arrival of Europeans, living in permanent villages and farming manioc.
Ceramics of the Tupiguarani tradition.  You can just about make out the red colours and the faded white slip.  For chemical analysis, see here.  h/t Ricardo Frantz - Wiki, User: Tetraktys.

    Some Tupí-Guaraní speakers are or were nomadic when first contacted, and there have been a few recorded instances of large-scale migrations led by prophets in post-Columbian times.  In Heckenberger's summary of the views of the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Tupí-Guaraní people are characterised by their 'other-worldly, mobile, [and] predatory' cultures.  Noelli, who has published several significant papers on Tupían, nevertheless characterises Tupían communities in general as 'highly sedentary'.

    It is possible that they are both right, with Viveiros de Castro describing the post-Columbian Tupí-Guaraní and Noelli's description instead pertaining only to the pre-Columbian Tupían world as a whole.  It is hard to be sure what Tupían people were like in pre-Columbian times, and post-Columbian comparative ethnology is unlikely to give a firm indication.

    Tupían was one of the most widely spread families in pre-Columbian times, and could be found from the vicinity of Rio de Janeiro to Asuncion in Paraguay and the cloud forests of the Andean-Amazonian border region.  Guaraní speakers raided Inka settlements, even collaborating with early European explorers in South America in fighting Andean peoples before the conquest of the Inka empire in 1532.  Tupían peoples along the Amazon, if Carvajal's account is to be believed, also appear to have formed large and powerful polities supposedly typical of the Amazonian floodplain (varzea).  Speakers of proto-Tupían may have been associated with one of the most important domestication events in human history, one which gave us the extraordinarily nutritious peanut and the carbohydrate-packed manioc, and they clearly contradict the claim that the Americas were static and migration-less in the pre-Columbian era.

     For more information:

Bellwood, Peter. 2013.  First migrants.  Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 224-228.

Heckenberger, Michael.  2008.  Amazonian mosaics: identity, interaction, and integration in the tropical forest.  Silverman and Isbell (eds).  Handbook of South American archaeology.  New York: Springer.  pp. 941-961.

Noelli, Francisco Silva.  2008.  The Tupí expansion.  Silverman and Isbell (eds).  Handbook of South American archaeology.  New York: Springer.  pp. 659-670.

Rodrigues, Aryon and
Cabral, Ana.  2012.  Tupían.  Campbell, Lyle, and Verónica Grondona (eds). The indigenous languages of South America: a comprehensive guide. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.  pp. 495-574.

Also see my posts on:

Language Contact in South America 
'The Ecology of Power' by Michael Heckenberger 
Violence in Pre-Colonial Amazonia

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