Part III: The Rain Forest Indians
Of the complex Indian societies of Mexico and Peru an abundance of archeological and historical evidence survives. These high mountain cultures developed cities and various forms of visual communication. Their societies were large and composed of layers of power with the authority to distribute goods to the people.
The rain forest Indians developed differently, in response to their natural environment. Where their counterparts grew complicated life styles in a demanding geography, the rain forest Indians had no need to develop protective clothing nor systems to store and distribute food. The natural action of the jungle is decay, to erode objects, so we have no archeology to study. Rain forest Indian groupings were relatively small, 400 to 800, in relation to the food sources. They were migratory as well, in an ancient pattern of the moveable feast. They developed no written language and no complicated political leadership. What we know of them we have gleaned from anthropological studies, from the European writers of the time, and from the rain forest Indians who survived the first five hundred years of conquest and are still struggling to maintain their culture.
The Indians in the Amazon and La Plata rain forests belong to the Tupi Guarani language group. They are small, with rounded flat faces, and broad. Their language is earthly and onomatopoetic. They are a forest people. Their clothing was limited. The raw forest environment is warm and humid, the temperature staying near 80°. In temperament they are described as friendly and gentle, though ferocious in battle. Pendle describes their religion as “a mythology which enabled them to live in harmony with the prolific plant and animal life around them.” (Pendle, p.5). Lupang, the central deity, was present in all nature, and capable only of good, omnipresent and omnibenificent. He did not punish. The other gods were the protectors of various flora and fauna. Only one god was malevolent.
The Tupi Guarani Indians lived in innumerable small tribes. Their small villages were temporary, typically built inside a crude stockade along a river bank. Thatched huts with hammocks sheltered the extended family groups of one hundred people. Kinship was patrilineal, and marriage was typically monogamous. The governance was most frequently by council, but a shaman was an important presence. Their agriculture amid the plenty of the rain forest basin included the slash and burn cultivation of the staple manioc. Though generally nude, they did engage in body ornamentation. Geometric designs were painted on face and body, and nose, lip and ear ornaments might include feathers, stones or wooden discs.
The Guaranies knew of the high mountain Inca Empire to the west. Some authors suggest that the Guaranies pushed west from the river drainage. Others suggest that some lowland rain forest Indians of other language groups may be the remnants of peoples fleeing the Inca expansion.
The early interaction between the Indians and Europeans is variously described. Burns quotes the Portuguese da Nobrega, as saying that the Indians were “blank paper upon which we can write at will.” (Burns, p. 41). Pendle says that “Guarani women willingly bore children to white men” (Pendle, p. 9). In the beginning, the Europeans found the Guaranies to be childlike, and innocent. Later, the Guaranies proved themselves to be fierce. As in war, the Europeans described them as brutal and savage. Their self sufficiency, their harmony with nature let the Europeans to find them indolent and unsatisfactory as workers.