Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/January 1898/The Caingua of Paraguay



THE several tribes of Cainguá Indians are scattered through the immense forest region that extends from the Ygatini to the Monday, and from the central Cordillera of Paraguay to the banks of the upper Parana. In the midst of those grand yerbales (forests containing the maté, or Paraguay tea plant), these children of the forest dispute for their hunting grounds with the "Tupi," or refugee braves from Brazilian hostility. Like the latter, they belong to the Guarani-Brazilian race, and speak the Guarani language. They form numerous groups of population, divided off into small tribes that live isolated from one another, and assemble only occasionally to resist an invader or undertake some expedition. Like the ancient Guaranis, their native docility is so great that we can easily comprehend how the Jesuit missionaries gained an ascendency over them. There is no doubt in my mind that the Cainguá, whom I had an opportunity of studying, were subjected to that influence about two hundred years ago, and have since gradually fallen back, after the decline and ruin of the missions, into their primitive savagery. Of this bare contact with civilization they still retain their belief in a Supreme Being living in the sky, and know something of St. Thomas. But, aside from these rudimentary notions, their religion is null and destitute of every kind of outer worship. A few of the old men recollect some of the Latin hymns with which their ancestors rocked them to sleep, and they have preserved a hierarchical organization from the past.

Every tapui or village has its cacique, who is dependent in time of war on a supreme chief, and in time of war, too, has under his orders a series of officers bearing the titles of teniente (or lieutenant), sarjente (sergeant), and cabogrades (corporal). But in time of peace these grades imply no authority. The whites inspire a respectful fear in them, and while in their relations with us—which they rather avoid having—they behave honestly, the honesty is the result of dread of the white man's presence.

Recognizing the value of the protection of the white man, they would more frequently have recourse to him for defense against the Tupi, but that they would have to pay for that protection by the servitude into which they would fall. Now they avoid, the white man too, and it is only the desire of exchanging labor for objects of prime necessity that prompts them to give their services in the collection of yerba or maté, and the getting out of building timber.

Their tapuis or villages are situated in the depth of the forest in a clearing, or on its edge near a stream. When they are a short distance from a navigable river, the people make a path that leads to the place on the shore where the canoe used in fishing is moored. These villages generally contain only a very limited number of families, each of which has its own house. At a shorter or longer distance away, in an artificial clearing, are small plantations of manioc, yams, and maize, which are reached by paths cut through the thicket.

The house of the Cainguá is smaller, but better built, than the Paraguayan ranch. The frame of roughly hewn trunks of trees supports a thatched roof and bamboo walls covered with a layer of mud mixed with plant stalks. These houses have no windows; the low and narrow roof is usually furnished with a large palm leaf as a portière. The floor of the cabin is made of beaten earth, and the furnishings are simple and rude. A single piece of furniture that is never wanting is the tatou, a kind of seat made out of a rudely shaped piece of wood which in form resembles the animal (the armadillo) after which it is named.

The Cainguá have no beds, but usually sleep on the ground. The few hammocks they have, formed of a bundle of leathern strips bound together by transverse knots, are considered objects of luxury reserved for the men. Antonio, a young Indian whose guest we were for about five days, found it quite natural to rest in the hammock from fancied fatigues, while his poor little wife, hardly a dozen years old, lay upon the bare ground at a nearly freezing temperature, although she was in a delicate condition. Some bamboo bundles, set a short distance above the ground, were not beds, like those we saw among the Toba Indians in the Chaco, but supports on which provisions were piled in anticipation of the heavy rains. Large calabashes for carrying water were hung on the walls of the cabin, as were also the spare arrows, the crop of wild cotton, and all the thousand nothings which these big children have the craze for collecting.

The fire is built out of doors when the weather permits it; but when it is raining, or is cold, it occupies the place of honor in the cabin, and men and animals sit around the blaze without seeming to be troubled by the smoky atmosphere. Fire is obtained by means of two sticks of dry wood, one of which, held tight between the feet, receives the end of the other. The second stick is revolved between the hands with a rapidity on the degree of which the production of the desired spark depends. The water is boiled on the fire for the maté, which is taken without sugar by means of a reed pipe; and the game is roasted there. If the weather is rainy, and laziness does not overcome the disposition to work, as it generally does, the man, smoking his pipe, weaves baskets and sieves for household use, and his wife oversees the preparations for the meal, or spins cotton, from which she makes a very durable cloth.

The men are generally well built and of medium stature; their limbs, especially in youth, are well developed—a result of their constant handling of large bows and their fondness for long walks. The color of their skin is a fine bronze, with variations that are largely dependent on the relative cleanliness of different individuals. With the bachelors, the ebony hair is worn flat, and covers the nape, while the married men wear it short and curled. Generally they wear no ornaments on the hair; but if there is occasion for it, the Cainguá bind their locks with a colored kerchief and perhaps put in a few feathers. Some travelers have spoken of tribes marked by their lighter tint and blond hair; so far as we have been able to find, there exist a few families in which albinism is hereditary, and this is probably what gave origin to the legend. Their face is full and round, the nose somewhat flattened, and the nostrils open, made so by the people's enlarging them with their fingers. The middle part of the lower lip is turned outward and pierced. The eyes, oblique, and always looking outward, give the physiognomy a very mild, even feminine, character.

The masculine dress consists of drawers terminating in fringes and bound in front and behind by a belt of braided hair; and for ornament a double collar is worn of the hard seeds of certain vegetable species mingled with variously colored bits of glass and vertebrae of small reptiles colored brown with quebracho. Under this collar a little pocket of raw hide holds the chewing tobacco. All, young and old, men and women, wear the barbote, or a hole in the lower lip, by means of which they can perfectly imitate the various cries of birds. The flesh is bored for this at about four years of age with a sharpened bamboo stick; then, to prevent cicatrization, the orifice is kept open by drawing through it occasionally a leaf of dry grass. The higher caciques, we are told, alone have the right to wear in it, as a mark of their dignity, a plug of hardened yellow and transparent resin in the shape of a T.

The women are small in stature; their forms are slighter than those of the men. Their hands are very fine, and their hair is seldom combed. Their dress consists of a sort of small skirt folded around the form and descending to above the knees. Like the men, they go out barefooted, with the chest covered with several strings of beads, to which they sometimes attach a few bones for amulets. They also wear bracelets of hair, and eardrops composed of a string of red and white pearls, ending in a small triangle of nacre from one of the shells of the country. When young, they are quite attractive, although disfigured by the painting with which they mark their faces, consisting of a series of horizontal and vertical lines traced with charcoal dust, or a layer of beeswax which they put upon their skin. To be fresh, it has to be renewed every day. The young men also employ it to make themselves pleasing to their sweethearts, but married men put on no colors.

The children wear a miniature breeches or small petticoat; only the babies are naked. The feeling of modesty is so well developed among these Indians that it was a hard task to get one of these children's costumes, and still harder for the young fellow to exchange his breeches for the handkerchief we gave him.

The life of the Cainguá is divided between hunting and fishing. His arms, which he is never without, consist of a bow and a bundle of four arrows. The bow is about six feet long, and the arrows are nearly five feet. They are of guaiacum wood and the strings are of caraguáto (a vegetable fiber). In exchange for working in the yerbales, the Cainguá obtains from the whites machetes, knives, cooking utensils, and farming implements.

His fishing canoe is hollowed very patiently in a cedar log. The hooks come from abroad, and the line is made of fibers of the caraguáto, or some other textile plant. They shoot their arrows aiming them directly at the object or firing them first into the air; for this purpose they throw the bust back, an exercise which develops the muscular system in a remarkable way. They never lay themselves on the back to shoot, as most of the Brazilian Indians do. Their skill is very great, but their game bags are often very scantily filled. The game is generally composed of various species of birds, which they stun by means of an arrow ending in a wooden knob. Two other arrows, ending in points barbed in various ways, and of hard wood, are styled war-arrows, while a fourth kind, the only one having a metal point, is reserved for the tapir.

In hunting this animal—an important feature in the life of the young Cainguá—they display all their knowledge and all their skill. Perched on high trees or hidden in the underwood, they wait for the animal to pass, and wound it mortally with their steel-pointed arrows. A merciless pursuit then begins, and does not end till the timid, harassed pachyderm dies of exhaustion. The chase of the jaguar is more perilous, and sometimes ends in a fight at close quarters.

The Cainguá also set traps, and sometimes travel for hours in the underbrush to visit them, with their arms in their hands and their provisions in their bocco, or basket made of caraguáto fibers, which they carry slung over their shoulders. When game is scarce, or indolence keeps them in their lodges, they hunt the rats and field mice that swarm in their winter's provisions; the victims, slain with sticks, are immediately put upon the fire just as they are, and devoured on the spot.

Work in the house and the fields devolves upon the women. They carry their burdens on their backs in a pretty basket. They make blackish earthen vessels out of a clay which they go a considerable distance to get. Another finer earth is the material of a pipe in which the husband smokes the leaves of a wild tobacco. Contrary to the Paraguayans, the women do not smoke. In one family we saw a horn spoon like that of the Lengua Indians of the Chaco. Aside from the dogs and the hens which only the rich possess, the Cainguá have no domestic animals. The parrots which are seen quite numerously in the villages, tied by one foot to a light clog, are there only as a reserve for the kitchen.

The only formality which the swain has to go through to get the hand of his promised one is to kill a tapir, an act by which he proves that he will be capable of supporting his prospective family. The death of a tapir under such conditions is quite an event; the whole tribe assembles at the carcass, and a scene of gluttony begins that does not cease till nothing is left but the skin and bones of the "great beast." That is the only ceremony of marriage. The Cainguá is usually monogamous, but polygamy is allowed. Marriages of relatives are carefully avoided. After confinement, the young mother has a rest of a few days before resuming her servile task. She carries the newborn infant in a scarf, or sort of little hammock slung over her shoulders. She does not think of weaning it for a year and a half or two years, while the child has already been exercised in arms with miniature bows. Ideas of cleanliness seem foreign to the women as well as to the men, and it is a lucky chance that will induce them to comb their magnificent heads of hair. Like the big children they are, they burst into laughter at nothings, and laugh immoderately at whatever is new to them. Never shall I forget the hilarity and curiosity which possessed our friends of Puerto Venezia as they watched me one day changing my clothing. The braves, squatting on their toes or leaning against the wall, pointed at each article of dress, and were greatly amused at the specimens of the refinement of our civilization of which they evidently could not understand the bearing.

Their musical feeling is still in infancy, and their musical instruments are extremely primitive. They play the simplest kinds of airs on a bamboo flute or a guitar rudely imitated from the Paraguayans, and dance or rather jump to them with their feet held together or pushed one before the other, holding the lobes of their ears between the thumb and forefinger. Sometimes the dancers wear also a belt composed of a series of hoofs of animals, which, clattering against one another, make a noise like that of a little bell. They hold a rattle in their hands, shaking it rapidly, which consists of a kind of fiddle-case rudely cut with a knife, containing bits of glass.

Their feeling of jealousy goes to the extreme, and dominates all other feelings. It is the direct or indirect cause of all the crimes and all the personal and tribal quarrels. The stranger, whom they nevertheless fear, may even sometimes run the danger of his life if he betrays too tender sentiments toward one of the damsels of the woods. In the first village we visited, the mere fact of our stopping a moment to look at the girls in order to study the arrangement of the designs with which they were decorated aroused the susceptibilities of their lawful lovers, and prevented our getting several things we wanted. Further, a young man who had probably not yet succeeded in killing his tapir, turned the bare blade of his machete nervously in his hand at seeing my companion trying the weight of his intended's eardrops before offering to buy them.

Notwithstanding their entire want of religion, the Cainguá, have a vague idea of a future life; for after the interment of a deceased relative they deposit on the new grave the arms of the departed and provisions for the journey which they evidently suppose to be possible. Their innate indolence, which only the Jesuit fathers were able to contend with successfully, and their indifference are likely to keep them for a long time backward in civilization.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Bulletin de la Société Neuchâteloise de Géographie.