Guarani women perform a song to demonstrate the government having taken their land

Anthropology: The Guarani History, Culture, and Present Day

Members of the Guarani tribe. credit@ LifeGate

Inhabiting the forests of Paraguay, Argentina, southern Brazil, Bolivia and Uruguay are the Guarani people, a group of indigenous tribes of South America. They were once a thriving group and their population spanned more land than now, but the Europeans’ arrival spelt doom for them. But even then, what is left of the Guarani now fight back and cling to their culture.


Contact with the Europeans

Brazil: Kaiowá-Guarani Indian assassinated | Latin America Bureau
Guarani during early times. credit@ Latin America Bureau

When the Europeans arrived in South America, the Guarani were one of the first people they came in contact with. Gonzalo de Mendoza, a Spanish colonizer and conquistador, crossed the border of Paraguay and entered Brazil in 1537. While returning, he met the Guarani and founded Asunción, which would later become the capital city of Paraguay. The first governor of Guayrá (a historical region of the Spanish Empire, now located in present-day Paraguay and Paraná) passed a policy stating that European men and indigenous women could marry. During the time, the Laws of the Indies strictly forbade slavery, but this did not completely prevent it from happening.

The Spanish Jesuit reduction of Sao Miguel das Missoes, Brazil.
The Spanish Jesuit reduction of Sao Miguel das Missoes, Brazil. credit@ Wikipedia

Father Barcena and Father Angulo were the first two Jesuit priests who arrived in 1585 in the present-day State of Paraná, Southern Brazil. More Jesuits followed, and soon, a Jesuit college was established in Asunción. In 1608, the Jesuits protested against slavery of the indigenous people, which led King Philip III of Spain to authorize the Jesuits to colonize and convert the Guarani tribes. During the earlier times of Asunción, the catechism was translated into the Guarani language and preached to the natives by Father Luis de Bolaños. And it wasn’t just the Jesuits that walked the regions- Franciscan friars crossed the borders too. St. Francis Solanus arrived at Asunción by crossing the Chaco forests from Peru in 1589. However, he paid no attention to the indigenous people, which enabled the Jesuits to continue their missionary work and defend the tribes from slave dealers. In 1607, the Jesuit provincial Torres arrived and became the head of the group that defended the natives from slave traders.

A change of name

The name of the tribe, ‘Guarani,’ has an interesting history. Before the Europeans arrived, the Guarani people called themselves Abá, which simply means ‘men’ or ‘people.’ When the Europeans arrived with their Jesuit missionaries, their influence led to some of the natives converting to Christianity. Those who did so were named ‘Guarani,’ by the missionaries. Researchers believe that the name was given because it meant ‘warrior’ in the Tupi-Guarani dialect spoken in the region. As for those members of the tribe who rejected Christianity and held on to their native beliefs, they were called Cayuga or Caingua, a name when roughly translated means ‘the ones from the jungle.’ The term Cayuga is still used to refer to the indigenous people who live apart and haven’t integrated into mainstream society. In modern times, however, the term Guarani includes all members of the tribes, regardless of their religion or societal status.

Slavery and the Paraguayan Missions

During those times, the town of São Paulo, Brazil served as the central depot for the slave trade. It was originally a meeting place for the Portuguese and Dutch pirates and later, a hiding place for criminals. These people didn’t just mix with the Native American and African women but were also actively involved in capturing and selling the natives as slaves. To defend themselves, the tribes only had their bows and arrows. Countless Guarani either lost their lives or were enslaved.

King Philip III of Spain.
King Philip III of Spain. credit@ Wikipedia

In 1607, the governor of Rio de Plata, Hernandarias de Saavedra, received instructions from King Philip III to send newly arrived Jesuit priests to continue the missionary work. Three years later, Loreto, the first Guayrá mission, was established by Father Joseph Cataldino and Father Simon Macerata on the Paranapanema. The missionary work wasn’t without difficulties. Some of the Guarani Chiefs initially refused to be converted, until they came under the threat of other indigenous groups. The Jesuit missions were the only possible way to protect themselves from enslavement, so the Chiefs had to give in. Members of the tribe flocked in such large numbers to the Jesuits that more missions were established. The Jesuits acted as intermediaries between the Guarani chiefs and the Spanish authorities. The Guarani helped the Jesuits by growing crops that sustained the growing population and by selling the produce to fund the missions. The success of the Guarani tribe in Brazil led Father González and two companions to travel to Uruguay in 1627 to establish missions. However, it ended in disaster- the local tribes murdered the priests and destroyed their missions. 

Out of nearly 100,000 natives, only a few thousand were left to convert. So Father Antonio Ruiz de Montoya bought 10,000 cattle and converted the natives from farmers to stock raisers. Eventually, under Fathers Rançoncier and Romero, the missions in Uruguay were re-established. For the slave traders, the Jesuit missions meant more opportunities to capture and enslave the natives. In 1629, Paulistas (Brazilian frontiersmen) surrounded the San Antonio mission, burned down the church and slaughtered those who either resisted, were too old or young to travel. Those who lived were enslaved. The next two years saw the merciless destruction of the missions- establishments were razed to the ground, priests killed, and more than 60,000 Christian converts were sold as slaves in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The slave traders usually attacked on Sunday when the entire population gathered for Mass.

Repeated attacks by slave traders caused the missions in Uruguay to be abandoned in 1638. The converts were consolidated with the community of the Missions Territory. That same year, Father Montoya sailed to Europe. The trip proved fruitful- one, he was able to obtain letters from Pope Urban VIII that forbade slavery under severe church penalties, and two, King Philip IV of Spain permitted the Guarani to carry firearms for protection.

When the Paulista army attacked again in 1641, they were fought off by countless natives armed with guns. The defeat of the Paulista kept them away for ten years. Subsequent attacks after 1651 were warded off too. By 1732, there were 141,252 converted Guarani. However, smallpox outbreaks in 1734 and 1765 more than 40,000 of them.

The Treaty of Madrid and the expulsion of the Jesuits

A copy of the Treaty of Madrid, signed in 1750.
A copy of the Treaty of Madrid, signed in 1750. Credit@ Institute of American History

The Treaty of Madrid signed between Spain and Portugal in 1750 transferred the territory of the missions in Uruguay to Portugal. The Guarani refused to leave the land as they knew the Portuguese as slave-hunters. What followed was seven years of bloody war. The Jesuits were eventually able to secure a royal decree that restored the territory to Spanish jurisdiction. More missions were established.

The year 1767 saw the Jesuits being expelled from the Spanish territories by royal decree. Despite having an army amounting to 14,000, the Jesuits did not resist the order. It was the Guarani Chiefs who asked the Governor of Buenos Aires in 1768 to order the Jesuits to stay. The request went unheeded.

Decline of the missions and aftermath

After the Jesuits left, their missions were turned over to priests from other orders, chief of which were Franciscans. But the regulations were drawn up by the viceroy based on the Jesuit system. The missions declined rapidly due to political and regulatory chaos. A majority of the Guarani returned to the countryside. What remained of the few thousands of Guarani did not fare well- sheep, cattle and horses had disappeared, their orchards and fields were either cut down or overgrown and the churches were destroyed. The revolutionary struggles did not improve matters either.

Upon the departure of the Jesuits, the Guarani who did not return to the forests became ‘Civilized Indians.’ The Guarani had now become educated Catholics, thanks to the Jesuits, so they used their knowledge and became citizens, holding down various professions. The Guarani thus became an integral part of society, shaping the country’s future and identity.

Eastern Bolivian Guarani

Ava Guaraní people.
Ava Guaraní people. credit@ Wikipedia

Living among the foothills of the Andes were the Eastern Bolivian Guarani, called the Chiriguanos. They have a different history from the other Guarani people. The Chiriguanos did not take well to those who came to their land. Noteworthy for their warlike character, this group was hostile to the Spanish, the Inca Empire and the independent state of Bolivia. The Jesuits did not have much success with the group, but in the 19th century, the Franciscans were able to convert numerous natives.

Amongst the Eastern Bolivian Guarani, there are three main subgroups based on historical and dialectical differences. The Ava Guarani, with a population of around 50,000, live in the Andean foothills. The Simba Guarani live near the Pilcomayo River and are identified by their men, who traditionally braid their hair. They are sometimes referred to as the Guarani katui. The Tapɨi of Izozog or the Izoceño Guarani live in the region of Izozo near the Parapetí River.

Preserving the culture and language

Earlier, the Guarani villages were made of communal houses with 10 to 15 families. Common interests and language brought together communities. Tribal groups were formed based on dialects. When the Europeans first encountered the Guarani, their number amounted to around 400,000. They mostly depended on agriculture and cultivated maize, manioc and honey.

Guarani women perform a song to demonstrate the government having taken their land
credit@ Latin American Reports

Despite the slave traders, dealing with smallpox and the eventual decline of the Jesuit missions, the Guarani people persist, upholding their culture. Almost all the tribes inhabiting the forests at the border of Paraguay are Guarani. Many of them are descendants of mission exiles.

Today, the Guarani language is one of the official languages in Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia and Mato Grosso do Sul in Brazil. August 25th is celebrated as Guarani Language Day (the day on which the language was granted constitutional ranking.) Most of the population in Paraguay speak Guarani. The language was once considered inferior by the middle and upper class, but now, it is regarded with pride. In Paraguay, people learn Guarani both formally (taught in public schools) and informally (social interaction). The Chaco in Paraguay also uses Guarani.

Presenting books written in Guarani to be used in schools.
Presenting books written in Guarani to be used in schools. credit@ teleSUR English

The Guarani literature covers a wide range of topics. The Jesuit priests played an important role by writing many works in Guarani. Many English words, such as ‘toucan,’ ‘tapioca,’ and ‘jaguar’ have Guarani roots.

The Guarani language has various dialects depending upon the location. The Guarani people who live in Argentina mainly speak the Mbya-Guarani. This is quite different from the Tupi-Guarani and Guarani-Jopara which are spoken in Brazil and Paraguay. In August 2009, Bolivia established a Guarani-language university at Kuruyuki, bearing the name of Apiaguaiki Tumpa.

Beliefs, myths and legends

Not much is known about the early Guarani people’s beliefs. It is speculated that they practised some form of animistic pantheism which survives today in the form of myths and folklore. Accounts from some Jesuit priests claim that the Guarani practised cannibalism at one point in time as a funerary ritual. But later, the dead were disposed of in huge jars placed inverted on the ground. Guarani folklore is widespread throughout Paraguay. Researchers have divided the legends into broad categories:

Cosmogenic and eschatological myths

The Guarani believe that the creation and destruction of the universe are controlled by Ñamandu, whom they believe to be ‘the true father’ or ‘the first one.’ Below him comes a group of gods. The chief among these gods is Yporú, who is otherwise called Tupã. The God who rules the night is Jasy, while Aña is a God who dwells at the bottom of the Iguazu River.

Animistic mythology

Another belief of the Guarani is that plants, animals and minerals can become anthropomorphic beings or can be the transmuted souls of people who are either dead or yet to be born. Some of these legends include that of the Lobizón (a werewolf-like creature), Mainumby or the hummingbird who carries the good spirits from flowers to Tupá. Isondú or glowworms and Panambi or butterflies are reincarnations of certain people. Yerba, a sacred herb, is the reincarnation of a woman named Ka’a Jarýi. The giant lily was a woman who turned into a flower as she fell in love with the moon.


Pombero. credit@ Wikipedia

The Pombero are goblins who live in the forests. Chief among these are Jasy Jatere, Kuarahy Jára and Kurupi. Jasy Jatere is described as a dwarf with a thick beard and blond hair. One version claims that he is a handsome fellow who lives in tree trunks, naked. Other stories claim that he is an ugly old man with twisted feet and loves honey. He kidnaps kids, licks them and then either wraps them up in climbing plants or drowns them in rivers. To keep him at bay, the natives leave honey in places in the forests where the natives believe he hides. As for Kuarahy Jára, he protects the birds from boys who try to harm them. Kurupi is a dwarf who has hypnotic eyes, skin covered in scales and a humungous penis with which he impregnates women.

The Iguazu Falls
The Iguazu Falls. credit@ Audley Travel

The Iguazu Falls are also revered by the Guarani. They believe that the sounds of ancient battles can be heard there. It is also where I- Yara (a Pombero spirit) abducted a maiden named Angá and hid her. The swallows that are native to the place search for her every day.

Present-day scenario

The Kaiowá protest for their land rights.
The Kaiowá protest for their land rights. Credit@ openDemocracy

Today, the Guarani can be found residing in Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Bolivia. They are of three groups: Kaiowá, Ñandeva and M’byá, of which Kaiowá (meaning ‘forest people’) are the largest. They were initially wanderers who believed that seeking new lands would grant them immortality. However, the theft of their land by ranchers has left them living in small patches of land. These lands are surrounded by ranches and farms. Living in overcrowded conditions means they are constantly threatened by malnutrition and disease. Their current life is so different from what their ancestors dictated that many of the natives have committed suicide rather than live as they are now. Peaceful attempts by the tribe leaders to get back their land from the ranchers have led to their murders, for which the ranchers have gone unquestioned. More than a decade ago, the Brazilian government signed agreements with the Guarani tribe which identified the ranchers’ lands as their ancestral lands. However, surveys of the land haven’t been carried out, nor do the authorities recognize the natives’ right to their lands. So, living in overcrowded lands and setting up camps at roadsides continue to wreak havoc on the tribes. Despite the hardships that they endure, the Guarani people persist and their culture is preserved in their beliefs, language and traditions.

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