Nambiquara – Nambikwara Indians

The Nambiquara tribe, also spelled Nambikwara, reside in the southwestern part of the Brazilian Amazon. The word “Nambi” means mouth. “Kwara” is a small palm reed dart that is worn in a hole in the lower lip. The Nambiquara are especially noted for their unique nasal flute, played under the nostril using natural respiration. Other names for this tribe have been Tanamare, Cabixi, and Waikoakore – “those that sleep on the floor” due to the lack of a hammock in their material culture.

necklace is made of hand carved bead from the shell
This beautiful necklace is made of hand carved bead from the shell of a land turtle.

The Nambiquara, or Nambikwara, territory encompasses the Brazilian states of Rondonia and Mato Grosso located in the western part of the country. The Nambiquara nation is one of the major indigenous ethnic groups residing in this area. The tribe is known by other names, including the Cabixi, the Aleketusu, Anunsu and variations on the spelling of Nambiquara. Some sources say that the Cabrixi applied to the population prior to the Rondon Commission’s exploration of the area, after which they became known as the Nambiquara. There are also many subgroups of Nambiquara, each with their own name. This makes it very challenging to collate information about their history.

French “father of anthropology, Claude Levi-Strauss, and his wife, Dina, extensively studied the Nambiquara civilization in the 1930s. He believed that the savage brain was no different in structure from the civilized brain and that people are the same everywhere.

Most sources seem to agree that these people existed peacefully until the early 1700s when gold was discovered in western Brazil. Before the arrival of the white man, the Nambiquara lived off the land. They made their living by fishing, hunting and tending small gardens. Their first encounter with a more “developed” civilization took place in the 1700s with the arrival of the Brazilian explorer, Xenopus Rondon. At that time, their population numbered between 10,000 and 15,000. In the intervening years between the turn of the 17th century and 1930, the combination of culture shock, disease (mostly smallpox, tuberculosis and measles) and violence had whittled their numbers down to around 500.

In the 1980s, the World Bank financed the construction of a road through the Nambiquara land connecting Rondonia to the southeastern states of Brazil. By the year 2000, the indigenous population had “recovered” to between 1,000 and 2,000 people. Today, they live in small villages on the Guapore and Juruena rivers. Cattle ranchers have claimed their once extensive lands.

The indigenous style of habitation differed among the three different regions of the Nambiquara territory. Homes in the north were conical, while those in the Guapore region were large and elongated. In the Juruena region they tended to be smaller and semi-spherical. The villages of the Indians of Serra do Norte in the elevated region in the north were described as being built on the tops of small hills, often as far away as a kilometer or more from the nearest source of fresh water. Here, the villages were constructed on a similar theme, with two houses in a village, one in front of the other and separated by a central plaza roughly 50 meters in diameter.

The Maimande were forest dwellers, although they built their villages in clearings called halodu in higher areas with sandy soil. Today, their village is located on a plateau called yu’kotndu, meaning, “suspended on the edge” of the mountains. The center of public life is the plaza; this is where the people bury their dead and where rituals are performed. Indeed, for a location to qualify for designation as a village, it is essential that dead people be buried there!

The Nambiquara are a tough people to have survived their encounters with “modern” civilization. Like many ancient populations, their story is a fascinating one that is worth ferreting out.

Additional Information

Nambiquara Tribe – SIL International
Ethnologue: Language Family Index
Nambiquara vocabulary, 2
“The last of the Nambiquara,” by Catherine Caufield, New Scientist, August 7, 1980 [online]

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