The ever-changing material civilization of the Macro-Jê (Souza 2015)

por Jonas Gregorio de Souza (Department of Archaeology, University of Exeter)

A comment on The Material Civilization and Social and Religious Life of the Žè Indians of Southern and Eastern Brazil by Hermann Ploetz and Alfred Métraux


Asking for an archaeologist to comment on Ploetz and Métraux’s work about the Material Civilization of the Žè might seem very appropriate at first, but it can also have its drawbacks. In the first place, because much of the “material civilization” that Ploetz and Métraux analyze is intangible to archaeologists working in the tropics: basketry, weapons, musical instruments and any other items made of perishable materials simply do not survive, except for the special conditions of wetlands or rock shelters. Headdresses and body painting are lost forever. Curiously, the most abundant vestige in the archaeological record, ceramics, is not even considered a defining trait of the Macro-Jê groups in the mentioned work — a big mistake, as will be shown below.

In the second place, Ploetz and Métraux also deal with the “social and religious life” of the groups they study, and for a long time these two subjects have not been addressed by Brazilian archaeologists. Either no reference was made to them, or what was known from the ethnohistorical record was merely projected onto the past (this is, unfortunately, still common practice). I do, however, believe that the quantity and quality of archaeological data available now, coupled with theoretical shifts in the field, allow us to reconstruct a great deal of the social organization and ritual life of the Macro-Jê groups in the past, and the picture is very different from the one offered by Ploetz and Métraux. I will, therefore, center my comment on our changing perception of the Macro-Jê based on archaeological findings. Although I will mostly stress the differences between precolonial and modern times, I will also emphasize some aspects of continuity.

Before anything else, let me mention the matter of terminology: one of the points discussed by Ploetz and Métraux is that there was, as of their writing, no sure classification of what they call the Žè linguistic family (p. 208-209). We now know that the groups classified by them as Eastern Žè actually belong to a variety of families which, together with the Jê family proper (of which only the Southern branch is considered in their work) form the much broader Macro-Jê stock, although the details of the internal classification are still a work in progress (Ribeiro, 2006; Rodrigues, 1999).

Another clarification is needed about the archaeological correlates of the Macro-Jê groups. The archaeological evidence available so far allows us to differentiate between broad groupings within the Macro-Jê stock. For instance, no one doubts that the Taquara/Itararé Tradition of Southern Brazil is the material correlate of the precolonial Southern Jê groups – indeed, it is one of the clearest cases of continuity (Araujo, 2007; Beber, 2004; Noelli, 1999a, b). On the other hand, I do not believe that we have enough data to differentiate between specific groups, e.g. Kaingang vs. Xokleng (cf. Noelli, 1999b). In fact, I do not think we ever will be able to make such distinctions with confidence. First, because many of them are relatively recent divergences, as in the aforementioned case of Kaingang vs. Xokleng (Jolkesky, 2010). Second, because of a more important reason: in the past, archaeologists such as Brochado (1984) believed we could work “back in time” tracing ceramic style changes to corresponding divergences in language families as reconstructed by historical linguists. Nowadays, we cannot be so naïve as to assume that a certain pottery style corresponds to a specific “people” – in fact, we know from ethnography that broad patterns in material culture can be shared by groups of various linguistic backgrounds (e.g. the Upper Xingu).

Many of my examples will be drawn from Southern Brazilian evidence, not only because this area has had a higher intensity of research in recent times, but also because this is my study area and I am inevitably biased towards it. Often I will mention Central Brazilian data, even though Ploetz and Métraux do not discuss the Jê groups of that region; I think, however, that it offers good examples of both continuity and rupture between precolonial and modern times.


Some of the material traits and practices mentioned by Ploetz and Métraux have equivalents in the archaeological record, and thus represent long-term continuities in the history of the Macro-Jê groups. Some of them are very basic everyday practices, like cooking in the stone-lined or “Polynesian” type of ground oven (p. 105-106, 110) – of which many exemples have been excavated from precolonial Southern Jê contexts (De Masi, 2009b; Iriarte et al., 2008; Schmitz et al., 2010; Schmitz et al., 2009). Others include ritual activities, especially burial practices.

For example, the secondary burials in urns that were observed among the Kamakan (p. 200-201) and Coroado (p. 202) have a parallel in the Aratu-Sapucaí Tradition, which extended from Central Brazil to the coast and has dates going back to at least 1,200 years before present (Schmitz et al., 1982; Calderón, 1969, 1971, 1974; Oliveira and Viana, 1999-2000). One of the diagnostic traits of this archaeological tradition are large and thick conical vessels used as funerary urns.

Perhaps the most interesting continuity in funerary practices is that of the Southern Jê: the construction of burial mounds (p. 205) can be dated to at least 1,500 years before present, intensified after 1,000 years ago, and persisted into historical times (De Blasis, 2000; Corteletti, 2012; Iriarte et al., 2008, 2013). Archaeological burial mounds are often accompanied by remains of feasting, including the consumption of maize-based beverages (Iriarte et al., 2008, 2010). These have parallels in the kiki funerary ritual of the Kaingang, which involved the consumption of maize- or honey-based fermented drinks (p. 108-109, 203-204). The practice of cremation attested among the Aweikoma (i.e. Xokleng) (p. 206) is also found in numerous archaeological sites of the Southern Brazilian Highlands (Copé and Saldanha, 2002; De Masi, 2009b; De Souza and Copé, 2010; Iriarte et al., 2013; Müller, 2008; among many others). It seems that the funerary complex of the Southern Jê has a long permanence in comparison to other changes in material culture and social organization.

Among other continuities in ritual life we can mention the drinking feasts of the Kamakan and Coroado (p. 108, 145), which can be inferred from the large conical vessels of the Aratu-Sapucaí Tradition (Schmitz et al., 1982; Calderón, 1969, 1971, 1974; Oliveira and Viana, 1999-2000). Besides their use as funerary urns, they probably served as vessels for fermenting alcoholic beverages, as their shape and size are similar to the ones described in historical records. Among the Southern Jê, the initiation ritual of the boys practiced by the Xokleng involved the perforation of the lips to insert lip plugs and was accompanied by drinking and dancing in a large circular area, around which huts were built (p. 38-39). In the archaeological record of the Southern Brazilian Highlands, large circular enclosures are sometimes associated with many stone ovens, ceramic figurines and lip plugs, and are a probable correlate of the ceremonial spaces for initiation rites historically attested (De Masi, 2009b; De Souza and Copé, 2010; Lavina, 1994).

Although this is a topic that will be developed later, the mention of the funerary rites brings me to an inevitable remark about the culture-historical perspective adopted by Ploetz and Métraux. The authors were interested, among other things, in determining the influences that other groups had exerted on the Macro-Jê (p. 208). Traits not adopted from neighbouring tribes were thought of as survivals of an archaic stage (p. 220). Under that premise, the secondary urn burials of the Kamakan and Coroado were explained as an Arawak or Tupi influence (p. 201, 220). The practice of cremation and the raising of burial mounds among the Southern Jê, on the other hand, were seen as the survival of a “very ancient age” (p. 220). Although the first is not at all implausible archaeologically, the second is now known to be false: cremations and burial mounds are a relatively recent development, appearing in Southern Brazil around 1,000 years before present, and without parallels in the proto-Jê homeland. Recent archaeological work in the Southern Brazilian Highlands suggests that monumental burials with one or two cremated individuals surrounded by remains of post-funerary commemorations are an evidence of new ritual and social developments in a period of escalating population densities, major changes in the landscape, and intensified cultivation (Corteletti, 2012; Corteletti et al., 2015; De Masi, 2009b; De Souza, 2012a, b; Iriarte et al., 2013; Iriarte et al., 2008).


Besides the continuities, there are many ruptures between the precolonial past of the Macro-Jê groups, as inferred by archaeology, and their way of life in recent times, as reconstructed by Ploetz and Métraux. In fact, as I intend to demonstrate, many of the “negative” traits that defined the Macro-Jê in opposition to other tribes (p. 214-215) appear to be recent losses.


The most obvious rupture in material culture is represented by the abandonment of ceramics. Ploetz and Métraux find that this craft is of recent origin among the “Eastern Žè” and never passed beyond a primitive level (p. 111). A similar statement is made about the Southern Jê (p. 113). If any more developed ceramics existed, they were due to contact with the Tupi (p. 213). The primitiveness of the ceramics is attested, according to Ploetz and Métraux, by its spherical shapes and complete absence of decoration (p. 113). Even though this might be true for the historical period, it is certainly not for precolonial times. In the first place, ceramics related to the Macro-Jê are not recent: the Una Tradition of Central Brazil has dates of at least 2,600 years before present (Prous, 1992:333-334; Robrahn-González, 1996:88). In the coast, the more recent Aratu-Sapucaí Tradition was defined by ceramics with a variety of plastic decorations, including corrugated, ungulate and incised motifs, as well as all sizes and shapes of vessels, including the large conical ones for fermenting beverages (Schmitz et al., 1982; Calderón, 1969, 1971, 1974; Perota, 1974:132-133).

Is it possible that these archaeological ceramics are not related to the Macro-Jê? The Aratu-Sapucaí Tradition has dates that reach colonial times, a territorial extension that coincides with that of many Macro-Jê tribes, and settlements with a circular layout in all identical to the ethnographic ring villages (Robrahn-González, 1996:91-92; Oliveira & Viana, 1999-2000; Prous, 1992:350-35; Brochado, 1984; Wüst and Barreto, 1999). We are left to wonder who else might have produced these ceramics if not the ancestors of the Macro-Jê groups. That is why Lowie (1946) had to resort to a circular argument to explain the archaeological pottery found in Jê territory: it must, in his opinion, have been produced by previous settlers, since the Jê themselves did not produce any.

In the South, ceramics of the Taquara/Itararé Tradition were indisputably produced by the ancestors of the Southern Jê (Noelli, 1999b; Da Silva, 2001). They are also ancient, appearing around 2,000 years ago, and, although small and thin walled, they have a variety of shapes and decorations, including red slip, black burnishing, incisions with different geometrical motifs (zigzags, fishnets and others that are also found in Kaingang body painting, cf. Da Silva, 2001), punctuations, ungulates, basketry and chord impressions, among many others (Beber, 2004; Chmyz, 1967, 1968; Miller, 1967; Noelli, 1999a, 2000; Schmitz, 1988). Other artefacts made from ceramics include male and female figurines (Chmyz, 1981; De Masi, 2005), spoons (De Masi, 2005) and spindle whorls (Corteletti, 2012; Müller, 2008; Saldanha, 2005). The existence of spindle whorls, thought to be unknown, contradicts the idea that the Macro-Jê had only “primitive” practices of spinning (p. 215). The population reduction caused by European diseases, coupled with a forced nomadism due to the constant colonial pressure, probably made ceramics an impractical item, at the same time that other habits of settled life had to be abandoned – including farming.


The absence of cultivation was considered one of the “negative” traits of the Macro-Jê (p. 213). As in the case of ceramics, whenever some form of farming was attested, it was thought as resulting from contact (p. 75), either with the Tupi or with the colonizers. Even in cases where farming appeared to be well-developed and relatively old, Ploetz and Métraux stressed that hunting remained the main source of food (p. 79). The last point, of course, is valid: Northern and Central Jê groups such as the Xavante and the Kayapó, as well as Macro-Jê groups like the Maxakali, divided the year between settled periods when they practiced farming and long hunting expeditions (Maybury-Lewis, 1979, 1984; Vidal, 1977; Alvares, 1992).

However, the importance of farming in the precolonial period cannot be underestimated. Macrobotanical remains preserved in rock shelters have demonstrated the cultivation of maize, gourd and peanuts in Central Brazil since at least 4,000 years before present (Prous, 1992:334). Storage pits lined with woven mats and containing maize, manioc, beans, cotton, pepper, tobacco, and several seeds, bundled in palm leaves and corn stover, have also been excavated from rock shelters in Central Brazil, with dates ranging between approximately 900 and 500 years before present (Freitas, 2001). Macrobotanical remains of maize are also known from Taquara/Itararé funerary rock shelters in the Southern Highlands (Miller, 1971). As already mentioned, macrobotanical remains are of difficult preservation except for the special conditions offered by rock shelters, but fortunately we are now witnessing a great increase in the use of microbotanical evidence and other types of evidence (e.g. stable isotopes) by archaeologists working in Southern Jê contexts, all of which demonstrate the consumption of maize, especially after AD 1,000 (Corteletti et al., 2015; De Masi, 2009a; Gessert et al., 2011; Iriarte et al., 2008, 2010).


In the same manner as ceramics and farming, house architecture and settlement permanence suffered profound transformations after the European conquest. In the words of Ploetz and Métraux: “The nomadism characteristic of a great number of the Žè tribes excludes all types of habitation however little developed” (p. 59). Both in Central Brazil and in the coast, however, archaeological settlements of the Aratu-Sapucaí Tradition assume the form of ring villages similar to the ethnographic ones, except that they can be much larger (Wüst and Barreto, 1999; Robrahn-González, 1996:91-92; Oliveira and Viana, 1999-2000:162-163; Prous, 1992:350-358; Calderón, 1969, 1971, 1974; Perota, 1974). Archaeological villages can have up to 90 houses, three concentric rings of houses, and thick occupation layers indicative of a long permanence (Wüst and Barreto, 1999; Robrahn-González, 1996:91; Martin, 1997:206-207).

Especially worthy of mention is the case of the Southern Jê. One of the most distinctive types of archaeological sites of the Taquara/Itararé Tradition are the pit houses. Pit houses can appear isolated or in groups of up to 107 structures; although their diameters are mostly around 5 or 6 m, some pit houses exceed 25 m in diameter, and their depth can be up to 7 m (Beber, 2004; Copé, 2006; Reis, 1980; Schmitz and Becker, 1991; Schmitz et al., 1988; Schmitz et al., 2013a, b; Schmitz et al., 2002; among many others). Pit house villages are sometimes built over previously prepared terraces and have track ways between the houses, suggesting rigorous planning and long-term patterns of movement within the sites, further evidence that they were well-planned sedentary settlements (Iriarte et al., 2013; Saldanha, 2005). Although there is a debate about the degree of permanence in such structures (Schmitz, 2006; Schmitz et al., 2002), some sites have evidence of continuous occupation over 500 years (Copé, 2006). What is certain is that the labor mobilization necessary for the construction of such dwellings precludes the observation that they were “little developed” forms of habitation. This and the Central Brazilian evidence certainly lead me to doubt the affirmation that the Macro-Jê were nomadic until recently (p. 210).

Social organization

My last comment is a bit more controversial, as there is no consensus among archaeologists: it pertains to social and political organization, especially the question of regional organization and the existence of hierarchies. Ploetz and Métraux do recognize, among the Botocudo, some form of regional organization, but nothing comparable to “federations” (p. 149) or paramount chiefs ruling over a number of villages; as among the Kamakan and Coroado, the office of chief was not hereditary (p. 149-151). Hierarchy, if present, is considered “imprecise” and, not surprisingly, attributed to a Brazilian influence (p. 152). The regional organization of the Kaingang, with multiple villages under the command of a paramount chief ruling over local subordinate chiefs (Becker, 1976; Fernandes, 2004; Mabilde, 1897, 1899) is scarcely mentioned, and, not surprisingly, attributed to a foreign influence (p. 151). I believe, however, that the Kaingang represented the clearest case, among the Macro-Jê tribes, of a regionally organized society with a moderate degree of political hierarchy, and that this organization was deeply rooted in the precolonial past.

Settlement patterns of the Taquara/Itararé Tradition have often been shown to be hierarchical, with a few sites much larger than the others (Copé, 2006; Corteletti, 2012; De Souza, 2012b; Saldanha, 2005). The disparities in pit house size have already been mentioned, and the possibility that some of the oversized structures could be upper status dwellings has not been overlooked (Copé, 2006). Oversized pit houses are often found in prominent positions surrounded by smaller structures (Copé, 2006; Kern et al., 1989; Schmitz et al., 1988).

The most convincing evidence for hierarchy, however, comes from the funerary sites of the Southern Brazilian Highlands: around 1,000 years before present, rock shelters with collective burials are replaced by a new practice that consisted in the interment of one or two cremated individuals (with notable exceptions) in mounds surrounded by circular earthen enclosures (Copé et al., 2002; Corteletti, 2012; De Souza and Copé, 2010; Saldanha, 2005, 2008; Müller, 2008). Cases where few individuals are buried within large enclosures accompanied by grave goods and remains of feasting have been contrasted with collective burials in smaller enclosures without offerings to suggest disparities of status (De Masi, 2009b).

The most impressive example comes from El Dorado, Argentina: a large mound, surrounded by a 180 m diameter earthen enclosure attached to a 400 m long avenue, was the focus of post-funerary feasting events which included the cooking of large quantities of meat in ground ovens similar to the ethnographic ones, as well as the consumption of some maize-based beverage, a possible precursor of the kiki of the modern Kaingang (Iriarte et al., 2008, 2010). This monumental site, which dates to the 13th century AD, was a place where a large, regional population gathered to celebrate the burial of a prominent individual (Iriarte et al., 2008, 2010). Should the evidence from Taquara/Itararé funerary sites, domestic sites and settlement patterns appear anywhere else in the world, there would be no doubt that we are dealing with a politically complex, regionally organized society – not to use the term chiefdom (Earle, 1991, 1997; Yoffee, 1993). In my opinion, at least for the Southern Jê, we can no longer sustain that the chiefly office was a recent development promoted by the contact with Brazilian authorities (p. 152).


Ploetz and Métraux, writing in 1930, adopted the same culture-historical perspective that was popular in archaeology at that time. The distribution of cultural traits was thought to relate to the relative antiquity of their diffusion. Thus, cremation and mound building among the Southern Jê were survivals “of a very ancient age” (p. 220) given their widespread distribution in the Americas. In contrast, the secondary burials in urns of the Kamakan and Coroado must have been adopted by influence of some Amazonian tribe (p. 220). The Macro-Jê were thus defined by a series of “negative traits” against the Tupi: they did not farm, produce pottery, fish or navigate (p. 215). When all the external influences are removed, the result is a “civilization composed of quite ancient elements and devoid of other elements characteristic of more progressive tribes” which constitutes “the most ancient level of civilization of eastern and central Brazil” (p. 220).

The same perception of the Macro-Jê was adopted in the evolutionist typology of the Handbook of South American Indians, where they are classified among the “marginal” tribes (Steward, 1946). These were, again, defined by a series of absences: they were “extremely simple” cultures, lacking agriculture, weaving, basketry and pottery, features that, when present, were thought to have derived from the contact with other tribes (Steward, 1949).

My intention, with this comment, was to demonstrate that archaeological evidence strongly contradicts this view. Ploetz and Métraux, of course, could not have known that, but now we have enough data to affirm that Macro-Jê groups were very different in the past: sedentary groups with dense populations, large villages, a range of cultivated plants, and complex political organization. Many of the “negative” traits that were used to define them were, in fact, the result of recent changes, and archaeologists and anthropologists alike should be cautious not to project the present onto the past. I do not regard these changes, however, as any form of “degeneration”, but rather as a demonstration of the Macro-Jê resilience and capacity of transformation.

(Published on June, 2015)


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