On the death of Curt Nimuendajú (Boeldeke & Hagen 1958)


We thought that now we had heard all there could be told about Santa Rita, but Henry [Geissler] insisted that the most exciting story, unknown outside Santa Rita do Weil, still had to be told.

Not far from where we were now sitting, he told us, the tragedy of the famous German explorer and ethnologist, Nimuendajú, or Curt Unckel, took place. His treatises, scientific reports and books on South America—and especially the Amazon regions—had won him the friendship and protection of the Indian general and explorer, Mariñano Candido Rondon who made him a Brazilian citizen and gave him every possible support to study the various Indian tribes of the Matto Grosso.

Nimuendajú was the first white man to tame the wild and ferocious Parintintin tribes. With eight companions he travelled in a canoe up the Amazon during the rainy season and then followed a smaller stream deep into the interior until he reached the territory of the Parintintin Indians. He found a peninsula and on it he and his companions built themselves a hut behind a barbed wire fence stretched across the peninsula. Here they lived, never leaving the hut except to go hunting and fishing for food. Several times they came across the footprints of the Indians, but never caught a glimpse of them, until one day the Indians came roaring like wild beasts out of the jungle. Nimuendajú showed himself, but immediately a rain of arrows pattered on to the metal roof of their fortress hut. The Indians continued to attack for several days, but did not dare to breach the barbed wire fence. They then tried flaming arrows, but when these


burned out on the tin roof, they abandoned their assault. In the lull that followed, Nimuendajú laid out presents just outside the fence. The natives gathered and looked at them with curiosity, but nothing was taken. During the next few days more and more Indians gathered and one or two of the more daring took a few things. Slowly they grew more trusting and after a month the explorer had the feared Parintintins on his side. He lived with them for six months studying their language. The Indians treated him and his companions as friends and advisors and he became very fond of them.

On his return to Manaos, Nimuendajú extracted a promise from General Rondon that none of the Parintintins would be carried off, arguing that they were not ready for civilisation. In spite of this promise another explorer visited the tribe and took half-a-dozen Indians back with him as proof of his daring exploits. These Parintintins caught every kind of disease in the superficial civilisation of Manaos, and when they returned to their homes, infected the entire tribe with syphilis. The Parintintins were disillusioned with their new friends and the religion that they had tried to impose on them. They withdrew deeper into the jungle, where they still live their old savage way of life.

Nimuendajú first went to Santa Rita do Weil in 1928 but did not contact the German settlers. He returned often to visit the Tucuna Indians and always lived in the hut of the Tucuna chief, Nino Athayde. He died on his last visit to Santa Rita in the hut of his friend, Nino. I visited Nino and accidentally discovered some pages of Nimuendajú's diary which perhaps throw some light on the causes of his sudden death.

Piecing events together from the pages, it seemed that Nimuendajú learned from Nino that the Tucuna medicine-men held an annual meeting with the medicine-men of many other tribes. This meeting took place in a large ruined temple overlooked by a giant stone god with a fantastic, demon-like head. Here were made the tribal laws, which were brutally enforced throughout the region. This was the place where war was declared and peace made; where the medicine-men decided which individuals should be punished by poisoning. New charms, new


cures, and different ways of pleasing the demon gods were discussed, and ways of enforcing discipline over the members of the tribes decided upon.

It became Nimuendajú's most passionate wish to visit this secret place and see it for himself. He returned again and again to the Tucunas to try and discover the mysteries which only the medicine-men knew. But without success as, according to their law, every outsider who set eyes on the place would be poisoned.

Eventually Nimuendajú managed to make Nino promise to take him to the secret meeting place and they disappeared into the jungle. On the 10th December they returned together. Soon afterwards when they were sitting down to supper among Nino's family a bowl of guarapo, the juice of the sugar-cane, was handed to Nimuendajú. As soon as he had drunk the contents he collapsed on his hammock. The next day he was dead. It was more than possible that the medicine-man ordered Nino to poison Nimuendajú for having been present at their sacred meeting.

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