Jamnabe remained vigorous and active well into his 80s, with jet-black hair and week-long walks in the woods. Itabira says he was hardly an outlier in that respect, because if you made it to the age of 30 back then, you were almost guaranteed of being vibrant well into your sunset years. That’s because death tended to come at the jaws of a jaguar or the arrow of an enemy rather than from “lifestyle” diseases like diabetes or heart attacks. By the time you turned 30, you had to crack the code of the forest – and once you did that, you had the skills to survive most known threats.
So, although he was old, Jamnabe’s assassination hit the Paiter the way the Kennedy assassination hit the United States (another of Itabira’s analogies). Both events took place in the early 1960s, and both presaged a new age of turbulence. Within a decade of Jamnabe’s apparent murder, most of the Paiter would also be gone, and so would their culture – again.
The assassination came in a time of relative peace, after Jamnabe had set out from his village at the western edge of Paiter territory, about 15 kilometers in from their border with the Gavião. He’d left in search of medicinal plants for two of his great-grandchildren, but he staggered back a few hours later, bleeding from his mouth and singing a song of death. These were classic symptoms of a poison known only to the Gavião, and by the next morning, he was gone. Jiki-boba then succeeded Jamnabe as Labiway Esaga, and he helped Jamnabe’s sons stage a series of retaliatory raids into Gavião territory. Once again, they were at war, and Itabira’s father, Noa, became the chief military strategist – a position that Itabira equates with Secretary of Defense.
“We had a Secretary of Defense, a Secretary of Health, and a Secretary of Agriculture,” he says. “Pamaira was Secretary of Health, and my father was Secretary of Defense, which was somewhat unusual, because he was a member of the Kaban, and we were known for our gardening and shamanic skills rather than for producing military strategists.” But the Kaban by then had become the largest of the four clans and, in times of war, every adult – which meant everyone above the age of 13, whether man or woman – took up arms.
The Gavião war was to be the last truly traditional war the Paiter waged, and it was a member of the Gavião who had the distinction of being the last enemy ever eaten by the Paiter. The incident took place when a Paiter warrior named Lawas (who became known as João after First Contact) killed a revered Gavião leader and shared his arms, legs, and head with other members of the war party.
“Did they do that to gain the leader’s strength and wisdom?” I asked Almir – who first tried to change the subject. “Cannibalism is an ugly tradition, and I don’t mourn its passing,” he said, before offering his take. “I hear they did this back then for this and that reason – like the ones you mention – but I think it’s just because war is ugly, and nothing scares your enemy like knowing you might eat him.”
But the ugliness was just beginning, and cannibalism was nothing compared to what was to come.
First, however, the Kaban decided to forge ahead with what was to be the last Mapimaí for almost 15 years. The women spent weeks chewing manioc and corn, eventually filling and fermenting 20 clay drums, each of which held about 20 liters of makaloba. They also made piles of unleavened cornbread and harvested baskets of Brazil nuts and cashews, wild, bitter apples, and the fruits of little flowering plants that yield a spice like nutmeg. The morning before the feast, the men wounded and captured two wild boars, which they planned to slaughter on the morning of the feast.
On the eve of the feast, two warriors staggered into the village complaining of pain throughout their bodies. One of them had been hunting, and the other had been building a thatched roof, and both became feverish and no longer recognized their wives and children.
“These were the symptoms of poisons used by the Cinta Larga and Zoro, but we weren’t sure which of them had attacked us or why,” says Itabira. “We wrapped their bodies in their hammocks and buried them with their belongings. Then we lit a fire over the grave and built huts over the smoldering embers to protect them for a year.”
Traditionally, they would keep the embers glowing for a year to protect the body from petrification, and if the dead were a lesser man, he received a tent instead of a hut – but soon there would be more dead than living, and no time for graves.
“The Mapimaí went on as planned, but we didn’t drink the makaloba in a spirit of celebration,” says Itabira. “Instead, we drank to open our hearts to the camaraderie that binds men for war, because war was now erupting all around us – and not just with our traditional enemies. We began to face intrusions from the Arara, the Ure wawau, and the Napiquara – people whose territory was far away from ours, and with whom we had no quarrel.”
The Whites Return
The Paiter soon faced another intrusion – this time from a new breed of Whites – and it was Itabira’s father, Noa, who drew the first blood in what was to become their final apocalyptic war. Like Jamnabe before him, he was an old man, but still vigorous, and he was walking in the woods with a young warrior named Jaguba, when they encountered a White who was hacking his way through the forest with a machete. He was taller than the Whites they’d traditionally fought, and his skin was lighter, and his hair was blond.
Using pantomime, Noa offered the White safe passage in exchange for the machete, and the White nervously offered the valuable tool, but there was fear in the air, and when Jaguba lunged at the White’s outstretched arm, the frightened White unloaded a pistol into Jaguba’s chest. Noa then quickly let his arrow fly into the heart of the White and carried Jaguba’s lifeless body back to the village. Other blonde-haired Whites came, and still others, and every visit ended in bloodshed.
“As their incursions into our territory increased, so did our incursions across the once-inviolable line of the Machado River,” says Itabira. “The fighting with the Whites was becoming uglier and uglier, and from our perspective, their retaliation was always over the top. We’d usually sneak over to their huts and steal their belongings, and they’d respond by murdering us. Then they started hiding their tools when they were gone, and we would ransack their houses to find them. Then they’d respond by burning our huts – not for gain, but for vengeance.”
It was in the midst of this escalation that the Whites burned Nema’s hut and slaughtered his family, which is how he came to lead the war party that found those first machetes glistening in the sun.