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The Trumaí were a tribe of Amerindians living on the Kuluene River in the upper Xingú River area of the Amazonian jungle in the Brazilian province of Matto Grosso.

Much the greatest source of information on them is The Trumaí Indians of Central Brazil by Robert M. Murphy and Buell Quain, the 24th of the Monographs of the American Ethnological Society, published by J. J. Augustin (New York: Locust Valley) in 1955, from pp. 81–84 of which everything of Greek love interest is here taken.

The American ethnologist Buell Halvor Quain (1912-39) spent four months alone among the Trumaí from August to November 1938, but was unable to finish his study of them or write up an account from his notes and diary before he killed himself the following April. By 1946, it had become apparent that little, if any, further ethnographic data would be forthcoming because “the number of Trumaí had critically diminished and […] Trumaí life was so seriously disorganized that it was doubtful whether they could exist as a tribal entity”, so Murphy, a fellow American anthropologist, undertook the writing-up, which he found necessitated some of his own interpretation.

By the time Quain stayed with the Trumaí, they were still “a functioning primitive society” (though their culture was already disintegrating) and their language was unrelated to their neighbours’. Their numbers had severely dwindled and they were living in one hard-to-reach village of 43 people composed of four to five households, including 17 “men” (of whom at least two were actually pubescent boys) and eight pre-pubescent boys. They survived on horticulture, fishing and gathering. Except for ornaments, they were completely nude. “Chastity before marriage was not expected, and there was not a single virgin in the village over the age of puberty.”[1]


Chapter Five.  The Life Cycle


Map locating the Trumaí (p. 6)

The older boys occasionally accompanied the men on hunting and fishing trips, thus learning the necessary subsistence techniques. They participated actively in fish poisoning, helped in the preparation and application of the tawasi bark, and in the gathering of the drugged fish. Of all the subsistence techniques, horticulture was the last to be learned. The youngest Trumaí to have a garden was Autsuki, who was going through the final stages of the puberty ceremonies. Maibu’s foster son, Jawaku, was still considered too young to cultivate his own plot, although he was no more than two years younger than Autsuki.[2] Most of the boys were well acquainted with the work, however, through trailing the men to the gardens and watching them.

Among the eight boys below the ages of Autsuki and Jawaku there were no clearly organized groups. When outdoors they usually played in small groups of three or four, although nearly all would gather together occasionally for some special activity. The small groups were usually composed of age mates. Tsirikoan, the youngest, spent most of his time in the house, while the oldest boy, Muruta, was already drifting away from the others and spending more time with the men. Tay, an orphan boy of between ten and twelve years of age, was decidedly a misfit and did not join the others often. Of the remaining five, the three oldest were steady companions, while the two youngest either trailed them or stayed near their houses.

Despite the fact that the children were together frequently, there were no fast friendships or strong ties of loyalty and dependence. In this respect they were much like the men. Their play together was sporadic, and participation was fluid and shifting.

The only organized play in which the children indulged was wrestling. Matches were infrequent and usually broke up within fifteen minutes. All the boys turned out on such occasions except Tay, whose interests were abnormally directed toward homosexual play. The wrestling matches were a complete replica of the adult contests, the boys even sitting on the log in the men’s circle (this was one of the few times they were permitted to do so). The adults never interfered. Usually they stood near the houses and watched the grappling with great amusement.

Nor was the sex play of children greatly inhibited by their elders. Actually there was no heterosexual activity between children, for there were no girls of appropriate age in the village. Thus, pre-pubescent sexual relations occurred between boys or between boys and men, and almost always it was the boys who were the instigators. Quain felt certain that Tay was the only member of the village who might be considered a homosexual. He was an orphan, and although he was fed and housed, he was identified with no family, and no one took any special interest in him. Tay, more than any boy, remained aloof from other children. His sexual advances were directed to a large extent toward the older males, who often cooperated with him. For example, he often wrapped his legs around Jakuma’s hips, going through sexual motions. The older man would giggle when he did this and show signs of being mildly stimulated. Mayuva, among others, was less receptive, but his only mode of resistance was to arch his body away from the boy.

Trumaí boys

The sexual play of a young child might even include his father. Quain observed little Tsirikoan tugging at his father’s penis. The father showed some annoyance, but only because he did not want to be bothered. Although children were rarely manipulated in this way by the men, Quain saw Yanahi, a young married man, amusing himself and some boys by pulling Tsirikoan’s penis until the child had an erection. The boys whispered to Yanahi that Quain was watching, but this apparently made no difference to him, for he continued his activity.

The minor homosexual engagements that took place between the boys themselves were likewise in the nature of play. Quain saw no homosexuality between adults, and, contrary to Levi-Strauss’ inference from Quain’s notes, there was no kinship tie that implied permissible homosexual relations.[3]

The facts of sex were certainly no secret to the children. Living in undivided houses and sleeping with or adjacent to their parents, they were aware at an early age of the sexual activities of their elders. No effort was made to keep sexual knowledge from them, and they derived considerable amusement from the sexual affairs of the adults. Tsirikoan and some other boys raised a great hue and cry when they happened upon his parents cohabiting; and they immediately told everyone in the village.


[1] Everything in this introduction except Quain’s second name, dates and suicide is drawn from the Foreword (pp. v-ix) and pp. 1, 10, 20, 22, 36, 94.

[2] Autsuki and Jawaku were implicitly pubescent boys aged over twelve.

[3] Claude Lévi-Strauss, "The Tribes of the Upper Xingú River”, in the Handbook of South American Indians (J. H . Steward, ed.), Vol. 3, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 143 (Washington, 1948) p. 337 {Author’s footnote].



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