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Athena Review, Vol. 1, No.3

Hans Staden and the Tupinamba in southeast Brazil

Hans Staden was a German soldier who sailed to Brazil twice on Portuguese ships. Staden's second voyage to the New World in 1549 proved disasterous, with all three ships being wrecked. Staden then served as a gunnery instructor in a coastal Portuguese fort before being captured by Tupinamba warriors in 1552, who assumed he was Portuguese.

Knowing the language of the Tupi (a trading lingua franca) after three years in Brazil, Staden was well aware of his precarious situation. His captors, having shaved off his eyebrows with glass, clearly intended to eat him. Staden attempted to convince the natives that he was German, not Portuguese, and thus a friend of the Tupinamba's French allies. A Frenchman called Karrwattware was summoned from a Tupinamba village four miles away. After the unfortunate Staden failed to understand his French, however, Karrwattware told the natives to "kill him and eat eat him, the good-for-nothing, for he is indeed a Portuguese, your enemy and mine." Things looked even bleaker for Staden when the tribal chief, named Konyan Bebe, announced he had already helped to "kill and eat five Portuguese who said they were Frenchmen, but had all lied."

[Fig.1: Tupinamba portrayed in cannibalistic feast observed by Staden (orig.1557).]

Staden somehow managed to survive for months among the cannibalistic Tupinamba before finally escaping. During his captivity, he observed many aspects of this now extinct culture which he soon recorded in a book entitled Hans Staden: The True History of his Captivity. This two-part narrative on his confinement and Tupinamba captors was published in 1557 after his return to Europe. It became an immediate best-seller and was reprinted several times with translations in Dutch, Latin, and French. The first section narrates his two voyages and the story of his capture. Part two contains Staden's important ethnographic descriptions of the Tupinamba villages,  including subsistence and manioc preparation, pottery manufacture and other crafts, religion, marriage customs, political practices, and cannibalism. Staden's written and illustrated account remains a primary source on the Tupinamba culture, which dominated large portions of southeastern Brazil, and whose language was used for trading as far away as the Andes at the time of initial European contact.

[Fig.2: Tupinamba palisaded village with skulls on gate (Staden 1557).]



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