Curt Nimuendajú

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Curt Unckel, better known as Curt Nimuendajú (April 18, 1883 – 10 December 1945), was a German-Brazilian ethnologist, anthropologist and writer. His works are fundamental for understanding the religion and cosmology of many native Brazilian Indians, especially the Guarani people. He earned the surname Nimuendajú from the Apapocuva branch of the latter, who, in a formal adoption ceremony, gave him the name, meaning 'the one who made himself a home,'[1] a mere 1 year after his arrival among them. He gave it as part of his official name when taking Brazilian citizenship in 1922. In an obituary, his Brazilian-German colleague, also born in Germany, Herbert Baldus called him 'perhaps the greatest Indianista of all time.’[2]

Life and work[edit]

Nimuendajú was born in Wagnergasse 31 in Jena in Germany in 1883. Orphaned at an early age. From early youth he dreamed of living among a 'primitive people'. While still a schoolboy, he organized an 'Indian gang' among his fellow students that hunted in the woods outside his native city. After completing his secondary schooling, he worked in a camera factory run by Carl Zeiss, lacking the financial means to progress to university level. In his spare time, he devoted himself to studying maps and the ethnography the Indian populations of North and South America. He realized his dream of emigrating to Brazil in 1903, at the age of 20, with the help of his half-sister, who was a teacher, and who assisted him in covering the expenses for his journey to South America.

In 1905, two years after his arrival in Brazil, he established contact with the Guaraní people in the State of São Paulo. A substantial literature existed concerning them, going back to the 17th century, but their religious outlook and rituals were poorly understood. Nimuendajú familiarized himself thoroughly with the existing literature. He moved to Belém in 1913, and his first professional articles date from this time.,[3] with a groundbreaking publication on the mythology and religion of the Guarani Apapokúva, accepted by the Zeitschrift für Ethnologie in 1914.[4] He became the ranking specialist on a large number of Indigenous peoples, particularly those belonging to the group of Central Brazil, in Brazilian tribes, the Apapocuva-Guaraní, Tukúna, Kaingang, Apinaye, Xerente, Wanano[5] and Canela among them, all classic monographs which laid, in the words of one recent writer:

'the indispensable groundwork from which dozens of doctoral dissertations and books have been elaborated by Brazilian and American anthropologists.'[6]

One of the effects of his work was to shift interest from the tribes living along the coast or in large towns, to the tribes hidden in the interior, and to arouse the interests of anthropologists like the young Claude Lévi-Strauss, in communities that, though living in poverty, had managed to develop societies of considerable complexity, and religious cosmologies of great complexity.[7] Over 40 years of fieldwork, much of it self-financed,[8] he published some 60 monographs, articles and vocabularies dealing with native tribes.

Between 1929 and 1936 he spent some 14 months with the Canela Indians, a Gê-speaking people on the northeastern edge of the central plateau of Brazil, and his monograph on them, translated and annotated by Robert Lowie, was published posthumously in 1946. His work on the Apinaye drew attention because it had many features that made it anomalous to the genre structure of the Gê societies to which it belonged in classification. This Apinaye anomaly was one that, while sharing the marked dualism of other related tribal societies, maintained a prescriptive marriage system, with sons incorporated into their father's group and daughters into their mothers' group, that did not fit the Crow-Omaha pattern that he, and Lowie had observed in the Gê tribal system generally.[9]

Despite failing health and warnings from his doctors, he set forth on what was to prove to be his last ethnographic survey in 1945 and died on the 10th of December, among the Tukúna people, by the Solimões river, near São Paulo de Olivença, Amazonas state.[10]


  • The Šerente, (ed.Robert H. Lowie), The Southwest Museum, 1942
  • The Eastern Timbira, (ed.Robert H.Lowie), University of California Press, 1946
  • The Tukuna, (ed.Robert H.Lowie) University of California Press, 1952
  • The Apinayé, (tr.and ed. Robert H.Lowie, John M. Cooper), Catholic University of America Press, 1939


  1. ^ Mércio Pereira Gomes The Indians and Brazil,University Press of Florida, 2000, 3rd edition. p.18
  2. ^ Herbert Baldus, 'Curt Nimuendaju, 1883-1945,' in American Anthropologist, (1946) Vol. 48, pp.238-243
  3. ^ Not counting local articles like “Nimongarai”,(1910) which he published in the German São Paulo newspaper “Deutsche Zeitung”.
  4. ^ 'Die Sagen von der Erschaffung und Vernichtung der Welt als Grundlagen der Religion der Apapocuva-Guarani', cited in Lúcia Sá, Rain forest literatures: Amazonian texts and Latin American culture, University of Minnesota Press, 2004 p.114
  5. ^ Janet M. Chernela, The Wanano Indians of the Brazilian Amazon: A Sense of Space, University of Texas Press, 1993, pp.39ff.
  6. ^ Mércio Pereira Gomes, The Indians and Brazil,p.18
  7. ^ Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes tropiques, Plon, Paris,1955 p.290
  8. ^ Virginia Kerns, Scenes from the high desert: Julian Steward's life and theory, p.226.
  9. ^ Roberto da Matta, A divided world: Apinayé social structure, Harvard University Press, 1982, pp.1ff.
  10. ^ Egon Shcaden, Notas sobre a vida e a obra de Curt Nimuendajú


  • Herbert Baldus, 'Curt Nimuendaju, 1883-1945', American Anthropologist, 1946 Vol. 48, pp. 238–243
  • Herbert Baldus review of Nimuendaju The Eastern Timbira. 1960
  • Born, Joachim, "Curt Unckel Nimuendajú - ein Jenenser als Pionier im brasilianischen Nord(ost)en", Wien, 2007.
  • Janet M. Chernela, The Wanano Indians of the Brazilian Amazon: A Sense of Space, University of Texas Press, 1993
  • Virginia Kerns, Scenes from the high desert: Julian Steward's life and theory, University of Illinois Press, 2003
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes tropiques, Plon, Paris, 1955
  • Georg Menchén, Nimuendajú. Bruder der Indianer, Leipzig 1979.
  • Günther F. Dungs, Die Feldforschung von Curt Unckel Nimuendajú und ihre theoretisch-methodischen Grundlagen, 1991.
  • Mércio Pereira Gomes The Indians and Brazil, University Press of Florida, 2000, 3rd edition.
  • Frank Lindner, Curt Unckel-Nimuendajú. Jenas großer Indianerforscher. Jena 1996.
  • Lúcia Sá, Rain forest literatures: Amazonian texts and Latin American culture, University of Minnesota Press, 2004

Welper, Elena M. "Curt Unckel Nimuendaju: um capítulo alemão na tradiçao etnografica Brasileira", 2002, TD PPGAS-MN/UFRJ.

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