Life, expeditions, collections and unpublished field notes of Dr. Emil Heinrich Snethlage – english

Let me first crave your indulgence for not having particular ethnological knowledge, as I have been trained principally in the Law. Maybe I’m telling you something which is obvious to you. My English is just school English I’m afraid and I’m very grateful to my wife for translating the German text and my cousin Andrew Galitzine for proof reading the final draft.I will shortly outline my father’s life, I shall introduce his two expeditions, then I will give you a short view on those Indio-tribes that he visited during his last journey in 1933 to 35 and at last I’ll say where his collections are left and which vocabularies are still in my possession.

Youth and studies

My father, Dr. Emil Heinrich Snethlage, was born in Bremerhaven in 1897, and he died in Potsdam in 1939 at the young age of 42. He was injured whilst serving in the German Navy. I was only 3 years old at the time, therefore I have no immediate experience of his life, and only heard the many stories from my mother.

My grandfather was a teacher and often changed the towns where he worked. So my father saw many schools between Pomerania and Guestphalia in ancient Prussia. During the Great War in the years 1917 – 1919, he had to go to the Navy. After his discharge and when he graduated from school, he started his university studies in botany, zoology and, as his main subject, ornithology in 1919. His aunt, Dr. Emilie Snethlage, also an ornithologist, was his inspiration. She worked in Pará, Brazil, at the Goeldi Museum. He studied in Freiburg, Kiel and Berlin where he graduated in 1923 as doctor of philosophy on a zoological-botanical theme.

Brazil and the passion of Ethnology

Immediately after his graduation he went to Brazil, in order to do ornithological researches, the first time in association with his aunt. From February 1924 he continued his researches alone in the north-eastern area of Brazil. Soon he came in contact with the Guajajara and the Krãn-tribes, on whom he published later on. In the summer of ‘26, he returned to Germany. In 1927 he got employment at the Berlin -Völkerkunde- Museum, in order to look for the South-American collections. With passion he devoted himself to the then young science of ethnology. In 1933 to 35 he departed on his second exclusively ethnological expedition. It was sponsored by the Baeßler-foundation, Berlin. The area of his researches was the frontier region of Bolivia and Brazil, close to the Itenes/Rio Guaporé where he visited 13 unknown tribes and collected many of their cultural objects.

Back in Germany, he published several small essays and as well as his popular-scientific book “Atiko y” and the scientific study “Something about musical instruments in the Guaporé-region”, in association with his friend Mario Schneider.

He planned monographic studies about the different tribes, and had already started a monograph of the Moré, planned the publication of his vocabularies, started essays on south-American Symbolism, and on themes of the Indio-religions. All these plans were halted by World War 2 in 1939. Shortly before his death he became vice-director of the south – american collections of the Berlin Museum of Ethnology.

The Expedition of 1923-26

Now a few words about the first expedition in 1923/26. In 1923 he went in association with his aunt Dr. Emilie Snethlage on an ornithological expedition to Maranhaos, North Eastern Brazil, a region which was at that time mainly terra incognita in ornithological subjects. They stopped at São Luiz, São Bento, Tury-assù (there were still Urubù-Indios who attacked civilised people), Alto de Alegria, Mangunça Island.

When his aunt had to go back to Belem do Pará he travelled alone from March 1924 to April 1926 on the orders of the Field Museum, Chicago, inside Brazil: from São Luiz, changing between the railways and by boat, with many difficulties because of floods, via Rosario up the Rio Itapicurú until Codó and Cocos, which at that time was just a railway-station with a few cabins of black people.

With mules, he travelled on via Pedreiras (close to Mearim) to Barra do Corda. There he contacted the so-called “tame” Indios, which had not been extensively explored. They were the Remkokamekrã- and Aponyekrã-tribes (belonging to the Canellas of Ge-language family) and the Guajajáras, who belonged to the Tupi.


Some time he spent with the Canellas in Ponto, a village of the Remkokamekrãs, situated about 120 km southern of Barra do Corda in the source region of the Rio Corda. There he gained the Indio-peoples confidence. He talks of a strange idea of the Indios: (Quote) “They wanted me to stay with them and become their chief. The main reason must have been the thought, that they could have revenge from the hated Brazilian settlers, with the help of a strong German and his weapons. In the beginning, I didn’t think they were serious. But when I started to depart, they wouldn’t allow it, and, to confirm it, they brought me a pretty Indio girl who couldn’t have been more than 11 years old. They took no notice of my protests. I was in a real fix, because I already had sent my servant and my beasts of burden back to Barra da Corda. Only when I told them my wish to see my old parents just one more time, did they agree to let me go.” (End of quote)

Guajajára and Apinaye

From Barra da Corda, in October 1924, my father went by horse to Grajahú and learnt to know the villages of the Guajajara (part of the Tupis, about 1 500 souls at that time), hidden in the rainforest, later on, sailing down the Rio Grajahú those of the Kreapimkataye (Krãn-tribe of the Tymbiras, belonging to the language family of the Ge), who had settled in the immediate vicinity.

In the beginning of December 1924, he was back in São Luiz, but immediately afterwards he travelled on to the state of Céará to continue his work. Via Ipiapaba, Céará, and Arára he came back to Parnahyba, and from there, after having a short trip to Deserto, up the Rio Parnahyba – about 540 km – via Teresina, capital of the Piauhy-state which had about 20 000 inhabitants, to Amarante/S. Francisco, situated on the border between Piauhy and Maranhao; then, after a short stop to collect ornithological objects again, on to Floriano, Urrusuhy, Inhumas and Tranqueira. In october 1925, he went via Goyaz and Certeza down the Rio Tocantins, using a raft he had built himself, and later on he hitched a ride from some merchants who had a much bigger one. He passed Pedro Alfonso and Carolina, which was soon after his arrival occupied by revolutionary Brazilian soldiers. But they had good discipline and behaved well towards him. After the departure of the soldiers, in November 1925, he travelled on into the region of the S. Antonio-Falls. There he came into contact with the Apinaye (or Apinagés), a Krãn-tribe of the Ge-language family, who used to speak a “g” instead of the “K”, which was spoken by the Maranhese tribes.

Because of a series of malarial attacks his work was interrupted. He had to wait 2 months for the next steam ship, with indigestable food, and no quinine, no medical care, lying in an always humid native cabin between sacks filled with salt. Finally in march 1926, he was brought back to Carolina, where a German settler looked after him until he was healthy enough to return. In the middle of April 1926 he arrived again at Pará.

The Expedition of 1933-35

On his second expedition in 1933 until 1935 he travelled to the region of the Itenes/Rio Guaporé. Its tributaries and surrounding terrain could offer still many new ethnographical knowledge. Neither the Swedish explorer Erland Nordenskiöld nor the Brazilian General Rondon, nor the very first travellers, missionaries, and explorers had been able to visit every corner of this country. This was the reason, my father met many tribes, who were not yet known to civilization.

In the middle of July 1933, my father arrived at Pará and on the 10th of August in Porto Velho, which is the starting point of the Madeira-Mamoré-railway. At km 151 of this railway he visited the stone drawings. In the beginning of September he reached the starting point of his expedition, called Campamento Komarek. The so called “savage” Indios of the tribe Moré were so angry about the arrivel of one more white man, that they burnt down the farm-workshop the following night. So it was very hard, and my father needed an additional four weeks to contact the Moré.

Rio Cautario, Bella Vista, Rio Mequens

Then three more months of exploring at the Moré and the Itoreauhip passed. Finally permission to explore of the Brazilian Government reached him, and he was allowed to enter Brazilian territory. On Christmas day of 1933 he started for the Rio Cautario and to the Kumaná-Indios settling there. It was the day, – he heard three months later – , his little daughter had died, born one day before.

In February 1934 he met the Pauserna at Bella Vista, had excavations in Caféthal (Piso firme). In the beginning of March he arrived at the Tschikitano-tribe in Pernambuco, an already civilised tribe.

In the middle of march 1934 he started going to the villages of two chiefs of the Makurap, called Uaikuri and Guata. About two weeks later he continued travelling to Serra de Allianza, where he excavated again, then he went up the Rio Mequens to the tribe of the Amniapä in the village of Tapuawa. He mainly travelled alone in a canoe, sometimes with Indio-rowers and pathfinders. In may 1934 he reached the tribe of the Guaratägaja, then went back down the Rio Mequens and in the middle of June up the Rio Branco to the tribe of the Arua in São Luiz.

Walking-tour across the rainforest

In July he started a walking tour across the rainforest and visited the Tribes of the Makurap, Jabuti, Wayoro, Arikapú and Tupari. In the middle of August he travelled down the Rio Branco and back to the Cautario. In October, he was again at the Moré and Itoreauhip Indios. Finally at the end of November, he left the Campamento Komarek back home.

Something about the different tribes:

Moré and Itoreauhip


The lower part of the river Itenes (Rio Guaporé) separates Brazil and Bolivia. On the Bolivian banks the Moré and Itoreauhip had settled. Both tribes belong to the Tschapakura language-family. In my father’s time they were distinguishable only by their different dialects and different ways of wearing their hair: the Moré let their hair fall shoulder-length, the Itoreauhip bound them in a knot. They wore shirts made of bark, mainly striped, but usually the men were naked. In feast times they wore lip- and ear-decorations, hoops and feather-crowns, feather ribbons in many colours on the arms and legs. They had innumerable ribbons and belts, painted or decorated with bast. They seldom painted their bodies, but the women loved to massage themselves and their relatives with urucu, a red vegetable dye dissolved in palm oil.


The Moré and Itoreauhip used to live with clans of 15 to 70 people in cabins with gabled roofs, covered with palm straw. At times there were many midges, they went to sleep in special cabins which were totally shut with leaves of patohu and had an entering hole to be shut by an interwoven door.

For food they planted bananas, corn, maniok, inyame, batatas, pineapples, but also cotton and urucu, they fished with different methods: arrows, weir-baskets and poison-lines. They hunted for beasts and birds by arrows, sometimes out of small hunting cabins like bee-baskets, but this only in the time when fruits were coming to maturity and the Moré lived as nomads. Then they fixed their swinging cotton hammocks at the legs of their small cabins covered with patohu-leaves and so they would be protected when it rained.

Men’s work

As members of a warlike people, the Moré men had attached great importance to decorate round bows and arrows. Bows were firmed with inner bark and cotton. The arrows of more than 1 m length were trimmed with 2, 3 or 4 half feathers. Depending on what they should do, war or hunting, they had tops of bamboo knives, wooden saws, bones and stings taken from sting-rays.

Men’s work also was mainly hunting and fishing, building the cabins and working in the fields. They had to look for the best inner bark from the wood, to soften it (by beating), to sew the bark shirts; they made wooden boats, troughs, seats, and wooden toys for the children. They themselves tidied up their working place, and from time to time they helped the women to chew maniok flour for producing chicha.

Women’s work

The women’s first and formost task was working in the household; that was for example stamping corn using longish troughs and millstones or millsticks, peeling maniok roots with wooden knives, grinding them down by rubbing with a thorny piece of a paxiuba palm root, washing the mash, filtering it through some stick mat, roasting it in an earthen ware plate until it has become “farinha” and baking flat cakes out of it. Of course they always had to take care of the children, as well as to make pottery, to pluck cotton, to spinn and to knott hammocks. Thinner fibres were taken to twist arm or leg ribbons on simple weaving frames.

Games, music, dance

Some very remarkable games were beating the corn leaf, twisting the buzzing disk, and string games. The Moré and Itoreauhip owned a lot of musical instruments. Everybody had to announce himself in front of any dwelling by whistling on a simple reed. This reed was varied in many ways: a simple long flute or a traverse-flute, a unit of two or more reeds for playing different notes. Trumpets of pumpkin were quite popular, as well as rattles of bottle pumpkins filled with seeds or a series of small pumpkins. Dances were accompanied with beats on palm leaves or (with a stick) on bottle pumpkins, others with a howling “kuye”, flute music or singing. All dances seemed to represent legends.


Of the language-family of the Tschapakura (Chapakura) my father wrote (Quote) “In 1913 Crequi-Montfort and Rivet have created the conception of the Chapakura languages on behalf of the submitted material. In that time the following tribes belonged to it: Chapakura or Huaci, Kitemoka, Parumra (Huanyam), Napeka, Iten, and, I’m not quite certain,perhaps the Rokorona and Muré (or Murä [Nimuendaju]). That was based on the (in my father’s time) not yet published vocabularies by d’Orbigny, Cardús, and Hasemann. It was enough to create the conception of this language family.

Later on Nimuendaju published more vocabularies to enlarge this group with 3 more tribes: the Tora, Jain and Urupá. The region of this language family is to be extended far into the north. Erland Nordenskiöld, unfortunately, published only isolated expressions, but maybe he has brought some more material.

My language gains of my voyage to the Guaporé region allow me to add the Kumaná and the Kabixi-Huanyam. At the same time, the vocabularies of the Abtana-Huanyam (at the Miguel) and the Iten (actually, [sc. 1938],they are at least 2 tribes: Moré and Itoreauhip) were enlarged. So it is now possible to consider critically the material collected by Criqué-Montfort and Rivet. Even though I couldn’t bring connected texts, the typical character of the Chapakura languages – I would prefer to call them Huanyam languages – is better to be considered” (End of quote)



Even the Kumaná, settling between the middle part of the Cautario and Rio S. Domingos, belong to the Chapakura. But culturally they were very different from the Moré and Itoreauhip. The Kumaná lived in big oval huts. Only the women were naked, but when they had visitors or feasts, they wore their bark shirts which were painted with remarkably beautiful patterns. The men were very shy and let themselves be seen only in their bark shirt with a belt. Even bark jackets were made. Broad ribbons of bark with fringes were worn around the arms and legs, but the decorations to the face and head were more carefully done. The arrows were longer than the Moré’s arrows, the top of the bird arrow consisted of tapir teeth connected with wax. The bark beaters were round, without edges, the spindle’s fly-wheel was made of bottle-pumpkin’s skin instead of fruits or cork. The women didn’t use a mortar for milling flour but broad planks of wood taken from the root of a big tree from the rainforest. When they danced, they marched one behind the other in a circle, accompanied by singing, rattling sounds and the deep sounds of a pumpkin trumpet.



In a cultural sense, the Kumaná were completely different to the Abitana-Huanyam, who lived close to the Rio S. Miguel and also spoke Chapakura. One of the main differences is the possession of poisoned arrows and blow-pipes. Many other indications of less importance were added. None of the Huanyam women in those days wore European clothing, but a big lip-pin of quartz, which showed she had the dignity of a married woman.

About musical instruments let me specifically mention the trumpet made of the thigh bones of their dead enemies. The dance of the Huanyams was also the circle-dance.



In the Rio Branco region, there were no more Chapacura tribes, but Tupi-elements in very many languages. In my father’s mind, however, you couldn’t call them closely related to each other. The Makurap, a tupoid tribe, dominated all its neighbours in a cultural sense. It was divided in clans of patriarchal law, and they gave themselves the names of plants or beasts. They believed in the existence of two good gods and a bad one, Choari, master of the ghosts and the souls of dead people. For their cult, they used an altar of mats mainly painted, which stood opposite the entrance in the big conic house. During the different ceremonies and healing of ill people, the magician used a magic rattle, a magic plank , several medicinal herbs, a snuffing-reed, a magic feather, and from time to time other things.

Both sexes used to be naked except the hip belt made of seeds and the decorations: that were bracelets in urucu-red, woven in the right size on a round piece of wood, necklaces made of seeds or polished shells, a nose decoration made of reed or a feather-trimmed stick, and ear pendants of polished shells. Men always wore a penis-cover.

Men had to weave baskets and mats, women had to manufacture calabashes and carrying nets of tucum fibres. Cotton was to be spun in a Baikiri manner, but it was not very important.

Bows and arrows looked like those of the Huari, that Erland Nordenskiöld reported about. Dancing consisted of fast steps to and fro, in relation to the measure given by bamboo trumpets or an instrument made of nine different flutes side by side connected with wax. While dancing, they used to lay the hand on the shoulder of the man ahead.


The Arua are also a tupoid tribe. Some of their number had already been collected in an Indio-station and therefore wore European clothes. Their culture, originally different, was already covered by the Makurap culture.


The Wayoro, who were already then few in number, had also received the Makurap culture. Their language was a mixture of the Makurap and other Tupi-tribe-languages.

Jabuti and Arikapu

Even the Jabuti and Arikapu were under strong influence of the Makurap. Their absolutely different languages contain many elements of the Ge-tribes from Eastern Brazil.


At that time, the Tupari, a tupoid tribe, were rather independent. They didn’t have any mat altar like the Makurap , but instead used snuff which played a much bigger part in their magic ceremonies than at the other Branco tribes. In their material culture many things looked much different than those of the other Indios: bows, arrows, seats, the way to cover the genitals, most parts of the personal decoration, the spindles, and the musical instruments. Here there was a long bamboo flute with four finger-holes.In the rainforest there were clearings where they cultivated several vegetables unknown to other Branco-tribes, beetles were bred in the pulp-mash of chicha, for their larvae were a well appreciated delicacy and a completion for the maniok-bread. Flint axes were used.

The chicha dance was quite similar to the dances of the other Branco inhabitants. The flute dance, however, was only done by two lieutenants of the chief who were always at the same distance from each other.

Amniapä and Guaratägaja

In their material and social culture, the Tupari come closer to the Amniapä (or Mampiapä) and Guaratägaja in the upper Mequens region and that of the tributaries of the Pimenta Boeno, which have their sources on the same mountain. At least in my father’s time these Indios, like the Tupari, from time to time were cannibals and used to eat their enemies or disloyal members of their own tribe. The Amniapä’s and Guaratägaja’s whole life was filled with ceremonies. Guests walked in the village with their bows and arrows at the ready. It consisted of several conical huts like bee baskets round a swept area. After ceremonial speeches and having drunk a big calabash of chicha they were allowed to meet in a less formal way. They were generous in their hospitality. A game was played which required great skill with a rubber-ball that could only be touched with the head. Every partner inserted arrows or decorations; the games were counted out with corn grains.

The men continued with ceremonial snuff, meanwhile women had to stay in the background. They were only allowed back again after the blessing of the food and at the beginning of healing. Dancing, however, only began in the evening and lasted the whole night through. It ended at dawn. Soon after, the guests took their leave with sad speeches and tears in their eyes.

In the Mequens region, men and women wore very different decorations, in complete contrast to the Branco-region. The Guaratägaja, but not the Amniapä, wore a genital cover which is different in their diverse groups, but added also a loin-cloth of burity palm fibres as well as rich decoration consisting in shoulder chains, necklaces, bracelets, and face decoration. The women wore numerous necklaces, mainly of seeds. Chains made of complete shells were very typical, and they had nose and ear decorations which differed a lot from those of the men.

Men used to manufacture their things by themselves, except the ribbons. They scratched or painted their snuff boxes – some of them had patterns like those in the region of the Xingu-sources. They also produced the mask tops – their teeth cut of palm fibre are remarkable. The jawbones of piranhas, knives of aguti teeth, and pebbles were used as musical instruments. Even the palm fibre skirts were made by men, and they wove the baskets as well. Their musical instruments were pumpkin trumpets, pan flutes, four-hole flutes, bone flutes and rattles.


The Pauserna-Guarayu had totally lost their original culture except for a few things, although some pieces of household and furniture had survived. Hammocks for example were made to sell, even pottery was done by the women, although in simplified forms. The Pauserna mixed pulverised pottery fragments with fresh clay for getting hard ceramics. The old ornaments were nearly all lost.

Tschikitano (Chicitano)

The Chicitanos, christianized already by Jesuits, had completely lost their original culture. Only in a few traditions and maybe in some dances did the old spirit still persist.


The principal collection is in storage at Berlin-Dahlem. An old register , dated February 1935, during the second expedition, counted about 130 objects and ceramic fragments, which were given to the Museu Nacional Pelo at Rio de Janeiro. Mentioned are objects of all the tribes, I talked about previously, and 29 ceramic pieces from Canindé. The Berlin-collection survived the Second World War nearly 90% intact. Only the excavation-objects are completely lost to science. In connection with the first expedition and of all the tribes that he visited and the 36 objects listed in 1928 which had been brought back to Berlin, only 8 examples are still in existence all of which belong to the Canella tribe. The collection of the expedition of 1933 to 1935 consisted of 2,353 objects, 216 were lost at war, 100 of which were objects of the excavations. The main part of the collection with more than 800 objects are those of the Moré and Itoreauhip.

The Abitana-Huanyam are represented with 215 objects. Also collectively the Makurap, the Aruá, the Amniapä, the Wayoro, the Jabuti, are each represented with more than 100 objects.

A further 80 objects belong to the Guaratägaja, more than 30 are attributed each to the Pauserna, Kumaná, Arikapu and about 20 each to the Tschikitano and Papamiän. All South-American collections are not included in any exhibition.

Scientific diary

The carbon-copies of my father’s scientific diary on his expedition 1933 to 1935 in the Guaporé region were saved during the war by my mother, Dr. Anneliese Snethlage, with help after the war by professor Rivet of Paris , and professor Gusinde of Vienna. In my possession are 1,042 pages of the diary-copy.

Thanks to the University of Leiden, professor Adelaar and Mrs. Brijnen, who encouraged my wife and me to do this journey. Perhaps it will be possible during my lifetime to publish – if there is any interest – the diary.

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