Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Nations of the World: Uraguay

The indigenous people of Uraguay were known as the Charrua people. They moved into Uraguay 4,000 years ago, and for 300 years they fought the invading Portuguese and Spanish colonists. But warfare and genocide erased their culture - or so people thought.

Following a massacre in 1833, four of the last known Charrua were taken to Paris and displayed like ecological oddities. All of them died there, including a baby that was born after they arrived. The body of the chief Vaicama-PerĂº was returned to Uraguay in 2002, to great fanfare. (Today the Uraguayan people hold the country's indigenous in high regard - of course, now that they are all gone they aren't a threat, right? Sorry, that kind of thing makes me a bit cynical.) The DNA of Vaicama-PerĂº was tested before he was re-interred. It matched 1,600-year-old Charrua DNA. It also shared markers with 3% of modern Uruguayans. So the Charrua did not entirely disappear, but their culture was assimilated.

I want to know more about the Charrua. What was their material culture like? What stories did they tell? Were they decimated by disease, like so many American tribes who came into early contact with Europeans? How did they keep the Spanish and Portuguese at bay for so long? And ultimately, what happened to them?

Uraguay is home to another mystery: La Luz Mala. The Evil Lights are luminescent swamp gasses (or are they?) that may portend misfortune or draw unsuspecting travelers to unhappy fates. Some say they are the spirits of evil humans trapped on earth, doomed to haunt the swamplands forever. La Luz Mala are known to many other cultures where this unusual natural phenomenon has been seen - sometimes known as will-o-the-wisps or jacks. There are several possible scientific explanations. It could be this, it could be that, but really it's a bit of a mystery.

Maybe La Luz Mala are the spirits of the Charrua, erased from history by war and genocide. If so, I would recommend avoiding them, for they certainly have a right to be unhappy.

Originally published: 29 Nov 2015