Five Cycles of a Rich History

Publication Date: 09/15/2018 12:00


Records of the occupation of the Middle Xingu and the establishment of the municipality of Altamira, the largest in Brazil in territorial extension – with 159,695.938 sq. km, greater than nine Brazilian states – are intertwined with the history of the Umbuzeiro family – one of the most traditional in the region. Researcher and writer Antônio Ubirajara Bogea Umbuzeiro, 51, author of the book "Altamira e sua História" [Altamira and its History] (4th Edition, independent publication), illustrates the close ties of his ancestors to the Xingu Valley. 
He inherited the passion for research from his father, Ubirajara Marques Umbuzeiro (1925-2004), an influential figure and responsible for the first studies of the constitution of the local populations. Following in his patriarch's footsteps, Antônio Ubirajara has come a long way to complete his work, one of the most comprehensive studies on the origin of the Xingu people. 

A resident of the Sudam II neighborhood in Altamira, he is proud to have identified the first records of the occupation of the region from the illustration Voyage au Xingu, from an 1897 French publication by Henri Anatole Coudreau. The image displays the "palhoças" (thatched houses), typical dwellings of the time in Pará. "With that, we closed a gap on the history of the foundation of the municipality", he says.

The writer, however, points out that the research gained strength after consulting the American virtual Center of Research Libraries. The website features a section with digital Brazilian documents, called the Brazilian Government Document Digitalization Project. "The platform comprises a great deal of statistics about Brazil between the years 1830 and 1889, with a collection dedicated to Latin America since 1926," he reveals.

"It took me nine months to merge the information surveyed by my father about the founding of Altamira and Vitória do Xingu and the coming of the Jesuits with the documents in the American portal, which helped to solve the puzzle that resulted in the book 'Altamira e sua História'," Antônio Ubirajara points out.


According to him, for a better understanding of the events in the Xingu Valley, the history of the region may be split into five major cycles. The first was marked by the coming of the Jesuits, between 1636 and 1637, a period in which the foundation of the first village in the region, called Itacuruçá, took place. The exploration of Volta Grande do Xingu began on 1662 and religious missions were resumed in 1868, led by members of the Capuchin Franciscan order. "It was a very difficult cycle to define, but it proves that the Jesuits were here much earlier than previously imagined", he remarks.


Altamira was founded in a second point in history, during the Amazon's first rubber cycle, on April 2, 1883. The place, however, would only be recognized as a municipality on January 1, 1912. This period was also marked by the predominance of the control of the local oligarch, known as "coronelismo", massive migration of northeasterners, the advent of electric energy powered by diesel oil, the first regional economic crisis and the creation of the Prelature of Xingu (ecclesiastical district) by Catholic priests. "During this period, Altamira nearly tripled in size due to the rubber activity. From a small village, it became a large city", he adds. 

The region's third development period came with the second rubber cycle, while part of the world was experiencing the horrors of World War II (1936-1945). Thousands of workers migrated from various regions of Brazil and were named "the rubber soldiers". "At that point in history, Altamira was celebrating its 50th anniversary, which coincides with the arrival of the first engineers to build the Transamazônica highway. And the Americans restored roads, invested in health and in the supply of electricity around here."

The construction of the long-awaited highway, to connect the country from North to South, marked the fourth cycle in the history of the Xingu Valley. The opening of the road fostered the creation of agrivillages and the region became a melting pot of cultural elements from the most diverse Brazilian states. It also contributed to the foundation of the municipalities of Brasil Novo, Medicilândia, Uruará, Rurópolis, Pacajá and Anapu, as well as the first political organizations and indigenous movements. "My father used to say that, if it weren't for the Transamazônica, Altamira would be just an isolated town on the banks of the Xingu River. The highway brought significant changes to the region. There was strong cultural interference from northeasterners, which is still present in Altamira's way of life," he states.

The writer concludes his research with a record of the deployment of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Plant and compares it with the opening of the Transamazônica highway as a major achievement for the region. Antônio Ubirajara believes such a large undertaking cannot be built without impacts and its positive legacy will be assimilated by the population once all the established conditions are fulfilled.
"It is impossible not to see improvements in health, with a zero-malaria indicator; in education, with the training of doctors; in basic sanitation, with the proper treatment of water, sewage and solid waste," he exemplifies. "We cannot ignore the fact that thousands of families lived in stilt houses and are now dwelling in brick houses and no longer have to worry about floods," he stresses.

Antônio Ubirajara considers that the 552-page book, launched in 2012 (now in its fourth edition), is a historical legacy for the current and future generations of the Xingu. "Documenting all this information means preserving the history of thousands of men and women who came here in search of work, whether in the construction of the Transamazônica or Belo Monte. Our mission is to keep alive not only the history of the Middle Xingu, but of a deeper Brazil, which is still unknown," he concludes.
Within the scope of the Basic Environmental Project of the Belo Monte HPP, the region's history and culture also played a role. The Historical, Landscape and Cultural Heritage Program comprised a vast collection of cultural assets of an immaterial nature. There are 1,606 life stories, 4,747 celebrations and forms of expression mapped or cataloged, as well as 215 crafts and occupations and 25,705 locations and buildings, generating over 278 hours of video records. 

  • Drawing by an unknown author from the village of Altamira, in 1826.
  • Ubirajara Umbzeiro, author of the book "Altamira e sua História".
  • Prainha de Altamira, the city's downtown beach, in the 1960s.
  • Panoramic view of the city in the 1980s.
  • Thatched houses were once the way of life for the people of Altamira, according to an 1896 record. 
  • Altamira seen from above in the 1970s.