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Illustration of The last of the Charrúas (1833), Delaunois

The Last of the Charrua: The Honored Warrior Tribe of Uruguay


Uruguay is said to be the only Latin American country without an indigenous population. However, they did have a fearsome warrior tribe living in the country for thousands of years. Believed to be the last, or only, true Uruguayan indigenous culture, the Charrúa lived in Uruguay and neighboring areas of Argentina and Brazil starting 4000 years ago. The genocide of the Charrúa began in 1833 by Uruguay's first president, with four captives being sent to France as a sideshow. Recently debate has re-emerged on the existence of full-blooded descendents of this indigenous tribe thought to be extinct. 

The Origins of the Charrúa Culture

Documents concerning the Charrúa in Uruguay before the arrival of the Spanish have yet be discovered. Thus, the history and origins of the Charrúa culture before colonial times remains somewhat uncertain. However, archaeological evidence shows that the Charrúa culture began in Uruguay roughly 4000 years ago, when they may  have been pushed south by the Guarani tribe.

The Charrúa people were semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived throughout Uruguay and the Northeast of Argentina as well as Southern Brazil. It is known that they were adept with the bow and arrow and when horses arrived, they became quite good at hunting wild cattle.

Historians assert that the Charrúa culture was created as a mixture of the caingang and the patagones collectives. Their language is believed to be related to the mataco-guaicurú family. The origins of the name 'Charrúa' are disputed, with some historians suggesting indigenous roots and others favoring Galician instead.

The Fearsome Charrúa Warriors

The Charrúa warriors became very skilled in battle and for this reason they are pivotal heroes in modern Uruguayan culture. Allegedly, the Charrúas killed the Spanish explorers on their first arrival. This led to three centuries of resistance and rebellion. Not only did the Charrúas fight against the Spanish; they were also involved in battles at times against the British, Portuguese and later Brazilian powers.

Illustration showing Charrúa warriors preparing to attack Spanish Juan Díaz de Solís by Ulpiano Checa

Illustration showing Charrúa warriors preparing to attack Spanish Juan Díaz de Solís by Ulpiano Checa (Wikimedia Commons)

The undoing of the Charrúa culture was not fear or weakness. The Charrúa are believed to have drunk from the skulls of their dead enemies during ceremonies and cut themselves or even remove their finger joints at the death of a loved one.

The Ends of Uruguay's Charrúa Culture - Intermarriage, Genocide, Slavery and Escape

The decline of the Charrúa culture began with intermarriage with Europeans. After the Charrúas had proved their strength against their opponents, they began to trade and intermingle. This left them open to foreign disease and a decline in their genes.

This decrease was nothing in comparison to the devastating event that took place on April 11, 1831. It is on that day at Puntas del Queguay, the terrible massacre known as the "Slaughter of Salsipuedes" (translated as "Get out if you can") took place.

The first Uruguayan president, Fructuoso Rivera, originally had a peaceful relationship with the Charrúa, however tension increased as European settlers began to advance onto the Charrúa land. The response of the Charrúa was to attack these small settlements.

Painting of Charrua warrior, by Jean-Baptiste Debret

Painting of Charrua warrior, by Jean-Baptiste Debret (Wikimedia Commons)

Documents show that on April 11, 1833, Rivera met with the main  Charrúa chiefs - Polidoro, Rondeau, Brown, Juan Pedro and Venado – and their tribes, supposedly to discuss the protection of the State’s borders. Then he gave the Charrúa large amounts of alcohol, and once they were drunk he brought in his men to kill them.

This marked the beginning of the Charrúa genocide that lasted for two years and sent thousands of the Charrúa to their graves, thousands more out of Uruguay and the rest into slavery.

After the Slaughter of Salsipuedes, four Charrúa members were reportedly captured and sent to France, where they were "put on display" for Parisians in 1833. For most Uruguayan historians and anthropologists, they were the last of the Charrúas - the famous four Charrúas depicted in the monument found in Montevideo today. Their names were: Vaimaca-Perú - the chief, the 'curandero' or shaman - Senaqué, the young warrior Tacuabé, and his partner, Guyunusa, along with their newborn daughter.

Los Ultimos Charrúas/The Last of the Charruas, Montevideo, Uruguay

Los Ultimos Charrúas/The Last of the Charruas, Montevideo, Uruguay (Wikimedia Commons)

The Charrúa in Modern Uruguay

In 2002, the remains of Vaicama-Perú were returned to Uruguay, where they received a hero's welcome. Vaicama was subsequently buried in the national pantheon. Before he was interred however, his DNA was tested. The results show that Vaicama came from the local Charrúa culture with a lineage of over 1,600 years. 

Recently debate has re-emerged that there are full-blooded descendents of the Charrúa culture living in Uruguay. The individuals who declare themselves as indigenous Charrúa are fighting to reclaim their rights. This issue has been hotly debated as history has continually taught modern Uruguayans that all indigenous Charrúa were killed during the genocide and those who remained are of mixed-blood. Modern Uruguayan anthropologists disagree with the descendents claims as well. This question and the legal consequences continue.

Nonetheless, the Charrúa spirit lives on not only in the blood descendents, but also in the honor of the strong Charrúa warrior in modern Uruguayan culture. The use of the "charrúa" now also refers to modern day Uruguayan soccer players who also often see their matches as battles. Charrúa is also a term used in conversation when a person is faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, but they achieve their goals.

Featured Image: Illustration of The last of the Charrúas (1833), Delaunois (Wikimedia Commons)

By Alicia McDermott


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Anthropology of Uruguay, 2011.  The Charrua Indians. [Online]
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Encyclopedia Britannica, 2015. Charrúa People. [Online]
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As a Uruguayan born in rural North and a Charrua descendant from 5 generations. I don't think that gaining political status is important.

First of because some sources state that Rivera himself might have had a native origin and if you look at a picture of him in old age you can clearly see some non-European traits so I don't discard this possibility, but also because I believe that our roots go way beyond than just a bloodline.

Us descendants are not truly Charruan. For whatever reason our ancestors decided to cut their ties with their semi-nomadic past and embrace the civilized culture but at a major cost that they were brand new and had no rights or possiesions so they were in a disadvantage and these socioeconomic conditions created a uniquely distinct subculture in each departamento (State), picture something like the Cajun in the US.

The rampant poverty my grandpa grew up in made his and other Charruan children and grandchildren's upbrining tremendously different from the kids in main city yet very simmilar to the poor white and black kids in their own towns. Their mannerism, their behaviour and even their language is not quite the same to the rest of the people from the city and I'm pretty sure this situation repeates itself all over the nation with different descendants from different tribes. So even if the Charruas went extinct their culture and mannerisms were ''absorbed'' by the local populance to an extent. That to me is the status we should be trying to recover, the one that is still evident today through those mannerism.

One thing my grandpa (and his brothers and sisters used to do), was to ''trade'' stuff with close friends. Thus he lived in a constant state of dichotomy. He grew up in absolute poverty because his father was the son of a Charruan boy whom was ''adopted'' to work with the peons and his father's case was not much different. So my grandpa left the little house they had at the age of 11 and began working with the peons as his father and grandfather before him. When he settle down he cherrished and took care of every little possession he had, yet when an old friend he had not seen in 20 or more years came visiting he would offer one of his precious possesions for trade. This was becuse the common rural peasants were so poor that they adopted the trading nature of the Charruas, so my grandpa lived among other children with no Charruan connection but who still practiced this Charruan custom as well. THIS IS OUR IDENTITY, to me it's not a sea that divides us, it's a bridge that unite us.

Naci en Uruguay en el 1970, mi madre, de origen del Brasil, me llamaba charrúa por mi forma de ser y de comportarme, buscando siempre el contacto con la naturaleza y respetándola en toda su forma, el charrúa vive dentro de nosotros

i'm uruguaya and mestiza and there are still charrúa people in uruguay. currently they're trying to get status in the country and we most certainly weren't killed off? most just don't live in montevideo. you can still find modern uruguayos with the thick black hair and brown skin etc. a lot of indigenous uruguayos were also made into servants for the white people and there's many alive today who were servants/slaves (similar to stories from other countries like mexico) but they're like ~70 years old at this point.

Alicia McDermott's picture

Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

There are many “forgotten” indigenous cultures I hope to write about in the future…

If there is another you would like to find more information on, please post it here and I will try to find out more.



tiyohistud9's picture

Ohwh! This is awesome. I am lacking knowledge about indigenous Uruguayan.



Alicia McDermott's picture


Alicia McDermott holds degrees in Anthropology, Psychology, and International Development Studies and has worked in various fields such as education, anthropology, and tourism. Traveling throughout Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador, Alicia has focused much of her research on Andean cultures... Read More

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