Uruguay is a unique country in Latin America, in that, it is widely accepted that there are no indigenous populations still existing. Very little is known about Uruguay’s history and inhabitants before the arrival of the Spanish and many have concluded that Uruguay had no significant inhabitants besides a few bands of hunter gatherers before the Spanish arrival. Despite this, the indigenous of Uruguay form a distinct part of the national identity, especially the Charrúa Indian.
The Charrúa Indians allegedly killed the very first Spaniards to arrive on their shores, initiating three centuries of resistance and rebellion that has become a pivotal part of Uruguayan identity. Charrúa history has become part of Uruguayan mythology with the Charrúa Indians often portrayed as heroic martyrs.
The reality of the repression of Charrúa Indians is indisputable. Mass genocide took place on a population that also suffered dwindling numbers from exposure to diseases and intermarriage with Europeans. The genocide continued until the population became extinct in the 1830’s.
This leads me to the Charrúa skeleton that found its way home to Uruguay in 2002 after almost two centuries abroad. In 1831, the Uruguay government carried out a massacre against the Charrúa. Most of the men were killed while women and children were “given away” to Spanish and Creole families. Four of the captured Indians were shipped to Paris where they were studied at the national history museum. One of the Charrúa was Chief Vaimaca Peru who’s remains were the only ones preserved after the captives died.
When Vaimaca’s remains were finally returned to Uruguay they were given a hero’s precession and burial in the national pantheon – a statement to how closely Uruguayans identified with the Charrúa. However, before the burial of the remains a team was allowed to study them. The team performed a litany of tests in which they confirmed Vaimaca’s identity and analyzed his mitochondrial DNA. The team established that Vaimaca shared a genetic similarity with ancient burial mounds found in Uruguay establishing that Vaimaca was part of a local lineage at least 1,610 years old. The builders of the Uruguayan burial mounds has long been disputed, but their very existence and the proof of the Charrúans ancient inhabitation of Uruguay, seem to contradict the idea that the native inhabitants of Uruguay were a small and insignificant population.
The study of Vaimaca’s remains also negated another long held idea that the Charrúa no longer exist in Uruguay. Genetic markers were found in Vaimaca that were also found in some modern Uruguayans. It seems that long after the genocide of the Charrúa people and culture the Charrúa still have an impact on the Uruguayan identity and biology.