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Guarani Indians: pioneers of yerba mate

Guarani Indians: pioneers of yerba mate

The Guarani Indians – if it wasn't for them, we may never have tasted the wonderful yerba mate. In today's blog post, we take a look at the fascinating history and culture of the South American Indians as pioneers in the cultivation and consumption of yerba mate. How did they live, how did it happen that they discovered the miraculous plant, Ilex paraguariensis and what significance did the beverage have in their culture? Enjoy the reading!


  1. In the ancient South America
  2. Guarani – the “warriors” of South America
  3. Yerba mate – the Guarani Indians' gift to the world
  4. Colonisation of the South American Indians and the introduction of yerba mate to the whole world
  5. Guarani Indians – guardians of the yerba mate tradition

In the ancient South America

When Columbus arrived in South America at the end of the 15th century, he came into contact with natives who, as it turned out, had created very successful, highly developed civilisations. The greatest of these were the Mayan, Aztec and Inca cultures, which are still well known to us today. In their heyday they built great cities, mighty temples and palaces, developed agriculture and even created their own writing and calendar. Today, what remains of them are the memory and the ruins of magnificent buildings that have become nothing more than a tourist attraction. Alongside the largest and most famous cultures, there were smaller, somewhat less developed Indian tribes, including the Guarani – the first discoverers of yerba mate.

Guarani – the “warriors” of South America

The indigenous Indian people of the Paraguay-Argentina-Brazil border region arrived in the area around 200 BC from the central Amazon region. This community originally consisted of two Tupi-Guarani Indian tribes. Legend says that the tribe was headed by two brothers, Tupi and Guarani. They lived in harmony until their wives quarreled over a colourful parrot. The younger of the brothers, Guarani, decided to leave the tribe and moved with his large family to the land of La Plata. Guarani in the Indian language means "warrior", although sources say that the term only began to be used for the natives during the Conquista period. At first, stories circulated among Europeans about their barbarism and bloodthirstiness. In reality, the Indians of South America were rather friendly towards the colonisers. Cooperation with the Spaniards stemmed from pragmatism. Having such a strong ally put them in a winning position in competition with rival tribes. Before the conquistadors arrived, the Guarani lived in small villages surrounded by palisades. The clusters usually did not exceed 500 inhabitants. Their economy was based on hunting, fishing and agriculture and their lifestyle could be described as semi nomadic. Once the land in the settlement area was depleted, they would go in search of new settlements. The diet was based on cassava and maize. Hunted animals and fish were a rarity.

Yerba mate – the Guarani Indians' gift to the world

The Guarani made the most of what nature gave them. They hunted animals that lived wild in the tropical forest, caught fish from the surrounding rivers and collected plants that grew near their homes. On one occasion, they discovered a plant that, as it turned out, had extraordinary properties. This was Ilex paraguariensis, after which the Indians felt no fatigue or hunger, their mood improved and their senses sharpened. They began to make an infusion from the dried leaves of the plant – yerba mate – which they drank in ceremonies, before hunting. The Guarani Indians were very religious and god-fearing, and their mythology was highly developed. They believed in the magical power of nature and that the world around them was inhabited by supernatural beings. The beliefs were enriched by the traditions associated with yerba mate, which became an integral and one of the most important elements of their culture. Drinking the brew was done with respect for nature and spirit – they believed it was a gift from the gods. Many legends arose about the occultation of yerba mate, which, passed down from generation to generation, have survived to this day.

Yarii and Yara – the guardians of yerba mate

Guarani Indians led a nomadic lifestyle. They did not know how to grow crops, so they made do with what they could find in the surrounding jungle. Unfortunately, after a while, they would run out of animals and wild plants, so every few years they would take all their belongings with them and move to a new place, which again provided a livelihood for the whole community. This way of life was quite arduous, especially for the oldest members of the tribe. According to legend, during one of these journeys, an old Indian man named Yarii weakened and decided to stay, not wanting to be a burden on the tribe. He thus condemned himself to loneliness and poverty. His daughter, Yara, stayed with him. As much as she wanted to wander with her family and friends, she loved her father so much that she could not leave him alone. They found it very hard to live in solitude and with difficult access to food. One day, a visitor arrived at their hut – a shaman with unnaturally blue eyes. Despite their difficult situation, Yarii and Yara hosted the shaman as best they could, and he gave them a plant as a gift in gratitude. It turned out that the stranger was the god Pa'i Shume, and the plant he gave them was Caa' Mate – yerba mate. Pa'i Shume explained to the Indians how to care for the plant and how to use it. It was to ensure their prosperity so that they would never experience hunger and would not have to move to a new place again. Yerba mate was not only a gift from the god, but also became a symbol of hospitality, and the Yarii and Yara Indians became its guardians.

Yerba mate – the gift of the goddesses of the moon and clouds

According to another legend, yerba mate was a gift from two goddesses – of the cloud and the moon. The moon goddess Yarí and the cloud goddess Arai admired from above what Tupá had created on earth. Wanting to experience the beauty of the Amazon jungle up close, they decided to descend to earth in the guise of little girls. While wandering, they were attacked by a huge jaguar. They closed their eyes in horror. When they opened them, it turned out that they had been rescued by a young Indian man who lived in a nearby tribe. The rescued goddesses, wanting to thank them for saving their lives, put the entire village to sleep and planted magic seeds during this time. When the Indians woke up, the seeds sprouted a plant – yerba mate – with many miraculous properties, which they have since treated as a gift from the gods.

Guarani Indians - pioneers of yerba mate

Colonisation of the South American Indians and the introduction of yerba mate to the whole world

Going back to real history, with the arrival of Columbus in the Americas, everything changed. The arrival of the Spaniards was a huge revolution. They quickly took over the mateist customs from the natives. For the Guarani Indians, however, drinking yerba mate was not just a matter of supplying the body with fluids, but also a symbolic connection to nature and the spirits of their ancestors. The Jesuits in particular played an invaluable role in understanding Indian culture and popularising the drink. They managed the so-called reductions – special missionary settlements, which they inhabited with the Indians, adopting them to Christian life. To a certain extent, they imposed customs and beliefs brought from Europe on the natives, but they did so in a gentle manner, encouraging them to cooperate and develop rather than imposing change by force. The monks succeeded in implementing farming techniques that enabled the first yerba mate plantations to be established. As a result, they began to produce a sizeable surplus of the so valuable dried mate. This became the key to the supra-regional popularity of the drink. The raw material, floated by ship to distant regions, reached ever larger groups of people. Mateism spread throughout the colony, quickly making its way into the pages of history as an integral part of the local tradition and culture.

Guarani Indians – guardians of the yerba mate tradition

Indian heritage is alive and well. Despite the influence of the modern world, the Guarani Indians still preserve their traditions and strive to protect their culture. Who would have thought that a mysterious drink native to the untrodden tropics of South America would be so readily available practically all over the world in the future? Globalisation has made our lives easier. Let us appreciate this, while not forgetting the cultural richness of times past. Let us remember that yerba mate is not only a delicious brew, but also a collection of traditions and culture handed down over hundreds of years. Let us remember the pioneers such as the legendary Guarani Indians!

Source of information:

  1. Wikipedia: Yerba mate, Guaraní people.
  2. Encyclopædia Britannica.


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