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Ilustração: Luciane Stocco

To begin our journey through time, we must go back to the territory that is now South America, at the time when it was occupied by the original inhabitants of this place, making a journey of at least 700 years. In this context, and trying to imagine what life was like and the relationship with nature established over the generations by the societies that dominated this space, it is necessary to approach the region of the Rio de la Plata Basin, the second largest in South America and a one of the largest in the world¹, supplied by large rivers such as Uruguay, Paraguay and Paraná, where the Tupis and Guaranis lived.


Among some of the legends that deal with the discovery of the consumption of yerba mate, some very interesting ones are related to both the Tupis and the Guaranis. They narrate in an epic and also mystical way the advent of Mate consumption and the significance of the tree as an icon of the natural landscape that becomes an identity reference for these peoples. It is worth remembering, before we begin, that it was through the consumption of the natives that yerba mate was perpetuated in history and reaches us today, with its most varied forms of consumption.

Sete Quedas005.jpg
The Seven Falls of the Paraná River: now submerged, made up the landscape that is considered the cradle of the consumption of yerba mate by the legends of the natives of the region. Photograph by Helmuth Erich Wagner

Erva-mate and Indigenous Peoples

The Legend of the Sapecada Yerba Mate

This legend involves both the Tupis and the Guaranis, through the intermediation of two main characters, Iára, a young Tupi woman, who lived on the right bank of the Paraná River, at the height of the now submerged Sete Quedas, the largest waterfall in the world by volume of water², and Gupi, a Guarani boy, who lived on the other side of the Paraná River. A few centuries ago the Tupis and the Guaranis were at war, and it will be in this context that we will discover where yerba mate comes from. For this, we describe both sides of the story, starting with Iára.


Ilustração: Luciane Stocco

Iára, the Tupi, receives a message from Tupã

Iára was the daughter of an important Tupi chief, she was very beautiful and benevolent, she dedicated her life to the health of the elders as well as the children. Every morning, at sunrise, Iára bathed in the waters of the Seven Falls.


One morning, following her daily ritual, Iára was taking her bath and, filled with thoughts about something that could help the health of the weakest to recover, at the intense sound of the millennial waters pumping through the stone landscape of the waterfalls, she was startled. with the sudden screaming call of seven macaws, which perched on the branches of a nearby tree, talk directly to Iára, in Tupi, and say:

   – Here is the miracle of Tupã. He sent us, Iára, to show you Caá, which will fulfill your desires.

At this moment, the seven macaws take flight and reveal the tree on which they were perched: the yerba mate tree.


Iára immediately leaves the waterfalls, running to tell her father and Pajé what she saw, and offers them her head in case she was lying. This is the first event of the day that, according to legend, would definitively change the fate of yerba mate. Now we will know the facts that happened on the other side of the Paraná River, to see where this story will take us.

Gupi, the Guarani, and the punishment of Anhanguera

Gupi was a young and fearless Guarani warrior. Courageous, intelligent and charitable, he was highly respected among his guests and was considered an example to be followed by children. Son of an important Guarani chief, Gupi lived in full harmony with nature, always collecting enough, so that nothing ever ran out. Great observer of natural cycles, Gupi had his own plantation, full and of the most varied, and walked through the woods always accompanied by his good friend Caraí, a tapir ( Tapirus terrestris ).


One day Gupi and Caraí, tired of an intense walk in the forest, decide to stop to rest at the feet of an ancient Jatobá, already known to them as a landing point in the middle of the forest. When lying down, contemplating the beauties of the interior of the forest, they observe the sky and realize that the weather was closing, the gray and dense clouds quickly covered the blue that they previously admired, and, faster than the blink of an eye, a lightning strikes the canopy of the Jatobá on which they rested, which at the same moment is taken by an unstoppable fire. Gupi and his friend are terrified, however, brave and fearless, Gupi soon climbs to the top of the tree and bravely manages to control the fire that would surely put an end to the long life of that Jatobá.


Exhausted, Gupi and his friend, still energetic from the emotion driven by the situation they faced, are amazed by the beauty of the newly saved Jatobá, watching it carefully. Suddenly, a Caburé ( Glaucidium brasilianum , a bird similar in appearance to an owl) appears from the skies, lands on Jatobá and speaks directly to Gupi, in Tupi:

       Bravo Gupi, the lit fire burns all evil, you will be punished by Anhanguera (devil), for having put out this fire!

As soon as Caburé flew, Gupi's punishment was approaching galloping, and it is in Anhanguera's punishment that our characters will find themselves.

The discovery of Caá: Tupi-Guarani Union

Cursed by Anhanguera, Gupi and his friend Caraí decide to head home, and already close to the trail that would take them straight home, they see, on the banks of the Paraná River, a baby Capybara drinking water while a hungry Jaguar was hiding. behind the vegetation arming the attack to the defenseless cub. Dissatisfied with the situation, Gupi, without thinking twice, runs towards the Jaguar, shouts and scares her away, however, without realizing the danger, Gupi steps on a slippery rock and falls into the turbulent waters of Paraná, and the current leads with intensity towards the Seven Falls. In an unsuccessful attempt to save him, Caraí jumps into the water and Gupi manages to hug him, but the current of the waterfalls was as intense as the greatest force in the world, and takes the two friends down the river -  Anhanguera's revenge had been relentless.


Physically punished by the forces of nature, Gupi and his friend arrive at the end of the waterfalls alive, but unconscious, the two arrive at the small sandy beach that forms in the curve of the river and are spotted by Tupi fishermen. Immediately the fishermen collect the two and take them to their tribe, to show them to the cacique and the shaman. When they arrive, everyone is amazed at the state between life and death in which Gupi and Caraí find themselves. The shaman orders them to be given water, so that they find some strength to give them life again. Gupi and Caraí are spotted by the benevolent daughter of the cacique, Iára, who, amazed at the poor health of the two, remembers the message that the seven macaws had sent her that morning, immediately thinking of the leaves of Caá, but no one knew. how to benefit the leaves of that tree. It was a moment of sadness for everyone who watched the slow and agonizing death of Gupi and Caraí.  


Iára, faced with that funereal silence, turned to Gupi and asked him:

        Pretty boy, do you know a way to purify the leaves of this Caá? Tupã sent me to say that these leaves would be a medicine that cures diseases and saves the life of those who use them.

Gupi, in a supreme effort, replied remembering what Caburé had told him:

        The lit fire burns all evil.

And added:  

        Bring thatch from Curí, burn it and sprinkle the Caá leaves over the flames, and they will soon be purified.


Soon Caá tea was prepared, sweetened with bee honey. As soon as it was ingested, Gupi and Caraí got up, gently, and regained their strength. Revived, Gupi went to Iára and thanked her for having saved his life and that of his friend, declaring himself a slave to Iára, who promptly disagreed and attributed to Gupi the discovery of the improvement of the herb.


The Tupi and Guarani shamans, excited by this discovery that represented the cure for their nations, promptly decided, through the marriage of Gupi and Iára, to reunite these two peoples, declaring Gupi as the chief, to the joy of all. Gupi, in his first action as Tupi-Guarani chief, was to send leaves and branches, as well as Caá seeds, to  Ilex paraguariensis , to the other nations on the continent, to cultivate this plant and make good use of its restorative powers. Thus, the way to benefit the Caá leaves became known and its use spread over a good part of the continent, possibly taking its use to Peru, where the Incas baptized the porongo "Mati", where the yerba mate³.

1 Raúl A. Guerrero; et al. (June 1997). "Physical oceanography of the Río de la Plata Estuary, Argentina".  Continental Shelf Research .  17  (7): 727–742

2 A Lenda da Erva Mate Sapecada is present in a publication from the year 1943, written by Dr. who carried out a relevant survey of the native cultures of Brazil and their origins, in the 1870s/80s and in the works of Guilherme Stein Junior, a scholar of the common origins of religions and languages, also during the 1930s. 

3 It is remarkable the fact of the discovery, in the pre-Columbian tombs of Ancon, in Peru, that the Incas used to accompany their dead leaves of yerba mate, armaments and fabrics, in a region where the plant is not native, revealing the possible commercial exchanges established in America, as pointed out by Professor Aquino, in his book "Tereré", 1986, p 317.

To reference this page, please cite:  CEDERVA The History of Yerba Mate: Yerba Mate and Native Americans. Curitiba, 2020. Available at:
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