Early villages often consisted of communal houses, of ten to fifteen families. Communities were united only by common interest and language, and tended to form tribal groups by dialect. It is estimated that they numbered at some 400,000 people when they were first encountered by Europeans. They were sedentary and agricultural, subsisting largely on manioc, maize, wild game, and honey.
Equally little is known about early Guaraní society and beliefs. They practiced a form of animistic pantheism, much of which has survived in the form of numerous folklore and myths. Guaraní mythology is still widespread in rural Paraguay. According to the Jesuit missionary Martin Dobrizhoffer, they practiced cannibalism, perhaps as a funerary ritual, but later disposed of the dead in large jars placed inverted on the ground.
The first governor of the Spanish territory of Guayrá initiated a policy of intermarriage of Europeans with Native American women, which gave rise to the Paraguayan nation. He also initiated the enslavement of the natives who had no protector until the arrival of Jesuit missionaries.
The first two Jesuits, Father Barcena and Father Angulo, came to what is now the State of Paraná, Southern Brazil, in 1585, by land from what was to be called Bolivia some 240 years later. Others soon followed, and a Jesuit college was established at Asunción. In 1608, as a result og Jesuit protest against enslavement of Native Americans, King Philip III of Spain gave authority to the Jesuits to convert and colonize the tribes of Guayrá. It should be noted that in the early period the name Paraguay was loosely used to designate all the basin of the river, including parts of what are now Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil.
As usual in Spanish colonies, exploring expeditions were accompanied by Franciscan friars. Early in the history of Asunción, Father Luis de Bolanos translated the catechism into Guaraní language to preach to Guaraní in the neighborhood of the settlement. In 1588-89 St. Francis Solanus crossed the Chaco wilderness from Peru and stopped at Asunción, but gave no attention to the Guaraní. His recall left the field clear to the Jesuits, who assumed the double duty of "civilizing" and Christianizing the Native Americans and defending them against the cruelty of slave dealers and employers, as well as practically all of the European population, including lay, clerical, and official. "The larger portion of the population regarded it as a right, a privilege in virtue of conquest, that they should enslave the Indians" (Page, 470). The Jesuit provincial Torres arrived in 1607, and "immediately placed himself at the head of those who had opposed the cruelties at all times exercised over the natives" (ibid).
The centre and depot of the slave trade was the town of São Paulo. While originally a rendezvous place for the Portuguese, Dutch, and Spanish pirates, it later became a refuge for criminals of all nations, who mixed with Native American and African women, and actively participated in the capturing and selling of Guaranis as slaves.
To oppose these armed and organized robbers, the tribes had only their bows, since the Spanish government prohibited the use of firearms by even "civilized Indians". Many Native Americans were slain or enslaved by the slave-hunters at large in Brazil during those years.
With the royal protection, the first Guayrá mission, Loreto, was established on the Paranapané by Father Cataldino and Father Marcerata in 1610. As the mission provided the only real possible protection against enslavement, the Guaraní flocked there in such numbers that twelve more missions were created in rapid succession, containing in all 40,000 Guaranis. Stimulated by this success, Father Gonzalez and two companions journeyed to Uruguay and established two or three small missions, in 1627, with good promise for the future, until the local tribes murdered the priests, massacred the neophytes, and burned the missions.
Slave raiders saw the Guaraní missions as "merely an opportunity of capturing more Indians than usual at a haul" and as "nest of hawks, looked at their neophytes as pigeons, ready fattening for their use" (Graham 57). In 1629, an army of Paulistas surrounded the San Antonio mission, set fire to the church and other buildings, killed those who resisted or were too young or too old to travel, and carried the rest into slavery. San Miguel and Jesu Maria quickly met the same fate. Eventually, reinforcements, gathered by Father Cataldino, drove off the enemy. Many other missions were not as fortunate. Within two years, all but two of the establishments were destroyed, as 60,000 Christian and "civilized" converts carried off for sale to São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The attacks were usually on Sunday, when the whole mission population was gathered for Mass. Usually, the priests were spared, but several were killed while ministering to the wounded or pleading with the murderers.
The survival of Guayrá missions were in jeopardy. The few thousand Indians were left from nearly 100,000 just before the Paulista invasion. Father Antonio Ruiz de Montoya purchased 10,000 cattle, and was able to transform the Indians from farmers into stock raisers. Soon, work began to prosper, and under Fathers Rançoncier and Romero the Uruguay missions were re-established. However, in 1632 an the old enemy, the Mamelucos, discovered a new line of attack from the south. In 1638, despite some successful resistance, all twelve of the missions beyond the Uruguay were abandoned and their people consolidated with the community of the Missions Territory. In the last raid Father Afaro was killed.
In the same year Father Montoya, after having successfully opposed the governor's and Bishop of Asunción's attempts to reduce the liberties of the Indians and the mission administration, sailed for Europe. On his trip he was successful in receiving a letters from Pope Urban VIII forbidding the enslavement of the mission Indians under the severest church penalties, and from King Philip IV of Spain, permitting Indians to carry firearms for defense, and to be trained to use them by veteran soldiers who had become Jesuits.
When the next Paulista army, 800 strong, attacked in 1641 they were met by a body of Christian Guaraní armed with guns on the Acaray River. In two battles, the Paulista army suffered a defeat that warded off invasions for ten years. In 1651, the war between Spain and Portugal encouraged another Paulista attack intended to gain territory for Portugal. Before Spanish troops could arrive to help defend the missions, the fathers themselves led a Guaraní army against the enemy. In 1732, at their greatest prosperity, the Guaraní missions were guarded by a well-drilled and well-equipped army of 7,000 Indians. On more than one occasion this mission army, accompanied by their priests, defended the Spanish colony.
Aside from the farm each man would typically had his own garden. In addition to agriculture, stock raising, and the cultivation of the maté. Jesuits introduced many trades and arts that were a part of Europe. It was not uncommon for missions to have many different types of trades within their communities. Cotton weavers, tanneries, carpenters, tailors, hat makers, coopers, boat builders, silversmiths, musicians, painters, and turners could sometimes be found in these communities. They also had printers to work their printing presses to print the many books and manuscripts produced, such those made by the monks in European monasteries (Graham).
The goods that were produced at the missions, including that from the increase of the herds, were sold in Buenos Aires and other markets, under supervision of the fathers. The proceeds earned were divided between a common fund, the workers, and helpless dependents.
A high degree of emphasis was put on education as early training was regarded as the key to future success. (Page, 503) Much of the instruction was conducted in Guaraní; which was still the prevailing language of the country, but Spanish was also taught in every school. In this way, the Jesuits hoped to transformed the Indians into communities of peaceful, industrious, highly-skilled Christian workers among whom idleness, crime, and poverty were alike unknown.
In 1732, the Guaraní missions numbered thirty, with 141,252 Christian Indians. Two years later a smallpox epidemic killed approximately 30,000 of these. In 1765, a second outbreak killed approximately 12,000 more, and then spread westward through the tribes of the Chaco.
In 1767, the Jesuits were expelled from Spanish dominions, by royal edict. Fearing the event, viceroy Antonio María Bucareli y Ursúa entrusted the execution of the mandate in 1768 to two officers with a force of 500 troops. Despite the mission army of 14,000, the Jesuits submitted without resistance.
However, the Guaraní people and culture persists. Nearly all the forest tribes on the borders of Paraguay are Guaraní. Many are descendants of mission exiles. In Paraguay Guaraní lineage predominates in the population and the Guaraní language is spoken in most provinces to this day.
The Guaraní were also later described, amongst many other historical documents in existence today, in 1903, by Croatian explorers Mirko and Stjepan Seljan. Several English words can be traced to Guaraní roots, such as "tapioca", "toucan" and "jaguar."
Presently, the language is still the main binding characteristic of Guaraní people. The Argentinian communities speak mainly the mbya-guarani as opposed to the tupi-guarani and guarani-jopara spoken in Paraguay and Brazil. However, these varieties are mutually-intelligible. The Guarani villages located in the south of Brazil and in the north of Argentina are more marginalized due to a European immigration following the First and Second World Wars. Many Guarani do not speak Spanish and the European immigrant population do not speak Guarani either. The Mbya-Guarani still live in secluded villages and only the "cacique" and some other officials in their community will learn Spanish. Recently the government of Argentina has partly financed bilingual schools in the northern province of Misiones.
Paraguay is a bilingual country and most of its Spanish speaking population also speaks a form of Guarani. The Paraguayan population learns Guarani both informally, from social interaction, and formally in public schools. Guarani has recently become part of the required curriculum in public schools in the past ten years since the fall of ex-President Stroessner's influences. The native populations in Paraguay speak the traditional tupi-guarani while the majority of bilingual Paraguayans speak Guarani-jopara (jopara meaning mixed). Many words have been borrowed from Spanish but include traditional tupi-guarani prefixes and suffixes. For example "Nde rentede pa?" meaning "Do you understand?" Notice the "entende" root, which is borrowed from the Spanish verb "entender" meaning "to understand." The evolution of Guarani-jopara is very similar to "Border Spanish" or "Spanglish" where the mixture of the two languages begins to take on its own rules and uses. In addition, it requires an understanding of both Guarani and Spanish to be fully functional.
Guarani Poets & Writers