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“It gives us a sense of pride”: Adugo, the Indigenous Brazilian board game helping to teach maths and protect wildlife

The traditional ‘Jaguar Game’ has broken down barriers to education and conservation awareness.

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With attentive eyes following the movements of tiny hands, children move a jaguar miniature through a tabletop jungle of criss-crossing lines while their opposers tail them with 14 hunting dogs. The setting is a maths class in Brasília, Brazil where students not only learn maths, but also strategic thinking and memorisation. Adugo - or “Jaguar Game” - is a tabletop game created by the Amazonian Bororo people before the arrival of the conquistadors in the 16th century.

Adugo, or “onça-pintada”, means ‘jaguar’ in Brazilian Portuguese. Jaguars are almost universally regarded as a symbol for power in both Indigenous and modern cultures. One parallel example is the Mexican luchador King from the video game series Tekken, who dons a jaguar mask while wielding Indigenous Mexican props. The jaguar was also the main motif of the Brazilian football team uniform in the last World Cup, used to address the potential extinction of the animal. The Brazilian football forward Richarlison, who also plays for Tottenham Hotspur, has been a vocal advocate for extinction issues.

Early versions of Adugo were played using simple grids drawn on the ground; modern versions are typically made of plastic and have contemporary designs. | Image credit: Ana Gabriella de Oliveira Sardinha

Adugo’s earliest masters played with lines drawn in dirt while manipulating sculpted figurines. Although it is visually different in its modern form - now usually made of plastic and employing a contemporary design - as played in current Brazilian society, Adugo is a clever way to educate and entertain both Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.

In its rules, one person plays as the jaguar, which is stronger and must eat at least five dogs commanded by an opponent. Said opponent’s goal is to surround and curtail the feline’s movements with an approach similar to checkers.

“The adugo is a totem to my people,” Indigenous leader and educator Luciene Jakomearegecebado, from the Bororo people residing in the Arareiao village in the central-western state of Mato Grosso, tells Dicebreaker during a phone interview. She argues the jaguar is a symbol and a protector that is “feared and respected”. The adugo’s importance is demonstrated in how present it is in artistic works and other artefacts, such as the board game. For the Bororo, the animal is so important that beside “adugo” they have three other names for its variations: adugo kurireu (a larger cat), adugo ikare (a bow painted with its distinctive spotted pattern) and adugo cereu (with darker spots).

Luciene Jakomearegecebado and Ana Gabriella de Oliveira Sardinha. | Image credit: Luciene Jakomearegecebado/Ana Gabriella de Oliveira Sardinha

The Bororo, also known as the Boe people, emulate the jaguar in ritual practices. In ceremonies and rituals, they paint their faces and bodies to mimic the claws, fangs and spots on the fur of the animal. The subclan Bakoro Ecerae, from which Jakomearegecebado comes, often wear a traditional crown made from jaguar’s claws in rituals.

The adugo was chosen to be a lonely piece because it is so strong.

Jakomearegecebado, a teacher in an Indigenous school, recalls with fondness how in 2002, when still a teenager, she was introduced to the board game by her father who brought some Adugo boards, some made of metal.

“It was my first contact with the rules, and with the tabletop which I found pretty interesting - it was a game that I had never heard about,” she says. “It is so important to our community as we are seen as the main player; the adugo was chosen to be a lonely piece because it is so strong.”

A modern adugo board, with the 14 pieces representing hunting dogs and the centre piece symbolising the jaguar. | Image credit: Ana Gabriella de Oliveira Sardinha

Jakomearegecebado is an undergrad student studying for an Intercultural Education degree in the field of Cultural Sciences at the Federal University of Goiás, where she researches the game as an extracurricular project. She is ecstatic that other educators are taking the Jaguar Game outside Indigenous isolation.

One of the non-Indigenous scholars leading the way in advancing Adugo in modern Brazil is Ana Gabriella de Oliveira Sardinha, a middle and high-school teacher and academic researcher from the University of Brasília and the University Center of Brasília. She wrote a 2011 paper alongside scholars Maria Terezinha Jesus Gaspar and Mônica Molina on the game’s benefits to educational programmes.

Sardinha observes that the game is not only played by the Bororo but also among other Indigenous communities, such as the Guarani, located in the southeastern state of São, Paulo who call the game “Yaguareté Korá”, and the Manchineri people based in Brazil’s northern state of Acre but also found in Bolivia and Peru. There are other games similar to Adugo, such as “Puma and Rams”, played by the Incan people in Peru; “Tigers and Goats” in India; and the Chinese “Warlord and Peasants”.

The jaguar represents a protector that is both feared and respected, says Indigenous leader and educator Luciene Jakomearegecebado. | Image credit:

Sardinha encountered Adugo through Ethnomathematics, a branch of knowledge founded in the 1970s that focuses on researching mathematical approaches to different cultures. After beginning her research in 2009, Sardinha started to apply the tabletop game in practice for students ranging from kindergarten to higher-learning institutions.

“At the time there was a talk about bringing more of the Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian cultures into basic education, but there was a lack of methodological proposals,” she explains. “One of our motivations was to introduce the Jaguar Game to non-Indigenous students, therefore applying this concept to basic education but also to university level.”

One of our motivations was to introduce the Jaguar Game to non-Indigenous students, applying this concept to basic education but also to university level.

In 2008, Brazilian authorities instituted the teaching of Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian history and culture from elementaries to high schools. The issue is that most Indigenous education is performed by Indigenous peoples in their own communities, while in non-Indigenous schools this knowledge is transmitted by non-Indigenous educators, limiting the authenticity of the experience.

In recent years, Indigenous people have integrated more into universities because of the 2012 Quota Law that enables impoverished students and those of African ancestry to attend higher education. Brazil is notorious for its social inequity numbers, where racial and cultural minorities endure the brunt of these disparities. Bringing Adugo into schools, and also to mainstream society, is a way to break down barriers to social inequity and teach people maths.

Sardinha expounds on this point when asked about the value Adugo brings to education: “The Jaguar Game approaches mathematical education regarding the pedagogical disciplines: Mathematics History, Ethnomathematics and Indigenous Games. This is a strategy tabletop game that allows the development of logical thinking and deals with concepts of geometry during the building of the playing board.”

How to play AdugoWatch on YouTube

To Sardinha, kids aged four years old can learn the game, but she also considers “it is more appropriate to play with six-year-olds”, given the educational levels of the country. Sardinha is among the pioneers that has introduced the Jaguar Game into children’s schools in Brasília (Federal District) and Goiânia (Goiás state). She has also trained undergrad students preparing to become teachers themselves.

In 2016, the Mayorship of São Paulo city started the 'Tabletop Games' programme and, three years later, the 'Jaguar Game and Other Indigenous Games Festival'. Sardinha considers this a compliment, as she is “proud to know that our work was a reference for these programmes”.

The work of Sardinha and her colleagues serves as a base for other researchers to know more about this practically unearthed and often forgotten Brazil. Their paper and methods are the foundation of other works from major players, such as the Mayorship of São Paulo. Still, those accomplishments are part of a more colourful world before the pandemic and other crises hit the tropical nation.

Tabletop games such as button football rose in popularity in Brazil during the pandemic. | Image credit: Wagner Tamanaha

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Brazil was hit especially hard. According to Johns Hopkins University, the country is second in death rates and fifth in infections, with Indigenous peoples being the most affected.

As people stayed at home, they turned to tabletop sports such as button football and other games, including the Jaguar Game.

Even Indigenous peoples are unaware of our own games and sports.

“Considering the elders' routine and that the kids learned the rules at school, I believe that the young ones taught their parents the Adugo [during the pandemic],” Jakomearegecebado says.

Jakomearegecebado sounds hurt when talking about her culture. “Today there is Free Fire [a video game popular among the Indigenous community] and other online games, while our own games and sports are less divulged,” she says. “Even ourselves [Indigenous peoples] are unaware of them.”

Cacique Paulo of the Bororo-Boe group during the ninth Indigenous Peoples Games, a Brazilian sporting event for Indigenous peoples. | Image credit: Valter Campanato/Agência Brasil

Her tone is further saddened when discussing how her and others’ Indigenous cultures are perceived both in Brazil and abroad.

“People think that everything that comes from Indigenous culture is inferior,” she says. “There are the stereotypes of Indigenous peoples as savages and violent.”

To the Indigenous leader this judgement not only befalls games but also Indigenous languages, cultures, practices, dancing, music, traditions, cuisine, religion, mythology, lore and other aspects.

“It gives us a sense of pride, for me and other Bororo members, to see this game in the classrooms,” Jakomearegecebado says of Adugo, praising the awareness it brings to the jaguar’s threat of extinction.

Johnny and Wheels play hnefatafl, Viking chessWatch on YouTube

Devastating fires in Brazil in 2019 caught the world's eyes as the images of ravaged animal bodies were transmitted through mass media. Among the dead was the endangered jaguar.

The fires, some due to arson, spread through Bororo lands and other parts of the rainforest. They were so intense they darkened the afternoon skies of São Paulo in the south-east region of the country, as I saw with my own eyes.

“We were afraid of losing the animals - including the adugo, an endangered feline, which is a highly important part of our culture and is vanishing,” Jakomearegecebado says of the fires’ impact on the Bororo community. “If more people become aware of the adugo’s name origin, which hails from Bororo, and were informed of its current situation, they will understand that we have to save it.”

Adugo has become an important way to teach maths and socialisation skills, but also has been crucial in helping people recognise the importance of saving the jaguar from endangerment. The board game has also helped advance the Bororo and other Indigenous peoples as a rich contribution to Brazilian culture, a role often denied and overlooked for centuries. Seeing the growth of the game and the attention it has brought to its namesake’s endangered status brings some pride and relief to Jakomearegecebado and her people.

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