Kayapó Ethnoecology and Culture

Kayapó Ethnoecology
and Culture
Darrell A. Posey died in March 2001 after a long and distinguished career in
anthropology and ecology. Kayapó Ethnoecology and Culture presents a selection
of his writings that result from 25 years of work with the Kayapó Indians, one of
the Amazon Basin’s most famous indigenous peoples. The Kayapó originated
from one village, Pyka-tô-ti, or the ‘Beautiful Village’. However the modern
Kayapó live in several dozen villages scattered over nearly four million hectares
that encompass a vast diversity of ecological systems linking the lowland Amazon
Basin with the Planalto of central Brazil.
These writings describe the dispersal of the Kayapó subgroups and explain
how, with this diaspora, useful biological species and natural resource management strategies also spread. Detailed accounts of their permanent and nomadic
agricultural systems, past and present, as well as of the regional ecology, provide
a rich and essential record for future study and environmental management.
However the Kayapó are threatened with extinction like many inhabitants of
the Amazon Basin. The author is adamant that it is no longer satisfactory for scientists to just ‘do good science’. They are increasingly asked and morally obliged
to become involved in political action to protect the peoples they study.
In the Kayapó village of Gorotire [Darrell Posey] encountered a thriving and
complex ancient tribal culture, whose rituals were intimately linked to the
forest and the cosmos. His research became far more than a piece of academic fieldwork as he learnt the Kayapó language and came to know the
Kayapó, not only as friends but as a people whose culture reflected a sophisticated understanding of the lands that support them.
Darrell Posey’s Obituary, The Times, 31 March 2001
Studies in environmental anthropology
Edited by Roy Ellen
University of Kent at Canterbury, UK
This series is a vehicle for publishing up-to-date monographs on particular issues
in particular places which are sensitive to both sociocultural and ecological factors. Emphasis will be placed on the perception of the environment, indigenous
knowledge and the ethnography of environmental issues. While basically anthropological, the series will consider works from authors working in adjacent fields.
Volume 1: A Place Against Time
Land and Environment in Papua New Guinea
Paul Sillitoe
Volume 2: People, Land and Water in the Arab Middle East
Environments and Landscapes in the Bilâd as-Shâm
William Lancaster and Fidelity Lancaster
Volume 3: Protecting the Arctic
Indigenous Peoples and Cultural Survival
Mark Nutall
Volume 4: Transforming the Indonesian Uplands
Marginality, Power and Production
Edited by Tania Murray Li
Volume 5: Indigenous Environmental Knowledge and its Transformations
Critical Anthropological Perspectives
Edited by Roy Ellen, Peter Parkes and Alan Bicker
Volume 6: Kayapó Ethnoecology and Culture
Darrell A. Posey, edited by Kristina Plenderleith
Kayapó Ethnoecology
and Culture
Darrell A. Posey
Edited by Kristina Plenderleith
London and New York
First published 2002
by Routledge
11 New Fetter Lane, London EC4P 4EE
Simultaneously published in the USA and Canada
by Routledge
29 West 35th Street, New York, NY 10001
Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group
This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2004.
© 2002 Taylor & Francis Books Ltd
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced
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and will undertake to rectify any errors or omissions in future editions
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British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Posey, Darrell Addison
Kayapó ethnoecology and culture / Darrell A. Posey; edited by Kristina
p. cm. – (Studies in environmental anthropology)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Cayapo Indians – Ethnobotany. 2. Cayapo Indians – Ethnobiology. 3.
Cayapo Indians – Agriculture. 4. Indigenous peoples – Ecology – Brazil –
Gorotire. 5. Gorotire (Brazil) – Social life and customs. 6. Gorotire (Brazil)
– Environmental conditions. I. Plenderleith, Kristina II.Title. III Series.
F2520.1.C45 P58 2002
ISBN 0-203-22019-6 Master e-book ISBN
ISBN 0-203-27519-5 (Adobe eReader Format)
ISBN 0–415–27791–4 (Print Edition)
List of figures
List of tables
Kayapó history and culture
1 The science of the Mẽbêngôkre
2 Contact before contact: typology of post-Colombian
interaction with the Northern Kayapó of the Amazon
3 Environmental and social implications of pre- and
post-contact situations on Brazilian Indians
4 Time, space, and the interface of divergent cultures:
the Kayapó Indians of the Amazon face the future
5 The Kayapó origin of night
6 The journey to become a shaman: a narrative of
sacred transition of the Kayapó Indians of Brazil
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
7 Report from Gorotire: will Kayapó traditions survive?
8 Indigenous knowledge and development: an ideological
bridge to the future
9 Wasps, warriors and fearless men: ethnoentomology of
the Kayapó Indians of Central Brazil
10 Hierarchy and utility in a folk biological taxonomic
system: patterns in classification of arthropods by the
Kayapó Indians of Brazil
11 Additional notes on the classification and knowledge of
stingless bees (Meliponinae, Apidae, Hymenoptera) by
the Kayapó Indians of Gorotire, Pará, Brazil
12 Keeping of stingless bees by the Kayapó Indians of Brazil
13 Ethnopharmacological search for antiviral compounds:
treatment of gastrointestinal disorders by Kayapó
medical specialists
14 Use of contraceptive and related plants by the Kayapó
Indians (Brazil)
Kayapó land management
15 Preliminary results on soil management techniques of
the Kayapó Indians
16 Indigenous soil management in the Latin American
tropics: some implications of ethnopedology for the
Amazon Basin
17 The keepers of the forest
18 Indigenous management of tropical forest ecosystems:
the case of the Kayapó Indians of the Brazilian Amazon
19 The continuum of Kayapó resource management
Continuing adaptation by the Kayapó
20 From warclubs to words
21 The Kayapó Indian protests against Amazonian dams:
successes, alliances, and unending battles
Appendix: management of a tropical scrub savanna by
the Gorotire Kayapó of Brazil
1.1 Location of principal Kayapó villages.
1.2 Schematic views of apêtê, showing variations in microecological zones that allow for maximum diversity of
useful plant concentrations in these ‘forest islands’.
1.3 Schematic of new field (puru), showing planting and
cultivation zones.
2.1 Model of village fission of the Northern Kayapó.
4.1 Kayapó model of the world showing parallel earth and
sky disks in a circular universe.
4.2 Spatial model of the Kayapó world.
4.3 The idealized Kayapó village (kri-metx).
8.1 Idealized cross-section of Kayapó forest ecological
zones and subzones near Gorotire.
8.2 Ecological zones surrounding the village of Gorotire
as perceived by the Kayapó.
8.3 Trek from Kubẽn-krã-kein village to abandoned
village site (Pyka-tô-ti) showing resource islands and
campsites associated with forest fields.
9.1 Insect sequences and complexes (based on drawings by
Irã Kayapó).
9.2 A drawing by Irã Kayapó of the wasp nest (amuh
ũr ũkwa).
9.3 Cross-section of a wasp nest (drawing by Irã Kayapó).
10.1 Organization of BOL categories into four
morphological sequences, only one of which is named
10.2 Subdivisions of màrà.
10.3 Subdivisions of ipoi showing some subclass overlap
between màrà and ipoi, ipoi and kapo (indicated by
dotted lines).
10.4 Two possible models of set relationships between
kapo, kapoti and krytkañet.
10.5 Category relationships within flies and kin (kopre).
10.6 Idealized hierarchical model showing superordinate
and subordinate levels.
11.1 Reproduction of a drawing by Pedro Kayapó (made in
Gorotire in 1979) showing the external form and
internal structure of ku-krãi-ti (Trigona amazonensis).
11.2 Nests of Meliponinae focal species recognized by the
11.3 Schematic structures of Melipona nests with Kayapó
11.4 Types of Meliponinae entrance tubes recognized by
the Kayapó with their respective ‘focal species’.
11.5 Ontogenetic stages of Meliponinae (represented in this
figure by Melipona compressipes fasciculata, ngài-re)
recognized by the Kayapó.
11.6 Major morphological structures recognized and named
by the Kayapó.
12.1 An overview of the mẽ-kutôm, showing major symbolic
12.2 A lateral view of the mẽ-kutôm, showing the symbolic
relationships between earth (pyka) and sky (kàikwa).
18.1 Apêtê formation: planting zones.
18.2 Ethnoecological units on the bà-kapôt continuum.
8.1 Major ecological zones recognized by the Kayapó
8.2 Selected soil–plant–animal relationships in the selected
ecozone (bà-ràràra)
8.3 Partial list of gathered food plants of the Kayapó
8.4 Major cultivated plants of the Kayapó
8.5 Folk varieties of major Kayapó cultigens
8.6 Semi-domesticated (manipulated) bee species utilized
by the Kayapó
8.7 Principal species of Apidae utilized by the Kayapó
9.1 Arthropod groups
9.2 Levels of correspondence for insects
10.1 A list of affixes used in the description of various màrà
10.2 Subgroupings of krytkañet (Orthoptera) with analogous
scientific classifications
10.3 Subgroupings of amuh
11.1 Species of meliponine bees encountered in the vicinity
of Gorotire during the current study
11.2 Bee species semi-domesticated by the Kayapó Indians
13.1 Plant species used to treat hàk kanê and tep kanê
13.2 Plant species used to treat diarrhoea
14.1 Plants used as mẽmỳ rerek djà; kukryt kanê;
mẽ tu jaro djà; and me kra ket djà
14.2 Uses of related species by Kayapó and other groups
15.1 Kayapó natural vegetation classification
15.2 Dominant soil orders of the study area
15.3 Agriculture formations of the Kayapó
15.4 Fertility elements of planting additions used by the
15.5 Means and standard deviation of fertility elements in
Kayapó garden planting zones
16.1 Main soil constraints in the Amazon under native
16.2 Kayapó and Yurimaguas agricultural systems
16.3 Comparison of the structure of Kayapó, colonist and
livestock production systems
16.4 Production of proteins per hectare of Kayapó, colonist
and livestock systems over time
16.5 Changes in soil fertility elements in Kayapó, colonist
and livestock systems
18.1 Apêtê planting zones in relation to corresponding
ecological units
18.2 A partial list of tree species planted by the Kayapó
Darrell Posey died from cancer in March 2001 at the age of 53, in mid-career. He
had been living in Oxford since 1993, teaching in the University, and travelling
extensively throughout the world to attend conferences, teach and give lectures.
At his home on Boar’s Hill he received almost incessant requests for copies of his
articles, and had been considering gathering together some of his more important
papers for re-publication. It was a suggestion from Roy Ellen and Laura Rival that
he actually do this for the Studies in Environmental Anthropology series which
finally prompted him to act. In preparing material for the new MSc Programme in
Ethnobotany at Kent they had discovered just how much of a challenge finding
his scattered and sometimes inaccessible original papers could be. This is perhaps
to be expected of someone who was more concerned with making an impact on
the world than with ensuring that his output was bibliographically tidy.
It was in this context that Darrell and I discussed how best to present the
papers he had written during his career, or two careers as it seemed to me, and it
soon became obvious that his ethnobiological work with the Kayapó, whilst it
directed the way his career would develop, could be regarded as a complete entity
in itself. The development of his work for traditional resource rights after the Rio
Summit was a new direction that grew out of his experiences in Brazil and meetings with indigenous peoples from throughout the world. This phase of his career
was in turn reaching a natural closure as he turned once again to the inextricable
link revealed to him by the Kayapó between human well-being and our natural
Darrell was less sure than I was of this natural break because his involvement
with the ethnosciences and indigenous knowledge systems carried on throughout
his life. To him his career had been a continuing path, but he felt that his past work
was all too familiar to him and he could not look at it impartially, so he gave me
carte-blanche to proceed with the selection, which we subsequently discussed
with Mark Simon.
This book therefore concentrates on the early part of Darrell’s career, his years
in Brazil, when his entomological research and interest in anthropology came face
to face with the complexity and differentness of Kayapó culture – the interweaving of spiritual and practical. It was the time also when he was confronted with the
impact of the twentieth century on peoples like the Kayapó, and on their landscape, and of their response to the changes. Chapter 20 in this book vividly
describes Darrell’s reaction to this experience.
To describe this book as ‘ethnobiology’ seems inadequate as it begs the question of where the division lies between the corporeal and the spiritual, between
humans and all other life, and that is not even a question for the Kayapó. This is
reflected in the first section, ‘Kayapó history and culture’. For the Kayapó there is
no division between their history, culture and knowledge systems: the divisions
are Western categorizations, and the English language cannot embrace this unity
in a single word or concept.
Darrell and I selected these articles as being among those he felt best represented the important features of his work in Brazil. His corpus is far larger,
written in both English and Portuguese, and there is still the work of the Kayapó
Project to be written up, but he considered these previously published papers as
being among ‘the best’ at the time of our choice. This, however, didn’t stop him
continuing to make new suggestions as long as he could, and it is so sad that he
will not be able to make use of this book as a teaching aid.
Kristina Plenderleith
Professor Brent Berlin
One measure of a person’s impact on a field is how one answers this question:
‘Has (name of individual) significantly influenced the way I conduct my work?’.
If the name of the individual in question happened to be Darrell Posey, few ethnobiologists practising their art today could answer with anything other than, as the
cliché goes, ‘a resounding yes’. It is certain that our practice of modern ethnobiology is, in many respects, a practice of the ethnobiology of Posey’s vision. This is
a remarkable accomplishment.
This impact is most directly seen in how we now approach the people with
whom we plan to carry out our research. (A more accurate way of stating it, as
Posey might have been quick to say, is ‘…with whom we plan to study’, in the
sense of ‘become active apprentices’). No ethnobiologist (or scientist of any discipline, for that matter) can contemplate fieldwork with indigenous peoples today
without having thought carefully about the intellectual property implications of
their research. That this should be so is due, in large part, to Posey’s enormous
influence on the international debates surrounding sustained economic development, indigenous intellectual property rights, and global biodiversity as a result of
the Convention on Biological Diversity of 1992, an event that will change history
forever and one in which Posey played a significant role.
Posey’s concerns for the environment and indigenous knowledge grew out of
his efforts to establish the International Society for Ethnobiology in 1988, and his
role in developing the Declaration of Belém, a document for the conduct of ethnobiological research that forms the foundation of that Society’s current code of
ethics. Since that time, he became the world’s leading advocate for traditional
resource rights and was recognized by both academics and professionals in international agencies as the foremost spokesperson for policy matters relating to
environment and development in indigenous regions of the world.
If all of us have been marked by Posey’s efforts to make ethnobiologists
acutely aware of the environmental/political implications of their work, perhaps
fewer of us are as directly aware of Posey’s seminal and original ethnobiological
work in Brazil. The publication of the present volume, one that includes examples
of some of his important early ethnobiological writings will go far in making this
segment of his important career more widely known.
Posey established himself as one of the pioneers in modern ethnobiological
research with his original fieldwork among the Kayapó of the Brazilian Amazon.
From the outset, he approached Kayapó knowledge of the natural world from an
ecologically holistic perspective (perhaps, one might speculate, due to his training
at the University of Georgia and the teachings of ecologist Eugene Odum). He
was concerned with describing in detail the knowledge systems the Kayapó had
developed in nurturing their lands – ethnobotany, ethnozoology, ethnomedicine
and ethnopharmacology, ethnopedology, ethnoforestry, ethnoastronomy, and ethnoagriculture – ethnoecology in the broadest sense of the term. Some of these
topics he explored with exquisite detail. His treatment of Kayapó knowledge of
‘stingless’ bees (reproduced here in a piece written in collaboration with João
Maria Franco de Camargo) focuses on indigenous entomological classification
that includes factors relating to habitat, preferred substrate or niche, external nest
form, texture, material and shape of entrance structure, flight patterns, defence
behaviour, size, form and colour of adults, and smell of bees, to mention the most
salient. It has the flavour of old-timey Batesian natural history and is a delight to
One of Posey’s most important theoretical and controversial contributions in
ethnobiology/ethnoecology, reproduced here as ‘Indigenous management of tropical forest ecosystems: the case of the Kayapó Indians of the Brazilian Amazon’,
is his proposal concerning the significance of the modification and deliberate
management of the Brazilian forest landscape by traditional peoples.
His Kayapó studies show that this historically mobile society (and, by implication, numerous other indigenous peoples) literally developed ‘forest gardens’ in
the Brazilian outback by transplanting particularly desirable species in areas that
they would likely visit at future dates, providing them with a series of productive
but disjunct gardens available at differing seasons and over a number of years.
Over time, he argued, this practice would have major effects on forest composition, biodiversity and, from the human perspective, ability to survive in
extremely difficult environments. The implications of this proposal were radical:
here we see for the first time direct links between creation of biodiversity and
indigenous knowledge. It allowed him to then argue that so-called natural ecosystems were better thought of as cultural or anthropogenic landscapes – landscapes
managed as entire systems, perhaps for millennia.
It is now well known that Posey’s work in Brazil brought him, almost unavoidably, into the general arena of the growing conflict of orthodox industrial
development schemes for the Amazon and traditional indigenous uses of the earth
as attested by his Kayapó research. Confronting the Brazilian government, and at
times placing himself in personal danger, he became more and more involved in
biodiversity conservation activities, at a time when the term biodiversity was just
beginning to be heard.
These then were two faces of Darrell Posey. Many of us knew the Posey who
founded the Working Group on Traditional Resource Rights at the Oxford Centre
for the Environment, Ethics and Society, and whose publications are considered
as essential reading by all persons working in the area, especially Traditional
Resource Rights (1996) and Beyond Intellectual Property Rights, written with
Graham Dutfield (1996), and Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity
(1999), a hefty volume that will become the standard ‘biocultural diversity handbook’ for researchers, policy makers and government leaders. With Kayapó
Ethnoecology and Culture we are given the opportunity to see an earlier face of
Darrell Posey, that of devoted fieldworker and ethnobiologist/ethnoecologist to
the Kayapó. Together, the faces appear as the portrait of one of the most important
figures of the new century’s environmental anthropology. We are indebted to
Kristina Plenderleith and Routledge for making this portrait possible.
Brent Berlin
Athens, Georgia
10 October 2000
(508 years after Cristobal Colon’s first arrival in the New World)
On behalf of Darrell Posey the editor and publishers would like to thank the following people and organizations:
The co-authors and publishers for permission to reproduce Chapters 11, 13, 14,
15, 16 and Appendix: Dr João Maria Franco de Camargo and the Carnegie
Museum of Natural History (Chapter 11); Dr Elaine Elisabetsky and the Ciba
Foundation (Chapter 13); Dr Elaine Elisabetsky and the Society of Ethnobiology
(Chapter 14); Dr Susanna Hecht and the New York Botanical Garden (Chapter
15); Dr Susanna Hecht and CNPq/Museu Goeldi (Chapter 16); and Dr Anthony
Anderson and the New York Botanical Garden (Appendix).
Funding and support was received from The Wenner-Gren Foundation for
Anthropological Research, New York (Chapters 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9 and 10); the
Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois (Chapters 2, 3 and 8); the American
Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Chapters 2, 3 and 8); the
Conselho Nacional de Pesquisas, Belém, Brazil (Chapters 9, 12 and 14); the
Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas de Amazonia, Manaus, Brazil (Chapter 9); the
Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi (Chapters 8 and 9); the Fundação Nacional do
Indio, Brazil (Chapters 8 and 9 and Appendix); the World Wildlife Fund – US
(Chapters 14, 18 and Appendix); and the Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento
Científico e Tecnológico (Chapter 18 and Appendix).
Help with transportation and communications and supplies were received
from: Força Aérea Brasileira (Chapters 4 and 18); VOTEC (Chapter 18) and the
Unevangelized Field Missions (Chapter 18).
Friends and colleagues who supported and worked with Darrell Posey
included: Anthony Anderson, William Balée, Eva Banner, Beptopoop, Luciane
dos Santos Costa, William Denevan, Henry F. Dobyns, John Eddins, Elaine
Elisabetsky, John Frechione, Anne Gély, Jeffrey Golliher, Gerhard Gottsberger,
Susanna Hecht, Gina Holloman, Carol Jones, Warwick Kerr, Kwyrà-kà, Peter
MacBeath, Carmen Chavez McClendon, Emílio Moran, Paulinho Paiakan,
Ghillean Prance, Ionara Siqueira Rodrigues, Carlos Rosário, Maria Aparecida
Correia dos Santos, John Singleton, Micky Stout, Helen Hornbeck Tanner,
Lylianne Theodoro, Dan Usner, José Uté. Thanks to Dr John Frechione for preparation of the maps, figures and artwork in Chapter 8.
The Projecto Kayapó was an interdisciplinary project to study the ethnobiology of the Kayapó Indians. It was financed by the Conselho Nacional de
Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico and the World Wildlife Fund – US.
Project work was conducted by the Laboratório de Etnobiologia, Universidade
Federal do Maranhão, São Luis, Maranhão, Brazil.
Part 1
Kayapó history and
Chapter 1
The science of the
When I arrived in the village of Gorotire in 1977, the Kayapó were still best
known for their savageness and their distinctive stretched lips. The last group of
these Amazonian Indians had been ‘pacified’ less than ten years before. The lip
disk, sign of a valiant warrior, was in decline, but older men still wore their ‘big
lips’ with pride.
One night shortly after my arrival, I was invited to sit with the ‘big lips’ in the
Men’s House for the elders’ council. The Brazilian government was finally
demarcating the Kayapó lands to protect Indian territory from land speculators,
and the leaders of the Kayapó villages had been assembled to discuss how to
defend their domain against encroaching plantations. The chiefs were meeting
together for the first time in peace and cooperation.
As a newcomer to Kayapó society, I was awed by the formal oratory of the
elders. How could four-inch wide lip disks be manipulated so artistically and with
such authority? I marvelled even more at the ease and naturalness with which two
great warriors drank their coffee and ate their manioc bread over their built-in
Big lips, formal oratory, strange language, along with colourful dances and
ceremonies, together formed an exotic filter over the people I had come to study.
It took six months of living with them before I could see through this filter and
begin to realize that the Kayapó were people, too, with all the frailties and attributes that characterize the human creature: Kayapós fight and quarrel; they
complain; they can be petty and selfish, and even lie. They love their families; cry
for their dead; sacrifice for their children; work hard to provide for their households; and delight in joking and conversing.
The Kayapó year begins in the low-water season with agricultural activities
that continue until the maturation of the corn. The harvest period follows. The fall
of wild fruits attracts animals, precipitating the hunting season, which coincides
with the time of the high water. Then there is a short period of heightened leisure
and family activities, which ends when the water level in the river lowers again.
Fishing intensifies, and a new year begins.
The different times of the year are celebrated with seasonal ceremonies, which
are of great importance to the social identity of the group as well as to daily life.
Kayapó history and culture
These ritual ceremonies are closely tied to the agricultural, hunting and fishing
cycles of the Amazonian environment. The people observe specific rituals before
and after each trip to hunt or collect plants. Festivals celebrate the maize and manioc seasons as well as the hunting seasons for land turtle, tapir, anteater and other
game animals. Each ceremony requires certain foods and other natural objects,
which means an organized trek to find the needed materials.
The bestowing of ‘beautiful names’ on the youngest generations is perhaps the
most important social event in the Kayapó society. Some of my most enjoyable
times with the Kayapó are during their treks to get game and fish needed to feed
the dancers for the ceremonies. Long days are spent camped along the sandy river
beaches, watching the strings of yellow and white butterflies as they hover over
the waters, or in a dugout on the river, listening to the tucunare fish as they flop
among the rocks near the cataracts, or watching the crane fly, always just in front
of the boat as we edged along quietly in hopes of surprising a tapir or deer drinking along the river banks.
People who do not know the tropics always say to me, ‘But you must miss the
seasons’. Little do they know that among the Indians the seasons of the Amazon
are not four, but dozens and dozens.
As an anthropologist trained in entomology, I went to live among the Kayapó
to study their knowledge of and beliefs concerning the natural environment. The
Kayapó, one of the various subgroups of the great Mẽbêngôkre nation (people
from the water’s source), inhabit a vast area spreading across the states of Pará
and Mato Grosso in Brazil. The Northern Kayapó occupy a two-million hectare
Indian reserve in Pará. Gorotire is one of seven northern Kayapó villages located
in the Reserva Indígena Kayapó located on the broad, flat campo next to the Rio
Fresco (7o48´S, 51o7´W).
One of the most significant questions facing Amazonian countries today is
how large populations can be supported in and around the Amazon Basin without
destruction of the natural resource base. The biological knowledge held by
Amerindians has customarily been considered irrelevant, because aboriginal populations were thought to have been sparse and scattered. Recent investigations,
however, suggest that the size of these populations has been grossly underestimated. Archaeological and geographical data confirm historical accounts of the
existence of large population centres in Amazonia.
Although the present number of the Mẽbêngôkre is relatively small, the evidence suggests that they and other Amerindians have profoundly influenced the
Amazonian environment. Landscapes long regarded as ‘natural’ have in fact been
extensively managed by the Mẽbêngôkre for millennia. In their management of
the tropical forest, they have developed a social and agricultural system that is
vastly better adapted to the fragile ecosystem than anything the ‘civilizados’ have
attained even today in the same environment. As numerical estimates of
Amerindian populations at the time of European discovery continue to increase,
indigenous systems of ecological knowledge like those of the Mẽbêngôkre are
becoming more and more relevant to modern development planning.
The science of the Mẽbêngôkre
Figure 1.1 Location of principal Kayapó villages.
The knowledge of the Mẽbêngôkre Indians is an integrated system of beliefs and
practices. In addition to the information shared generally, there is specialized
knowledge held by a few. Each village has its specialists in soils, plants, animals,
crops, medicines and rituals. But each Mẽbêngôkre believes that he or she has the
ability to survive alone in the forest indefinitely. This offers great personal security and permeates the fabric of everyday life.
A complete Mẽbêngôkre view of nature is difficult to convey because of its
underlying cultural complexity. It is possible, however, to identify categories of
indigenous knowledge that indicate new research directions, even shortcuts, for
Western science, as well as alternatives to the destruction of Amazonia.
The Mẽbêngôkre identify specific plants and animals as occurring within particular ecological zones. They have a well-developed knowledge of animal behaviour
and also know which plants are associated with particular animals. Plant types in
turn are associated with soil types. Each ecological zone represents a system of
interactions among plants, animals, soil and the Mẽbêngôkre themselves.
The Mẽbêngôkre recognize ecosystems that lie on a continuum between the
poles of forest and savanna. They have names, for example, for as many as nine
Kayapó history and culture
different types of savanna – savanna with few trees, savanna with many forest
patches, savanna with scrub, and so on. But the Mẽbêngôkre concentrate less on
the differences between zones than on the similarities that cut across them.
Marginal or open spots within the forest, for example, can have microenvironmental conditions similar to those in the savanna. The Mẽbêngôkre take advantage of
these similarities to exchange and spread useful species between zones by transplanting seeds, cuttings, tubers and saplings. Thus there is much interchange
between what we tend to see as distinctly different ecological systems.
Mẽbêngôkre agriculture focuses upon the zones intermediate between forest
and savanna types, because it is in these areas that maximal biological diversity
occurs. Villages too are often sited in these transition zones. The Mẽbêngôkre not
only recognize the richness of ‘ecotones’, but they actually create them. They
exploit secondary forest areas and create special concentrations of plants in forest
fields, rock outcroppings, trailsides and elsewhere.
The creation of forest islands, or apêtê, demonstrates to what extent the
Mẽbêngôkre can alter and manage ecosystems to increase biological diversity.
Apêtê begin as small mounds of vegetation, about one to two metres round, created
by transporting organic matter obtained from termite nests and ant nests to open
areas in the field. Slight depressions are usually sought out because they are more
Figure 1.2 Schematic views of apêtê, showing variations in microecological zones that allow
for maximum diversity of useful plant concentrations in these ‘forest islands’.
The science of the Mẽbêngôkre
likely to retain moisture. Seeds or seedlings are planted in these piles of organic
material. The apêtê are usually formed in August and September, during the first
rains of the wet season, and then nurtured by the Indians as they pass along the
savanna trails.
As apêtê grow, they begin to look like up-turned hats, with higher vegetation in
the centre and lower herbs growing in the shaded borders. The Indians usually cut
down the highest trees in the centre to create a doughnut-hole centre that lets the
light into older apêtê. Thus a full-grown apêtê has an architecture that creates
zones that vary in shade, light and humidity. These islands become important
sources of medicinal and edible plants, as well as places of rest. Palms, which
have a variety of uses, figure prominently in apêtê, as do shade trees. Even vines
that produce drinkable water are transplanted here. However, apêtê look so ‘natural’ that until recently scientists did not recognize that they were in fact human
artefacts. According to informants, of a total of 120 species inventoried in ten
apêtê, about 75 per cent could have been planted.
Such ecological engineering requires detailed knowledge of soil fertility,
microclimatic variations and species’ niches, as well as the interrelationships
among species that are introduced into these human-made communities. The eating habits of deer and tapir are well known to the Indians, and their favourite
foods are propagated in forest islands. In this sense, apêtê must be viewed as both
agroforestry plots and hunting reserves.
The Mẽbêngôkre are aware that some species developed more vigorously
when planted together. They frequently speak of plants that are ‘good friends’ or
‘good neighbours’. One of the first of these ‘neighbours complexes’ I was able to
investigate was the tyryti-ombiqua, or ‘banana neighbours’. Among the plants that
thrive near bananas are some of the mekraketdjà (‘child want not’) plants, which
are very important in regulating fertility among the Mẽbêngôkre.
The Mẽbêngôkre characterize such synergistic plant groups in terms of ‘plant
energy’. These groups can include dozens of species and require complex patterns
of cultivation. Thus a Mẽbêngôkre garden is created by carefully combining different ‘plant energies’ just as an artist blends colours to produce a work of art.
Indian fields thrive on diversity within the plots.
This diversity is quite ordered to the Indian eye, with careful matchings
between plant varieties and microenvironmental conditions. Apparently random
fields turn out to have five more or less concentric zones, each with preferred
varieties of cultivars and different cultivation strategies. Mẽbêngôkre fields look
very untidy to Westerners used to nice ‘clean’ fields with orderly, symmetrical
A survey of Mẽbêngôkre soil taxonomy shows sophisticated horizontal and vertical distinctions based on texture, colour, drainage qualities, friability and
stratification. Soil qualities are frequently related to indicator plant species that
Kayapó history and culture
Figure 1.3 Schematic of new field (puru), showing planting and cultivation zones.
allow Indians to predict floral and faunal components associated with specific soil
types, each of which is managed differently according to individual characteristics. Sweet potatoes, for instance, like hotter soils and thrive in the centre of fields
where shade from the margins rarely penetrates. The plants must be well aerated,
however, or soil compaction will smother the root system. Much hand work is necessary to turn over the soils, take out larger tubers and replant smaller ones.
The Mẽbêngôkre use various types of ground cover such as vegetation, logs,
leaves, straw and bark to affect moisture, shade and temperature of local soils.
Holes are sometimes filled with organic matter, refuse and ash to produce highly
concentrated pockets of rich soil. Old banana leaves, stalks, rice straw and other
organic matter are piled and sometimes burned in selected parts of fields to create
additional local variations.
The Mẽbêngôkre have dozens of types of plant ash, each said to have certain
qualities preferred by specific cultivars. The ash is usually prepared from the vines,
shucks, stalks and leaves of plants that have been cut or uprooted during harvesting
or weeding. Sometimes piles of organic matter are made, with the different varieties carefully separated and allowed to dry in the sun until they will give a
complete burn. The ashes are then distributed to the appropriate part of the field.
Like other tribes, the Mẽbêngôkre conscientiously study animal anatomy, giving
special attention to stomach contents of game animals. They are also astute
observers of many aspects of animal behaviour. The Mẽbêngôkre encourage their
children to learn the behaviour patterns and feeding habits of different animal
species, which are considered to have their own ‘personalities’.
The science of the Mẽbêngôkre
Part of this knowledge is gained through the rearing of pets. In a survey done
with Kent Redford, we found over sixty species of birds, reptiles, snakes, amphibians, mammals – even spiders – being raised in the village.
Mẽbêngôkre use a precise knowledge of insect behaviour to control agricultural
pests. For example, nests of ‘smelly ants’ – mrum kudjà (genus Azteca) – are deliberately placed by the Indians in gardens and on fruit trees that are infested with
leaf-cutting ants (Atta spp.). The pheromones of the ‘smelly ants’ repel the leaf-cutters. These protective ants are also highly prized for their medicinal properties and
are frequently crushed and their robust aromatic scents inhaled to open up the
The Indians cultivate several plants containing extra-floral nectaries, often on
the leaves or stems, which attract predatory ants to serve as ‘bodyguards’ for the
plant. They also plant banana trees to form a living wall around their fields
because predatory wasps nest preferentially under the leaves.
Stingless bees (Meliponinae) are one of the most valued insect resources.
During the dry season, groups of men frequently go off for days to find honey,
which they often drink at the collection site. Beeswax is brought back to the village to be burnt in ceremonies and used in many artefacts.
One of my knowledgeable and patient teachers, the shaman Kwyrà-kà, was a
great expert on stingless bees. When I went with him and his son Irã upriver to
hunt, we spent most of our time searching for honey. His son had learned to draw
at the missionary school and loved to sketch the bees’ nests. I was originally
trained in entomology, and realized what a goldmine of information these two
Indians possessed about the behaviour of what our scientists still considered littleknown species.
Ethnomedicine and ethnopharmacology
Almost every Mẽbêngôkre household has its complement of common medicinal
plants, many of which are domesticates or semi-domesticates. Shamans specialize in
the treatment of particular diseases. Diarrhoea and dysentery remain the major
killers in the humid tropics. The Mẽbêngôkre classify over 50 types of
diarrhoea/dysentery, each of which is treated with specific medicines. Folk categories can be more elaborate and detailed than their Western counterparts.
Ethnopharmacologists and physicians frequently forget that disease categories, like
all intellectually perceived phenomena, are culturally classified and not universal.
Mẽbêngôkre plant classification is based on each plant’s pharmacological properties – that is, for which diseases they can serve as a cure. The shaman Beptopoop
was the first Mẽbêngôkre to show me how rare medicinal plants could be brought
from distant areas and transplanted to places near one’s home trails, or in medicinal rock gardens. He specialized in curing the bites and stings of snakes, lizards
Kayapó history and culture
and scorpions, and knew the minutest details of their behaviour. I got a feeling for
the sophistication of Kayapó plant knowledge when he showed me how to graft a
prized species for treating scorpion stings onto more common stock that grew
near his favourite forest trail.
Indian plant categories cut across morphologically-based botanical groupings.
Nevertheless, these taxonomies often exhibit a high degree of correlation with
Western botanical classification.
In addition to the discovery of medicinal plants, ethnobotany can establish new
uses for known species and document the uses of unknown ones. ‘Kupa’ (Cissus
gongylodes), for instance, is an edible domesticate known only to the
Mẽbêngôkre and some of their relatives. An estimated 250 plants have been collected that are used for their fruits alone.
Ethnoagriculture and agroforestry
Indigenous agriculture begins with a forest opening into which useful species are
introduced, and ends with a mature forest of concentrated resources, including
game animals. The cycle is repeated when the old-field forests develop canopies
too high and dense for efficient production and are cleared again.
Agricultural plots are designed to be productive throughout this reforestation
cycle. Contrary to persistent beliefs about indigenous slash/burn agriculture,
fields are not abandoned within a few years of initial clearing and planting. On
the contrary, old fields offer an important concentration of diverse resources long
after primary cultivars have disappeared.
Mẽbêngôkre ‘new fields’, for example, peak in production of principal domesticated crops in two or three years, but continue to bear produce for many years:
sweet potatoes for four to five years; yams and taro for five to six years; papaya
for five or more years. The Mẽbêngôkre consistently revisit old fields seeking
these lingering riches.
Fields take on new life as plants in the natural reforestation sequence begin to
appear. These plants soon constitute a type of forest for which the Kayapó have a special name that means mature old fields. Such fields provide a wide range of useful
products, and are especially valuable for their concentrations of medicinal plants.
Old fields also attract wildlife to their abundant low leafy plants. Intentional
dispersal of old fields and systematic hunting extends human influence over the
forest by providing, in effect, large ‘game farms’ near human population centres.
Mẽbêngôkre do not make a clear distinction between fields and forest nor
between wild and domesticated species. Gathered plants are transplanted, concentrated in spots near trails and campsites, to produce ‘forest fields’. The sides of
trails themselves are planting zones. It is not uncommon to find trails composed
of four-metre-wide cleared strips of forest.
The processes of domestication, frequently assumed to be historical, are still
occurring in indigenous groups like the Mẽbêngôkre. With the team members of
the Kayapó Project, we have collected literally hundreds of plant varieties that
The science of the Mẽbêngôkre
have been systematically selected by the Mẽbêngôkre and planted in human-modified ecological systems. It is fair to conclude that similar activities have gone and
continue to go on throughout the Amazon among native peoples. Thus plant
species are probably being led toward domestication as you read this chapter.
New directions
It is always easy to interest people in the exotic side of Indian life – big lips,
strange customs – as I tried to do in the beginning of this chapter. But behind this
colourful filter are lessons that our own society desperately needs. Mẽbêngôkre
ecological adaptations and agricultural strategies offer new models for resource
management of the Amazon. Past efforts to develop the Amazon have been such
clear failures that the necessity for new directions is obvious.
Changes must begin by treating Indians and caboclos not as problems in development to be overcome or planned for, but rather as active participants in the
process, whose ideas are integrated into new, more socially and ecologically rational strategies of change. If indigenous experience were taken seriously by modern
science and incorporated into research and development programmes, the Indians
would be recognized as a diligent, intelligent and practical people who have
adapted successfully for thousands of years in the Amazon, and they would participate, with the respect and esteem they deserve, in the construction of a modern
One important question remains unanswered, and this is one of the most difficult. How do we compensate native peoples for their knowledge? How do we
legally recognize the intellectual property rights of native peoples? Unless we
find the answer, we will be a part of just another colonial invasion to mine and
exploit the last knowers of the secrets of the Neotropics.
Kayapó history and culture
A Song of the Spirit
I suspect that one of the greatest values of anthropological field work is the
clarity of one’s own cultural constructs laid bare by totally new cultural and
geographical surroundings. This makes anthropologists poets of humanity,
and their ethnographic contributions the epics of humankind.
I shall never forget my first ‘epic’ journey with the Kayapó: a trek to raid
a settlement of Brazilians that had encroached on Indian lands. It was only
a month since I had arrived in the Kayapó village and I knew nothing of
their concepts of time. What I thought was to be a three-day journey turned
out to be an eleven-day expedition, during most of which there was ritual
fasting and running through the forest.
After four days travelling down river to a base camp, and one day of running through the forest, I had to turn back, weak from not eating, exhausted
from running, and dehydrated to the point that my throat was too sore to
swallow even a tablespoon of water. I had fallen back from the long file of
running Kayapó and found myself thoroughly lost in a jungle I knew nothing about.
After a night of lonely trauma I was rescued by three old men who had
turned back due to illness. With care and concern they led me back to the
river. Every step was painful, every move exasperating. I had wanted to stay
with the Indians throughout their raid. I had wanted to be the poet to the bitter end. But the idealism of an unseasoned fieldworker was crushed by the
reality of physical and cultural limits. Exhausted, humiliated, disappointed,
I reluctantly returned with my guides to our dugout. From its berth along
the Rio Fresco we set out to the base camp upriver. My only solace was that
I had not been left alone in the jungle and that I was at least alive to try
again to be a Kayapó.
It had only taken an hour to float downstream from the camp, but the
currents upriver were strong. We were all weak and tired. Paddling a dugout
against the swirling water of an Amazonian tributary is not easy. Then the
storm came.
The winds blew from the west, perpendicular to our course. Then the
lightning came, heralded by tremendous tremors of thunder. We kept close
to the sides of the river, where lightning would strike the tall trees and not
our tiny craft. At times I could not see the front of the dugout from my vantage only a few feet to the rear. New waves of rain moved across the great
forest canopy like the roar of a freight train. The chill of each deluge crept
deeper and deeper into my bones.
Then, like the charge of the storm itself, I felt the majesty of nature. I
knew that I was seeing a world that the Kayapó knew, appreciated, and
sought inspiration from. The misery left. The fear dissipated. What was left
The science of the Mẽbêngôkre
was the realization that as at no other time in my life I was a creature of the
universe, not separated by culture nor physiology from my dugout companions. They had no fear, for they felt the intensity of life that lay all around.
Into my head came this song:
Paddle, paddle on we go;
Till we can row no more.
Lightning, strike at every stroke;
Still we cannot give up hope.
Tis a beauty rich and rare;
A creation only men would dare.
Yet we go with glistening speed;
Shelter is one of man’s needs.
Lightning, thunder, wind and rain;
Will I see this sight again.
Nature at her perfect hour;
Casting before us her very power.
The words flowed forth with a tune that emerged from the midst of the
whirling storm. What bad poetry it seems now. What a wonderful song it
seemed then. I sang it later for my Kayapó rescuers. They recognized it at
once . ‘It is your Spirit Song,’ they said. ‘Everyone must have a Spirit Song.
You are now one of us.’
I still feel that song with its amateurish words is the first of my epic
poetry. It is the beginning of my own attempt to record the ethnographic
poetry of humankind. It is not a Kayapó song, nor does it have Kayapó
words or form. It was conceived under the oneness of great cultural and
physical stress. It is a song of the spirit and it is the same spirit as the
Kayapó’s: it is the spirit of the human struggle to survive and understand
the meaning of existence as a part of the grandness of nature.
Chapter 2
Contact before contact:
typology of post-Colombian
interaction with the Northern
Kayapó of the Amazon 1
Studies suggest that aboriginal populations in the New World tropics were considerably larger than previously assumed (Dobyns 1966; Denevan 1976; Lathrop
1968; Hemming 1978). Indigenous agricultural and ecological management systems have likewise been shown to be more sophisticated and productive than
expected, and, consequently, to offer a higher aboriginal population potential
(Posey and Hecht 1988; Barbira-Scazzocchio 1981; Moran 1981a). Other prevailing misconceptions have also been undermined; for example, it is no longer
accepted that indigenous agricultural systems were simple and poorly developed
or ‘marginal’ (Meggers 1971; Goodland and Irwin 1975); nor that all tropical ecological zones are insufficiently fertile to support substantial human populations
(Moran 1979, 1981a; Smith 1980).
My own research, for example, has pointed out that scientists have grossly
underestimated the importance of gathered products and obscure sources of protein like insects and nuts (Posey 1978, 1987b). Completely overlooked are
extensive categories of semi-domesticated plants and animals, the wide-range utilization of secondary reforestation vegetation in so-called ‘abandoned fields’, and
a complex system of ‘nomadic agriculture’ in manipulated ‘forest fields’ (Posey
1983e, 1986b).2 Thus it is evident that the long-standing debates concerning ‘carrying capacity’ and ‘protein capture’ are far from over as new data continue to
support higher and higher figures for potential aboriginal and historical indigenous populations.3
Existing indigenous peoples in Brazil offer a tremendous source of information
about tropical ecology, ecological zones, complex plant–animal–human relationships or ‘co-evolutionary complexes’, as well as a myriad of plants and animals for
potential large-scale exploitation (Posey 1986b, 1987b, 1988). In other words, the
indigenous ‘experts’, whose cultures reflect thousands of years of adaptation to
and information about Amazonia, may hold the urgently needed key that will allow
for new strategies for sustained productivity and development in the Amazon without the senseless ecological and social destruction that is now underway. Why not
development of the Amazon based on indigenous ecological knowledge?
Contact before contact
This basic suggestion is always met with a powerful retort: ‘nice idea, but what
can Indians who live in villages of 200 to 300 tell us that is relevant? Today there
must be planning for towns much larger!’ In response, ethnohistorical research
about the nature of aboriginal populations and, specifically, the nature of ‘contact’
with Europeans, is critical.
‘Initial contact’ is frequently assumed to be the first recorded episode of actual
face-to-face interaction. A mistaken corollary is that what was observed during
initial contact was a virgin, pristine Indian population, living in an isolated society free from European influence. Descriptions of social and political
organization, rituals and artefacts, as well as population estimates, are made
based upon this assumption. My work with the Gorotire Kayapó of Brazil, with
whom ‘initial contact’ was made only in 1936 (Ribeiro 1970), soon revealed,
however, that considerable interaction had already occurred with Europeans well
prior to 1936 (Verswijver 1986: 41). By the time the first observer arrived to
describe the Gorotire Kayapó, they were, in fact, greatly weakened due to devastating depopulation that provoked the formation of mutually hostile splinter
groups. This chapter explores some of the mechanisms whereby European influence was felt prior to presumed ‘initial contact’. A model of social/cultural
degradation and schismatic group hostility is offered for the northern Kayapó
within this century.
Contact and history
The Kayapó are part of the Macro-Jê peoples (Greenberg 1960) that stretched in a
great interior crescent from near Belém in the Amazon Basin to Ilhéus on the
South Atlantic coast of Brazil. The southern Kayapó branch that extends to Santa
Catarina was encountered by the Portuguese shortly after Cabral discovered
Brazil in 1500.4 Numerous wars were waged with these southern Kayapó by the
early colonists. The royal governors of São Paulo sent forth the colonial militia in
the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to subdue the ferocious and hostile
Kayapó ‘hordes’. They met with considerable success, and by 1720 a reasonably
safe caravan route was opened to connect Cuiabá, the centre of the interior gold
trade, with the coast.5
Although the southern Kayapó had been partially subdued by the colonial militia, more northerly Kayapó groups eluded Portuguese guns and were successful in
carrying out numerous and regular raids on the gold caravans (Hemming 1978:
385, 397, 399, 405–6). The northern Kayapó became famous for their hostility,
daring raids and barbarous manner of bludgeoning to death their victims (Sick
1960: 205; Wagley 1977: 39–40, 287; Baldus 1960: 399). Because of their reputation for violence, and because they lived north of the principal interior corridor of
the Portuguese colony, the northern Kayapó did not have sustained relationships
with Europeans until the nineteenth century (Nimuendajú 1932). Frei Gil
Vilanova, a Dominican, was the first man to have sustained friendly relations with
a band of northern Kayapó located along the Araguaia River.6 He established the
Kayapó history and culture
Mission of Santa Anna Nova in 1860 and watched helplessly as this band of Pau
d’Arco Kayapó, as they were called, died off due to successive epidemics (Krause
1911). When Coudreau arrived at the Mission in 1896, he found 5,000 Pau d’Arco
Kayapó living in four villages, the largest of which had approximately 1,500
inhabitants (Coudreau 1897a). These population estimates have been routinely dismissed as being exaggerated. However, Coudreau was observing a population
already with over 30 years of contact with European diseases, and probably only
observed a portion of the original Pau d’Arco population that had survived various
waves of epidemics described by Frei Vilanova. This Kayapó group had insufficient immunity against European diseases and became extinct only 50 years after
Coudreau’s visit (Dobyns 1966: 413–14; Vellard 1956: 78–9).
It is necessary to emphasize the overriding effects of European diseases upon
indigenous populations. The effects of our ‘childhood’ diseases like mumps,
measles, whooping cough and flu were disastrous (cf. McNeill 1976; Davis 1977;
Crosby 1972). It is not uncommon to find 85 to 90 per cent of any given Indian
group destroyed by a single epidemic (Dobyns 1966; Hemming 1978: 139, 492;
Myers 1974; Sweet 1974: 78–80, 579–82). A rough calculation shows that 85 per
cent of the indigenous populations died from European diseases the first generation after ‘initial contact’.7 In one epidemic of measles in a northern Kayapó
village (Kokrajmoro), 34 per cent of an inoculated population died within two
weeks, and that included everyone over the age of 40, except two old women (Earl
Trapp, personal communication; FUNAI archives). This particular epidemic took
place in a village that had been officially contacted for nearly 20 years! One can
only imagine what effects such epidemics had upon uninoculated populations.
The immediate effect upon this particular Kayapó village was that there was no
one to tend the crops nor even gather ripened produce. The village was weakened
to the point that, had it not been for emergency medical aid from a missionary
team, the entire group would have disappeared. The group did survive, but cultural and social systems came virtually to a halt because cultural transmission
generally takes place between grandparents and grandchildren. There were no
grandparents left, not a single elder male, to instruct in the essential rituals to
insure healthy crops, nor anyone to perform the rituals of naming that perpetuate
the uniquely Kayapó inheritance system. Furthermore, since ceremonial activities
are highly differentiated with specialized roles being performed by specific lineages, entire ceremonies and rituals disappeared with the death of senior lineage
members. The village fell instantly into the throes of chaotic deculturation.8
Not just the previously mentioned viral diseases are important in the epidemiological history of the Amazonian Indian. Typhus, yellow fever and malaria are also
written into the historical records (Dobyns 1966; McNeill 1976: 176–207; Crosby
1972: 73–121). Indians seem to have a greater resistance to these diseases than do
Europeans, indicating that they have had a longer time to develop resistance.9 Yet
Contact before contact
these diseases are said not to be endemic to Amazonia. One is left to conclude that
these diseases often arrived centuries before the first outsider, white or black, actually set foot in the village.
Diseases can be analysed by the ways they are transmitted. This essentially epidemiological approach reveals that diseases do not always have to have direct
human carriers, since epidemics can well precede initial face-to-face contact
(Crosby 1972: 51).
Contact before contact
From an epidemiological perspective, ‘contact’ situations can be separated into
three categories based on the nature of interaction between Indians and
‘Indirect contact’ (in which no human agent or carrier is responsible for disease transmission);
‘Intermediate contact’ (in which disease transmission takes place via a few
individuals who selectively spread diseases from social groups they either
represent or visit);
‘Direct contact’ (in which diseases are transmitted through direct face-to-face
contact between groups of people).
Indirect contact
‘Silent exchange’
The Kayapó claim they used to trade with the Arara Indians before the Arara
moved further to the north-west. They were bitter enemies of the Araras, however,
and loathed their cannibalistic tendencies. Nonetheless, the Kayapó prized the
yellow feathers of a water bird found in the Arara’s area and traded parrot feathers
and eagle down for these coveted feathers. This prehistoric practice was said to
have been done by leaving bamboo tubes filled with feathers, and closed up with
beeswax, in designated camp sites; the Arara would reciprocate by leaving ibis
feathers. Feathers alone are capable of carrying lice, as well as viral and bacterial
organisms, that cause fatal disease. The Arara are known to have been in contact
with the Portuguese and were exposed to European diseases in the early nineteenth century (Hemming 1978: 426–37; Bernardino da Souza 1874: 65–7,
130–1). Thus, contamination of Kayapó groups could have occurred via the Arara
and similar groups through these trade exchanges.
Insect vectors and animal reservoirs
Yellow fever can be carried in primate reservoirs (Pavlovsky 1966; Hull 1963; Dunn
1965). Monkeys were, and remain today, one of the important trade commodities
Kayapó history and culture
between the Kayapó and other Indian groups or with Europeans. Also, plague has
been reported as early as 1536 in Brazil (Dobyns 1966; Ashburn 1947) and may
have spread to the interior along established trade routes that dealt in pelt
exchange, the furs being vehicles for the flea vectors. Typhus is likewise transported (Posey 1978, 1980). Thus, human carriers are not necessary for the
immediate spread of disease, if these maladies have already been introduced into
animal populations from human sources.
Myers (1981a) and Lyon (1981) have begun to trace what was an extensive and
well-developed network of trade routes throughout the Americas. There is now
evidence that highland Andean and lowland Amazonian regions were connected
by trade routes that also interlaced the coastal regions of Brazil with internal commercial systems.
Intermediate contact
Trade exchanges
With Europeans: The Txucahamai Kayapó were already in possession of
numerous European trade goods when they were first contacted by the VillasBoas brothers in 1968 (Villas-Boas 1968).10 Friendly contacts and exchanges
by Europeans with the northern Kayapó groups were recorded in 1810, 1896
and 1908, and certainly included disease transmission as well.11
‘Go-betweens’: Runaway Indian slaves as well as ‘trade specialists’ from the
aboriginal population centres of Brazil often served as ‘go-betweens’ in trading between the Portuguese and ‘wild’ Indians.12 It is not certain if the
Kayapó traded in this manner, but their vast territory extended to areas along
the Araguaia, Tocantins, Xingu and Tapajós Rivers, all of which were accessible to this type of trade. These travellers penetrated deep into Amazonia and
carried contagious diseases to many indigenous groups for which no contact
was recorded for decades, even centuries, after these initial encounters.
Trade with other Indians: The Kayapó continue to trade among village
groups today and traded with other Indians in the past – notably the Karajá,
the Mundurucu, the Araras, the Xikrin and the Tapirapé (cf. Wagley 1977:
215, 29–31, 101; Bernardino de Souza 1874: 231). The principal trade items
were: feathers, beads, monkeys, skins and pelts, reeds for arrows, and various
types of palm fibre for weaving. These items are conducive to the transmission of viral and bacterial diseases.13
Based on oral tradition, the Kayapó were tied into a vast network of Jê, Tupi,
Carib, Arawak, Karajá and Guarani trade routes. These aboriginal networks
extended into the Amazon and its major tributaries to the north of the Kayapó
(Myers 1981a); other networks ran along the Plata and Paraguay River Basins
(Lyon 1981) and perhaps extended into the Xingu Basin in the heart of Kayapó
Contact before contact
The early Bishops of Belém employed and otherwise encouraged a group of boat
captains (‘regatões’) to explore the hinterlands. These ‘regatões’ traded with
Indians in an effort to ensure good relations and to learn the Indian languages.
They penetrated deep into the river tributaries of Amazonia. They were expected
to return to the Bishop with their reports, then to serve as interpreters and guides
for subsequent voyages to convert the Indians. These people are known to have
reached the Araguaia and lower Xingu, well within the range of traditional
Kayapó treks.14
The quest for rubber and cacao led the legendary ‘sertanistas’ and ‘seringueiros’
deep into the interior of the Amazon Basin. The Kayapó tell of the intrusion of
many of these outsiders (kubẽn). However, few of the rubber-tappers and cacaogatherers lived to tell about the inhospitable Kayapó.15 Neither did Colonel
Fawcett, for that matter.
Runaway slaves
The Portuguese were plagued constantly with runaway slaves – both black and
Indian.16 It is impossible to know if any such runaways made it as far into the interior as the modern-day northern Kayapó, but there is considerable evidence of
varied genetic mixture in modern Kayapó cultures (Black 1977).
Portuguese exploration
For gold and gems: In the early seventeenth century the Portuguese began
their search for gold in the Mato Grosso interior. Rich supplies were found
near Cuiabá and a caravan route was established to connect the mines with
the coast. These routes penetrated the southern edge of the Kayapó country
and resulted in some friendly, but mostly hostile, interactions between the
Indians and the fortune-hunters (Henderson 1821: 241, 453; Ayres de Cazal
1817: 330; Magalhães 1922:101).
Wars against Indians: The colonial government sent various armies forth to
subdue the Kayapó. Most of the raids were carried out against southern
Kayapó groups. The Portuguese militia penetrated into northern Mato
Grosso, however, which was northern Kayapó territory in historic times
(Hemming 1978: 407–8). Although friendly contact was not common, prisoners were taken, and even sporadic contact was sufficient to contaminate
Indian warriors.
Religious expeditions: In 1810, Dom João Ferreira, Treasurer of the Cathedral
of São Paulo, contacted the Kayapó at the great rapids of Urubú-Punga. There
Kayapó history and culture
was a friendly exchange that lasted several days. Dom João even took several
Kayapó back with him to São Paulo (Ayres de Cazal 1817; Henderson 1821:
453). We do not know if these ‘hostages’ were ever returned.
Direct contact
Raids for material objects
The Kayapó were well known for their raids on other Indian groups as well as
‘civilizados’ in order to take such things as baskets, masks, pets, feathers, guns,
metal tools and ornaments (Coudreau 1897:197; Posey 1983e).
Raids for hostages
The Kayapó have an ancient tradition of raiding for hostages (Henderson 1821:
210). They take small children, whom they know they can raise as culturally
Kayapó. Approximately 15 per cent of the modern village of Gorotire is composed of such individuals (Posey 1979b). Genetic research with the Kayapó
groups confirms the ancient nature of this practice (Black et al. n.d.; Salzano et
al. 1977).
Warfare for revenge
The Kayapó are famed for their ferocious nature. They made war against the
Portuguese as soon as the Portuguese had penetrated the areas near the Araguaia,
Tocantins, Xingu and even the Tapajós River (Vidal 1977:13–15). Similar wars
were waged against Indian neighbours, both Kayapó and non-Kayapó (Verswijver
1978, 1986). These were frequently provoked by killings of Kayapó by a ‘civilizado’ or another Indian, although accusations of sorcery (udjy) against other tribes
or groups were usually sufficient to stir the Kayapó to revenge (Turner 1966).
Although not a complete typology, this hopefully serves to illustrate that the
Kayapó were in contact with Europeans and European diseases – both directly
and indirectly – in a variety of ways long before ‘initial’ contact. A specific epidemiological profile is impossible. Given the oral history of the Kayapó, the
model of village and group dispersal, and knowledge of epidemic disease devastation, one can certainly conclude that the aboriginal Kayapó culture was quite
different from what was described at ‘first contact’.
Disease and dispersal
Since 1977 the author has collected oral tradition about Kayapó society, social
structure and concepts of history. Their tradition is laden with examples of fights,
fissions and sorcery, most of which were associated with epidemics of diseases
(kanê or fever, and jarop ratx or flu).
Contact before contact
Present-day northern Kayapó groups lived in one ancestral village at the beginning of this century. This village of Pyka-tô-ti (sometimes just called the ‘Great’
or ‘Beautiful Village’, Kri-metx) was said to have had ‘streets’, and so many
houses that one could only know one’s relatives and followers of one’s chief.
There were two men’s houses, each headed by a ‘strong chief’ (benadjwyrà-ratx)
and subdivided into many subgroups with their own chiefs. Complementary
female chiefs and organizations mirrored those of the men (Verswijver 1986;
Posey 1986b).
Figure 2.1A represents the composition of Pyka-tô-ti as a permanent village
with trekking groups dispersing to different geographical areas. Pyka-tô-ti was
probably intact until about 1900.
When all mẽbêngôkre (the Kayapó autonym) lived in this village, the men
would leave the village for six to eight weeks or longer to carry out raids on other
Indians or ‘civilizados’ (kubẽn). The men would return to the village with captives, valuable feathers and booty, and with abundant meat for the festivals and
ceremonies that inevitably followed (and often prompted) such treks. Pyka-tô-ti
would swell with inhabitants during these ceremonial periods, often utilizing
structures in all three of its concentric circles. When I visited the Pyka-tô-ti site in
1978, only the outline of the circular village was still visible; the diameter of the
outer circle was 1,050 metres. A population of perhaps 3,500 to 5,000 has been
estimated (Posey 1979a).17 Due to sorcery (udjy) and disease (kanê), some of the
chiefs left the Great Village with their followers to live a short distance away
because they feared the spirits (karõn) of the many who had died from disease
epidemics: ‘the land had become bad’ (arap pyka punu) and haunted by dangerous spirits (karõn punu). Some of the original population of Pyka-tô-ti remained
in the village, however, to maintain their fields. The various dispersed groups
returned to the Great Village for some important annual and name-giving ceremonies (see Figure 2.1B).
Eventually (probably by 1919), Pyka-tô-ti was totally abandoned. The fission
groups formed their own villages, not yet totally separated ceremonially. Kayapó
informants explain that various village groups would reconvene at the old village
site at appointed times to re-enact jointly the important ceremonies (see Figure
2.1C). Schismatic groups joined together in various combinations, in order to
bring together the scattered specialists necessary for the effecting of complex rituals (see Figure 2.1D).18
Finally, by the time Horace Banner had contacted the Gorotire Kayapó group
in 1936, the village had broken up completely and dispersed into mutually hostile
subgroups scattered in various directions from the ancestral Pyka-tô-ti (see Figure
2.1E). What he and later ‘sertanistas’ (those who contact Indians) saw was a fragmented and disintegrated remnant of what had until recently been a populous,
highly organized aboriginal society. Banner spoke fluent Kayapó and understood
the chaotic state of ‘his’ Indians. His journals are filled with numerous accounts
of intergroup raids, counter-raids, fear and preparation for raids. Numerous massacres of reprisal for death from illness ‘caused’ by rival lineage or village groups
Kayapó history and culture
A Main village intact and organized under 'strong' chiefs, with numerous
trekking group (a, b, c, d, e, f, g) under subchiefs.
B the main village remains permanently occupied. Some subgroups, however,
have formed separate villages (a,c,e) and return to the ancestral village
for ceremonial purposes only.
C The main village is abandoned, except for periodic reunions of some
subgroups for ceremonial purposes.
D The ancestral village is totally abandoned. Certain subgroups reunite
temporarily for ceremonial purposes at other sites.
E Village subgroups disperse and mutual hostility prevents reunions.
Further fission occurs (h, i, j, k, l, m).
Figure 2.1 Model of village fission of the Northern Kayapó.
Contact before contact
reinforced anxiety of hostility from former neighbours and ceremonial compatriots.19 Apprehension of reprisals continues today, as two or three groups of
‘non-contacted’ Kayapó still flee their ‘pacified’ relatives for fear of these old
The principal force that led to the disintegration of traditional Kayapó society
was European disease. Surges of disease and mortality in a Kayapó village, such
as Gorotire, still lead to accusations of sorcery (udjy). Turner (1966), Verswijver
(1978, 1986) and Bamberger (1967: 35–9) have documented specific cases where
individual Kayapó are accused of causing a disease outbreak. The accused must
either flee the village with family and loyal relatives or face being killed. If one
insists on innocence, then the accused and perhaps his extended kin group may
choose to fight (aben tàk) the accuser, and the accuser’s extended kin. The losers
in this dramatic, stylized, and deadly serious battle must leave the village. Thus
major chunks of a village population were split due to accusations of udjy and
fled from their hostile home village.
An important cultural mechanism that affects site occupation is fear of spirits
(karõn). The Kayapó traditionally abandon a house if multiple deaths occur during a short period of time.20 An entire village site will be abandoned if many
deaths occur as, for example, during an epidemic. Village, missionary and Indian
bureau records show that a death rate of 60 per cent or more was common in
Kayapó populations after settlement onto Indian posts.
Dispersal in the wake of epidemics is a very adaptive mechanism for social
animals. Frequently we fail to recognize this in human populations because we do
not understand the cultural mechanism for such dispersal. With the Kayapó, however, the evidence is convincing as shown by this model of fission.
Increased intragroup hostility occurred after disintegration of Pyka-tô-ti, making the Kayapó appear much more hostile and warlike to outsiders than they in
fact had been prior to their decimation by epidemics. Older survivors today
remember Pyka-tô-ti and speak of days before there was much sickness, when the
Kayapó lived in peace with their neighbours. Today, they feel shame (piá àm)
because of deaths due to warfare and intergroup hostility.21
Aboriginal population densities have been considerably underestimated because of
scholars’ failures to properly assess the effect of European diseases on Amerindian
peoples. Likewise assumptions that observations made at ‘initial contact’ reflect
Indian societies unaffected by European influence ignore the various ways through
which foreign trade items and diseases can anticipate face-to-face contact. For the
Kayapó, European artefacts and epidemics arrived decades before the first missionaries made their first observations. Trade networks, warfare, raids,
missionaries and explorers all introduce elements of change into the hinterlands.
Indirect, intermediate and direct contact in the Amazon Basin are the basis for a
typology of contact perhaps generalizable to other parts of the Americas.
Kayapó history and culture
Oral tradition, historical documents and archaeological remains combine to
provide a model for cultural disintegration. Rapid depopulation due to epidemics
thrust the Kayapó society into chaos. Political structures disintegrated, social
rules collapsed, and ceremonial life disappeared as death took away knowledgeable elders with specialized ceremonial roles. The ancient village of Pyka-tô-ti
fragmented through various stages into mutually hostile groups. Accusations of
witchcraft flourished because of unexplainable deaths from unknown diseases
and created enemies from neighbours. Beliefs in spirits led to abandonment of
houses or whole villages due to spiritual contamination by the dead.
The Kayapó thus appeared to outsiders unaccustomed to Kayapó history and
culture (and with few communication skills to learn otherwise) to be unduly warlike and nomadic. This skewed impression of their true ‘aboriginal nature’ has
coloured perceptions of the Kayapó and other indigenous peoples ever since.
We will never know the actual indigenous population density of the Americas
nor the true nature of aboriginal societies, but a more accurate picture of preColombian America is possible. We must dismiss the misconception that ‘initial
contact’ accounts reflect pristine aboriginal populations and be prepared to reevaluate historical and ethnographical accounts to reflect Indian societies already
in the throes of societal devastation and chaos.
Chapter 3
Environmental and social
implications of pre- and postcontact situations on Brazilian
Indians 1
Modern indigenous societies probably bear little resemblance to their pre-contact
antecedents. Drastic depopulation due to European diseases and dominance left
only remnants of aboriginal societies. The Northern Kayapó, for example, once
lived in large villages with a complex age-grade and lineage organization. As a
result of epidemics prior to first recorded face-to-face ‘contact’ with the whites,
large groups split into small, dispersed villages. This dispersion had significant
effects on regional flora and fauna, as well as provoking major social changes.
Since many of these modifications are recent, old village sites can still be located
and excavated, thereby giving unique opportunities to combine ethnohistory,
archaeology, ethnography and ethnoecology to trace and document dramatic
changes in indigenous populations during the transition from pre- to post-contact
times. The Kayapó case provides an excellent opportunity to test many of the theories that are proposed for a new Amazonian synthesis.
Impact of dispersion and deculturation
Sociocultural reduction
The dispersal of Kayapó groups led to the immediate collapse of the traditional
ngà-be (East-West Men’s House) system. Two benadjwyrà-ratx (great chiefs)
were inadequate to coordinate the several scattered subgroups, leaving former
subchiefs to assume responsibility. Since the break up of Pyka-tô-ti, the Kayapó
have not been able to establish a single village with both Men’s Houses, or agree
upon who, in modern times, should be the benadjwyrà-ratx.
Individual villages were associated with either the Eastern or Western ngà-be,
except for Gorotire which became an ‘attraction post’ (posto de atraição) or
FUNAI post to entice Kayapó groups to make peaceful contact with the whites.
Gorotire became filled with representatives of all the Kayapó subgroups and, consequently, became a microcosm of Kayapó beliefs and practices. A single Men’s
House was established in Gorotire, but, in fact, its members come from both
Eastern and Western traditions. This can be illustrated by the burial practices of
peoples from the different Men’s Houses. The Eastern House buries with the head
Kayapó history and culture
facing east; the Western House buries facing west. In Gorotire, however, burials
occur in both orientations (Kwyrà-kà Kayapó, personal communication).
As a result of its diverse mixture, Gorotire shows great variations in the myths,
songs, stories and rituals that are presented in the village. Debates over which version is the djyjarejn kumrenx (true tradition) are frequent. These variations reflect
the special knowledge held by individuals and family groups that, at the time of
break up, were differentially distributed by chance and historical occurrences.
Kayapó ceremonies and festivals are characterized by the complex integration
of many specialized ritual parts ‘owned’ by nekrêx (inheritance groups) (Lea
1988). If the nekrêx is without a representative in any given village, the festival
that requires that specialized missing part cannot be performed. In some cases,
entire festivals have died out due to lack of surviving ritual specialists to perform
essential parts. The We-we (butterfly) Festival is such an example. Kayapó elders
can name many festivals that are no longer practised for this reason.
Thus, dispersal of Kayapó groups led to a reduction of festivals due to the lack
of a critical mass and necessary ritual specialists to carry out the ceremonies. The
same process must have occurred in other areas of knowledge and practice, resulting in cultural fragmentation and reduction.
One can speculate on the preponderance of Bep names as one possible example of this reduction process. Bep names are given during the Bemp Festival and
were once thought to be the highest status names of the Kayapó. But while other
naming ceremonies became more difficult or impossible to perform, Bemp
remained relatively easy to perform due to the survival of Bemp ‘knowers’. As a
result, the name Bep is now very common, and, although it is still considered a
idjy mex (Beautiful Name), it no longer connotes such a high status.
The clearest evidence of knowledge reduction is with Kayapó shamans and
traditional medicine knowers. They have special powers and deal with physical
and spiritual illnesses (Chapters 6 and 14). Most of the wayanga kumrenx (true
shamans) died or were killed due to epidemics and inter- or intragroup fights. In
their place came the apprentices, ‘weak’ shamans, and those with little experience. By default, the title of ‘wayanga’ fell onto those who in past generations
would have been considered unprepared, or undesirable, for such an important
The deculturation/disintegration process stimulated the appearance of many
mẽkute-pidjà-mari (plant knowers), who do not claim to deal with spirits, but only
with the curative properties of certain plants. These ‘knowers’ specialize in certain families of plants (Chapters 6 and 14) and the diseases they cure. In the
village of Gorotire, over 25 per cent of the population claims to be a mẽkutepidjà-mari. One can hypothesize that the abundance of such specialists was
stimulated by the loss of ‘true shamans’ and, as a result, loss of medical advice
during a time of increased illness.
Contact with FUNAI and missionaries provoked other changes that resulted in
the creation of alternative social structures and loss of traditional Kayapó ways. In
Gorotire, for example, the mission church has its own organization centred
Environmental and social implications
around the Indian pastor and church leaders. The church structure sometimes
competes with the chiefs for power, attention and resources, creating conflict
between the Crentes (Christians) and the rest of the community. On two occasions
over the past 50 years, the missionaries have been expelled from Gorotire, always
to be invited back because of their access to merchandise, transport and medicines. The Brazilian FUNAI has favoured male leaders as the spokespersons for
the villages. Consequently, female chiefs have disappeared and those males that
speak Portuguese have climbed to positions of greatest importance. Most modern
male chiefs do not even know the ceremonial language, or ben, for which their
office was named mẽbẽnjadwỳra, or ‘giver of the ben’.
Both the missionaries and FUNAI encouraged the Kayapó to wear clothes. But
Kayapó themselves decided to abandon some of their most characteristic traditions, such as the amuh mẽtôrô (Wasp Dance), in which warriors are repeatedly
stung by wasps during a ceremonial ‘fight’. The tep djwa (fish tooth), a gourd paddle embedded with very sharp fish teeth and used for scarification of young boys
who misbehaved, was also discarded. Use of large ear spools and lip plugs also
died out. All of these losses were due to the same reason: the Kayapó felt piá àm
(ashamed) of such practices because of the way they were viewed by the whites.
Nomadic agriculture
With the dispersal of Kayapó subgroups, useful biological species and natural
resource management strategies also spread. Agricultural plots could be maintained for permanent and semi-permanent villages like Pyka-tô-ti, but nomadic
groups depend more heavily upon other types of management such as trailside
plantings and ‘forest fields’. Trail systems were extensive in the Kayapó area, and
their margins served as areas for planting, transplanting and spreading numerous
semi-domesticated plant species used for food, medicine, building materials,
dyes, scents, insect repellents and so on. Forest fields were made either by felling
large trees in the forest or by utilizing bà-krêti (natural forest openings) into
which seeds, cuttings, seedlings and tubers of useful species were introduced.
These concentrations of useful resources required little or no human care after
Special ‘war gardens’ (usually known as krãi kam puru) were planted in
forested hills near trails, villages or campsites (Gottsberger and Posey, in preparation; Posey 1983c, 1985b). These secret gardens not only served as emergency
sources for food, but also as germplasm banks where stocks of useful species
could always be found if necessary.
The strategy of producing hidden ‘resource islands’ extended to the production
of apêtê, or islands of resources in the campo-cerrado (Anderson and Posey 1987,
1989; Posey and Gottsberger, in preparation). Apêtê were produced by introducing colonizing plants into small mounds of enriched planting material in the
savanna. These plantings grew and were further moulded to provide forest
‘islands’ filled with requisite species for human and animal survival.
Kayapó history and culture
Trailside plantings, forest fields, war gardens and apêtê form part of an ancient
Kayapó ‘nomadic agriculture’ system (Posey 1983c, 1985b). The system allowed
warriors to have food sources during long treks and war raids. Other Kayapó used
them on extended family treks and during journeys to distant villages. This system gave the Kayapó needed flexibility during periods when agricultural plots
were abandoned or inaccessible due to enemy activity. As soon as feasible,
Kayapó groups would re-establish their regular agricultural plots. As long as
intra- and intergroup raids existed, however, dependence on agriculture remained
difficult. The prevalence of puru (fields) probably shrunk and grew as a function
of warfare and peace. Today, with no open hostilities remaining, ‘nomadic agriculture’ has been all but abandoned: only a few older people can describe the
system in detail. In contrast, agriculture is flourishing in all Kayapó villages.
Ecological and biological consequences
Dispersal of Kayapó groups meant the dispersal of domesticated and semidomesticated species traditionally exploited by the Kayapó (for a partial list see
Posey 1984c; Anderson and Posey 1985; Posey and Gottsberger, in preparation).
Possibly, with the greater range of the Kayapó groups, the number of varieties or
species drastically increased as new plants were encountered. Certainly many
varieties traditionally used by different family groups were carried wherever its
members went.
Informant Kwyrà-kà told of his treks between the Araguaia and Tapajós Rivers
as a young warrior. He described a special basket used by the old men to carry
roots, seeds and cuttings for planting along the trails or at home villages.
Transportation of germplasm was one of the major functions of any trek; tribal
elders alone were entrusted with this important task.
Near Gorotire village, Anderson and Posey (1985, 1989) found that useful
species from an area the size of Western Europe had been concentrated into a tenhectare apêtê study area. In recent years, Chief Pombo (Tut) was seen many times
wandering off into the old fields and apêtê of Gorotire to snatch up cuttings for
his new village downstream. Plants remain one of the most common gifts
exchanged between Kayapó visitors from different villages. Establishment of new
villages always means the establishment of a stock of necessary plants from the
parent villages.
Cognitive maps by Kayapó informants show that brazil nut, babaçu, açaí and
bacaba groves are associated with ancestral villages and campsites. Planting these
trees is part of an ancient tradition and often marks sites of human occupation.
Such trees are but a few of the most easily recognizable markers of habitation
sites. Shaman Beptopoop took an English film crew and me to film old village
sites near Conceição do Araguaya in 1988.2 He had little difficulty locating the
sites by interpreting the vegetation, though the sites had been abandoned for
approximately 50 years. Archaeobotany has been under-utilized by scientists to
locate, characterize and interpret prehistoric and historic Indian sites. Yet, in most
Environmental and social implications
cases, diagnostic plants can be identified easily by informants and surveyed with
traditional botanical collection methods. Aerial, or even satellite, images can also
be used once the botanical diagnostic profile has been completed for old village,
camp and field sites.
As periodically used campsites turned into permanent villages, forest areas
used for agriculture also began to be transformed into ibe (old fields). Old fields
are important links in the overall Kayapó management process, since they are
filled with semi-domesticated species as well as animals that are attracted to their
low, bushy vegetation. Ibe are difficult to detect except by the trained eye and are
frequently confused with ‘natural forest’. Probably much of what has been considered ‘natural’ in the Amazon is, in fact, modified by prehistorical and historical
Amerind populations (Posey 1985b; Balée 1989a, 1989b). Although some efforts
have been made to map and locate secondary growth and old fields with satellite
imagery, little published data is available.
Likewise, soil management methods led to improvements in agricultural soils
and the formation of ‘terra preta dos índios’. The extensive accumulation of these
rich, anthropogenic soils (anthrosols) is most important along the banks of the
Amazon River (Smith 1980). Similar processes also occurred in interfluvial
areas, such as with the Kayapó (Hecht and Posey 1989, 1990). As scattered villages grew and peace allowed for the flourishing of agricultural activities, more
land came under cultivation and consequently more soils were affected.
The past meets the future: steps to the new synthesis
A new scientific synthesis
Given the richness of oral tradition and memory of elders who actually lived in
old villages such as Pyka-tô-ti, the Kayapó offer a unique opportunity to compare
oral tradition with archaeological and ethnobiological information. Since 1982,
the Kayapó Project has accumulated extensive data on ethnobiological aspects of
Kayapó culture, including extensive soil, botanical and zoological collections.
Ethnoecological, ethnopedological, ethnomedical, ethnopharmacological and
agricultural studies, as well as classic sociopolitical research, make the Kayapó
one of the best documented Amazonian indigenous groups. It is, therefore, possible to correlate archaeological theory and subsistence models with living and
historic populations.
For example, comparative soil analyses can show how modern soil modifications led to the formation of ‘terra preta dos índios’. Likewise, old camp and
village sites, as well as trail systems, can be mapped and located using living informants, and checked with botanical indicator species also provided by the Kayapó.
In some cases, myth and legend can be correlated with historical events to
provide ethnohistorical markers. For example, the Kayapó myth of the origin of
agriculture offers a unique opportunity to correlate celestial markers with actual
astronomical dates. According to the myth, agriculture was given to the ancestors
Kayapó history and culture
by the daughter of the rain, Nhak-pôk-ti, represented by the planet Venus. This
event occurred when Venus appeared in the midday sky during a total eclipse of
the sun. The exact position is recorded as being in the south-east quadrant of an
area defined by the east-west path of the sun and moon, cut at approximately a
90-degree angle by the Milky Way. Using astronomical data, it is possible to calculate dates in the past when this event could have occurred (Campos and Posey
1990). This date, in turn, can be correlated with archaeological evidence from
the actual site.
A new scientific synthesis for Amazonia depends upon interdisciplinary
research and, in turn, the correlation of that research with oral tradition and actual
ethnographic practice.
A new indigenous synthesis
The Kayapó themselves are trying to reconstruct and restructure their own society. They still speak frequently about the building of a kri-metx with two Men’s
Houses. There is a great desire to build up the Kayapó population to compensate
for losses during the decades of epidemics and warfare.
Two recent events show how the old structures of Kayapó society have been
adapted for modern use: the first was in 1988 during the demonstration of Kayapó
warriors against the prosecution of two of their chiefs, who had gone to the World
Bank to oppose construction of dams on their Xingu River lands (cf. Chapter 4).
Traditional war oratory and dances were used by the demonstrators as they closed
some of the main arteries in Belém, the regional capital. Representatives of most
Kayapó subgroups were present and were organized with remarkable precision
and control under village leaders and special war chiefs. The event showed how
the Kayapó were not only capable of effectively reintegrating their society, but
also of adapting their organization and culture to manipulate the mass media that
covered the demonstration.
Shortly thereafter (February 1989), an even larger media event was held in
Altamira, Pará, the proposed site of the dams. The ‘Altamira Encounter’ was one
of the most significant events in the history of the environmental and indigenous
movements. The Kayapó were able to mobilize representatives of many indigenous peoples from all over the Americas to discuss with human rights and
environmental leaders a unified strategy to protect natural ecosystems and native
peoples (Posey 1989a, 1989b).
For the Kayapó themselves, it was the first time that so many from dispersed
groups were able to meet peacefully together. It was, in a sense, a modern recreation of Pyka-tô-ti. After so many decades of separation and differences, it was
amazing to see how easily and efficiently the subgroups could reintegrate to form
a unified and highly organized social event. The complex model of Pyka-tô-ti
organization had been long abandoned, but not in the least forgotten.
Environmental and social implications
Aboriginal population densities have been considerably underestimated because
of failures to assess properly the effect of European diseases on Amerindian peoples. Likewise assumptions that observations made at ‘initial contact’ reflect
Indian societies unaffected by European influence ignore the various effects that
foreign trade items and diseases can have prior to face-to-face contact. For the
Northern Kayapó, European artefacts and epidemics arrived decades (if not centuries) before missionaries made their first observations. Trade networks, warfare,
raids, missionaries and explorers all introduced elements of change into the hinterlands (see previous chapter). Indirect, intermediate and direct contact in the
Amazon Basin form a typology of contact perhaps generally applicable to other
parts of the Americas.
Oral tradition, historical documents and archaeological remains combine to
provide a model for cultural disintegration and reintegration. Rapid depopulation
due to epidemics thrust the Kayapó society into chaos. Political structures disintegrated, social rules collapsed, and ceremonial life disappeared as death took away
knowledgeable elders with specialized ceremonial roles. The ancient village of
Pyka-tô-ti fragmented through various stages into mutually hostile groups.
Accusations of witchcraft flourished because of unexplainable deaths from
unknown diseases and created enemies from neighbours; beliefs in spirits led to
abandonment of houses or whole villages due to spiritual contamination by the
dead. The Kayapó thus appeared to outsiders, unaccustomed to Kayapó history
and culture, to be unduly warlike and nomadic. This skewed impression has
coloured perceptions of the Kayapó and other indigenous peoples ever since.
Cultural degradation led to the disappearance of ‘true’ shamans and the rise of
many ‘weak’ shamans and ‘plant knowers’ who appeared to fill a needed gap in
medical care. Similar reductions occurred in other areas of ceremonial and cultural knowledge.
Agriculture was less evident in the direct contact period due to increased
nomadic warfare activity. A much greater dependence on ‘semi-domesticated’
products of ‘nomadic agriculture’ was necessary. These products escaped
European eyes because they fell between the paradigms of hunters-gatherers and
agriculturalists, leaving the scientific data inadequate for the evaluation of indigenous diet. ‘War gardens’, ‘forest fields’, trailsides and apêtê went unnoticed,
since they fell outside the Western concept of natural resource management.
Consequently, many areas of Amazonia considered to be ‘natural’ are probably
products of aboriginal and historic human presence. Agricultural plots began to
thrive again only when relatively peaceful times were restored. This led to a
decreased dependency on semi-domesticated foods and decline of the waradapted ‘nomadic agricultural’ system.
It is clear that, although demographic and cultural degradation was rapid and
severe, the Kayapó society resisted in remarkably strong ways. Specialized knowledge, elaborate rituals and a complex system of inter- and intragroup organization
Kayapó history and culture
allowed the Kayapó not only to survive in the whites’ world, but to take a leadership role in it, as the Altamira Encounter proved. A conscious new synthesis of
Kayapó society by the Kayapó themselves already includes the abstract notion that
they are conservers of nature and that their traditional knowledge is important for
the future of Amazonia. Perhaps this means that the Kayapó will be one of the first
indigenous groups to work together with scientific specialists to provide the true
Amazonian synthesis: one in which Indian knowledge and Western scientific data
can be used together to interpret the past, analyse the present and prepare for the
Chapter 4
Time, space and the interface
of divergent cultures: the
Kayapó Indians of the Amazon
face the future 1
The Brazilian Amazon captures much of the mystery of life, not only because of its
vastness, complexity of plant and animal species and exotic indigenous peoples, but
also because of its impenetrability. It is the last terrestrial frontier that defies modern technology and remains a challenge to the ingenuity of Western society. In the
wake of sophisticated and enormous so-called ‘development’ projects for the
Amazon lies a lengthy chronology of ecological destruction. It is not just deforestation that has resulted, but irreversible ‘desertification’ and related environmental
degradation with which the world must now reckon (Eckholm and Brown 1977;
Goodland and Irwin 1975; USDA 1978; USDFA 1980). It has become obvious that
there is little option but to re-evaluate the course of ‘progress’ for the Amazon and
look for alternative strategies as a basis for future development.
The Amazon has popularly been called a ‘counterfeit paradise’ and a ‘green
hell’. But to Indians, like the Northern Kayapó, it is ‘just plain home’ and has
been for millennia. Aboriginal Indian populations are now believed to have been
quite dense, yet minimal environmental destruction resulted from their strategies
of exploitation (Dobyns 1966; Denevan 1976). It is in the cultures of the Kayapó
and other surviving indigenous peoples that I propose we can find the secrets to
new strategies for the reasonable development of the Amazon without the irrevocable destruction of its plants, animals and peoples.
The Kayapó Indians of southern Pará and northern Mato Grosso are one of
Brazil’s major indigenous groups. The first permanent contact with the Kayapó
was not until 1937 (Banner n.d. 1963, 1975).2 Subsequently other Kayapó groups
have been settled into villages with a FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Índio) post
and medical services (Verswijver 1978). The tribe remains, however, geographically remote and relatively unacculturated. The Kayapó have been fortunate in
this respect, for their understanding of ‘civilizados’ has been allowed to proceed
slowly, without the sudden disruption of their ecological and cultural system
(Posey 1979b). They remain today a proud people, who flourish because of an
ecologically sound and diversified utilization of their Amazonian ecosystem
(Bamberger 1967; Posey 1979c).
Kayapó history and culture
Yet huge cattle ranches, plantations and mineral developments are lapping at
their very doorstep. The recent Cumarú gold rush and confusion over tribal
boundaries has led to cultural conflict, deep resentment and even bloodshed
(ARC 1980; Anon 1980).3 There are plans for a road that would cut through their
‘reserva indígena’ and the westward frontier now gnaws at their tribal lands.
Suddenly the Kayapó are face-to-face with the unrelenting tentacles of technology and society.
The purpose of this essay is to explore briefly the world view of the Kayapó, to
reveal their sense of being in the world, and how this world view affects their
exploitation of the environment as well as how the Kayapó are disadvantaged in
dealing with Western society and technology. Ironically this patently practical
matter must be dealt with at the most abstract level of temporal and spatial concepts. I shall argue that it is in the divergent notions of lineal versus non-lineal
time and space that the nature of ‘cultural interface’ is revealed most clearly.
On time and space
Time for Western civilization is refined to the point of having attributes of a
substance or a commodity: we measure it, waste it, consume it, treasure it.
Space is inextricably correlated with time, for in our all-encompassing metaphysical plan, space is plotted on two transecting axes in a three-dimensional
expanse, the third dimension being formed by the lineal movements of time
(Whorf 1950). Time flows from past to present and extends into the future. This
lineality allows us to pinpoint events in time and space, and to add the historical
dimension upon which technological civilizations evaluate the present and predict the future.
Can any of us imagine not saving for the future, not planning ahead, not ‘making hay while the sun shines’. Indeed, our cultural commitment to the lineality of
time and space permeates the very fabric of our minds so that we cannot consciously imagine that life could exist without such constructs. After all, our
biology, mathematics, physics and history have all validated the canonical laws of
our scientific metaphysics. Sorokin pointed out the link between the development
of mathematics and lineal time and the emergence of definite social developments connected with urbanization and industrialization (Sorokin 1943). Too few
people, however, realize that science itself is a lineal, evolutionary product of
classical Western philosophy and cultural traditions.
Benjamin Whorf, after studying the Hopi Indians, grasped the nature of a reality not built upon lineal constructs. He wrote: ‘Just as it is possible to have any
number of geometrics other than Euclidean which give an equally perfect account
of space configurations, so it is possible to have descriptions of the universe, all
equally, that do not contain our familiar constructs of time and space’ (Whorf
1950). Beidelman also mused that ‘we should no more be surprised at the alien or
exotic features of primitive time reckoning than at the features of other people’s
corresponding social organization or religious beliefs’ (Beidelman 1963).
Time, space, and the interface of divergent cultures
The Kayapó recognize three types of time, which can be called: 1) ecological
time, 2) structural time, and 3) macro-time (Evans-Pritchard 1939). The first two
types correspond to our own Western notions of time:
‘Ecological time’ corresponds to the natural yearly ecological and agricultural cycles. For the Kayapó, ecological time is divided into two seasons: the
dry season, and the wet season. Further subdivisions are correlated with
moon phases and stages of crop maturity (Posey 1979e).
‘Structural time’ is reckoned by human life cycles and is marked by periodic
rites of passage. The Kayapó segment their population into six male age
grades and five female age grades. Individuals pass from one age grade to
another as they grow older and such changes are marked by specific ceremonies at more or less regular time intervals (Vidal 1977; Dreyfus 1963;
Bamberger 1976).
‘Macro-time’ brings us to the level of greatest abstraction and cultural divergence. It is at this abstract level that Kayapó notions of time and space
drastically diverge from our own. To the Western mind, time is a precisely
defined unit that can be measured in seconds, milliseconds, or even
microseconds. But at this level of abstraction, for the Kayapó neither time
nor space is measurable, or even definable. They become forces that are
dynamic rather than cinematic, i.e. erupting and emerging manifestations of
dynamic energy with no definite direction or unified motion. The integrity of
time and space disappears, or rather blends, into a motion that is without
defined direction, yet eternal and omnipresent (Lukesch 1976; Wilbert
1978).4 I have labelled this realm of time and space as being maximally
abstract, yet to the Kayapó this dimension is vibrant, scintillating, and shimmering with the mysterious energy of all that is life. This realm is at the very
essence of all that was, is now, or will be Kayapó (Lukesch 1978; Wilbert
1978; Vidal 1977; Posey 1982d).5 Portions of this dynamic force are encapsulated as spirits of all living things. The Kayapó see themselves as an
integral part of a world, whose natural components are all manifestations of
the same energy. Not just people have spirits (karõn), but animals do as well,
and plants act as balancing agents between these two spiritual realms. For this
reason, the Kayapó have a profound respect for nature. Indeed, the health and
well-being of individual and tribe is viewed as a proper ‘balance’ between all
natural forces (Lukesch 1976).6
The balance between the various encapsulated ‘spirits’ of nature is symbolized by
the circle (see Figure 4.1). The universe is described in myths as being circular,
with floating parallel disks forming layers of the universe circumscribed by the
greater outer circle (Lukesch 1976; Wilbert 1978). One of the parallel disks is the
earth, which is likewise divided into concentric rings, the Men’s House (ngà)
being the centre of the circle, surrounded by the village, a transition zone, the forest and the outermost circle being the area of non-Indians (Snyder 1964; T. Turner
1965; Bamberger 1967) (see Figure 4.2).
Kayapó history and culture
Figure 4.1 Kayapó model of the world showing parallel earth and sky disks in a circular
Figure 4.2 Spatial model of the Kayapó world.The centre (ipôkre) is the Men’s Mouse (ngà);
houses (kikrê) are the domain of less socialized women; the transitional zone
(atúkma) delineates the social space of the village from the unsocialized forest (bà).
Kayapó villages, with their great circular rings of matrilateral extended households, are social manifestations of the circle (Vidal 1977; da Matta 1976) (see
Figure 4.3). Hunting treks proceed in circular paths; hunting camps are arranged
around circular sleeping and dancing areas. Kayapó fields are also circular niches
carved out of the dense plant and animal realm of the jungle (Vidal 1977;
Time, space, and the interface of divergent cultures
Figure 4.3 The idealized Kayapó village (kri-metx).
Bamberger 1967; Posey 1979c).7 Graves and graveyards are also circular.8 It has
even been argued that the Kayapó social structure and kinship orders are circular
in their organization (T. Turner 1965, 1979: 180–1, 190). Thus the circle encompasses a definite reality and represents the cyclical essence of encapsulated units
of time and space.
The principal natural manifestations of the circle are the sun and moon. The
sun is circular and is believed to travel in a circular path across the earth, then up
and around the sky layer above in order to reappear the next day (see Figure 4.1).
The moon travels on the same path, and the phases of the moon are images of the
Kayapó history and culture
abstract forces that compose time and space, for the moon itself changes and even
seems to disappear, but nonetheless remains the moon (Wilbert 1978).
To the Kayapó, a human being is an illusion much like the moon. Each Kayapó
has a human form or body (hĩ-krã-kà), but the encapsulated energy that makes the
body living is in the form of a circular ball (kadáwanh). The body only holds the
spherical spirit, which is tenuously bound to its container. During periods of
unconsciousness due to illness or injury, the spirit has a tendency to leave the
body and wander about. While the spirit is outside the body, other spirits can
invade the body or, if the spirit is lost, the body will die (Vidal 1977: 210–11).
Thus out-of-body experiences are risky and frightening to most Kayapó.
Shamans are called in during these periods of unconsciousness because they
are experts on out-of-body experience. To become a shaman, in fact, the spirit
must leave the body and pass through a severe illness (always characterized by
‘strong’ fevers, kanê tytx) and find its way to the spiritual realm that is the core of
dynamic energy. The shaman’s spirit learns many secrets about the nature of the
relationship between the world of the living and the spiritual world. When the
spirit of the shaman returns from its journey and re-enters the body, the shaman is
reborn as a wise man who knows much about the universe (Posey 1982d).9
Shamans are experts on tribal rituals and ceremonies because these communal
events focus the activities of other Kayapó toward understanding the spiritual
realm known to the shaman. Ceremonies become the link between the cyclical
world of the Kayapó and the dynamic, timeless-spaceless spiritual realm.
The Kayapó have an elaborate and complex ceremonial repertoire. Ceremony
is a raison d’être for the Kayapó, for they believe that without the performance of
the prescribed rituals, the world would collapse: crops would not grow, children
would not be born, the sun and moon would cease to travel across the sky.
Ceremonies are what maintain the balance of nature and are essential to generate the energy necessary to continue the ecological and structural time cycles. An
important mechanism for producing this energy is through dancing, always
accompanied by singing. Men are the principal dancers and singers. They dance
in pairs, following a circular path around the village plaza, or arm-in-arm swaying
back and forth in circular or semi-circular lines. The dance steps are simple and
the music monotonous and repetitive to the Western ear, yet harmonious and
vaguely melodic (Dreyfus 1963).
Singing and dancing often begin at sundown and continue until sunrise,
sometimes extending for seven or more consecutive nights (Turner 1965).10 The
combination of little sleep, and methodical, repetitious metre and tone of the
music often leads participants into ‘elevated states of being’ (consciousness)
(Hillgard 1977; Golliher 1981).11 It is during these elevated states that many
Kayapó become aware of the non-lineal realm of dynamic power that unifies all
time and space, and links the cycles of ecological and structural time with the
centre of Kayapó non-lineal being.12 These experiences serve like a series of
plugs that tap into a central power source to carry energy to the rituals, whose
purpose is to ensure the cyclical movement of time. This energy is transferred, or
Time, space, and the interface of divergent cultures
is manifest, symbolically, through sexual intercourse. Intercourse is almost
always associated with ceremonial activity (Posey 1979b), and is often actually
incorporated directly into the ritual itself (T. Turner 1965). The Kayapó believe
that strong children are born because of multiple sexual experiences. Even when
pregnancy is well-advanced, intercourse continues to ensure the growth of a
healthy foetus (Bamberger 1967; Dreyfus 1963).
Women say they rarely experience elevated states through dance or music, but
do so during childbirth. This is highly symbolic since the altered state experience is
a direct tie between the dynamic realm of being and the encapsulating birth event.
Death becomes nothing more than the return of a spirit to the dynamic realm.
Birth and death, therefore, are really much the same since they merely represent
structural transition between the cyclical world of the living Kayapó and the nonlineal dynamic realm of all being. It is little wonder that spirits of the dead are often
encountered during elevated state experiences. The average Kayapó, however, is
extremely frightened of such encounters. These spirits are potentially harmful since
they can inhabit one’s body permanently while one’s own spirit is temporarily separated from the body during ritual dancing or illness (Lukesch 1976).
Spirit forms are dealt with by shamans. Shamans have the ability to go into
‘deeper’ or ‘stronger’ elevated (or altered)13 states of consciousness, and they are
powerful enough to do so alone (i.e. without the necessary group rituals) and at
any time they choose. They are able to manipulate the encapsulated human or animal spirits to cause or cure illness, talk to the spirits of the dead, or foretell the
future. Shamans are the principal keepers of ritual knowledge and secrets: they
are the specialists who know how to perform the essential rites that perpetuate the
cycles of the Kayapó world. They manipulate the highly ordered rituals to induce
elevated states, and are embodiments of the relationships between lineally segmented cycles and the non-lineal realm of time and space.
What relationship does this esoteric topic have with the practical world of the
Kayapó? That is, how does the Kayapó view of time and space affect their
chances for survival in the face of encroaching Western civilization?
Because of their belief in a timeless-spaceless, perpetual realm of dynamic
force, the Kayapó appear to have little concern for the protracted future. They
have little interest in ‘saving’, ‘storing’ or ‘guarding’. They are greatly disadvantaged because of the lineal constructs of our mathematics and science, have no
use for interpreting two-dimensional drawings, are puzzled by maps, find no reason to count past eight, and find no logic in earning wages or being punctual.
Since their ultimate concept of space is also one with no definite limits, they
have conflicting notions of private space and do not adhere to basic Western
tenets of individual land ownership. They do not operate with a concept of money,
have no laws concerning land purchase, and find as alien the relationship between
land boundaries and individual social rights.
More seriously, they do not understand the underlying concepts of development and progress that are so basic to the cultures they combat. They do not see
themselves apart from the rest of the natural world, and, therefore, see no reason
Kayapó history and culture
to develop strategies to subdue it. They are not on a lineal course through time and
space that will, with the proper sacrifice and perseverance, make them masters
over nature.
The Kayapó live in a circular, cyclical world, whose ideals are harmony and
balance. Man, along with plants and animals, are manifestations of encapsulated
units of the same energy. The world changes, but dynamically, not cinematically.
All life is inextricably interrelated and exploitation by man of other life forms
must not take place at the cost of the natural balance. This cyclical view is paradoxically the ultimate in long-range ecological planning, for the Kayapó system
operates to ensure that there will be air, water, animals, trees and sources of
energy for the future.
The interface between Western and Kayapó Indian cultures seems to be in the
concept of ‘macro-time’. This maximally abstract level of world view is
expressed through divergent notions of time and space. Western technological
society places high value on a metaphysical model that allows for a lineal progression of time from a definite past into a hypothetical, but manipulatable,
future. Upon these basic principles rest the charter for the expansion of modern
Expansion has proceeded in recent decades at incredibly rapid rates in places
like the Brazilian Amazon due to an abundance of natural resources. This
‘progress’ has occurred, however, at the expense of environmental stability and
threatens the future of the Amazon, indigenous peoples like the Kayapó, and perhaps the ecological balance of the entire world.
The Kayapó see the processes of the universe and life as cyclical. Plants, animals and people are all manifestations of the same dynamic energy. The Kayapó
strive for a harmony with other elements of the universe and sickness occurs
when the balance between man and nature is upset.
The overall balance between natural forces is maintained by performance of a
complex cycle of rituals and ceremonies. These include singing and dancing and
involve all Kayapó. Each individual, therefore, is directly involved in maintaining
the harmony of life, and is an agent in the perpetuation of ecological stability and
the well-being of self and society.
Higher levels of abstraction for the Kayapó are in the spiritual world rather
than in planning for a lineal future. The shamans are the intellectual leaders and
are the ritual specialists specifically concerned with orchestrating the maintenance of balance in the cyclical Kayapó world. Thus Kayapó leaders are not
chartered to direct the exploitation of natural resources, but rather to manage and
maintain them.
The Kayapó world view is ultimately a model for long-range ecological planning since it is based upon the preservation of species and natural resources.
Indigenous systems of ecology, like that of the Kayapó, have evolved through mil-
Time, space, and the interface of divergent cultures
lennia of adaptation and experimentation and form a valuable human resource.
The study of folk ecological systems (which I call ‘folk ecology’) offers important sources of information about the Amazon and long-range strategies for
human survival.
As Western technological society begins to face the world-wide shortage of natural resources, it is being forced to redefine its own basic constructs of time and
space. Mushrooming social problems, overpopulation and famine, scarcity of
land, water, minerals and even oxygen, leave little choice but to re-evaluate the
social consequences of ‘progress’, ‘development’ and ‘expansion’. The theories
of Western ecology that emerged in the 1960s offered an intellectual basis for ‘a
new balance’ between man, his technology and nature. There is now a popularized
thrust to re-establish man as an integral part of the natural world. Could it be that
only now modern society is coming to grips with a natural reality that the Kayapó
discovered millennia ago? The Kayapó may not be well adapted to survival in the
short-range future against encroaching Western civilization, but one can only
wonder if what they do know about the universe is not central to the future longterm survival of humanity.
The stakes are high, not only for the indigenous populations that remain and
are threatened with extinction, but for the whole of humanity. It seems inconceivable that we could lose for ever the knowledge of the environment and working
systems of ecology that are encompassed in each and every indigenous culture.
Yet one by one these indigenous cultural and philosophical systems have disappeared until now, in the decade of the 1980s, the world is left with but a precious
handful of indigenous peoples. The wisdom of millennia of acquired human experience in the Amazon is vanishing before the world’s eyes, paradoxically at the
very time when the future is at best dubious for now dominant Western technological society.
Brazil is fortunate in her endowment with this richness of natural and human
resources. Hopefully the upcoming decades will provide an avenue of mutual
respect such that indigenous peoples can interact with the national culture without
the destruction of the former and to the benefit of the human struggle for survival.
Chapter 5
The Kayapó origin of night 1
Folk literature of the Kayapó, like that of other Jê-speaking tribes, is rich and
diverse. Certain stories and songs belong to specific families or lineages and are
inherited (nekrêtch), but most are part of the public domain and are told by the
Kayapó in public places.
The truly public folk literature is generally recited by the men in the famed
Kayapó Men’s House (ngá) (Lukesch 1976; Vidal 1977; Wilbert 1978). Animated
oratory is commonplace and great prestige is attached to those who can recite the
traditional stories with finesse and style.
The following narrative was recorded (transcribed from a tape) at Posto
Gorotire, the largest of the Northern Kayapó villages, on 8 July 1978. It was
related in the Men’s House and in the presence of several (six or eight) mebegnet
(men of the senior or elder age grade) by Beptopoop, also a mebegnet and a
shaman. It is a favourite story to be told to children by older men, but is one of the
central Kayapó myths and can be heard in many cultural contexts (Banner 1957).
The Kayapó Origin of Night
Long ago there was only daylight. There was only daylight; darkness was
not. Then a boy, maybe an Indian [but an enemy], the son of Nhyborway,
called Joipekrõ, was captured. He was captured and brought to here, where
there was only daylight.
Everyone was suspicious of one another because in daylight no one
could go about with another’s wife. So Joipekrõ said, ‘You listen to me.
You should not lie to one another. You should not be suspicious of one
another. Someone should go to my father, Nhyborway; he has darkness.
Bring back some night from his house. Far away my father’s land has
‘Is that so?’ someone asks.
‘Yes. It is true. There is real darkness. My father knows about darkness
The Kayapó origin of night
They knew [had heard] there was a keeper of night. [So they believed
Joipekrõ told them about the path to his father’s house. ‘Far away on the
road are many worthless people [non-Indians]. I will tell you all about them.
You just keep on the road to my father’s house. My father has put darkness in
a gourd. He keeps darkness in a large gourd in his house. He will give you
some when you arrive. You can take out some darkness and you can sleep in
it. Listen to me. There are many worthless people on the road: the buzzard
people, the big-throat people, the penis-belt people, the ibis people. Just ask
them the way. The worthless people will show you the way.’
So they went to seek the road to Nhyborway’s. The worthless people
showed them the main path and kept them from following the side [wrong]
It was nearly dark when they arrived. It was dusk; it was just getting
dark; it was the edge of darkness. It was almost dark.
So they called to Nhyborway. ‘What?’ he answered. They called to him
again: ‘Nhyborway!’ Again he answered: ‘Where is my child? What have
you done with my child? Where is Joipekrõ?’
‘Your child is away, far away, in our land. We are following your child’s
‘Come here and tell me about my son. Is he still alive? I miss him. Bring
him to me,’ [says Nhyborway].
[Someone replies] ‘Far away your child is alive and with us [our people].’
‘Why didn’t you bring my child to see me? Long ago they took my child.
I still miss him.’
‘Well, I’ll tell you about your child, Nhyborway. Joipekrõ sent us here
and we have arrived.’
Just hearing the name of his son caused him [Nhyborway] to wail.
‘Your son spoke to us about your darkness. We have come for it. We
want to take it to our land and sleep in it. In our land, way over there, there
is just light. In only light we sleep and wake up. There is not darkness at
‘I will give you darkness to take to my child,’ [said Nhyborway]. ‘You
must not touch it! There is something bad in it that will hurt you. It stings.
No, you must not touch it! You must take it to my child; he will take it out
so it will not sting. No, do not touch it!’
They spoke nicely to Nhyborway [to show that they agreed with his
instructions], but they lied. They did not speak the truth to Nhyborway;
‘No, no, no, we will not take out the darkness; we will not touch it. Only
your child, Joipekrõ, will take it out.’
Kayapó history and culture
They went back on the path to their land. They returned with the gourd
filled with darkness. Nhyborway had filled the gourd with darkness. They
carried it back to Joipekrõ.
They slept in the light and awoke and went on and on. They went again
and slept in the light and awoke and went on. They had nearly arrived at the
village. Then one who spoke falsely said: ‘Oh! What are we taking this
darkness back for. We must take some out now and sleep in it!’
‘No!’ [replied the truthful ones]. ‘There’s something bad that hurts in the
‘That is a lie. It is not true,’ [answered the untruthful one].
‘No, we will break it open and ruin the darkness. It will hurt us.’
‘It is a lie.’
Our ancestors always had those who spoke falsely. Always, even long
ago, our ancestors spoke unreliably.
The wicked, unreliable one untied the gourd. Immediately there was
darkness. He was frightened and threw the gourd far away. The darkness
escaped. They could not put it back into the gourd. A scorpion escaped too
and stung him. He cried aloud in great pain.
‘Do away with him,’ [someone of them said]. ‘He let out the darkness
and turned out the scorpions to hurt us. Do away with him. Cast him away!’
Someone went to him, took his arm, and threw him out. He was thrown
up and became a bird. He became the night hawk that cries like one in pain.
He became the night hawk that brings evil and pain. His call is not like
other birds.
He [the unreliable man] only wanted a little darkness, but it all escaped.
He was untruthful and brought the sting of the scorpion to us.
Look! That is the story. It is an old story. It is a story of our ancestors,
who wanted to sleep in the darkness. Nhyborway’s child, Joipekrõ, made it
available. And now we go sleeping in it. Long ago there was only light. Our
ancestors slept and woke up in light. Then Joipekrõ brought darkness from
his father. It was in a gourd and it is still with us.
The missionary, Horace Banner, was the first white man to establish prolonged,
friendly contact with the Kayapó in 1939. He was amazed to find that the
Kayapó believed that the world was in perpetual light in the ancient days and
darkness had to be introduced into it. This opposition to the Western view that
light was brought into the world of darkness fascinated Banner. He saw this as
evidence that the Indians had indeed ‘fallen’ into darkness through the dark
forces of the devil and sin. The question of which was first, darkness or light,
The Kayapó origin of night
continues to be a pivotal philosophical dilemma for the small indigenous
Christian church in Gorotire. This is indicative of one of the basic contradictions
in Kayapó and Western culture.
The Kayapó believe that in the ancient days they lived in the skies (there are
various sky layers). It was in the sky (kàikwa) that they learned to organize themselves into villages and social and political units. At some later point in time, part
of the Kayapó found their way down a cotton rope to the present world. Some
Kayapó remained in the skies and their campfires (stars) can still be seen as evidence of this (Lukesch 1976). The Origin of Night myth, however, refers to the
early Kayapó who descended to the earth.
Elements of the myth reflect traditional Kayapó values and concepts.
Nhyborway, for example, is the man sought out in this narrative for the secret of
night. Within the Kayapó culture there are many ritualist specialists. There are
dozens of types of ‘curers’ (pidjô màri), as well as shamans (wayangas) who
‘know’ forces that are utilized to discern the future and manipulate the present.
Even today the Kayapó will make long journeys to consult a shaman who has the
reputation of being especially powerful. Thus the mythological journey to visit
Nhyborway is paralleled in modern culture by those who travel long distances to
consult wise and powerful wayanga.
The son of Nhyborway, Joipekrõ, is a captive of the Kayapó. The Kayapó have
a long-standing reputation for their raids to take hostages (Wagley 1977, Chapter
2). In the modern village of Gorotire, well over one per cent of the adult population is composed of individuals taken as children in raids. The Kayapó take great
interest in the cultures of their captives and know a variety of songs and stories
from other non-Jê speaking tribes (e.g. Karajá, Mundurucú, Parakana, etc.). Thus,
there is an ancient tradition reflected in this narrative, not only of taking hostages,
but also of learning from the captives. It is significant to note that raiding and the
taking of hostages is really a type of cultural exchange and leads to rather complicated alliances that can shift over time. In this case, Joipekrõ serves as the guide
to the secrets of night possessed by his father.
In the quest for secrets of night, the Kayapó voyagers were too eager. They do
not do as they are told and they ‘let out’ the night from the gourd. As a result, too
much night escapes and along with it the danger and curses of the night. These
‘evils’ are represented by the scorpion.
The Kayapó of today are not fond of the night. They seldom go out into the
night and are horrified if caught alone in the darkness. There are some practical
reasons for this, since night does bring out the nocturnal scorpions, snakes and
jaguar that are indeed deadly. Darkness is also associated with death, and many
sounds of the night (e.g. the night hawk and certain crickets) are thought to come
directly from dead ancestors. The worst thing about the night is that it is uncontrollable and the jungle and savanna habitats so familiar to the Kayapó blend into
an unknown mass of darkness. Night is the unsocialized part of the Kayapó
world. This is somewhat compensated for by ceremonial dancing and singing,
which often lasts the entire night. According to the narrative, night was sought
Kayapó history and culture
for sleeping and for the anonymity of darkness for extra-marital sexual activity.
Kayapó ceremonies often incorporate communal sexual activities, and birth patterns are tied to seasonal variations in the ceremonial calendar (T. Turner 1965;
Posey 1979b).
Thus, night is good for it facilitates sleep and is a time for the ceremonial life.
The curses of night came only because men did not do as they were instructed and
were overly anxious and greedy. Patience and generosity are highly valued characteristics in the Kayapó culture and these traits are surely reinforced by this
important myth.
The myth of the Origin of Night, therefore, reflects a variety of historical and
current social practices. In addition the myth is clearly instructive by setting out
certain values and warning against the dangers of greed and breaking established
social norms.
Chapter 6
The journey to become a
shaman: a narrative of sacred
transition of the Kayapó
Indians of Brazil 1
When the Europeans came to the Americas they sought native leaders similar to
those of European states and political groups. The early chronicles often refer to
indigenous ‘kings’ and ‘captains’, and ‘princes’. Europeans expected to find
political leaders with powers over their subjects as great as the leaders of their
own nations. In some of the higher cultures of Latin America like the Aztec and
Inca, the conquistadores were not disappointed. But for the bulk of the Americas
what they found were weak indigenous political leaders whose power, if any,
came from leadership by example rather than by force. Leaders who did not
overtly influence the actions of war and politics were completely ignored.
If powerful political leaders did not appear to exist in a tribe, the Europeans
often appointed one. This process continues today with Brazil’s indigenous peoples, where government officials and missionaries demand that ‘someone be in
charge’ to facilitate dealing with tribal groups. An Indian may be appointed
‘chief’ by a Brazilian because he speaks Portuguese, or even formal elections may
be held to ‘choose the tribal leader properly’.
The European bias toward political leadership left obscure a group of leaders
that have traditionally been extremely powerful, the shaman. Shamanism is generally viewed by Europeans as a hoax, a grand scheme by clever individuals to
exploit others. At best shamans are viewed as magicians: at worst, as charlatans
who prey upon society.
Regardless of how shamans have been viewed by Europeans, however, they are
one of the most influential groups in indigenous cultures of the Americas. Their
power is not overtly political, but rather a pervasive influence that comes through
specialized knowledge and unique mystical experiences. They are seen as people
with spiritual gifts who have control over the natural forces of the universe. Since
all things, animate and inanimate, are part of the Indian universe, then shamans
have powers that affect all things.
I had an opportunity in 1977–78 to study with two of the most powerful and
famous shamans of the Northern Kayapó tribe, Beptopoop and Kwyrà-kà. Many
people aspire to be shamans, but only a few are successful and even fewer ever
become truly powerful and famous. The most powerful shamans can manipulate
animals’ spirits as well as ancestral ghosts and superhuman powers. The famed
Kayapó history and culture
shamans are also masters of ceremonial lore, rituals and mythology. They are the
wise men of the tribe, not only because of their abilities to manipulate natural
forces, but also because of their wealth of cultural knowledge. The two wayanga
(shaman) with whom I studied, Beptopoop and Kwyrà-kà, are perhaps the most
influential men in the village of Gorotire. Their fame transcends Gorotire, however,
for Indians from remote villages travel great distances to consult them even today.
To become a wayanga, a Kayapó must first experience the separation of his
spirit (karõn) from his body (kà). This occurs during fevers (kanê) caused by illness or severe injuries. The Kayapó have an elaborate classification of fevers and
the basis of the taxonomy is at the root of Kayapó concepts of energy balance and
spiritual being.
During the ‘fever’, a person is shown the spiritual pathway out of the body and
offered a mystical journey to knowledge. This ‘calling’ to be a wayanga may be
accepted or refused. The journey is perilous and many aspiring wayanga die en
route because their spirits never find the way back to the body. Most Kayapó are
frightened of the prospect of an out-of-body experience and consequently few
choose to follow the lore of spiritual enlightenment.
The following narrative describes the shamanistic experience. It was related to
me by Beptopoop in August 1978. Beptopoop chose to tell me about the journey
of the wayanga in the privacy of his home and only after I had spent several
months learning about the natures of ‘fevers’ and the powers of the wayanga.
The Journey of the Wayanga 2
Listen! Those who become sick from strong fevers lie in death’s position;
they lie as though they are dead. The truly great ones, the truly strong person who is a wayanga [shaman], shows the sick how to leave their bodies.
They leave through their insides [pointing to the stomach], through their
stomachs. They pass through their insides [their stomachs] and come to be
in the form of a stone. Their bodies lie as in death, but beyond they are then
transformed into an armadillo.
As an armadillo they assume good, strong health and they pass through
to the other side, over there [pointing to the east]. They come out way over
there. Then they become a bat and fly – ko, ko, ko, ko, ko … [the noise of
flying]. Then they go further beyond in the form of a dove. They fly like a
dove – ku, ku, ku, ku … [the sound of a dove in flight]. They join the other
wayangas and all go together.
‘Where will we go? What is the way?’
‘Go to the east, way over there.’ Ku, ku, ku, ku … [the sound of flight].
And way over there is a spider’s web. They just go there and there is a
spider’s web. Some go round and round near the spider’s web and [until]
they just sit permanently [stop].
The journey to become a shaman
The true and ancient shamans must teach them how to fly through the
web. But those who have not been shown how, try to break through the web
and the web grabs their wings thusly [the narrator wraps his arms around
his shoulders]. They just hang in the web and die. Their bodies are carried
by their relatives and are buried without waiting, for the spider’s web has
entangled them, wrapped up their wings, and they are dead.
Those who have been caused to know themselves, however, go round the
spider web. They sit on the mountain seat of the shamans and sing like the
dove – tu, tu, tu, tu … These people are the doves and call like the doves and
fly like doves – tu, tu, tu, tu … ku, ku, ku, ku, ku … They acquire the
knowledge of the ancestors. They speak to the spirits of all the animals and
of the ancestors. They know [all].
Then they return [to their bodies]. They return to their homes – kwo,
kwo, kwo, kwo … They enter and they breathe.
And they say: ‘He arrived! He arrived! He arrived! He arrived!’
And the women all wail: ‘ayayikakraykyerekune.’3
When they are quiet from wailing, they ask ‘What happened?’ ‘You were
dead and we have made a grave for you. What happened?’
‘Do not bury me’ [he says]. ‘I am still alive; I am a wayanga. I am now
one who can cure; I am one who smokes the powerful pipe. I know how to
go through my body and under my head. I am a wayanga.’
He immediately entered himself and sat straight up.
‘He has become alive. He has become alive again. He has become a
The out-of-body experience is always essentially the same for all wayanga. The
spirit (karõn) concentrates into a ball of energy and passes through the belly (the
navel area) where it assumes what the Kayapó describe as an armadillo-like
shape. The karõn moves along the ground like an armadillo, that is it wanders
about searching for the right path to the east. Not all shamans have spirits that
take the form of an armadillo. Some say their spirits are like balls of fire that are
thrown toward the east in the way that a stone can be hurled through the air.4
The body (kà) that is left behind is considered dead during the flight of the
spirit. The Kayapó often consider a person dead before Western medicine would
pronounce biological death. The Kayapó begin to wail in the ceremonial manner
for the dead, while the living relatives refuse food and drink to the sick person
who may be pleading for sustenance. Graves are sometimes even prepared for the
‘dead’ person. This distinction between social death and biological death is very
Kayapó history and culture
disconcerting for the Western observer, who may be frantically trying to aid the
sick person in the midst of screeching death wails and obstinate Kayapó kinsmen.
While the body is left behind in this ‘limbo’, the spirit continues its wanderings to the east. At the eastern edge of the earth, there is a great spider web. It
separates the world of reality from the vast chasm of darkness that is farther
Passing through the web is symbolic of passing through death into the realm of
To pass through the web, the wayanga must turn first into a bat or a dove. Both
bats and doves are known to be good fliers. Bats are especially good navigators in
darkness and the shaman who knows about nature knows how to become like a
bat. Doves likewise are keen navigators and are masters at flying through tangled
masses of trees and limbs. It is the sound of the bat and the dove, however, that are
symbolically the most important. The ‘ku, ku, ku’ of the dove’s flight and the ‘ko,
ko, ko’ of the bat’s wings are the closest natural correlates to the sounds experienced during the shamanistic ‘flight’ through the web of darkness. As the spirit
struggles in the chasm of darkness, a waffling sound of intermittent vibrations
carries the wayanga into the realm of spirits. The Kayapó describe this transition
from life to death as sounding like the flight of the dove or the bat.
For those who are caught in the spider’s web, the spirit is captured forever;
there is no escape. The body left behind in the village must be buried, often ‘without waiting’ as the text mentions. This explains why a person who may still show
signs of life to the Western observer are presumed to be and treated as dead by the
Successful wayanga are those who are truly strong spiritually and, as a result,
are self-assured and wise. They have been ‘caused to know themselves’, and
according to the text, have learned the secrets of the universe through the shamanistic journey into and out of death. They have become brave and wise by facing
themselves in their purest essence through separating from their bodies and experiencing the sacred flight to the other realm.
A truly powerful wayanga encounters all the spirits of the universe, including
those of ancient shamans, powerful animals and superhuman energies.5
There is a hierarchy of animal spirits that is too complex to describe here, but
no wayanga returns from his journey without encountering at least one of these
forces. These spirits impart to him their secrets and the wayanga will continue to
commune with his unique pantheon of spirits as long as he lives. Each spirit is
associated with a disease, and the wayanga will specialize in the cure (or in some
cases the causation) of the diseases that correspond to his spiritual knowledge. A
wayanga’s spirits are available for consultation and divination any time. Each animal spirit speaks its own language, which the shaman learns during his flight and
continues to use throughout his life to ‘talk’ with his spirits.
The re-entry of the shaman into his body (kà) after the shamanistic journey is
symbolized again by the sound of the dove, ‘ko, ko, ko …’. The spirit returns
under the head and beneath the body, through the base of the spine and finally
The journey to become a shaman
refills the corpse. Normal breathing resumes and the fever passes. The wayanga
returns from his journey and rejoins the world of the living.
Shamans sometimes relate in great detail their journeys, recounting their sensations and encounters with spiritual powers. Generally, however, the experience
is intensely personal, and only a few of the shaman’s closest relatives or aspiring
shamans are privileged to hear the account of the flight. The last part of the myth
deals with the re-entry and the wayanga’s first encounter with his family. He
exhorts the family not to bury him because he is not dead. He announces that he
is alive. His flight to the spiritual world is finished and he is a wayanga.
The shamanistic journey is a narration of sacred transition between life and
death. It deals with the central epistemological nature of the human spirit and the
body. Death is what separates these two tenuously attached parts of one’s being.
But death is transitory: it is an obstacle as fragile as the web of a spider, provided
one has the wisdom of the shaman. It is the shaman’s understanding of the nature
of death that makes him wise; it is his symbolic rebirth that makes him powerful.
Part II
Ethnobiology and the
Kayapó Project
Chapter 7
Report from Gorotire: will
Kayapó traditions survive? 1
During my month of trekking with the Kayapó Indians of Central Brazil, I
became accustomed to waking up in the pre-dawn chill to the sounds of the birds
and frogs that serve as a natural alarm clock for the Indians. On this morning, I
looked out from our camp onto the Rio Fresco, distant tributary to the great
Amazon. The water was enshrouded in layers and swirls of surrealistic fog.
The idyllic tranquillity was broken by the sharp crack of rifle fire. Someone
had killed a tapir that was drinking from an igarapé, or stream. The sound frightened a harpy eagle from its perch. We watched in awe as the majestic bird, symbol
of shamanistic knowledge for the Kayapó, circled and soared out of sight. For the
Indians this was an ominous sighting: a sign that it was time to return to the village of Gorotire.
The trek was a revelation for me. I gathered detailed data on 56 species of stingless bees recognized by the Kayapó.2 The honey, wax and pollen are used for food
and medicine. Each time the Indians opened a beehive they would return a part of
the brood comb to the hive, carefully closing the nest so the colony could re-establish itself. Such wildlife management practices, although little documented, are
widespread in many indigenous groups.
I also learned about the importance to the Kayapó economy of collecting useful plants to be replanted near campsites. Concentrating natural resources at
human-use areas assures that needed foods and medicines are always available for
future generations.
I also counted hundreds and hundreds of açaí and bacaba palms recently
planted by the Indians to create ‘resource islands’ in the forest, and saw enormous
groves of brazil nut trees that the Kayapó had named in honour of the ancestors
who planted them. Who would have guessed that Amazonian Indians had planted
so extensively? How much of what scientists have considered ‘natural’ is, in fact,
a product of ancient and modern indigenous manipulation? Thoughts of trying to
document the Kayapó’s knowledge of nature overwhelmed me.
No anthropologist could carry to the field adequate training in botany, zoology,
entomology, agronomy, ornithology, linguistics and anthropology to complete the
task successfully. I felt entirely inadequate. There was only one solution: find a team
of scientific specialists willing to work on an interdisciplinary ethnobiology project.
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
To my surprise, 16 highly trained and dedicated researchers expressed interest
in my endeavour – all of them eager to dig into the first multidisciplinary project
ever to attempt to document in detail indigenous knowledge in so many areas of
expertise. Seed funding soon came from the Brazilian Council for Science and
Technology, and then came a crucial grant from the [then] World Wildlife Fund.
Some members of the Kayapó Project joined me in collecting new species of
insects, birds, mammals and reptiles, along with indigenous knowledge on the use
of each species. We began an inventory of fish, emphasizing the ecological control
mechanisms set in motion by the Kayapó belief in a mythological animal called the
mry-kaàk. Project biologists have pointed out that the ecological productivity of
river life in the region depends upon these small fish. Thus, fear of the mry-kaàk
serves to protect the natural productivity of the riverine ecological system.
The Kayapó also maintain this productivity by planting fruit-bearing trees and
shrubs along the banks of rivers and streams; the fruits, which fall into the water,
are known to attract fish. The tucum palm (Astrocaryum tucuma) is even planted
in flood basins during the dry season in anticipation of high waters: small fish
thrive among the palm’s protective, thorny shoots when the river rises.
In addition, the project team has studied long-term ecological management
techniques for secondary forest. For the Kayapó, secondary forest emerges when
their gardens of major seed and root crops start to decline in productivity and fruit
trees and medicinal shrubs begin to dominate. A Kayapó garden is never abandoned: old fields are highly concentrated areas of managed secondary forest full
of medicinal, edible and other useful species planted by the Indians. Equally
important, the Indians plant food species to attract useful game species.
Management of old fields and secondary forests by the Kayapó produces, in
effect, game-farms and orchards in a long-term, integrated, floral and faunal conservation scheme.
To our surprise, we have discovered that the Kayapó actually create forest in
the campo-cerrado (savanna). Using a special planting medium composed of
crushed termite and ant nests mixed with organic mulch, the Indians have developed planting techniques that allow them to concentrate valuable natural
resources in areas relatively devoid of useful species.
Small vegetative patches (apêtê) cultivated by the Indians grow into major forest groves within a few human generations. One recent survey of 120 plant species
collected from a mature apêtê showed that 98 per cent were used by the Kayapó,
and that over 75 per cent of the species were, in fact, brought by the Indians to be
planted in the apêtê. When we mapped the origins of these introduced species, we
discovered that the Indians had amassed a collection of selected plant varieties
from an area the size of Europe. Such practices amaze scientists because they show
just how little we know of the true nature of Amazonian ecological systems in relation to aboriginal and historical human occupation. There are many lessons to be
learned from the Kayapó, as well as other Indian and folk groups who have developed their own conservation methods over many generations. Sadly, however, the
Kayapó way of life may not last another five years. Gold miners and lumber cutters
Report from Gorotire: will Kayapó traditions survive?
are literally invading the village of Gorotire, threatening the cultural identity and
ecological basis of traditional Kayapó society.
Project scientists, through the various fields of specialized Western science,
are trying to document the richness and invaluable knowledge of this tribe. Our
underlying goal is to restore the Indians’ faith in their own tribal knowledge and
conservation practices, and to substantiate for government and economic leaders
what human and biological riches are being lost – forever – in Amazonia.
Already we have seen renewed confidence in traditional practices within the
tribe, and glimmers of interest in our research results from young scientists and
even a few government and economic leaders. Ultimately, we hope that the
Kayapó study will incorporate these indigenous strategies into new models of
conservation that can be used to maintain biological diversity in other regions of
Amazonia and the humid tropics.
Chapter 8
Indigenous knowledge and
development: an ideological
bridge to the future 1
The Amazon Basin constitutes the largest tract of tropical rainforest, over 557
million hectares (UNESCO/FAO/UNEP 1978: 22), and is one of the most species
diverse regions in the world (Goodland and Irwin 1977; Sioli 1981: 264–5). Yet
extinction due to deforestation is occurring at an alarming rate. Gottlieb (1981:
23) estimates that 90 per cent of the natural inventory of organisms will vanish
into extinction before even basic descriptions can be made.
Extinction is only one of the devastating ecological effects of deforestation.
Erosion starts the vicious cycle of soil compaction, destruction of the nutrient
cycle and flooding (Moran 1981b; Rosenblat 1954: 323). Water pollution soon
results with associated changes in water turbidity and pH that reduce or destroy
aquatic life (Schubart 1977; Lovejoy and Schubart 1981: 21). Widespread deforestation may also significantly alter rainfall patterns (Sioli 1981: 233–62), and
threaten the delicate carbon dioxide balance of the atmosphere (Pimentel 1979;
Sioli 1981: 262). Tropical forest ecosystems have been shown to be very fragile
and prone to collapse if disturbed (Farnworth and Golley 1974). This collapse is
often irreversible (Goodland 1980) and contributes to the growing global threat of
soil impoverishment (Hecht 1982c; Moran 1981a: 4; Eckholm and Brown 1977;
Sioli 1981: 264).
The greatest tragedy of Amazonia is perhaps the human one. Peasants, with
few exceptions (Parker n.d.; Moran 1974; Ross 1978; Smith 1981) are ignored in
Amazonian studies as though they were cultureless creatures of an economic illusion. Yet they have borne the brunt of development, being pushed from their lands
as ‘squatters’ and forced into dependency in favelas or towns (BarbiraScazzocchio 1981: ix; Wood and Schmink 1979). American Indians reflect most
vividly the tragic human cost of Amazonian development. The Indian population
in Brazil has dropped from millions at the time of contact to less than 150,000
(0.1 per cent of the population) today (Ramos 1981: 222): in this century alone at
least 87 Indian groups have become extinct solely in Brazil (Ribeiro 1970: 238).
One has only to read Davis’ poignant account of the Victims of the Miracle (Davis
1977) to grasp the impact of development on native peoples.
Indigenous knowledge and development
With the extinction of each indigenous group, the world loses millennia of accumulated knowledge about life in and adaptation to tropical ecosystems. This
priceless information is forfeited with hardly a blink of the eye: the march of development cannot wait long enough to even find out what it is that it is about to destroy.
For millennia, Indians have survived in Amazonia. Their understanding of ecological zones, plant–human–animal relationships, and natural resource
management has evolved through countless generations of trial and experimentation. Incredibly little is known about indigenous perceptions of ecology and
utilization of natural resources, but Western science should now be sophisticated
enough to approach this problem with much-needed success.
It is suggested in this chapter that indigenous cultures form a valuable human
resource that offers a rich and untapped source of information about the natural
resources of the Amazon Basin. If the knowledge of indigenous peoples can be
applied to technological know-how, then a new path for ecologically sound development of the Amazon will have been found.2
Likewise, if technological civilization begins to realize the richness and complexity of indigenous knowledge, then Indians can be viewed as intelligent,
valuable people, rather than just exotic footnotes to history. This, it is argued, is an
‘ideological bridge’ whereby Indians can prosper in a modern multi-ethnic society with the dignity they need and the respect they deserve.
This essay on folk ecological knowledge is primarily based upon data collected
during fieldwork with the Northern Kayapó Indians in 1977–78.
A preliminary
Knowledge of indigenous groups about ecological systems has generally been
considered as irrelevant because aboriginal populations are sparse. Recent estimates, however, suggest that aboriginal populations have been vastly
underestimated (Dobyns 1966; Denevan 1976). Archaeological and geographical
data (Lathrop 1968; Lathrop 1970; Smith 1980; Myers 1974) seem to confirm
historical accounts (Acuña 1859; Carvajal 1934) of large population centres in the
fertile várzea of Amazonia. There is also evidence of sizeable villages in the
higher savanna regions of the Amazon Basin (Posey 1979a).
European diseases swept with unimaginable speed through aboriginal populations with devastating effects. Dobyns (1966: 414) proposes a 20:1 depopulation
ratio from initial contact with Europeans. Records of death rates as high as 70–80
per cent are common from a single viral epidemic (Myers 1973, 1974, 1981a).
Initial contact with the Kayapó was effected principally because the Indians were
too weak from disease to resist Europeans (Horace Banner, unpublished journal).
The first Kayapó band shrunk from 350 to 85 during the first six months after initial contact with Europeans (Banner, unpublished journal). European diseases
continue today to take a large toll despite preventative inoculation; it is not
uncommon for an inoculated indigenous group to lose 30–40 per cent of its members due to an epidemic (ARC 1981).
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
The social and cultural effects of such devastation have been underestimated
by scholars. Accounts of eyewitnesses at ‘first contact’ with Indian groups are
taken to be representative of the groups’ true aboriginal states. In fact, however,
diseases travelled well in advance of the first observers (Dobyns 1966; Myers
1981b). A detailed typology of contact has been worked out to illustrate the various cultural and social mechanisms whereby diseases were transmitted in
Amazonia through trade, raiding, warfare and treks prior to direct contact
(Chapter 2, this volume).
Humans are not always necessary for disease transmission; trade items – like
pelts, feathers, woven goods – are excellent carriers of deadly organisms. Insects
and animals also serve as vectors and reservoirs of diseases like malaria, yellow
fever, typhus and plague (Posey 1976a).
Myers (1981a) has sketched part of the extensive aboriginal trade networks
that were operative in pre-Colombian Amazonia. Lyon (1981) has shown how
these trade routes connected the lowlands of Amazonia with the highland civilizations of the Andes. These trade routes served as a network of disease
transmission, with easily transported bacterial and viral diseases accompanying
trade items deep into the hinterland long before the first face-to-face contact with
Europeans. The first white man to visit the Kayapó, for example, found them
already in possession of European clothes, guns, glass beads, axes, pans and
European diseases (Banner, unpublished journal).
It would thus appear that scholars seriously need to re-evaluate ethnohistorical
documents in light of a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of ‘contact’ and the associated transmission of devastating diseases. As estimates of
aboriginal populations continue to increase, so does the relevance of indigenous
ecological knowledge systems to modern development plans. If the size of Indian
populations has been seriously underestimated, then the potential application of
aboriginal ecological knowledge has likewise been seriously underestimated by
ecologists and development planners.
Lessons from the Kayapó
Kayapó Indian knowledge is an integrated system of belief and practice. There is
much shared knowledge in a Kayapó village, although there are many specialists
as well (Posey 1979c) who are experts on soils, plants, animals, crops, medicines
and rituals. But each Kayapó believes that he or she has the ability to survive
alone in the forest indefinitely. This belief offers great personal security and permeates the fabric of everyday life. It is difficult to represent a complete Kayapó
ecological view, for this operates within such an intricate network of cultural
assumptions. This chapter proposes to be practical and deals with easily delineated categories of indigenous knowledge that suggest fields of research for
Western science.
Indigenous knowledge and development
Ethnoecology can be defined as indigenous perceptions of ‘natural’ divisions in
the biological worlds and plant–animal–human relationships within each division.
These cognitively defined ecological categories do not exist in isolation, thus ethnoecology must also deal with the perceptions of interrelatedness between
‘natural’ divisions.
Recognition of ‘ecological zones’
A great obstacle to understanding Amazonia has been the tendency to generalize
about its ecology and to ignore its highly variable ‘ecological zones’ (Moran
1981a). Scientists still suffer from lack of data about the complexities of ecosystems in this enormous region. The Amazon is too often viewed as just one
homogenous ‘counterfeit paradise’ or ‘green hell’ (Mahar 1978; Goodland and
Irwin 1975).
The Kayapó Indians, however, see their environment in an expanded series of
‘ecological zones’ and ‘subzones’. The three principal divisions are: kapôt (grasslands), krãi (mountains) and bà (forest).3 There are, however, major subdivisions
within each zone and further differentiations too complicated to deal with in this
One illustrative set of subcategories of forest types (bà-kamrek, bà-êpti, and
bà-katí) are represented graphically in Figure 8.1. Bà-kamrek is subdivided based
on vegetative response to flood levels of the Rio Fresco. Suitable farmland is
selected from terra firme lands that do not flood (bà-katí), although some fields
are carved from bà-êpti which floods every seven to ten years. The richer alluvial
soils of bà-êpti (including much black soil called pyka-tyk) provide sufficient
Table 8.1 Major ecological zones recognized by the Kayapó*
Kapôt (grassland, savanna)
a Kapôt-kein
b Kapôt-kemepti
c Kapôt-kam-bôiprek
d Pykati’ô’krãi
Krãi (mountains)
Bà (forest)
a bà-kamrek
b bà-êpti
c bà-katí (pi’y-kô)
d bà-ràràra
short grass lands
savanna with tree stands
high grass lands
savanna with intermittent trees
gallery (riverine) forest
dense jungle (selva)
high forest
forest with intermittent openings
*This is only a partial typology of ecological zones; there are various subtypes not enumerated. In
folk taxonomy, the Kayapó also use ‘transitional categories’ (cf. Posey 1981) that are interzonal.
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
Figure 8.1 Idealized cross-section of Kayapó forest ecological zones and subzones near
yield increases to chance the periodic, but unpredictable, crop destruction due to
flooding. The Kayapó chiefs’ communal fields, as well as the women’s collective
fields (Posey 1979e) are usually planted in bà-êpti to minimize total crop loss for
any one family group.
The Kayapó folk taxonomic system reflects a high propensity for ‘transitional’
ecological categories that grade4 between two or more semantic (named) divisions
or ecological zones (Posey 198lc: 168–75). Kayapó village sites are, in fact, purposefully selected to rest in these transitional zones and, therefore, close to a
variety of ecological zones. The distinct advantage to such sites is that the Kayapó
are in the midst of maximum species diversity, with each zone providing natural
products and attracting different game species at different times of the year
(Bamberger 1967). Location of the Kayapó village of Gorotire is represented in
Figure 8.2 and is surrounded by a variety of ecological zones.
Each ecological zone has associated with it specific plants and animals. The
Kayapó have a well-developed knowledge of animal behaviour and know which
plants are associated with particular animals. In turn, plant types are associated
with soil types. Each ecological zone, therefore, is an integrated system of interactions between plants, animals, the earth – and, of course, the Kayapó. Table 8.2
summarizes selected systemic relationships in bà-ràràra, which is forest with
intermittent openings and penetration of sunlight. These same relationships hold
for abandoned fields (pyru-tym) which the Kayapó see as replicating the natural
openings in the bà-ràràra forest. Knowledge of such systemic relationships
allows the Kayapó to select agricultural lands from vegetative types as well as to
formulate hunting and gathering strategies based on ripening of fruits that attract
game animals.
Indigenous knowledge and development
Figure 8.2 Ecological zones surrounding the village of Gorotire as perceived by the
Folk ethology
Recent studies (Parker n.d.; Smith 1981; Posey 1981d; Posey 1983a; Moran 1981a)
have emphasized the considerable knowledge about animal behaviour that exists in
folk and indigenous cultures of Amazonia. The Kayapó have an intricate knowledge
of animal behaviour, even of animals as small as wasps and ants (Posey 1979c;
Posey 1981d; Posey 1983b). There is much to be learned about animal behaviour,
for example, from hunting strategies. As Carneiro noted for the Amahuaca, ‘every
significant detail of the life habits of animals is part of an Amahuaca hunter’s
knowledge, including the sound of its cry, its preferred foods, its excrement, its
scents, the teeth marks it makes on fruit, etc.’ (Carneiro 1974: 126).
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
Table 8.2 Selected soil–plant–animal relationships in the selected ecozone (bà-ràràra)
Use of plant
Preferred Particular
Plants associated
with zone
1, 2
1, 2
A,B,C,D,E Humiria balsamifera
Psidium guineense
2, 3
2, 3
1, 2, 3
C, F
C, D
Peschiera sp.
Catasetum sp.
Cissampelos sp.
Amasonia sp.
Oenocarpus distichus
1, 2, 3
1, 3
Macrostaychia sp.
Monotagma sp.
1, 2
1, 3
2, 3
2, 3
Soil Types:
1 = black (pyka-tyk)
2 = red (pyka-kamrek)
3 = yellow (pyka-ti)
eat fruit
eat fruit
use root for
tea; smoke
use for paint
fish bait
fish bait
eat fruit
eat fruit
eat fruit + leaves kamokãtytx
eat leaves
use wood
grind leaves;
eat roots
Myrcia sp.
eat fruit
Cecropia leucocoma –
Clarisia ilicifolia
Centrosema carajaense fish poison
Cassia hoffmanseggii medicinal
A = white-lipped peccary (porção)
B = white paca (paca branca)
C = agouti (cutia branca)
D = tortoise (jaboti)
eat leaves
eat fruit
eat fruit
eat fruit
eat leaves;
eat roots
eat fruit + leaves
eat fruit + leaves
eat leaves
eat fruit + leaves
E = red paca (paca vermelha)
F = red agouti (cutia vermelha)
G = deer (veado)
H = tapir (anta)
Identifications made by Dr Susanna Hecht, Department of Geography, UCLA.
Plant–animal–human relationships can be symbolically represented in rituals and
ceremonies (Rappaport 1971; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1974, 1976, 1978). T. Turner
(1965) describes various ceremonies that utilize specific plants during Kayapó rituals, thus ceremonial cycles can function to regulate exploitation of different
resources and ecological zones. Research into the relationships between natural
objects and ceremonial importance is underway and will undoubtedly be fruitful in
Indigenous knowledge and development
understanding indigenous perceptions of ecological relatedness and symbolic
annual cycles.
Another significant field of investigation is that of ‘co-evolutionary complexes’,
i.e. plant and animal communities that have evolved simultaneously through changing environmental conditions in biological evolutionary history (Gilbert and Raven
1975; Pimentel and Goodman 1978). Such complexes are generally complicated
and difficult to discover. The Kayapó recognize certain ‘co-evolutionary complexes’ that are encoded for cultural transmission through myths. Myths often seem
nonsense to the casual outside observer. Myths may serve, however, as valuable
sources of highly symbolic information about important social and environmental
relationships. Take, for example, the following Kayapó myth:
Why Women Paint their Faces with Ant Parts
The trails of the fire ant (mrum-kamrek-ti) are long. They are ferocious (akrê)
like men. But the little red ant of our fields (mrum-re) is gentle like women;
they are not aggressive (wajobore). Their trails meander like the bean vines on
the maize. The little red ant is the relative/friend of the manioc. This is why
women use the little red ant to mix with urucu to paint their faces in the maize
festival. The little red ant is the guardian of our fields and is our relative/friend.5
The principal theme of this myth is that a certain ant (mrum-re) is the friend of the
fields and the women, who are the cultivators in Kayapó culture. The myth begins
to make sense when we understand the co-evolutionary complex – of maize,
beans, manioc and the ant.
Manioc produces an extra-floral nectary that attracts the ants to the young
manioc plant.6 The ants use their mandibles to trim their way to the nectar, cutting
away any bean vines that would prevent the new fragile manioc stems from growing. The twining bean vines are, therefore, kept from climbing on the manioc and
are left with the maize plants as their natural trellis. The maize can shoot up
undamaged by the bean vines, while the bean plant itself furnishes valuable nitrogen needed by the maize. The ants are the natural manipulators of nature and
facilitate the horticultural activities of the women.
Unfortunately myth has not seriously been studied as a transmitter of encoded ecological knowledge. This example, however, provides evidence to necessitate a serious
approach to myth analysis for biological information and ecosystemic relationships.
Perception of resources
Within specific ecological zones the Kayapó have an extensive and varied inventory of utilizable natural resources. Based on indigenous environmental
perceptions, the following categories are discernible.
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
(a) Wild plants
Although the array of wild plants collected by Amazonian Indians is known to be
extensive, taxonomic and chemical-nutritional data remain scanty. The Instituto
Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazonia (INPA), in Manaus, and the Laboratório de
Etnobiologia, in Maranhão, have projects underway to systematically gather data
on wild plants utilized by indigenous groups of Amazonia. Wild food resources
are somewhat better known (Cavalcante 1972, 1974) than medicinal plants, which
are regrettably overlooked due to the difficulty and expense of evaluating medicinal properties, and a general disregard by Western science for folk medicine.
Chemical and nutritional analyses exist for less than one per cent of the plants
collected by Indians of Amazonia (Kerr, personal communication).
An estimated 250 plants have been collected that are utilized by the Kayapó for
their fruits alone, plus hundreds of others for their nuts, tubers and drupes. The
list of plants with medicinal value is overwhelmingly vast. An exemplary list of
plants gathered by the Kayapó for food can be found in Table 8.3.7
(b) Domesticated plants
The Kayapó have a large inventory of aboriginal cultigens. A list of major cultivated plants is found in Table 8.4 (see also Chapter 17). There are numerous
varieties of major cultigens that the Indians say are aboriginal (Table 8.5) and
which are little-known outside the Kayapó region. The Kayapó cultigens alone
offer much information about plant genetic variation and a significant genetic
pool for botanic research and experimentation.
One domesticate of great interest is kupa (C. gongylodes). It is a fast-growing
plant that has considerable vitamin, mineral and nutrition value (Kerr, Posey et al.
1978: 704). Sixty-five per cent of the plant is edible, and chemical analyses of the
stems give the following values per 100 gram sample: 77.56 per cent water; 1.2
per cent protein; 1.0 per cent fat; 1.4 per cent ash; 18.84 per cent carbohydrates
(89.2 calories). The vitamin content (based on gas chromatography) is A, B1, B2,
B6, C, D2, D3, E. There are wild and semi-domesticated varieties of the plant also,
which offer insightful new data into the process of plant domestication in
The Kayapó also have several domesticated medicinal plants, including madntu (Zingiber).8 Madn-tu is believed to be an effective medicine against intestinal
parasites, one of the principal health problems of the Kayapó (Posey 1979b) and
tropical peoples in general.
Another important domesticate is urucu (Bixa orellana). The red seeds of
urucu are used to colour and flavour foods and are the principal ingredient of
Kayapó body paint. Red body paint is an indispensable part of indigenous body
adornment throughout Amazonia, but body paint also has a practical value – I
found urucu to be an effective natural insect repellent with a significant reduction
(as much as 84 per cent) in insect bites when painted on the body (Posey 1979e).
Indigenous knowledge and development
Table 8.3 Partial list of gathered food plants of the Kayapó*
Portuguese Scientific
Euterpe oleracea
Oenocarpus distichus
Theobroma speciosum
Spondias lutea excelsa
Bertholletia excelsa
Fruit; heart
September–December Fruit; leaves
(used for
making salt)
Theobroma grandiflorum December–March
Orbignya speciosa
All year
Pouteria pariry
Genipa americana
All year
Maximiliana regia
Caryocar villosum
Endopleura uchi
Psidium guineense
Nut; leaves
(used for
making salt)
Fruit (eaten
and used as
base for body
paint); leaves
(dried and
Catasetum sp.
False bulb
Monotagma sp.
Myrcia sp.
Cassia hoffmanseggii
Psidium sp.
All year
pidjô kakut
Part(s) eaten
*Note Identifications based on Cavalcante (1972, 1974).
One can only guess at the vastness of the domesticated plant inventories of
Amazonian Indians. As has been recognized by some scientists (Williams 1960;
NAS 1975), many of these plants offer promising economic value and can be
exploited on a large-scale basis.
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
Table 8.4 Major cultivated plants of the Kayapó
English name
Kayapó name Scientific name
of folk varieties1
cupá babão
feijão guandú
sweet potato
sugar cane
broad bean
bush bean
food, medicine
body paint
food, medicine
màt krwàt’ỳ
Ananas comosus
Cucurbita sp.
Gossypium arboreum
Maranta arundinacea
Oryza sativa
Musa sp.
Ipomoea batatas
Saccharum officinarum
Maranta sp.
Cissus gongylodes
Vicia faba
Phaseolus vulgaris
Canjanus indicus
Dioscorea sp.
Manihot esculenta
Manihot esculenta
Citrullus vulgaris
Zea mays
Nicotiana tabacum
Bixa orellana
Carica papaya
See Table 8.5.
Recent introduction; other cultigens the Kayapó say are aboriginal.
The unique variation of speciation in manioc makes the determination of exact taxonomy difficult
for our own science and causes variation in folk taxonomy as well (see Kerr and Clement 1980).
(c) ‘Nomadic agriculture’
As previously stated, Kayapó taxonomic patterns show a propensity for not classifying the natural world into neatly defined categories, but rather to rely heavily
on ‘graded’ categories of transition. The unclear distinctions between domesticated and wild plants is an excellent example of how categories blend one into the
During hunting treks9 the men may be away from the village for two to four
weeks. They carry little food with them, relying instead on natural ‘resource
islands’ along the established forest trails. The Kayapó have a vast network (thousands of kilometres) of trails interlacing villages, hunting grounds, gardens, old
Indigenous knowledge and development
Table 8.5 Folk varieties of major Kayapó cultigens
Banana (Musa sp.):Tỳrỳti
tek ày diagôt1
djô kakô-kukrê ti1
tekà kamrek tú
tekà ngra ngra ti
ô’taben prôre
teka ngàite
takre keti1
noi poti kaàk re1
São Tomé
flour, roasted
cooked, flour, roasted
flour, roasted
flour, roasted
raw, roasted
raw, cooked
raw, cooked
raw, cooked, roasted
raw, cooked, roasted
Manioc (Manihot esculenta): Kwyry
sun-dried flour
toasted flour (farinha)
toasted flour (farinha)
toasted flour (farinha)
toasted flour (farinha)
sun-dried flour
toasted flour
toasted flour
sun-dried flour
mandioca amarela
mandioca preta
mandioca vermelha
Corn (maize) (Zea mays): Bày
milho amarelo
milho vermelho
roasted, boiled, flour
roasted, boiled, flour
roasted, boiled, flour
roasted, boiled, flour
roasted, boiled, flour
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
Table 8.5 Continued
7 bày-karê
8 bày-noi-bê-tire
roasted, boiled, flour
roasted, boiled, flour
Macaxeira, sweet manioc (Manihot esculenta): Kroyrà-djài
roasted, flour
roasted, flour
roasted, flour
roasted, flour
raw, roasted, flour
roasted, flour
Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) and taro (Colocasia esculenta):Yàt
batata branca
batata encarnada
Yam (Dioscorea sp.): Môp
Indigenous knowledge and development
Table 8.5 Continued
osso branco
Urucu (Bixa orellana): Py
all varieties aboriginal
Post-contact introduction
Recently imported varieties; others are pre-contact varieties
Recently introduced; other varieties very ancient
Post-contact introductions
Introduced varieties; others are said to be aboriginal
Semi-domesticated variety
Bears from 10 to 40 years
fields, and natural resource islands. Food supplies, therefore, are hardly left to
chance. To further ensure food sources, however, the Kayapó also create ‘forest
fields’ of semi-domesticated plants. These plants are collected during the day’s
travels along trails and hunting reconnoitres into the forest. The plants are then
replanted near established forest campsites.
There are at least 54 species of plants used by the Kayapó in these forest fields.
Many are tuberous monocots similar to those described by Maybury-Lewis
(1974: 334) for the Shavante. All grow naturally in bà-ràràra (forest with intermittent openings and penetration of sunlight), which the Kayapó see as a natural
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
counterpart of their human-made fields. Replanting is done, usually before or
after defecation, adjacent to campsites, which are always in transitional ecological
zones. Figure 8.3 indicates the route of a trek I made in 1978 to the ancient
Kayapó village of Pyka-tõ-ti (Posey 1979a). The map (based on a drawing by a
Kayapó informant) shows natural ‘resource islands’ as well as ‘forest fields’ created by the Kayapó.
Elsewhere (Posey 1982f) I have described this system of ecological exploitation as ‘nomadic agriculture’ to emphasize the special adaptation of forest fields
to the semi-nomadic system of the Kayapó. The tendency of Western science to
analyse only those data that fit into neat categories tends to underestimate or miss
Figure 8.3 Trek from Kubẽn-krã-kein village to abandoned village site (Pyka-tô-ti) showing
resource islands and campsites associated with forest fields.
Indigenous knowledge and development
entirely the importance of transitional categories of ecological exploitation. This
transitional system probably is much more widespread in Amazonia than
expected and underlines the inadequacies of existing subsistence typologies and
carrying capacity theories.
(d) Manipulated animal species
Another area of ‘transitional’ knowledge for the Kayapó is semi-domesticated
animals. These are perhaps best called ‘manipulated species’ to emphasize the
Indians’ intentional manipulation of animal behaviour.
The larvae of beetles (Scarabaeidae and Buprestidae), for example, are utilized
by various tribes in the lowland tropics (Chagnon 1968; Posey 1978; Posey 1980).
The adult beetle lays eggs in the refuse of dead banana plants and old palm trees.
The Indians intentionally stack the remains of banana and palm plants near villages, fields and campsites to attract the adult beetles. After some months
(depending on species and region, as well as season of the year), the eggs develop
into grubs ‘as big as mice’ (Chagnon 1968) that are tasty and nutritious. Indians
know the life cycle of the beetle and can predict when to collect the mature grubs.
The Kayapó recognize 54 folk species of stingless bees (Meliponinae) and two
additional species of stinging bees (both subspecies of Apis mellifera). All these
species are classified by distinctive honeys and waxes (Posey 1983a, Chapter 12,
this volume). Honey is a prized food, while beeswaxes are used as treatments for
burns, cures for diseases, disinfectants of wounds and adhesives for artefacts.
Six species of stingless bees are ‘kept’ by the Kayapó (see Table 8.6). The
Indians know that if a portion of the brood comb with the queen bee is returned to
Table 8.6 Semi-domesticated (manipulated) bee species utilized by the Kayapó
Kayapó name
Scientific name
*+ngài-kumrenx (mehn-krak-krak-ti)
Apis mellifera
Melipona seminigra cf. pernigra (Moure Ms.)
Melipona rufiventris flavolineata (Friese)
Melipona compressipes cf. fasciculata (sm) or
afinis Moure Ms.
Frieseomelitta sp.
Trigona amalthea (Olivier)
Trigona dallatorreana Friese
Trigona cilipes pellucida (Ckll.)
Scaura longula (Lep.)
Those species whose nests are taken to the village.
Species that are encouraged to build nests in dry posts in the houses.
* These species are systematically raided in subsequent seasons.
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
the tree after the honey is taken, certain species of bees will return to re-establish
the colony. Thus hives of these six species can be systematically raided seasonally.
Nests of two other species (Table 8.7) are gathered in the forest and brought
with the complete bee swarm back to the village.10 The nests are then mounted on
a house top and guarded until the Indians feel the time is optimal to take the honey.
The Kayapó also know two species of bees (Trigona cilipes and Scaura
longula) that prefer to nest in dry logs in open areas. These species often colonize
the dried timbers of Kayapó houses and their nests are left undisturbed until
honey production is maximal.
Two other stingless bee species are intentionally attracted to Kayapó fields.
One species (Trigona fulviventris Guérin) prefers to nest in earthen walls; the
other (Trigona fuscipennis) nests in rotten logs. The Kayapó either dig a hole in
their field clearings, or utilize a hole already dug by armadillo. Into this hole they
put rotting logs. Bees are thereby attracted to the fields and are associated with
increased crop yield. Utilization by the Kayapó of major stingless bee species is
summarized in Table 8.7 (see also Chapter 12).
The Kayapó also manipulate the movement of game animals by intentionally
dispersing agricultural fields at variable distances from the village. Vegetation of
the natural reforestation cycle in abandoned fields attracts and supports hunted
species. The use of abandoned fields, therefore, helps to ensure an easily available
source of game.
Management of ‘abandoned fields’
A great misconception about traditional indigenous agriculture is that fields are
totally abandoned after a few years.11 In this ‘slash and burn’ system, new fields
are created each year in forested areas and the principal production from domesticated plants culminates in two to three years. However, fields are not abandoned
after this period as commonly believed.
Kayapó ‘abandoned’ fields, for example, continue to produce harvests of yams
and taro for five to six years, bananas for 12–15 years, urucu for 20 or more, and
kupa for at least 30 years. Of great importance is the Kayapó’s use of ‘abandoned’
fields (capoeira) to gather plants and plant products produced in the natural reforestation sequence. A representative inventory of these plants can be found in
Table 8.3. Research is currently underway to determine a more complete botanical inventory in ‘abandoned field’ sites in Amazonia.
Old fields also produce a variety of foods that attract wildlife such as porcodo-mato, coati, deer, paca, agouti and others (Table 8.2). Many birds, particularly
sparrows, macaws and parrots, are also attracted to old fields and are hunted in
the relatively open capoeira areas. Young Kayapó boys are nearly self-sufficient in
protein intake, and small birds are a major dietary resource (Posey 1979c; Posey
1979e). The Kayapó are aware of the attractiveness of old fields to wildlife populations and purposefully disperse their fields great distances from their villages.
Thus game is attracted in artificially high densities, improving yields from hunt-
Melipona rufiventris
✓ ✓ ✓
Melipona compressipes ✓ ✓ ✓
Partamona sp.
Frieseo-melitta sp.
Trigona amalthea
Trigona dallatorreana
Trigona cilipes
Scaura longula
Oxytrigona tataira
Oxytrigona sp.
Oxytrigona sp.
all year average ✓
all year much
all year little
all year little
all year average ✓
all year average ✓
all year average ✓
✓ ✓ ✓
✓ ✓ ✓
✓ ✓ ✓
✓ ✓ ✓
✓ ✓ ✓
Melipona seminigra
all year very
all year average
all year much
Apis mellifera
✓ ✓
Scientific name
Kayapó name
Util. Cer. Med.Seasonal Amount Larvae Pupae Pollen Resin
eaten eaten eaten used
Wax use1
Table 8.7 Principal species of Apidae utilized by the Kayapó Indians
Bee parts mixed with
urucu for hunting magic
Break off limb with nest
and run to expel bees
Has shiny eyes like jaguar
Used for hunting magic
Cut entire tree to take
Bees cause blisters on
Bees used in hunting
Honey taken during new
Bee parts used for
hunting magic
Wax used for mẽ-kutôm
Has markings like the
Wax used in magic to
make enemy weak
Distinctive traits
Scientific name
Oxytrigona sp.
T. pallens
Trigona sp.
Trigona fuscipennis
Trigona [?]
Partamona sp.
Tetragona sp.
Tetragona sp.
Tetragona sp.
Tetragona goettei
T. quadrangula
Frieseomelitta varia
Trigona spinnipes
Trigona branneri
Kayapó name
Table 8.7 Continued
✓ ✓ ✓
✓ ✓ ✓
✓ ✓ ✓
✓ ✓ ✓
✓ ✓ ✓
✓ ✓ ✓
✓ ✓ ✓
all year average
all year average
all year
all year
average ✓
✓ ✓ ✓
✓ ✓ ✓
all year
all year
all year
all year
all year
Util. Cer. Med.Seasonal Amount Larvae Pupae Pollen Resin
eaten eaten eaten used
Wax use1
Bee thought to be ‘stupid’
and weak
Found only in the Xingu
Opening of nest like a
Smoke from wax used
for curing
Wax burned; smoke
causes dizziness
Nests in termite nests
Very acidic honey; fell
entire tree
Fell tree to take honey
Wax used for mẽ kutôm
Sometimes fell tree
Live in termite nests
Live in termite hills
Live in ant nests
Distinctive traits
✓ ✓ ✓
Util. Cer. Med.Seasonal Amount Larvae Pupae Pollen Resin
eaten eaten eaten used
Wax use1
Bee deposits drops of
resin on skin
Distinctive traits
Wax use: utilitarian; ceremonial; medicinal.
Nests of aggressive bees are raided using smoke and fire to expel bees first (***very aggressive; **moderately aggressive; *slightly aggressive).
Trigona fulviventris
Scientific name
Kayapó name
Table 8.7 Continued
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
ing efforts. The Kayapó men hunt while the women tend the gardens, making
longer hunting treks less necessary to acquire meat.
The Kayapó thus do not have a clear-cut demarcation between fields and forest, nor between wild and domesticated. Rather they have a more general system
for classification of ecological resources that forms a continuum between wild
and domestic ones, all of which figure in integrated management strategies.
Adaptations of indigenous agriculture
Slash/burn agriculture has too often been considered primitive and inefficient.
Scientists now recognize that indigenous agriculture is more complicated and better adapted to tropical conditions than previously assumed (Lovejoy and Schubart
1981). Indian fields, for example, minimize the time that soils are left exposed to
the destructive heat of direct sunlight and the compounding force of tropical rains
(Vickers 1976). Vegetative cover is maintained at various heights to ensure the
protection of soils from rapid erosion and leaching (Schubart 1977).
Indigenous agriculture also depends heavily on native plants that have been
shown to be adapted to localized climatic conditions (Alvim 1981). Native plants
have also been shown to be more efficient in their utilization of micronutrients
and less dependent on ‘essential’ nutrients of the temperate zones soils.
Although some large fields have been reported (Frechione 1981), indigenous
agriculture generally relies on small dispersed fields. The geographic dispersal
minimizes the epizootic growth of insect pests as well as plant diseases (Pimentel
et al. 1978; Posey 1979a). Thus expensive and ecologically dangerous pesticides
are unnecessary for productive slash/burn agriculture. Field dispersal, as previously indicated, also stimulates wildlife populations. Perhaps most importantly,
indigenous agricultural systems always include ‘natural corridors’ between field
sites. These natural corridors form valuable ecological refuges for plant and animal species (Gomez-Pompa et al. 1972; Lovejoy and Schubart 1981). Thus
species are not only protected from extinction, but are reserved close at hand for
re-establishment in ‘abandoned’ fields during reforestation.
Indian agriculture must, therefore, be viewed as a system developed to minimize problems of crop pests, while preserving soil potential and productivity.
Most importantly, the system allows for natural refuges for plants and animals
that ensure success in long-term ecological planning.
Natural harmony and tribal rituals
Each indigenous culture has a ‘belief system’ that functions to establish a relationship between humans and the environment. Cycles of rituals and
ceremonies have been shown to function as regulators of natural resources
(Rappaport 1967, 1971). It is still difficult, however, to demonstrate direct relationships between social systems and ecological resource management.
Attempts have been made to relate food taboos with resource protection
Indigenous knowledge and development
(McDonald 1977; Ross 1978) and to correlate ritual cycles with natural seasonality (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1976).
The Kayapó belief system is based upon an ubiquitous belief in energy balance
(Posey 1982e) similar to that described for the Desana Indians (ReichelDolmatoff 1978). All living objects are endowed with this universal energy and,
therefore, all life is to be revered and protected. Energy is encapsulated in living
forms, but leaves the physical form (whether plant, animal or human) at death,
and is guarded as ghosts and spirits thereafter. Eventually spirit energy is reconstituted into new life.12 The whole energy transformation process takes a
conceptually long period of time that cannot be precisely measured or expressed
by the Kayapó; nonetheless, there is a sense of ‘natural’ rate of plant and animal
exploitation that, if exceeded, will upset the energy transformation process and
thereby upset the natural energy balance.
The Kayapó have specific rituals before and after each trek to hunt or collect
plants in order to placate those spirits that will be dispossessed from their physical forms through death. The annual ecological cycles are likewise ritually
punctuated to mark the maize and manioc seasons. Other festivals celebrate the
hunting ‘seasons’ for land turtle, tapir, anteater and other game animals. The onset
of the rainy season is marked by the appearance in the gallery forests of troops of
monkeys, which is symbolically commemorated by a festival with dancers in
monkey masks.
Each Kayapó ceremony requires a specific array of natural objects for the
completion of the associated ritual (a particular type of feather, plant or beeswax,
for example). This requires an organized trek to procure the needed materials,
which leads the Kayapó to different ‘resource islands’ over a vast area. Since
needed materials vary with each ritual, the ritual cycle causes the Kayapó to systematically exploit different ecological zones associated with diverse ‘resource
Without the natural ritual cycle, life would cease to perpetuate itself for the
Kayapó. All ceremonies and rituals that are essential for the transformation of
life-giving energy are controlled by tribal elders, chiefs and shamans. Thus ecological management is entrusted to the highest level of Kayapó leadership and
given utmost priority.
The Kayapó theory of illness also operates on a concept of energy balance.
Sickness results when this balance is destroyed by over-killing or over-collecting
plants and animals, or through eating taboo foods. Refusal to participate in necessary rituals and ceremonies can also destroy the healthy balance. Thus each
individual has an intimate stake in maintaining ‘ecological’ health, although the
general ecological control mechanism is the ritual cycle that is controlled and
managed by tribal leaders.
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
A concluding plan for the future
The above general outline suggests various fields of research based on indigenous
models of ecology in the Amazon Basin. Although many Indian societies are
already extinct, and most of those remaining face imminent destruction, there is
still time to protect these people and to salvage knowledge about the Amazon
from surviving indigenous systems. Research must proceed, however, with the
utmost urgency and commitment, for with the disappearance of each indigenous
group the world loses an accumulated wealth of millennia of human experience
and adaptation.
Based on ecological lessons learned from the Kayapó Indians of Brazil, I have
proposed that Western science systematically collect data in the following categories of indigenous knowledge:
concepts of ecological zoning and perceptions of resources within each ecological zone;
knowledge of animal behaviour and plant–animal–human relationships in
various ecological zones;
use of transitional categories of ‘natural’ ecological divisions;
classification and description of domesticated plant species;
classification and description of wild and semi-domesticated plant species,
including focused studies of ‘resource islands’, ‘forest fields’ and the whole
system of ‘nomadic agriculture’;
manipulation of wild and semi-domesticated animal species as an integral
part of ecological management;
adaptation of slash/burn agriculture and the range of variations of the system
in Amazonia;
strategies of long-term exploitation and management of abandoned fields
and secondary forests; recognition of ecological and evolutionary interrelationships expressed in myth, ritual and ceremony.
Although scientific knowledge of indigenous ecological systems is still at a fledgling stage, there are already clear lessons to be learned from Amazonian Indians.
Based on what has already been learned from the Kayapó Indians, the following
recommendations can be made for a more ecologically sound programme of
development for Amazonia:
Recognition of specific ecological zones and variations in associated biotic
communities and soil types, coupled with localized agricultural adaptation.
Greater dependency on native plants which are better adapted to climate and
soil conditions of Amazonia.
Maximized use of vegetative cover to protect fragile tropical soils, and diversified planting to utilize naturally evolved biological communities.
Use of long-term strategies to utilize ‘abandoned’ fields left to fallow. This
would include use of semi-domesticated plants and manipulated animal
Indigenous knowledge and development
species, as well as wild species, in an overall management scheme including
crop rotation.
Limiting the size of fields to prevent epizootic surges of insect and disease
pests, thereby reducing the dependency on costly and ecologically dangerous
chemical products.
Use of ‘natural corridors’ between fields to serve as natural refuges for animal and plant life. This would not only preserve biological diversity, but also
would ensure rapid reforestation and preservation of Amazonia’s rich ecological systems.
Final lessons from the Indians would be to suggest that science must relate its
environmental theories in such a way as to show the relevance of ecological
balance to each and every individual, thus giving everyone a stake in its conservation.
Furthermore, self-sufficiency and independence of communities should be the
underlying goal of all development projects, with self-reliance being the fundamental philosophy. Then and only then can development proceed with sustained
benefits for the population as a whole without exploitative resource destruction
for short-term benefit for the few.
The ideological bridge
If Indians are to participate with freedom and cultural integrity in a multi-ethnic,
technologically-centred modern Brazil, then they must be respected for the
strengths and accomplishments of their societies. This chapter attempts to show
that indigenous knowledge of the Amazon is a valuable human resource, and an
untapped source of information about natural resources. Indigenous ecological
systems and agricultural strategies offer new models for the scientific development of the Amazon without the irreversible destruction that characterizes present
efforts. If indigenous knowledge is taken seriously by modern science and incorporated into research and development programmes, Indians will be appreciated
for what they are – ingenious, intelligent and practical people, who have successfully survived thousands of years in Amazonia. This approach provides an
‘ideological bridge’ whereby indigenous peoples can participate in the building of
a modern Brazil with the esteem and respect they deserve. Moreover, it is clear
that indigenous peoples and their systems of ecological management must be protected in order to develop with maximum freedom through processes established
by their own cultural and social rules.
Chapter 9
Wasps, warriors and fearless
men: ethnoentomology of the
Kayapó Indians of Central
Brazil 1
Most of the data analysed in this chapter were collected in the Kayapó village of
Gorotire, which was the base camp for this 14-month project because of its accessibility and the presence of some bilingual (Kayapó and Portuguese) Indians.
Gorotire was originally established as an ‘attraction’ village that was well-stocked
with medicines and trade items to ‘attract’ unpacified Kayapó groups. As a result,
the Gorotire population is a heterogeneous group. Nearly 20 per cent of the village are Xikrin (a related Northern Kayapó group), one per cent are non-Kayapó
(originally children captured during raids and raised as Kayapó), and ten per cent
have immigrated to Gorotire from other Kayapó groups within the past five years.
This lends to Gorotire a ‘syncretic’ air: the tribal elders are often heard arguing
over whose version of a story or ceremony is the ‘proper’ one. Thus it should not
be assumed that Gorotire is a village that agrees even upon its own lore and
mythology. Certain aspects of Kayapó culture, however, are more rigidly defined,
or, if variation does occur, it is in a highly predictable manner. This chapter deals
with cultural phenomena that conform to this pattern: the principles underlying
the Kayapó entomological classification system.
Ecological profile
The Kayapó have traditionally been considered ‘marginal’ peoples poorly
adapted to their environment (Steward and Faron 1959). They have been pictured as exiles from savannas and inadequately adjusted to the region of Central
Brazil (Levi-Strauss 1958). Bamberger (1967) refuted this misconception by
pointing out that sociological factors, not ecological limitations, were responsible for the size of Kayapó villages. The Kayapó are abundantly adapted to the
diversity of the campomato ecosystems in which they are found and dietary
essentials are obtained with minimal effort and time (Posey 1979c). There is
evidence that aboriginally the Gorotire population was eight to ten times larger
than today (Posey 1979a). The great amount of time spent in the presentation of
intricate and time-consuming artefact production, plus frequent performances
Wasps, warriors and fearless men
of elaborate rituals and ceremonials, hardly seems to reflect a group pushed to
the brink of marginal survival.
Kayapó villages have traditionally been located near both campo and mato.
This allows exploitation of various ecosystem types and maximizes the potential
for utilization of natural products and game. This diversity has given the Kayapó
a greatly varied diet that requires minimal effort. To the east of Gorotire there are
vast expanses of ‘campo cerrado’ and ‘cerradão’, and in other directions lie deciduous forest, ‘mato de segunda classe’, whilst ‘gallery forest’ is found along the
Rio Fresco (see Cole 1960 and Hueck 1966 for a discussion of these ecological
Elevation at Gorotire is approximately 1,000 metres. There is a marked dry
season (May to August), with hot, windy days and cool nights. The peak of the
rainy season is in February, when the Rio Fresco reaches its maximum. Annual
rainfall is approximately 1,700 millimetres.
Research was at first limited to work with the six men and three women who
spoke Portuguese. Although an attempt to learn and utilize Kayapó was made
from the onset of the project, it was seven months before eliciting could be carried
out in the indigenous language. The type of data gathered reflects these stages of
the project.
One of the first tasks begun was to establish an insect collection. Frequent
field trips were taken for the sole purpose of collecting as many different organisms as possible in categories the Indians loosely grouped together.
Four to five Indians accompanied the researcher on collecting forays. The
researcher began the process by capturing a large grasshopper. The Indian assistants responded by capturing dozens and dozens of other grasshoppers. The
researcher attempted to widen the selective process by capturing a dragonfly. The
Kayapó assistants responded with dozens upon dozens of captured dragonflies.
The researcher continued to try to widen the parameters of ‘acceptable’ things by
pointing out butterflies, then beetles, and finally cicadas. ‘Are these relatives?’ the
researcher asked, pointing to the insects already collected and those still uncaptured, in an effort to determine if a notion of relatedness existed. ‘Yes,’ responded
the Kayapó assistants. ‘Then capture all of the relatives of these (pointing to
insects already collected) you can!’ The result was hundreds and hundreds of the
same insects, depending upon the frequency of certain insects at the time. It was
impossible to explain to the assistants why 300 of the same thing was unnecessary. But eventually the range of ‘relatives of insects’ (consistently called ‘maja’)
expanded in what was assumed to be a reflection of native ideas of relatedness.
After three months of this type of collecting, it appeared the lateral expansion of
the category was completed. The category included all insects, scorpions, spiders,
ticks, centipedes, millipedes, crayfish and pseudoscorpions. The category maja has
a one-to-one correspondence with the scientific category of phylum Arthropoda.
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
As the collection progressed, it became apparent that most organisms were
grouped into very generalized categories. If there were no consistent subgroupings (i.e. no named or unnamed differentiations) the specimens in that group were
boxed and sent to the Museu Goeldi for classification and storage in the Museu
collections.2 If any evidence of subdivisions did exist, however, the specimens
were retained in the village for further study.
In the village, informants were asked to: a) name each specimen, and b) group
those specimens that were the same (abenkot) or similar (õmbiqua). In this manner, it
was determined that covert (unnamed) groupings exist that correspond in a one-toone fashion with the scientific class Arthropoda. Further subgroupings were few,
except for the covert category corresponding to the scientific class Insecta. Eighteen
subclasses (‘forms’) were found in this category (Table 9.1).
Each specimen was numbered and each number was recorded in a master notebook. This notebook contained essential field data on the specimen, plus a sketch
or field identification notation if possible. If appropriate, entries were also made
regarding the cultural use of the insect or any peculiar circumstances under which
the specimen was collected. (Often Indians would bring a specimen to be examined because they thought it interesting, unusual or particularly significant.)
Groupings of insects were tabulated initially for six men and three women; the
maximal number of insects utilized in these sorting experiments was 635.
Informants conducted the grouping activities on three different occasions, each
time with actual insect specimens. The identification number of each specimen
grouped was recorded for each category.
‘Informant error’ was treated as problematic since patterns in ‘error’ were soon
evident and eventually predictable. Based on these data, four types of ‘forms’
were identified (see Table 9.2):
Focal form: those consistently labelled and grouped in the same way and
considered ‘typical’ of the category. These forms are best illustrated as ‘fuzzy
Table 9.1 Arthropod groups
Common name
Kayapó name
(a) Scorpionida
(b) Pseudo-scorpionida
(c) Phalangida
(d) Aranea
(e) Acarina
Wasps, warriors and fearless men
Table 9.2 Levels of correspondence for insects
BOL categories1
Focal forms:
l màrà
2 ipoi
3 kapo
4 krytkañet
5 wewe
6 kanenet
7 kokot
8 pure
9 kopre
10 rorote
11 mrum
12 amuh
13 mehn
Collective forms:
14 ngôire
Aberrant forms:
15 karere
Transitional forms:
16 kapoti
17 kungont
18 mehnkamamuh
Common name
Correspondence levels
true bug
grasshopper, cricket
butterfly, moth
leafhopper, cicada
social wasp
order (Coleoptera)
order (Hemiptera)
(family: Blattidae)
order (Orthoptera)
(various orders)
order (Odonata)
order (Homoptera)
order (Diptera)
order (Diptera)
order (Isoptera)
(family: Formicidae)
(family: various)
minute insects
order (Dermaptera)
giant roach, mantid
solitary bee and wasp
honey wasp
order (Dictyoptera)
(Genus: Brachygastera)
BOL (Basic Object Level categories)
Correlations stated in relation to correspondences at the scientific level of Order
(# indicates an overdifferentiation; – is underdifferentiation).
sets’ (cf. Gardner 1976; Kempton 1978) with certain members being more
focal and others being more peripheral.
Transitional forms: those consistently ‘mislabelled’ between two categories. These forms are viewed as being ‘like’ two groups that are contiguous
categories in a morphological sequence.
Aberrant forms: those consistently labelled in one category, but given a
special name because of unusual morphological characteristics.
Collective forms: those consistently given the same name and grouped
together, although informantss: those consistently labelled and grouped in
the s point out members of a collective class may not ‘really’ be the same. In
the one collective form discussed in the chapter, small flies (ngôire), members of the category were considered too small to have significant
morphological features and were illustrated with small dots.
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
Utilizing tabulated responses and informant sorting responses, it was possible to
link 18 named groupings into a more generalized pattern. These groupings seem
to best coincide with the criteria of ‘Basic Object Level’ (BOL) categories (cf.
Dougherty 1978; Rosch et al. 1976). Informant drawings and statements showed
that the underlying patterns of these subordinate groupings were based on recognition of gross morphological features.
Patterns in folk entomological classification
For the Kayapó all things are divided into four categories: i) things that move and
grow, i.e. animals; ii) things that grow but do not move, i.e. plants; iii) things that
neither move nor grow, i.e. minerals; and, iv) humans, creatures that are akin to all
animals, yet unique and more powerful than most animals because of their social
It is the covert (unnamed) category of ‘animal’ with which this chapter is particularly concerned. All animals are subdivided into two named groups: those
with ‘flesh’ (called by the name ‘mry’), and those with ‘shells’ and no flesh
(called ‘maja’). This latter group, animals with shells and no flesh, coincides with
the scientific phylum Arthropoda. Further folk subdivisions correlate with the
five scientific classes of Arthropoda (Table 9.1).
Although the folk grouping that corresponds with ‘insects’ is covert, there is a
1:1 relationship with the scientific class Insecta. There are four morphological
‘sequences’ within this grouping (Figure 9.1). The term ‘morphological
sequence’ refers to a continuum of traits that unite a series of Basic Object Level
categories. The sequence may be an uninterrupted continuum with overlapping
members between contiguous categories along the continuum; or there may be
interruptions in the continuum. To bridge this gap, named transitional forms may
occur to produce intermediate categories (Table 9.2).
Sequence 1
Let us look at ‘Sequence 1’ (Figure 9.1) as an example. There is a continuum of
gross morphological form from the ovate ‘polar form’ to the oblong ‘polar form’.
Within this sequence can be found two distinct complexes:
This includes that part of the overall sequence from beetles (màrà) to hemipterans
(ipoi) to roaches (kapo). All forms in this complex have leathery outer wings or
protective wing covers; their general form ranges from ovate to oblong.
Considerable ambiguity occurs between these three forms – that is, certain beetles
are consistently classified as màrà and ipoi, but never is there overlap between
Wasps, warriors and fearless men
Figure 9.1 Insect sequences and complexes (based on drawings by Irã Kayapó).
màrà and kapo. Likewise many ipoi are classified as màrà, but also as kapo. No
kapo, therefore, are co-classified with màrà. The earwig karere is an aberrant
form. It is consistently classified as a type of kapo, but is singled out because of
its morphological distinctiveness (mainly because it has rudimentary wings and
‘pincers’ on its abdomen) and given a special monomial label.
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
The overall sequence is interrupted with the transition from kapo to krytkañet,
i.e. from cockroaches to grasshoppers, although the morphological form continues
toward elongation. This break is clearly due to the presence of large wings that
become sufficiently conspicuous to define the perimeters of the animal’s shape.
There is a transitional group, kapoti or giant cockroaches, that bridges this gap.
The large wings and elongated bodies of this group cause them to be co-classified
with kapo and krytkañet. This transitional form has a distinctive name and coincides with the scientific family Blattidae.
The sequence (‘Sequence 1’) continues the second complex (Complex B). In
Complex B we have three overlapping genera: grasshoppers (krytkañet), butterflies (wewe) and dragonflies (kanenet). The polar form is the dragonfly, whose
form is distinctive because of its extremely elongated abdomen and four wings.
Sequence 2
This sequence consists of a single complex called kokot. The continuum within
the complex is one of smallness to largeness – the leafhoppers being considered
the ‘children’ of the larger cicadas. There is something of a form sequence from
the slightly rounded leafhoppers to the ovate cicadas, but this is insignificant to
most informants.
Sequence 3
This sequence consists of a single complex of flies. It includes two object level
categories: tiny flies (kopre) and mosquitoes (pure), biting flies and pium. There
is, as is expected, overlapping between contiguous categories and minor morphological form gradation from ngôire (tiny flies, which are drawn as small dots) and
more slender mosquitoes.
Sequence 4
This sequence is composed of three distinct object level categories in Complex A:
termites (rorote), ants (mrum) and wasps (amuh). Complex B is composed of the
single category honey bees (mehn). The break in the morphological sequence
comes between wasps and bees. This is attributable to the anomalous nature of
bees, for they are the only shelled animal maja with major economic benefit.
There are intermediate forms to bridge this functional gap. These intermediate
forms are bees that make no honey and are solitary kungont, and social wasps that
do produce wax and honey (mehnkamamuh).
This is the only named sequence, being called ‘ñy’. This name refers to the
social nature of these insects; the name is also used to label the immature forms
Wasps, warriors and fearless men
(larvae and pupae) that the Indians say are carried about like children in the
insects’ ‘villages’ (or ũrũkwa). The ñy or social insects are seen to be in a special
relationship to man because of their communal nature. All ñy colonies (ũrũkwa)
are thought to have a chief (õ-benadjwyrà) and be organized into family units just
like the Kayapó. They are known to have warriors and the sounds of their movements are likened to Kayapó movements and singing.
The Kayapó are aware that some ñy really live alone – that is, there are solitary
forms. But they see these as socially aberrant types that used to live in a ‘village’
but for some reason now live alone. Solitary bees and wasps are like certain
Kayapó who go off alone maybe for years on spirit quests, or are like shamans,
who are solitary by nature. These insects are associated with the manipulation of
spirits and are important ingredients in the concoctions of shamans. In short, their
anomalous nature in relation to other social Hymenoptera and Isoptera make
them important tools in the manipulation of natural powers by shamans. These
aberrant forms are labelled with primary lexemes, although they are consistently
classified as a subgroup of the category amuh, social wasps.
Except for ‘Sequence 4’ (termites, ants, bees and wasps), specific taxa are few
for insects; subspecies are even fewer. Affixes denoting colour, texture, size (or
age), or some other general feature are frequently attached to the primary (1o) lexemic label of the generic category. An informant may choose any of a number to
describe a specimen. Thus, màrà-tyk-ti means big, black beetle and the label may
apply to any one of many beetles that are big and black. But the same beetle might
also be called màrà-krã-ti, big-headed beetle, if it were black and also had a big
head. Occasionally a descriptive (or secondary lexeme) label may be reserved for
a particular, limited set of insects. Within the beetle category is such an example,
màràtire or dung beetles (Scarabidae). Each insect group (BOL category) has a
‘father’ (bam). The ‘father’ is usually the largest member of the group. The
‘father’ of the màràtire is the impressive rhinoceros beetle (Strataegus,
Scarabaeidae). It is called the krã-kam-djware and is also considered the ‘chief’
(õ-benadjwyrà) of all insects (really all maja).
There are, however, only a few examples of this specific naming in Kayapó
insect classification – except, as I have said, within ñy ‘Sequence 4’, the social
insects. There are 32 subgroupings of ants (mrum); 48 subgroupings of wasps
(amuh); and 57 subgroupings of bees (mehn). These specific and subspecific
groups are generally labelled with secondary (2o) lexemes. But why does this specialized classification occur within the sequence ñy?
The importance of bees is obvious: they are sources of honey and wax. But of
what significance are wasps and ants? Already we know these animals are like
man because they live in societies like the Kayapó: they have villages, chiefs and
warriors. But so do termites, yet there are only four subdivisions of termites
(rorote). This is certainly not due to a paucity of termite types in the Kayapó area.
To understand this situation, we must understand one of the most significant of
Kayapó myths: the story of the ancient fight with the giant rhinoceros beetle, the
krã-kam-djware. In ancient times the Kayapó lived in the sky with other animals.
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
The Kayapó were then like other animals and Indians could understand animal
languages. But in these ancient days, the Kayapó were weak and did not live in
villages or have societies. Indians were not more powerful than other animals and
certain animals, especially the beetles (màrà) under the leadership of their
‘chief’, the krã-kam-djware, waged war against men. In the ancient days, in the
sky, the Kayapó learned to organize themselves into groups and live in villages
like the ñy (wasps and ants). Then in a great battle in those ancient times, the
valiant and fearless warriors of the Kayapó defeated the krã-kam-djware. That
defeat established man as a creature more powerful than other animals because of
two things: i) the power came from the social organization, and ii) the great
strength and valiance of the Indian warriors that had also come from the wasps.
The Kayapó had learned the wasps’ secrets by carefully observing the behaviour
of wasps and had learned of their ‘power’ that could be obtained through their
potent stings. The venom of the wasps had been the secret; the aggressive, fearless
attacks of the wasps had been the model for Indian warriors.
Today, on regular occasions the Kayapó commemorate the acquisition of these
secrets and their victory over the krã-kam-djware. They are constantly searching
for the nest of the most powerful and aggressive wasp (the amuh-djà-ken: Polistes
testacolor). When a nest is found that is sufficiently large (usually 1.5 metres
long, 0.5 metres in diameter), scaffolding is erected (by night when the wasps are
inactive) to prepare for a re-enactment of the ancient event.
In the numbing cold of a grey pre-dawn haze, the entire village goes solemnly
to the site. The warriors dance at the foot of the scaffolding and sing of the secret
strength they received from the wasps to defeat the giant beetle. The women wail
ceremonially in high-pitched, emotional gasps as the warriors, two-by-two,
ascend the platform to strike with their bare hands the massive hive. Over and
over again they strike the hive to receive the stings of the wasps until they are
semi-conscious from the venomous pain.
This ceremony is one of the most important to the Kayapó: it is a re-affirmation of their humanity, a statement of their place in the universe, and a
communion with the past. Time and space collapses to provide the unity of being
– the continuity of life, history, identity and knowledge.
The wasp’s nest itself is a symbolic statement of this unity. Its three-dimensional shape illustrates the relationships between the polar forms of the
classification morphology – the ovate and elongate forms (Figure 9.2). A crosssectional view – or view from above or below (Figure 9.3) – shows the circular
form; a lateral view shows the elongate form. The nest is a graphic study of the
relationship between these shapes.
Even more importantly, the general structure of the hive itself serves as a
model of the universe (Figure 9.3). The hive is divided into parallel ‘plates’ that
seem to float just like the layers of the universe. The Kayapó say that today they
live on one of the middle plates. But in ancient days, they believe they lived on
another plate above the sky. Some Kayapó still live on an upper plate, the tribal
elders say, and their campfires are the stars in the sky.
Wasps, warriors and fearless men
Figure 9.2 A drawing by Irã Kayapó of the wasp nest (amuh ũrũkwa).
Figure 9.3 Cross-section of a wasp nest (drawing by Irã Kayapó).
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
And below? From the lower plates come the ‘worthless men’ (non-Kayapó,
kubẽn-kakrit). Many kubẽn-kakrit still live below, though most have already
ascended to ‘this earth layer’ through a termite mound.
Termites are in alliance with ‘worthless people’ and termites themselves are
worthless. They are weak (rêrêkre) and cowardly (wajabore) and, although they
appear to live like Indians and social insects, they are neither brave (akrê) nor
strong (tytx) like wasps or Kayapó warriors. No Indian would, therefore, find
value in studying termites (rorote). They are subgrouped only according to
whether they are white, red or black – the skin colours of non-Kayapó ‘worthless
people’. (A fourth subgrouping labels the termite that lives in the mound through
which came the kubẽn-kakrit.)
And what of ants? They are more like men than even wasps because they walk
and hunt on the ground. The Kayapó believe that ants too have special powers
because of their stings. But the power received from ants is more useful in man’s
hunting ally – the dog. Ants are used in many concoctions to make a hunting dog
unafraid to keep his nose to the ground and to make him aggressive. Some ants
are seen as excellent hunters, so often man and dog are adorned for the hunt with
the sacred red urucu paint mixed with ant parts. To be good hunters, therefore, the
Kayapó must know ants, just as they must know wasps to be brave and fearless
In conclusion, I believe ethnomethodology can lead the ethnographer into fields
of investigation along natural (emic) paths. Folk taxonomies are in and of themselves cultural statements, but it appears that these taxonomies may reflect deeper
cultural patterns.
This analysis indicates that insects are encoded at a ‘Basic Object Level’ with
the predominating characteristic being gross morphology (shape) that grades
from the ovate form to the elongate form. These two ‘polar forms’, and the relationships between these forms, become an underlying principle for Kayapó folk
entomological classification as well as a spatial and structural theme in the belief
system. It is therefore suggested that the correlations between a) basic shapes and
forms, b) belief system patterns, and c) classification principles, may be more
closely integrated than previously expected. It appears that belief systems can
play an important role in classification patterns and that such patterns can, in turn,
offer an emic guide to cultural realities of perception.
Chapter 10
Hierarchy and utility in a folk
biological taxonomic system:
patterns in classification of
arthropods by the Kayapó
Indians of Brazil 1
Papers by Hayes (1982) and Hunn (1982) have attempted to provide a utilitarian/
adaptionist framework for folk biological classification studies. Hunn (1982: 830)
outlines a fundamental contradiction between a utilitarian ‘natural core model’
and the traditional, formal hierarchy model of Berlin (1973, 1976) and Berlin et
al. (1966, 1973). Hunn correctly points out that ethnobiologists have woefully
ignored the practical, utilitarian aspects of folk classification: he is, however,
unnecessarily polemic in his critique of hierarchical models.
This chapter presents data to suggest that there is no ‘fundamental contradiction’ between hierarchical and utilitarian models, but rather confusion between
process of classification and purpose for classification. All societies classify
some natural phenomena utilizing processes of culturally influenced categorization (cognitive categories) organized in logical patterns distinctive to that society
(taxonomic structures). These processes can be studied as cognitive/perceptual
phenomena (e.g. Hunn 1976; Kay 1971; Rosch 1978) or as classificatory/logical
phenomena (e.g. Berlin 1972, 1973, 1976; Brown 1977, 1979). The latter
inevitably demonstrates hierarchical characteristics of ethnotaxonomic rank.
Description and analysis of classification processes, however, do not explain
why in any given society certain natural domains are classified and named while
others are not. This question is best investigated from the utilitarian/adaptionist
Data in this chapter show a correlation between the degree of subordinate differentiation (i.e. differentiation below the Basic Object Level and utilitarian
significance. Superordinate categories (i.e. groupings above the Basic Object
Level) are of two types: (i) named categories that appear to be indicators of epistemological (symbolic or mythological) significance, and (ii) generally unnamed
(covert) categories that reflect ‘chaining’ (i.e. loose groupings based on perceived
similarities in morphology, behaviour or use). Utilitarian significance is therefore
encoded at the subordinate level, while symbolic importance of a domain is signalled by named superordinate categories. Thus, hierarchical structures in the
Kayapó taxonomic system are indicative of ‘utility’, either practical or symbolic.
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
Basic Object Level forms and morphological sequences
Data analysed in this chapter were collected in Gorotire, the largest of the northern Kayapó villages in the Brazilian State of Pará. Consult Posey (1979e) for a
detailed description of research design and methods used for folk taxonomic and
ethnoentomological investigations.
The most psychologically salient of the taxonomic units in the Kayapó ethnobiological classification system are Basic Object Level (BOL) categories. BOL
categories reflect ‘natural discontinuities’ in nature (cf. Hunn 1975, 1976, 1977)
by classifying natural units characterized by variations in morphological forms.
Other characteristics – such as colour, sound, smell, texture, movement, etc. –
may be simultaneously encoded, but general shape or form is the fundamental criterion for BOL discrimination.
Four morphological sequences are found for mry kati in the Kayapó system.
Mry kati (‘false flesh’, or ‘no meat’) is an animal type of maja (‘unimportant
thing’ or ‘stuff’ in American slang). Mry kati could also be considered a type of
mry kaigo (‘empty meat’). The term ‘morphological sequence’ describes a continuum of morphological traits that unites a series of BOL categories. The sequence
may be an uninterrupted continuum with overlapping members between contiguous BOL categories or there may be interruptions in the continuum marked by an
unusual (aberrant) morphological feature. Figure 10.1 illustrates the morphological sequences for the Kayapó system of Arthropod classification (numbers refer
to BOL categories in Table 9.2 and text, page 85).
The Kayapó system shows four types of BOL categories. Named ‘undifferentiated utilitarian categories’ are also sometimes found that group animals of the
same BOL category into a collective class because of their similar utilitarian significance. Kikrê-kam-màrà, literally ‘house beetles’, is an example in which all
house ‘pests’ receive the same name, although morphologically they are said to be
Subordinate taxonomic groupings
Groupings subordinate to BOL categories are subject to distinctive processes of
characterization. Through what Hunn (1976: 512) calls ‘attribute reduction’, certain of the nebulously encoded criteria of Basic Object Level categories are
selected out as distinctive features for subgroupings. These criteria often predict
co-occurring sets of features (e.g. presence of hard wing covers always co-occurs
with presence of wings; the presence of scaly wings always co-occurs with the
presence of fuzzy-elongated abdomen, etc.). This type of ‘feature redundancy’ is
referred to as ‘configurational recoding’ (cf. Hunn 1976: 513; Bruner et al.
1956: 47). These criteria can be expressed in a limited number of componential
features and are more easily expressed verbally by the Kayapó than are the BOL
Hierarchy and utility in a folk biological taxonomic system
BOL level 1
D (nhy/ñy)
14 10
11 12
13 18
Figure 10.1 Organization of BOL categories into four morphological sequences, only one
of which is named (nhy/ñy).
The degree to which a Basic Object Level category is subject to subgroupings
indicates the following: (i) the importance of that particular set of organisms to
the culture as a whole, or (ii) the particular importance of that set of organisms to
cultural ‘specialists’.
Specialized knowledge is acquired in two ways: (i) from relatives as a part of
one’s nê kretx (inheritance), or (ii) from another ‘specialist’ through apprenticeship. In a materialistic sense the Kayapó are egalitarian, but only in a materialistic
sense. The ‘secrets’ or rights one inherits as part of one’s nê kretx do much to
determine one’s status. This specialized information usually deals with rights to
perform certain songs, dances or rituals. But one’s nê kretx might also include
specialized knowledge about curing or witchcraft.
There are many types of shamans for the Kayapó. Some are more powerful
than others, depending partially upon the degree of specialized knowledge.
Shamans are able to ‘talk to’ certain animal spirits (karõn). Some animal spirits
are considered to be more powerful than others. The more powerful the shaman,
the more powerful the animal spirit to which he can speak. It is through ‘talking to’
animal spirits (mry karõn kaban) that a shaman can cause or cure illnesses, predict
the future, or talk to the spirits of ancestors. Only the most powerful shamans can
talk to all animals.2 This means that knowledge about animals is specialized and, as
a result, the subordinate classification system of animals is specialized.
Two major problems are evident in eliciting subordinate insect classification
systems: (i) understanding the totality of the subordinate groupings would require
investigating the knowledge of each shaman, and (ii) much of this specialized
knowledge is highly secretive in nature.
A third factor must also be considered. There is a large group of men and women
who also are ‘curers’ (mẽ-kutê-mekane-mari). These people specialize in the treatment of a number of native diseases. Their cures are effected through concoctions of
plants and animal parts; no manipulation of animal spirits is utilized. There are
dozens of these in any village. My partial inventory of such curers in Gorotire alone
yielded a list of 154 individual specialists, which was over 25 per cent of the population. Thus, the elaboration of subordinate classification that follows reflects my very
limited knowledge of the total Kayapó system of specialized insect classification.
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
The categories that do show exceptional internal differentiation, either by specialists or by society as a whole, inevitably represent categories of great cultural
significance to the Kayapó. Category specialization (internal differentiations) has
been shown to be a useful methodological tool and provides an emic guide to significant cultural phenomena (Posey Chapter 9, this volume).
Following are the BOL categories with a brief outline of the subordinate taxonomic groupings that characterize each category.
Màrà – beetles and kin
The Kayapó use the term ‘relative’ (ombikwa) with variable degrees of inclusiveness. All õmbikwa are in some degree of relatedness one to the other. Thus
màrà õmbikwa, relatives of beetles, are grouped together because of general
features of relatedness. Each grouping of ombikwa is thought to have a ‘father’
(bam). The father is generally distinguishable as the largest specimen of the
group; for most BOL categories no particular organism is consistently labelled
as bam. For the category màrà, however, the rhinoceros beetle (Stataegus sp.) is
specifically thought of as the father of all màrà and, indeed, of all things with
shells and no flesh. The rhinoceros beetle is one of the bulkiest insects found in
the tropics and sometimes reaches over 15 centimetres in length; its distinctive
large ‘horns’ make it one of the most morphologically distinctive insects. The
Kayapó call this beetle the krã-kam-djware, the beetle with teeth on its head.
The krã-kam-djware cannot be considered a separate class of màrà, but rather
is a distinctive representative of the subclass mingugu. All Scarabaeidae collected
in Gorotire were classified as mingugu.
The mingugu (also called màràti, or ‘big màrà’) are subdivided further into
two groupings: (i) mingugu, and (ii) mingugu-ti. The ‘-ti’ affix denotes ‘largeness’; thus, the mingugu-ti are the large scarabs (of which the krã-kam-djware is
the most notable example). The mingugu are the smaller scarabs and are sometimes said to be ‘children’ of the larger mingugu-ti.
The category màrà has ten major subdivisions that follow to some extent the
subdivisions of the scientific order Coleoptera (Figure 10.2).
1 Mingugu are characterized as having shiny, tough black shells and welldefined wings underneath. The shape of the scarab is distinctive and
inevitably the key non-verbalized basis for this subgrouping. When consultants are asked how the mingugu differ from other beetles, they emphasized
that mingugu are found around dung. The collection of mingugu made in
Gorotire yielded only specimens of the superfamily Scarabaeidae (families
including Passalidae, Lucanidae, Scarabaeidae). Some small scarabs collected were co-classified with the folk taxon ipoi.
2 Ngôi-kam-màrà are beetles characterized as living on, in or under water. The
name of this group means ‘water beetles’ and includes the scientific families
Dytiscidae and Gyrinidae. The fact that these beetles can swim, as well as
Hierarchy and utility in a folk biological taxonomic system
pyka-kam-màrà ngrot
mingugu mingugu-ti
Figure 10.2 Subdivisions of màrà.
walk and fly seems to pose no problems of anomaly for the Kayapó, who are
nonetheless fascinated by such abilities.
Pyka-kam-màrà are ground-dwelling beetles as the name implies (màrà – of
the earth). Beetles in this category are believed to be carnivorous because
they are frequently found near carrion. Specimens from the following scientific families were collected as part of this folk taxon: Rhysodidae,
Carabidae, Tenebrionidae, Cleridae, Cucujoidae, Cerambycidae and
Ngrot are beetles classified as being somewhat elongated and having shiny
shells. The ngrot are said to live in tree bark and include all the Buprestidae
or wood borers.
Mojngo are weevils. These beetles are said to live on trees and shrubs. Their
elongated snout serves as the diagnostic feature for this folk subclass, which
coincides with the scientific families Curculionidae and Brenthidae.
Kàràràti are elongated beetles that coincide with the scientific families
Elateridae and Lampyridae (click beetles and fireflies). The name means
light-coloured, translucent, glowing, or shiny-winged beetles.
Kikrê-kam-màrà is an ‘undifferentiated utilitarian category’ of beetles that live
in the house and attack stored products. Most of these beetles are Dermestidae,
but various other household insects are also lumped into this category.
Màrà-re is yet another undifferentiated category that includes a wide variety
of beetles, including representatives of families Bostrichidae, Lyctidae and
Kapran-karõn are the small, rounded and colourful insects we call ‘lady beetles’. The name literally means ‘turtle image’ beetles; this group consists
mostly of small coccinellids (Coccinellidae). These are principal crop pests
and are sorted by female informants into a variety of covert subclasses based
upon their preferred plant hosts.
Màrà-puni are the hairy rove and carrion beetles. The name means ‘ugly’ or
‘repulsive’ beetles, referring to their attraction to dead and decaying animals.
These beetles are sometimes co-classified with ipoi (Hemiptera) because of
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
their poorly developed wings and elongated bodies. The scientific families of
Silphidae and Staphylinidae are represented in this category.
Continuous category set overlap occurs mostly with the blister beetles (Meloidae
and Mordellidae), which are co-classified with ipoi (mostly Hemiptera). The reason for this appears to be the soft wing covers (kà, or elytra) that more closely
resemble wings of ipoi than the hard ‘shells’ of true beetles.
Except for the krã-kam-djware (rhinoceros beetle), there is little evidence of
any particular use for beetles, nor any special symbolic or ceremonial significance. The palm weevil (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus) is given a special name,
riño-krê-kam-màrà. The larvae of this large beetle is said to have been an important food of the ancient Kayapó and is still eaten by some children and old people.
These larvae reach a considerable size (three or four ounces) and have excellent
food value. A large green metallic wood borer (Buprestidae) is also given a special name, màrà-ñibumpre. The elytra of this beetle is commonly used in the
tropical lowlands for decorative purposes.3
A series of descriptive affixes is used in conjunction with the name màrà to
describe a certain specimen. These refer to colour, shape, size or texture and are
used only as loose descriptive labels. Examples of name combinations are found
in Table 10.1.
Ipoi – true bugs and kin
Ipoi are seen as having shells (kà) or wing covers that are not so tough (tytx) as
most of the beetles (màrà). The ipoi are thought to live and feed on leaves of
plants. The most typical of the ipoi are stink bugs (Pentatomidae) that are said to
cause one’s eyes to burn (me nô kang rô) and are called ipoi kumrenx, the ‘true’
Table 10.1 A list of affixes used in the description of various màrà specimens
child (small)
short shell
jet black
Common examples:
large, black beetle
medium-size beetle
big, red beetle
Hierarchy and utility in a folk biological taxonomic system
There are four subgroupings of ipoi (Figure 10.3):
Ipoi-kumrenx are ‘true’ ipoi. The Kayapó have little to do with these insects
because of the fear of being blinded by them. Shamans utilize ipoi kumrenx
in various concoctions to induce or cure blindness and burning eyes.
Informants easily recognized and grouped Pentatomidae specimens into this
grouping on the basis of gross morphology, insisting that all insects in this
group could cause harm to the eyes.
Ipoi-ka’àk are ‘false’ ipoi. These do not cause the eyes to burn, but are said to
inflict painful bites. The ridged thorax of these ipoi is the generalized morphological feature that characterizes the group. These are the Reduviidae or
assassin bugs.
Ipoi-tikà are the giant water bugs (Belostomatidae). Indians believe the ipoitikà can cause paralysis of anyone bitten by it. It is feared and avoided, except
by shamans who utilize it in their crafts.
Ipoi-re is an undifferentiated category that includes other Hemiptera as well
as a few Coleoptera (families Meloidae and Mordellidae).
The following descriptive affixes were elicited for ipoi: ‘-jaká’ (white), ‘-ngrãngrã’ (light colour), ‘-tyk’ (black), ‘-kamrek’ (red) ‘-kryre’ (small), ‘-ti’ (large). Only
the giant water beetle (ipoi-tikà) is given any specific polylexemic distinction.
Kapo – cockroaches and kin
Cockroaches, mantids, walking sticks, crickets and grasshoppers are generally
grouped into the scientific order Orthoptera, though some authors prefer to place
cockroaches and mantids into a separate order Dictyoptera. Regardless of which
system is preferred, entomologists agree that these insect groups are closely
related. The Kayapó likewise view these insects as closely related, and utilize
three BOL groupings to distribute them: (i) kapo, (ii) kapoti, and (iii) krytkañet
(mantids, grasshoppers and crickets).
Kapo and kapoti should perhaps be viewed as two subgroupings of kapo; that
is, as kapo (kumrenx) and kapoti as in Figure 10.4A. Informants consistently
ipoi-ka 'àk
Figure 10.3 Subdivisions of ipoi showing some subclass overlap between màrà and ipoi, ipoi
and kapo (indicated by dotted lines).
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
A Kapoti as a subset of kapo
B Kapoti as a BOL category
Figure 10.4 Two possible models of set relationships between kapo, kapoti and krytkañet.
group kapoti at a level of contrast with kapo and krytkañet; therefore kapoti is
probably best treated as a separate Basic Object Level category rather than a subclass of kapo (as in Figure 10.4B). The grouping kapo includes all insects of the
suborder Blattaria, except for the extremely large winged forms of family
The karere, earwig (Dermaptera) is seen as a special type (aberrant form) of
kapo. It is shaped like a kapo, but does not have the same type of wings or
abdomen. The karere are associated with dark, damp places and are believed to be
an omen of illness or death. Karere are associated with spirits of the dead and
whenever too many karere are seen in a house, it is assumed to be a sign of spirits
in the house. The Kayapó traditionally abandon and burn a house after several
deaths have occurred because of fear of spirits returning to their old homes.
Kapoti – a transitional form
Little can be said about the kapoti, except that they are some of the largest insects
encountered in the Kayapó area. Large cockroaches of the scientific suborder
Blattodea are grouped with pyranus beetles (Prioninae) in this category. The bodies of the kapoti are like those of the kapo, except that their impressively large
wings cause them to be considered as relatives of krytkañet (grasshoppers).
Kapoti are ground into a powder and used by various shamans to cause or cure
illness and blindness. Specimens of this group are hoarded by shamans to prepare
various concoctions.
Krytka ~
net – grasshoppers and kin
Grasshoppers are one of the most numerous forms of life in the Kayapó area,
especially in the grasslands and transitional forest. Eight major subdivisions can
be described within the category krytkañet (Table 10.2).
Moi ‘ô’ ja ‘àrà are the katydids or long-horned grasshoppers (Tettigoniidae).
An extremely large species occurs in the area and is given the special name
krytkañet-kàràràti. Its legs are used to treat aching or weak joints. The spiny
part of the back legs are removed and scratched over the afflicted joints, sometimes until blood is drawn. Contact with the strong legs of the moi ‘ô’ ja ‘àrà
is believed to impart its strength to the user. The name means ‘leaf-like’ krytkañet, referring to its protective coloration and leaf imitative wing veination.
Hierarchy and utility in a folk biological taxonomic system
Table 10.2 Subgroupings of krytkañet (Orthoptera) with analogous scientific classifications
Common names
Scientific taxons
moi ‘ô’ ja ‘àrà
walking stick
mole cricket
grouse locust
Phasmatidae (or
Chyrê-chyrê are the large grasshoppers of the family Acrididae. During the dry
season these huge insects appear in great abundance. It is said that in the ancient
days the Kayapó ate these as delicacies, but there is no evidence that they are
still eaten today. Legs of the chyrê-chyrê are utilized for curing in the same manner as the legs of the moi ‘ô’ ja ‘àrà. The large rib vein of the upper wing is also
removed from the rest of the wing and used in shamanistic ceremonies that are
intended to cause or cure paralysis of victims. The name of this category is
derived from the clicking flight sound made by a focal member of the category.
Pàt-karoñ are the mantids (Mantodea), some of which reach six inches or
more in length. The name means ‘anteater image’ and refers to the similarity
perceived between the front legs of the mantis and those of the giant anteater.
Indians say the mantis holds its prey in the same manner as the pàt (anteater).
Wêjaputchô are the walking sticks (Phasmatidae or Cheleutoptera). The
Kayapó say contact with these can cause blindness and shamans use the
ground-up parts of certain species to inflict blindness. In many ways the
walking stick is aberrant morphologically, particularly because of its wings.
The body, head and legs, say the Kayapó, are those of krytkañet. I do not
know the meaning of the name for this class.
Ngra-rêrêmex are the mole crickets (Gryllotalpidae). Their name means
‘pretty paca’ and refers to their similarity in shape and coloration to the
rodent ‘paca’. Because these crickets are heard and seen at night, they are
associated with death and ghosts and are harbingers of disaster.
Krytkañére are the true crickets (Gryllidae). These are distinguished by the
Kayapó because of their songs and their distinctive wings. Crickets are common in Indian fields and are associated with good crops and abundant rains.
They are favoured fish-bait for Indian boys, who spend hours chasing them
for that purpose.
Krytkañet-ka-àk are the grouse locusts (Tetrigidae). The morphological form
of these is distinctive and easily recognized by the Kayapó as being ‘false’
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
Krytkañet-kumrenx are the true locusts (Acrididae). There are five unnamed
(covert) subdivisions of this group: (i) those found in the grasslands (kapôt);
(ii) those found in the transitional forest (bà-ràràra); (iii) those found in the
high forest (bà-tyk); (iv) those found near rivers (ngô-kôt); (v) those found in
or on the ground (pyka-kam).
No generic or specific scientific determinations were made for these subgroupings. It is interesting to note, however, that the Indians recognize certain forms
(morphological types) as more ‘typical’ of the various ecological zones. There are
five ecological zones recognized by the Kayapó that correspond to the five groupings of krytkañet-kumrenx listed above under 8. Informants made minimal
grouping ‘error’ in sorting krytkañet-kumrenx despite the specimens being ‘out of
ecological context’.
The noted acridologist, Uvarov (1978: 371–444), has attempted to group
grasshoppers and crickets into ‘life forms’ based on generalized morphological
adaptations to particular ecosystems or ‘life zones’. Five basic ‘life zones’ recognized by Uvarov are: (i) ‘terricoles’, those living on the ground and feeding on
herbs; (ii) ‘aquacoles’, those living in or on the water; (iii) ‘arboricoles’, those living on trees and woody shrubs; (iv) ‘herbicoles’, those living in dense thickets of
shrubs and herbs; and (v) ‘grammicoles’, those living in grasslands. This attempt
to account for phylogenetic relationships between morphological adaptation and
the functional success of a species associated with ecological zones appears to
coincide with the Kayapó system.
The term ‘life form’ as used by Uvarov is confusing for ethnobiologists
because of the current use of the same term as a general folk taxonomic unit.
Perhaps ‘ecoform’ would be a less ambiguous word that could be adopted by ethnobiology. Whatever the term, I believe ethnobiologists need to follow lines of
investigation that analyse native perceptions of adaptive associations between
species morphology and ecosystem.
Wewe – butterflies and kin
The Basic Object Level category wewe could be considered as a collective form.
Six orders of insects are subsumed under this one label: Neuroptera,
Ephemeroptera, Plecoptera, Mecoptera, Trichoptera and Lepidoptera. The focus
of the entire category is the giant morpho butterfly (Morphinae).
Seven folk subgroupings occur within the basic category so that in the overall
scheme the under-specialized category wewe becomes a focal category differentiated
by the degree of morphological feature recognition. The subdivisions are as follows:
Wewe (kumrenx) are butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera). Wing scales are the
distinguishing characteristic, and scales are used by shamans to treat diseases
of lethargy. A covert differentiation within this category is found between
night-flying and day-flying species. Moths and other night-fliers are considered omens of death or illness.
Hierarchy and utility in a folk biological taxonomic system
Wewe-jaká are the mayflies (Ephemeroptera). The suffix ‘-jaká`’ (‘whitish’) is
often used loosely as a descriptive affix. In this case, however, wewe-jaká
labels a specific subclass of wewe. Although these appear at night, the
Kayapó do not find them disturbing; on the contrary, they are always a sign of
abundant fish and good fishing.
Wewe-ja-àrà are the stoneflies (Plecoptera). The suffix ‘-ja-àrà’ denotes a
translucent quality of the wing. This subclass defines the particular set of
Wewe-ka-àk are the ‘false wewe’. This category coincides with the scientific
Order Mecoptera, scorpionflies.
Ngôi-kam-wewe are the caddis flies (Trichoptera). The name refers to the
affinity of this set of organisms for the water and areas surrounding lakes and
Pingôkrã are the fish flies and Dobson flies (Corydalidae). The name literally means ‘worm head’ and refers to the sometimes elongated thorax and
head of the family.
Pi ´ô-ja-àrà are the lacewings and kin (all Neuroptera, except Corydalidae).
The name literally means ‘leaf wings’ and is descriptive of the delicate, transparent veined wings for which the order is named.
Though generally oblivious to insect life cycles, the Kayapó are aware of the
stages of metamorphosis of Lepidoptera. The eggs they call ‘ngrê’; the larvae
‘pingô’; the cocoon or chrysalis ‘krakà’ (‘child cover’).
The stinging larvae of various unidentified Lepidoptera are incorporated into
the rituals prescribed for warriors and are smashed on the bare chests of the
young men. The intense pain is believed to impart strength and remove fear.
Often the ordeal leaves scars on the chest that are sported proudly as though they
were battle scars.
Kokot – cicadas and kin
There are only two basic subdivisions of kokot. The focus of the entire category is
the large annual cicada (Cicadidae). The two subgroupings follow:
Kokot (kumrenx) are the ‘true’ kokot. This category coincides perfectly with
the scientific family Cicadidae. The principal vein of the cicada’s front wing
is used by shamans in sorcery.
Kokot-kryre are the ‘tiny’ kokot. This category includes the treehoppers
(Membracidae), froghoppers (Cercopidae), leafhoppers (Cicadellidae) and
the plant hoppers (Fulgoridae). I know of no special use or significance of
this subgroup.
The usual variety of non-fixed descriptive suffixes are evident: e.g. -krôre
(painted), -prĩre (small), -tire (large), -kamrek (red), ngrãngrã (light-coloured),
-tyk (black), and so on.
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
Ngôire, pure and kopre – flies and kin
The third sequence has three closely related Basic Object Level categories:
ngôire, pure and kopre. The category ngôire is a collective one containing a myriad of small insects too small to be distinguished morphologically by the unaided
eye. I did not make a collection of the insects in this category so I can only guess
at the vastness of its inclusiveness.
The category kopre is likewise a very nebulous category. Within this group are
all flies (Diptera), except those contained in the category pure. All forms are
known to have only two wings. There are no further subgroupings.
The category pure is subdivided into three groups, all of which are blood-sucking and biting species:
Pure (kumrenx) are small blood-sucking flies. This includes the punkies
(Ceratopogonidae), midges (Chironomidae) and black flies (Simuliidae). The
Kayapó distinguish four types of pure kumrenx: (a) putykre black ones; (b)
putire big ones; (c) pukrãkrôti spotted-headed ones; and (d) pukrãkamrek
red-headed ones. Distinctions among the four are not only morphological but
also biological, i.e. where they are found and the viciousness of the bites.
Pute are the mosquitoes (Culicidae). There are four subdivisions of pute: (i)
pute-jaká whitish ones with very painful bites; (ii) pute-pry-jaká greyish
ones found in the forest along trails; (iii) putekamrek reddish ones found in
open areas; and (iv) pute-tykre black ones found in the forest.
Pumnuti are the deer and horseflies (Tabanidae). There are no further subdivisions of this category.
The overall relationship between kopre and pure is represented by line diagrams
in Figure 10.5.
The pumnuti (Tabanidae) are seen as being morphologically more similar to
kopre than pure. Their fierce biting habits, however, cause Indians to place them
in the category with other blood-sucking and biting species. There are more
detailed subclassifications of mosquitoes and pium, but collections and analyses
are yet to be made.
Figure 10.5 Category relationships within flies and kin (kopre).
Hierarchy and utility in a folk biological taxonomic system
Rorote – termites and kin
Termites (Isoptera) are abundant in the Kayapó area, although the Kayapó pay relatively little attention to them. Four major subdivisions of rorote are found:
Rorot-tykre are termites that build nests in trees. These are the ‘black’ termites and are associated with the origins of black people on the earth.
Rorot-krã-kamrek-ti are termites that nest in the wood of houses. These ‘redheaded’ termites are associated with the origins of other Indians
(non-Kayapó) in the world.
Rorot-jakare are termites that nest in the ground. These are the ‘white’ termites that are associated with the origins of Europeans in the world.
Rorotire are termites that build large, greyish mounds. Termite mounds are
numerous, especially on the campos, and all non-Kayapó (kubẽn-kakrit)
emerged from the underworld to the earth through these mounds.
Whereas the Kayapó have a fascination and even admiration for other social
insects, the termites are thought of as useless and helpless. They are weak and
non-aggressive and therefore no more ‘true’ ñy (social insects) than kubẽn-kakrit
(non-Indians) are ‘true’ people. True people (the Kayapó) originated above in the
sky; not from below in the ground as did non-Indians.
Termite nests are used in house construction, since their comb construction
serves as an ideal natural insulation. Nests of Nasutitermes are also used as fertilizers, or mixed with organic mulch to create fertile planting mounds in savanna
areas. On numerous occasions I observed the Kayapó eating the textured nest of
ground-dwelling termites and ants. No explanation was offered other than in the
ancient days the Kayapó say they ate this in place of farinha (toasted manioc
flour). Geophagy is not commonly reported in indigenous cultures, but was certainly common with the Kayapó and is evident today to some extent.
Mrum – ants and kin
Ants (Formicidae) are a source of great interest to the Kayapó (see Chapter 9, this
volume). Their social nature is thought to be similar to that of the Kayapó and,
consequently, their ethology is important in classification. The major basis for
subgroupings of ants is the type and location of their nests (ũrũkwa). The following covert (unnamed) groupings were found:
Ants with nests in the ground.
Ants with nests above ground (mound building).
Ants with nests inside tree trunks.
Ants with nests outside tree trunks (have visible nests attached to the tree
Ants with nests inside tree limbs.
Ants with nests attached to tree limbs or leaves.
Ants that live with termites.
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
Ants that live with bees.
Ants that live alone (solitary forms).
The last grouping of solitary ants is often co-classified with wasps (amuh). These
are called ‘velvet ants’ (Mutillidae), which are in fact wasps of the superfamily
Scoliidae. A large ant with conspicuous winged males is likewise co-classified
with rorote (Isoptera). These two examples represent set overlap between contiguous categories (rorote, mrum and amuh).
Ants are often spoken of in terms of their ‘power’, or ability to inflict pain. The
more potent the sting, the more powerful the ant. Some shamans specialize in
‘talking to’ powerful ant species and claim to manipulate their spirits to cause
harm. The shamans have a special classification of ants based on the power of ant
spirits (karõn), which is difficult to categorize in concrete terms. To date, 64 different ant folk species have been collected and described.
The abdomen of the ‘saúva’ (mrum-tuti; Atta sexdens L.) is the only ant eaten.
Its fat and juicy abdomen is mixed with manioc flour and baked, or whole ants
may be roasted in banana leaves.
Stinging ants are often collected by the Kayapó men. Ant bodies are pounded
into a paste with red urucu (Bixa orellana) and painted on hunting dogs. This is
supposed to cause the dogs to keep their noses to the ground and to hunt with the
determination of the ants.
Azteca sp. ants are thought to have a smell that repels saúva and their nests are
actively distributed near fields and gardens to produce a protective barrier against
saúva. Their nests are also planted with yams and taro to increase tuber yields (see
Chapter 18).
Amuh – wasps and kin
Non-honey producing wasps and stinging bees are grouped into the category
amuh. Subgroupings of amuh seem to be based on nest type (ũrũkwa). Variation
in identification of wasps ‘out of environmental context’ was found to be very
high. Consultants were later brought to the Museu Goeldi to identify 120 wasp
nests. Identification of wasp nests, however, was consistent with identifications
made in the field, indicating that the Kayapó pay more attention to wasp nest construction than to wasp morphology.
The principal dichotomy within the Basic Object Level category amuh is
between (i) social species, and (ii) solitary species (those that do not live in
ũrũkwa). Subgroupings of each of these are outlined in Table 10.3.
Most social wasps are used in some form of hunting magic. Most commonly,
wasp parts are mixed with urucu (Bixa orellana) and painted on the warrior.
Certain wasp nests are even used to rub over the noses of hunting dogs to make
them brave (akrê). To date, 85 folk species of wasps have been identified and
Hierarchy and utility in a folk biological taxonomic system
Table 10.3 Subgroupings of amuh
1 Solitary amuh
a amuh-poi-ti
b prytumre
c mỳt-te
d ‘apiêt-ti
e ajabamñy
f pyka-õ-ñy
g amuhre
h rop-krôre-karõn1
i kungont2
2 Social amuh
a mingugu
b mehnkamamuh
c amuh (kumrenx)
Common names
Scientific correlate
ichneuman fly
spider wasp
sand wasp
mud daubers
thread-waisted wasps
potter wasps
an undifferentiated category
of various families, including
velvet ant
solitary bees
Sphecidae: Larrinae
Sphecidae: Nyssoninae
Sphecidae: Sphecinae
Vespidae: Eumenidae
social bees
honey wasps
social wasps
Apidae: Apinae
Brachygastra sp.
Scoliidae, Mutillidae
rop-krôre-karõn is cogrouped with mrum.
kungõnt is a transitional class between mehn and amuh; mehnkamamuh is a transitional
class between honey-producing bees and wasps.
Mehn – honey-producing bees and kin
Thus far, 56 folk species of stingless bees (Meliponinae) have been discovered for
the Kayapó corresponding to 66 scientific species (Posey 1983a). Of this number,
11 species are considered to be semi-domesticated (see Chapter 12).
Bees are grouped into 15 ‘families’ in addition to the 56 folk species. Criteria
for determining these differentiations are complex and include the following:
Ethological characteristics: (i) flight patterns (how the bees fly when entering
the nest); (ii) aggressive behaviour when the nest is disturbed (aggressive or
docile); (iii) sound produced by bees in flight or by nocturnal behaviour
inside nest; (iv) places bees visit, including types of flowers, dead animals,
faeces, sand banks, dirt, etc.
Nest structure and ecological niche: (i) substrate preferred (e.g. tree hollows,
ant nests, termite mounds, inside earth, large trees, etc. In the case of trees,
external nest form and position of the entrance structure is also important);
(ii) ecological zone preferred (flood forest, humid forest, savanna, etc.); (iii)
form, texture, colour and smell of the entrance structure (e.g. earth, resin,
cerumen, vegetable fibres, etc.); and (iv) form and texture of the batumen.
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
Morphological and biochemical characters: (i) shape of the bee’s body; (ii)
colours of the bee; (iii) designs or markings on body; (iv) size and colour of
wings; (v) size of the bee; (vi) smell of the bee (either its natural smell or
when the bee is crushed); (vii) secretions produced for defence.
Economic factors: (a) quality of honey; (b) quantity of honey; (c) quality of
resins; (d) quality of wax and cerumen; (e) suitability of pollen for food; (f)
suitability of larvae/pupae for food.
As this list of taxonomic characters indicates, the Kayapó also have a detailed
knowledge of Meliponinae morphology, nest architecture, ontogeny and behaviour. Technologies and strategies for raiding nests and rearing bees are also
well-developed (see Posey and Camargo 1984). The Kayapó use bee waxes, batumen, resin, pupae and larvae for a variety of purposes (Posey 1983f).
Superordinate groupings
Of the 18 BOL categories found in the Kayapó system of Arthropod classification, only three show extensive differentiation at subordinate levels (amuh, wasps,
with 85 folk species; mrum, ants, with 64 folk species; and mehn, bees, with 56
folk species). Following the hypothesis that such differentiation is indicative of
emically significant cultural phenomena (cf. Posey 1983d), one would predict
bees, wasps and ants to be of particular importance to the Kayapó.
An additional indicator of the importance of these BOL categories is the
named superordinate grouping of all social Hymenoptera, nhy (ñy), which
includes all amuh, mrum and mehn.4 Nhy (ñy) is the only named, superordinate
category in the entire domain of mrykati (animals with shells and no flesh).
The phenomenon is explained by the epistemological importance of social
insects to the Kayapó belief system. The Indians say that their social organization
was conceived by an ancient shaman who specialized in the study of social
Hymenoptera. Hoping to organize his defenceless, dispersed people against attacks
from the wild beasts and enemies, the shaman had the idea to organize the Kayapó
like nhy (ñy). This idea came while observing a hive of wasps (amuh-djà-kein) successfully defending themselves against an eagle (hàk) hundreds of times larger.
Thus the Kayapó have long been interested in social insects as ‘natural models’.
There are still specialists who study nhy (ñy) and the importance of social insects is
symbolically represented in art, music and, most dramatically, ritual (see Chapter
12). The named category nhy (ñy), therefore, encodes epistemological significance
in the Kayapó culture and is an indicator of symbolic cultural significance.
In addition to the named, superordinate category of nhy (ñy), numerous loose,
nebulous groupings can be found. These ‘cross-cut’ (cf. Gardner 1976) BOL categories recognize a variety of other characteristics held in common with other
animals (Figure 10.6).
Any given organism might be grouped with other organisms in numerous
ways. A frog might be grouped with a water beetle because both are amphibious.
Hierarchy and utility in a folk biological taxonomic system
Figure 10.6 Idealized hierarchical model showing superordinate and subordinate levels.
A turtle, an armadillo, and a lady beetle might be grouped together because all
three have round, humped shells. A caterpillar might be grouped with a snake
because it is long and wriggles on the ground. Stinging caterpillars might also be
grouped with wasps and ants because of the nature of their stings. A flying ant
might be classified with a certain hawk because both appear at the same time of
the year (the hawk is migratory; the emergence of the winged ant seasonal). A
type of cricket might be classified with a tapir because its front feet are seen as
similar in form.
The list can go on and on. In observations of superordinate groupings, I have
observed four types of ‘cross-cutting’ mechanisms. Animals are grouped on the
basis of:
Similar function (e.g. edibility, medicinal value, ceremonial importance, etc.).
Behavioural characteristics (e.g. nocturnal animals, crepuscular animals,
swimmers, etc.).
Habitat (e.g. water animals, forest animals, ground-dwellers, etc.).
Special cultural concerns. This type of grouping deserves some further
One of the major ways the Kayapó group animals is by the ‘power’ of their ‘spirits’ (karõn). This is an extremely difficult typology to analyse and describe, for
the concepts of animal ‘power’ and ‘spirit’ are exceedingly complex. An animal’s
‘power’ is determined by the facility of the karõn in inflicting or curing illness.
Every animal species has a ‘spirit’ and, theoretically, every animal can affect the
human ‘spirit’ by causing or curing illness. Only the shamans, who ‘talk to’ the
animal spirits, can cure a patient of the disease provoked by the spirit of that animal. Therefore, the ranking of animals based upon the ‘power’ of their ‘spirits’ is
tantamount to ranking the power and prestige of shamans.
Superficially certain groupings seem nonsensical. For example, the Kayapó
group certain lizards, some snakes, grubs and small rodents into one category.
This grouping appeared to defy reason until tribal elders were heard telling of the
ancient days before the Kayapó had corn and manioc. The list of animals eaten in
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
ancient times coincided with this grouping and is best glossed as ‘animals of
potential use’ and offers a ‘back-up’ or emergency system that is encoded in the
classification system and passed from generation to generation. Mythological
principles of today can become facts of survival tomorrow.
Concluding remarks
Classification of mrykati (Arthropods) by the Gorotire Kayapó offers several
interesting insights into the overall patterns of folk biological classification. The
18 BOL categories grouped in morphological sequences show very little hierarchical differentiation except for the social insects (amuh, mrum and mehn),
which are the only representatives to receive a named, superordinate grouping
nhy (ñy).
Certain BOL categories, especially krytkañet (Orthopterans) seem to be distinguished based upon perceived phylogenetic relationships between animal
morphological form and ecological adaptation or niche. These ‘ecoforms’ merit
study and offer ethnobiologists additional integrative paradigms for research.
Specialization of Kayapó knowledge points to the difficulty of an overall evaluation of any complete biological/natural taxonomic system. This problem is
accentuated when trying to determine the ‘utilitarian’ value of any given domain.
The Kayapó data suggest that elaboration or differentiation of named subordinate (lower in hierarchical rank than BOL categories) categories, whether in the
general knowledge system or only known by a few ‘specialists’, is an accurate
indicator of ‘utility’ and cultural significance. No attempt has been made to determine if degree of difference is in direct proportion to significance or utility, but
such a hypothesis seems feasible and deserves testing. Highly differentiated categories recognized by the society as a whole should be the strongest indicator of
cultural utility or significance.
‘Utility’ is difficult to assess since it does not always include the obvious
qualities of food, shelter or medicine. In the case of nhy (ñy) social insects, for
example, only bees have the obvious utilitarian value of producing food, medicine and useful raw materials. Ants are utilitarian in the sense that they have
qualities that are desirable to impart to hunting dogs via medicinal mixtures
painted on the dogs. Wasps are important in a more abstract way as ‘natural models’ for Kayapó society, although certainly avoidance of stinging species may be
considered utilitarian and influence classification. Such avoidance, however, is
not the sole reason for wasp classification since only a small percentage are
The Kayapó data also suggest that categories of great symbolic or epistemological significance are not only differentiated and named at the subordinate level
(usually only by ‘specialists’), but are also labelled in superordinate groupings
(groupings of greater set inclusion than BOL categories). One can hypothesize,
therefore, that the named superordinate groupings are indicators of symbolically
significant domains.
Hierarchy and utility in a folk biological taxonomic system
Kayapó classification of insects and related Arthropods is characterized by
classification of ‘natural discontinuities’ in nature that produce morphologically
determined Basic Object Level (BOL) categories. Organization of BOL categories is seen as a continuum of overlapping or contiguous sets called
‘morphological sequences’. Hierarchical structures emerge when any BOL category (or sequence) is of utilitarian and/or symbolic significance. Named
subordinate differentiation is an indicator of ‘utility’; named superordinate groupings are indicators of symbolic significance.
Thus parts of the folk taxonomic system that exhibit greater hierarchical qualities reflect recognition of ‘utility’ in its broadest sense (practical and symbolic).
This resolves the apparent ‘contradiction’ between utilitarian and hierarchical
models by pointing out the difference between process (essentially hierarchical)
and purpose (essentially utilitarian) in folk taxonomy. Both are at work in any folk
classification system and neither excludes the other in importance nor in explanatory potential.
Chapter 11
Additional notes on the
classification and knowledge of
stingless bees (Meliponinae,
Apidae, Hymenoptera) by the
Kayapó Indians of Gorotire,
Pará, Brazil 1
In his initial research Posey (1983f) recorded 56 named folk species of stingless
bees that are recognized and classified by the Kayapó Indians, of which nine
species are considered ‘semi-domesticated’ or ‘manipulated’ by the Indians.
Many of these meliponine bees are of economic importance to the Kayapó. Wax,
cerumen and resin are used for artefacts; honey, pollen, and larvae are used for
food; pupae are used for food and medicine; and pollen and bee parts are important in medicinal preparations (Posey 1983f). Even non-utilitarian species are
known and classified by the Kayapó, who consider all social insects to be of epistemological importance. The Indians believe that an ancient shaman (wayanga),
who studied social Hymenoptera behaviour, taught their ancestors how to live,
work, and defend themselves like social insects (see Chapter 12). This ‘natural
model’ for society is symbolically represented by the nests of Polybia spp. wasps
(amuh) and ceremonially manifested in a special meliponine beeswax (cerumen)
hat called mẽ kutôm (Posey 1983g, 1983d).
This chapter presents additional data on the complex knowledge of the Kayapó
Indians documenting further the folk science of these extraordinary experts on
Amazonian biology and ecology. Our intent is not to compare our science with
theirs, but rather to show how our own science can be enriched, and how insightful hypotheses can be generated through the study of ethnobiology.
Material and methods
Previous research by Posey (1981a, 1983f, Chapter 12 this volume) was conducted in 1977–79 during 14 months of field research with the Kayapó. During
that period, data were collected while accompanying the Indians to forests, savannas, and gardens during annual ceremonial and seasonal cycles. Two bee ‘experts’
served as principal cultural consultants, Kwyrà-kà and his son Irã.
During the field period that resulted in this report (21 days during the months
of August and September 1983), the original consultants were used and earlier
materials were cross-checked by the oldest shaman of Gorotire, Beptopoop.
Additional notes on the classification and knowledge of stingless bees
Although Posey’s previous fieldwork had met with few problems in acquiring
data on bees, the presence of Camargo created unexpected complications. The
Indians feared that his desire to collect bees would lead to the disturbance or
destruction of their valued nests. Thus, it initially appeared that there had been a
drastic drop in beekeeping, beekeepers, and bee nests in Gorotire since
1977–1979. However, this did not prove to be the case. In 1983, the Kayapó were
simply distrustful of our curiosity about their stingless bees, and reluctant to provide information or show us their nests.
Eventually, when we realized the source of complication, we were able to
explain more specifically our intent and assure our hosts that their bee colonies
would not be destroyed by our scientific efforts. Thereby, we were able to gain
access to considerably more data, and receive more cooperative responses to our
A ‘generative methodology’ for eliciting was utilized; that is, formal questioning was held to an absolute minimum so as not to introduce our scientific
paradigms into indigenous thought, thereby prejudicing responses. We simply
communicated our interest in bees and let our consultants lead us to nests and tell
us what they wished regarding bees and bee behaviour. When questions were necessary, the most general formulations possible were utilized: for example, ‘Tell us
about the bee’s nest,’ or ‘Tell us about bee flight,’ and so on. The two major informants are fluent in Portuguese and routine conversation was carried out in that
language. When consultants found difficulty in explaining any subject in
Portuguese, communication shifted to Kayapó. New terms or concepts were
recorded in the indigenous language and initial discussions of a new subject were
carried out in Kayapó.
In addition to the collection of biological materials, drawings of bee nests were
made in the field. Internal architecture was sketched and photographed if nests
were opened by the Indians. Ethnographic notation occurred during all phases of
the field study. Drawings in this chapter are based on information provided by
Kayapó consultants.
Figure 11.1 is a replica of a drawing done in 1979 by Pedro Kayapó, a young
Indian man (menononure) from Gorotire. Species encountered during this period
of field research are listed in Table 11.1. Numbers preceding the species list refer
to collection numbers in the Gorotire Kayapó collection now under the care of
Professor João M. F. Camargo and stored at the Departamento de Biologia,
Universidade de São Paulo, Ribeirão Preto, São Paulo, Brazil.
Taxonomic categories
Bees (social Apidae) are grouped along with other social insects as nhy (ñy),
which is the only superordinate (suprageneric) category found for Arthropoda
(Posey 1984d). Adults of social insect colonies are denominated nhy – thus ants
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
Figure 11.1 Reproduction of a drawing by Pedro Kayapó (made in Gorotire in 1979) showing the external form and internal structure of ku-krãi-ti (Trigona amazonensis).
Table 11.1 Species of meliponine bees encountered in the vicinity of Gorotire during the
current study
Collection numbers
Scientific name
Kayapó name
(306c) and (308c)
Tetragona clavipes (Fabricius)
Partamona cf. cupira Smith
Melipona seminigra pernigra Moure & Kerr
[Scaptotrigona nigrohirta Moure Ms.]
Scaptotrigona polystica Moure
Melipona melanoventer Schwarz
Melipona rufiventris flavolineata Friese
Tetragonisca angustula angustula (Latreille)
Tetragona dorsalis cf. beebei Schwarz
Trigona fulviventris Guérin
mytire, myre-ti, my-ti
imrê ñy kamrek
menhirê ujdjà
ngài kumrenx
my krwàt
tôtn my
Additional notes on the classification and knowledge of stingless bees
are called mrum-nhy, bees are called mehn-nhy, wasps are called amuh-nhy, and
termites are called rorote-nhy. Apis mellifera (ngài-pere’y) is often classified with
wasps (amuh-nhy) rather than stingless bees (mehn-nhy) because of its powerful
sting. On the other hand, wasps that produce honey (Brachygaster spp.) are often
classified with bees rather than wasps because of their honey production.
Nests of social insects are given the same name as Kayapó houses, ũrũkwa.
Likewise, traditional circular villages are said by the Kayapó to take the crosssectional form of conical nests of wasps and bees (see Chapter 9).
Nests of Meliponinae (mehn nhy ũrũkwa)
External characteristics
Nests of Meliponinae are grouped by the Indians according to external structures
perceived as ‘natural discontinuities’ or ‘natural’ morphological groupings (Hunn
1976). Although these groups are not linguistically labelled, their saliency as
covert (unnamed) categories is easily demonstrated through field recognition and
informant responses. Each nest-form group is typified by a ‘focal species’ that
has idealized qualities characterizing the set. Each set may be identified or
referred to by the name of the focal species (as described in Posey 1984d).
Figure 11.1 illustrates the external form and internal structure of the focal
species ku-krãi-ti (Trigona amazonensis). Similar drawings by various Indians
were used to construct the basic focal forms of the major nest categories summarized in Figure 11.2. These focal forms are as follows:
Kukrãi-ti (Trigona amazonensis) constructs nests attached externally to
large tree trunks or boulders
Me-nô-rà-kamrek (Trigona cilipes) usually constructs nests in arboreal
ant (Azteca spp.) colonies or termite (Nasutitermes sp.) nests
Mehñy-tyk (Trigona branneri) prefers externally attached nests on various palm species
Imrê-ñy-kamrek (Scaptotrigona nigrohirta) constructs nests in natural
openings in tree trunks and builds entrance tubes of soft wax and resin
(this is the largest category, encompassing a variety of genera and the
Myti-re (Partamona cf. cupira) builds in arboreal termite nests
Djô (Trigona fulviventris) prefers subterranean nests, often found in termite nests
Puka-kam-mehn (Trigona recursa) a subterranean nest-building species
Mykrwàt (Tetragonisca angustula) usually found in hollow trunks of
dead trees lying on the ground
Ngài kumrenx (Melipona rufiventris flavolineata) found in open tree
hollows, with an entrance tube hidden inside
Mehnô-djành (Frieseomelitta sp.) found in hollow vines or bamboo.
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
Figure 11.2 Nests of Meliponinae focal species recognized by the Kayapó.
A limited number of species is found in any given habitat. Certain species are habitat specific, that is, found only in savanna, or flood forest, or high forest, and so forth.
Thus when an Indian enters a specific habitat, he already knows which species might
be found, thereby facilitating visual scanning for morphological nest types.
Internal nest structure – architecture and entrance structure
Terminology for structures of Meliponinae nests (ũrũkwa) is quite complete. Two
types of nests, based on internal structure, are recognized by the Kayapó: nests
Additional notes on the classification and knowledge of stingless bees
with horizontal, parallel combs (Figure 11.1); and nests with dispersed caches of
combs (Figure 11.3). Figure 11.3 shows the principal architectural structures with
associated Kayapó names. A glossary of Kayapó terms and their English or scientific equivalents is found on page 254.
For the Indians, entrance structures (eijkwa) of meliponine nests are important
diagnostic characters because each stingless bee species produces a specific
structure. Shape, size, composition, colour, position and smell of the eijkwa are
all characteristics used by the Indians for field identification. Figure 11.4 shows
the major eijkwa focal categories. These are covert categories, but as with nest
forms, they are frequently identified by referring to the name of the focal species
that typifies the category.
Figure 11.3 Schematic structures of Melipona nests with Kayapó nomenclature: abu (batumen), me-ê-krê (honey pot), nhum-ê-krê (pollen pot), apynh-kra-djà (brood cell),
kra kuni (brood comb), kupu-djà (involucrum), p˜i-ã-ari-a-djà (pillar), abu-krê-kryre
(lower batumen with drainage channels), nhiênh-djà (pot opening), eijkwa
(entrance structure), eijkwa-krê-krê (entrance gallery), kra-ku-pu-djà (cocoon),
kuroro (shell of nest).
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
Figure 11.4 Types of Meliponinae entrance tubes recognized by the Kayapó with their
respective ‘focal species’: (A) imrê-ñy-kamrek (Scaptotrigona nigrohirta), (B) imrêti (S. polystica), (C) õ-i (Tetragona truncata), (D) udỳ (Melipona seminigra pernigra),
(E) menire-ujdà (M. melanoventer), (F) ngài kumrenx (M. rufiventris flavolineata).
Ontogeny, life cycle, and castes of mehn-nhy (Meliponinae)
The Kayapó believe that bees, like Indians, have a life cycle associated with the
social space of their villages (kri-metx) and houses (ũrũkwa). A bee’s life begins
in ‘a growing up thing’ called apynh-kra-djà or ‘child sleeping place’ (kra-no-rodjà) (see Figure 11.5). Combs are called kra-ỳ-trỳ and are filled with various
stages of life, including the egg (ngrê). According to the Indians, however, bees
do not have ‘true eggs’ (ngrê-kumrenx) because they have no hard shell (kà).
Additional notes on the classification and knowledge of stingless bees
Figure 11.5 Ontogenetic stages of Meliponinae (represented in this figure by Melipona
compressipes fasciculata, ngài-re) recognized by the Kayapó: apynh-kra-djà
(brood cell); ngrê-kango (egg, egg liquid); kra-nu (larva of 1o instar); kra-ngri-re
(larva of 2o instar); kra-rhyn (pre-defecant larva); kra-tum (post-defecant larva);
kra-tytx (pre-pupa); kra-pôt (unpigmented pupa); kra-arup-ka-toro (pigmented
pupa with movement; nhy-pô-nu (imago, emerging adult); nhy-jaká (newly
emerged adult).
Instead, bee eggs are composed of a liquid deposited in the cell. This liquid is
called ngrê-kango (egg liquid) and becomes ‘new (bee) children’, kra-nu, that in
turn grow into ‘small children’, kra-ngri-re. Subsequent stages of larval development are denominated by the Indians as follows: kra-rhyn (‘round, thick children’
that occupy the whole cell – known scientifically as pre-defecating larvae); and
kra-tum (‘old children’ that stand up vertically in the cell – known scientifically as
post-defecating larvae). When the shells (kà) of the ‘children’ (kra) harden (aruptytx), the bee child is thought to be fully grown and is called kra-tytx (‘tough’, or,
in this context, ‘grown children’ – scientifically known as pre-pupae). When the
bee child takes on the appearance and size of an adult, it is called a kra-pôt
(‘grown child’ that still cannot walk or move like an adult [kra-pôt-ket-rã-ã]).
This is the primary pupa, just prior to eclosion. When the grown child begins to
walk like an adult (kra-arup-ka-toro) after leaving its cell, the bee is known as
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
nhy-pônu. Newly emerged adults are called nhy-jaká (unpigmented or ‘white’
bees) or nhy-rêrêk (‘weak bees’). As pigmentation begins to appear in the newly
emerged adults, they are then called nhy-ngrire (‘small’ or ‘callow’ bees).
According to informants, adult bees have different activities and functions in
the nest and are given different names. These types, based upon behavioural differences, are:
Mehn akrê – ‘warrior bees’ that defend the nest (aggressive bee species have
more warriors than non-aggressive species).
Mehn-ôkabin-djwynh – ‘scout bees’ that search for food, water or mud, as
well as for new nest locations should the colony need to move or divide; these
also help guard the nest and alert the ‘warriors’ should there be any threat of
Mehn-ô-petx-djwynh – ‘worker bees’ that collect pollen (a-ũ), nectar (rãkangô), and resins (kunõ), as well as other materials necessary for the colony.
Benadjwyrà-ratx – this is the ‘principal chief’, who lives in the centre of the
comb. He is always larger than the rest and is said to eat differently than other
bees (he eats pollen, nhum, and honey, rã-kangô, whereas other bees eat only
honey). He is responsible for coordinating and ordering all of the activities of
the colony. In times of danger, he always hides in the interior of the nest at a
safe distance from the brood comb. (The benadjwyrà-ratx corresponds to the
physogastric queen known to our science.)
Benadjwyrà – these are the subchiefs whose duty it is to transmit the orders
of the principal chief. Each of these (there may be several to many, depending
on the size of the nest) is in charge of a group of bees made up of individuals
from each of the categories (or ‘castes’). (These correspond to virgin queens
in bee biology literature.)
Benadjwyrà-pron – these are the wives of the chiefs and are in charge of the
egg-laying and care of children. These bees remain close to the combs and
have a slightly enlarged abdomen, thereby giving the impression that they are
larger than other worker bees. (Scientifically these are known as nurse bees.)
Benadjwyrâ-nhõ-kra – these are the young children of the chiefs. They
receive special food and are always found in the periphery of the comb.
(These are queen larvae and pupae.)
Food and feeding
Pollen (a-ũ)
The Indians say that pollen (a-ũ) is collected from selected flowers (depending
on bee species’ preferences) and carried to the nests (ũrũkwa) where it is stored
in special pots (nhum-ê). To obtain the a-ũ, bees rotate their back legs (mêtê)
near the flower, sometimes having previously put resin (kunõ) on their legs to
assist in securing the pollen grains to the body (tê’a-ma). The process of obtain-
Additional notes on the classification and knowledge of stingless bees
ing and carrying pollen to the hive is called mêtê kam ami tê o wai ri. When the
a-ũ actually reaches the hive, it is mixed with drops of water from the bee’s
mouth and stored in the nhum-ê; the pollen now receives another name, nhum,
signifying its transformation by the water mixture. Nhum is the food for larvae
(kra) in general; a special mixture with honey (mehn-kangô) is used to feed the
chiefs and their children. Pollen of some species is eaten by the Kayapó (see
Chapter 12).
Honey (mehn-kangô)
Mehn-kangô is formed from nectar of flowers (pidgo-rã-kangô, or ‘flower
water’). It is carried by the bees in their mouths to be stored in special pots, mehnê-krê. The Indians say that honeys from different flowers have different tastes and
consistencies and must be mixed by the bees to produce a uniform honey (mehnkangô-aben-kôt). Watery honey is said to be new honey, not yet properly mixed.
When a proper mixture is completed, the honey is said to be ‘ready’ or ‘already
good’ (arup-metx) and the openings to the honey pots (nhiênh-djà) are closed
with cerumen (ãn-jê). Honey is the principal food of adult bees (mehn-nhy).
Honeys of many species are valued as human food and as medicinals; some honeys are dangerous and can cause stomach ache and diarrhoea (see Chapter 12).
Some bee species (for example, i-kài-kà, T. clavipes) are said to throw out their
old honey at the end of the dry season to make room for the new honey of the wet
season. This honey; or any honey that is considered old or acid (fermented), is
called mehn-kangô-kaigo (‘honey that serves for nothing’).
Bee morphology
Morphological structures of bees receive names that, for the most part, are analogous to parts of the human body. Some names, however, are used specifically for
insect morphology. Figure 11.6 shows most of the major morphological structures
named by the Kayapó. Names were given in the field when Kayapó collaborators
were shown live specimens.
Family groupings and specific determinations
The superordinate (suprageneric) grouping of social insects (nhy) and various
covert (unnamed) categories with focal species based on idealized nest and
entrance structure morphology have already been discussed. Data are incomplete
to outline fully the Kayapó notion of relatedness between folk species of bees.
However, several groupings made by the Indians (ombiqua) can be elaborated –
for example, imrê (corresponding to the genus Scaptotrigona), kangàrà (corresponding to the genus Oxytrigona), and ngài (various genera related in a system
as yet undescribed). Family groupings and specific determinations are based on
the following characteristics.
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
Figure 11.6 Major morphological structures recognized and named by the Kayapó: araabatyx (fore-wing), ara-ngrire (small, hind wing), ara’i (veins), ara-kratx (wing
joint), krã (head), no-kà-i (simple eyes, ocelli), no (compound eye), h˜i-ja-krê-ô
(antenna), kaingàrà (segments of antenna), inhot (end point – distal), kukõ (base
of antenna), kratx (joint), wai-krã (labrum), wa (mandible), wa-nhot (teeth of
mandible), õ-to-pra (proboscis), õ-to (tongue), mut (prothorax), ibum
(thorax/mesotherax), pa (front legs), tê (back legs), h˜i (abdomen), te’ỳ (point of
Ethological characteristics
(i) Flight patterns (how the bees fly when entering the nest); (ii) degree of
aggressive behaviour when the nest is disturbed (aggressive to docile); (iii)
sound produced by bees in flight or by nocturnal behaviour inside nest; (iv)
places bees visit, including types of flowers, dead animals, faeces, sand
banks, mud and other sites.
Nest structure and habitat niche
(i) Substrate preferred (for example tree hollows, ant nests, termite mounds,
inside earth, large trees; in the case of tree nests, nest form and position of the
entrance structure is also important); (ii) preferred habitat (flood forest,
Additional notes on the classification and knowledge of stingless bees
humid forest, savanna); (iii) form, texture, colour, and size of the entrance
structure; (iv) material utilized to construct the entrance structure (for example mud, resin, cerumen, vegetable fibbers, excrement); and (v) form and
texture of the batumen (nest cavity boundaries or covering).
Morphological and biochemical characters
(i) Shape of the bee’s body; (ii) colours of the bee; (iii) designs or markings
on body; (iv) size and colour of wings; (v) size of the bee; (vi) smell of the
bee (either its naturally occurring smell or when the bee is crushed); (vii)
secretions produced for defence.
Economic factors
(i) Quality of honey; (ii) quantity of honey; (iii) quality of resins; (iv) quality
of wax and cerumen; (v) suitability of pollen for food; (vi) suitability of larvae/pupae for food.
Oxytrigona (kangàrà) are grouped into one family because of a liquid produced
from glands in the mandibles for the purpose of protection. This liquid blisters
and burns the human skin after a period of about 24 hours, unless introduced
subcutaneously, when blisters appear immediately. Texture and form of the nest
entrance is also a unifying characteristic of this group, which makes long slender slits lightly lined with cerumen, as in nest entrances. It is interesting to note,
however, that Partamona vicina is named kangàrà-kàk-ti (the ‘big false
kangàrà’) because it is similar in size and colour to other kangàrà. It is also a
very aggressive species, although it exudes no defence liquid. At the superordinate level, Melipona may only be grouped in covert categories, because no
named groupings seem to unite the genus despite similarity in morphology.
Apis mellifera is sometimes grouped with Melipona because of its size and
colour, although it is also frequently grouped with wasps (amuh) because of its
sting. Other ‘functional’ groupings include aggressiveness, as well as honey or
cerumen types.
Arboreal nesting Trigona are always grouped together as ku-krãi (for example,
ku-krãi-re, T. dallatorreana, and ku-krãi-ti, T. amazonensis). Scaptotrigona
(imrê) are grouped into the same family on the basis of similarity in honey, cerumen, and, principally, by their similar smells.
Summary of species collected
The species described below were collected in Gorotire in 1983. They are presented with a summary of important diagnostic characteristics utilized by the
Kayapó. (Note: these are some of the species most commonly mentioned by the
Indians; other species can be found in Posey 1983a:156). Order of characteristics
is: (a) flight pattern when entering nest; (b) preferred habitat; (c) nest site; (d)
smell of the bee; (e) form, texture, smell and material utilized for entrance structure; (f) size and colour of body and wings; (g) defence behaviour.
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
Tetragona clavipes (i-kài-kà, ‘blade of knife’)
Smooth, circular flight before entering nest
forest where light penetrates (bà-kamrek/bà-ràràra)
tree hollows (usually high up)
characteristic smell
large entrance tube of cerumen
yellow body, large wings, lightly coloured
not aggressive (do not attack or bite); deposit resins.
Observations: throws out old honey at the end of the dry season to prepare for
new, wet season honey.
Partamona cf. cupira (myti-re, ‘big penis’)
Rapid flight, direct entrance/exit pattern
savanna and forest
termite nests (rorote, Nasutitermes)
smell not distinctive
earth and resins
black body, white wings
very aggressive (bites and attacks).
Observations: quantity of honey small, but very important for medicine.
Melipona seminigra pernigra (udjy, ‘witchcraft’)
No information (not discussed by the Indians)
high forest (bà-tyk)
hollows of big trees
no information
entrance tube long, made of mud and resins
big bee with black thorax (ibum-tyk)
not aggressive.
Observations: this is a ‘semi-domesticated’ species that returns to the nest when a
portion of the brood comb with honey and pollen pots are left in the old hive; this
bee is also kept near the house simply to observe as a curiosity; honey is good
year-round; bees are used in witchcraft.
Trigona amazonensis (ku-krãi-ti, ‘like a mountain ridge’)
No information
high forest and mountains (krãi)
attached externally to tall trees and large rocks
no information
Additional notes on the classification and knowledge of stingless bees
e) large lower structure made of same material as nest cover
f) large black body, clear wings
g) very aggressive (attacks and bites).
Observations: honey of large quantity and good taste, taken mostly in the dry season; bees are crushed and mixed with urucu (py) to paint dogs so they will be
aggressive and have no fear of hunting (akrê). Fire, smoke and kangàrà-kanê (see
following section) used to extract honey and wax. Honey pots are placed over
banana leaves and mashed to release honey. Larvae and pupae are crushed and
rubbed on hunting dogs to make them strong (tytx).
Scaptotrigona nigrohirta (imrê-nhy-kamrek, ‘red imrê’ – a Kayapó proper
No information
várzea forest (imô) and light-penetrating forest
hollows of medium to large trees
distinctive smell
tube of yellow cerumen when new; turns dark when old
yellow body, white wings
very aggressive (attacks and bites); attacks other bees by biting their wings.
Observations: honey good all year; combs with larvae are utilized for food and
said to taste like ‘cookies’; pollen also eaten, but only if yellow, which indicates it
is sweet; it is believed that this bee has more than one principal chief (benadjwyrà-ratx); cerumen is used to make the ceremonial hat, mẽ-kutôm. Method of
bee’s aggressiveness, attacking others by breaking their wings, may be related to
Kayapó idea of aben tàk (traditional ceremonial sword fight aimed at breaking
long bones of arm); only descendants of chiefs said to receive the proper name of
Scaptotrigona polystica (imrê-ti, ‘big imrê’ – a family of bees and Kayapó
ceremonial name)
No information
várzea forest (imô)
hollows of medium to large trees
characteristic smell
long, tough black entrance tube, pointed downward next to the trunk
black body, clear wings
not aggressive (wajabóre)
Observations: large amounts of honey taken in dry season; lesser amounts of
honey taken in wet season; cerumen used to attach feathers and coat cotton thread,
as well as to make mê-kutôm; for other qualities, see imrê-nhy-kamrek.
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
Melipona melanoventer (menire-udjà, ‘vagina’)
No information
várzea forest (imô)
hollows of medium to large trees
no information
shaped like a vagina; made of earth and clay; opening for one bee only
thorax (ibum) yellow
not aggressive.
Observations: produce a very distinctive noise at night that helps to locate and
identify the bee; both honey and pollen are eaten; one of the ‘semi-domesticated’
Melipona rufiventris flavolineata (ngài-kumrenx, ‘true ngài,’ a family of
a) Direct flight when entering
b) light-penetrating forest (bà-ràràra/bà-kamrek)
c) tree hollows close to the ground (always less than one metre), frequently in
dead tree trunks
d) strong smell; easily detectable when colony is swarming (abem-o-watõ);
odour trail of swarm followed by Indians to locate new bee colony
e) mud (ngỳ) and bark fibbers (piã-õm); hidden inside tree hollow
f) yellow body
g) not aggressive.
Observations: honey very sweet and taken all year; ‘semi-domesticated’ in village
and old gardens (puru-tum, ibe-tum); distinctive sound at night used to locate
hive; bees followed from sides of rivers and igarapés when collecting water, mud,
and other materials.
Tetragona dorsalis (tôtn mỳre, ‘penis of armadillo’)
Circular, smooth flight before backing off to enter in a direct flight
high forest (bà-tyk)
hollows of trees
distinct smell from resins carried by bees
small entrance tube of resin; strong smell from resin; shaped like penis of
f) yellow body, white wings
g) not aggressive.
Observations: honey good all year; bees produce distinct noise when swarming;
odour trails of swarm followed by Indians to locate new nest; when new nest is
located, Indians wait five to ten years before opening to take honey; division of
Additional notes on the classification and knowledge of stingless bees
nest by bees occurs only in wet season; smoke from strong-smelling resins (collected by bees) used to purify houses and body to expel spirits and sickness;
resins burned as incense; cerumen and batumen also burned and smoke inhaled to
cure ‘dizziness’ or ‘craziness’ (eijbam). Nest located in forest by listening for call
of a bird (tô-wa-pêtê, Hypocnemis cf. candator) known to prey upon adult bees
near nests.
Tetragonisca angustula angustula (my-krwàt, ‘ridged long penis’)
Slow flight, circles, then retreats before entering in direct flight pattern
widespread, prefers light-penetrating forest
hollows of dead trees lying on ground
no information
thin tube of yellow cerumen
small, yellow
not aggressive (wajabore).
Observations: honey highly appreciated and taken all year; larvae and pollen
eaten; sound of colony at night not loud, but distinctive; bees caught in rain hide
under leaves for protection; if they cannot return to hive at night they die; worker
bees fly in straight lines from resources to nest and can be followed to find nest;
‘semi-domesticated’ near houses and old gardens; resin used to attach arrow
Trigona fulviventris (djô, significance of name unknown)
No information
margin of forest (bà-kot) and savanna (kapôt)
subterranean, often in termite nests (rorote)
no information
black tube with pieces of bark fibre
not aggressive.
Observations: honey taken all year, but of small amount; wax used for artefacts
and to produce medicinal smoke.
Collection, exploitation and social significance of Meliponinae
Honey, cerumen and other products associated with Meliponinae are important
economic elements in Kayapó society (Posey 1983f, Chapter 12 this volume).
One of the principal reasons men give for going to hunt is to procure honey.
Bee specialists in Gorotire are all shamans (wayanga), which is not surprising
because it was the ancient shamans who conceived the ‘natural model’ for Kayapó
social organization based upon social Hymenoptera studies (Posey 1981a,
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
1983d). One of the shamans’ secrets of finding bees is to walk at night listening
for the distinctive sounds of colonies ventilating their nests. Most Indians are
afraid to leave the village at night for fear of spirits (karõn); shamans, however, do
not fear karõn. They mentally mark, spatially and temporally, the nests heard at
night, then return in the day to observe the colonies. Of the colonies described in
this chapter (see preceding section), seven were located during night hunting
trips. Indians also locate nests by observing flight patterns of bees returning from
collection visits at river and stream margins. Indians have been observed (by
Posey) running quickly behind a bee to locate its colony. Trails of odour (mehnnhy-pry) of bee swarms are followed as though they were trails of game, such as
wild pig or tapir. Bees are believed always to fly upwind toward their nest when
leaving a food or water source. An Indian may observe for hours the flight patterns and activities of bees near flowers or margins of water.
Presence of a bee’s nest, once found by a Kayapó individual, is generally
announced in some public place (the Men’s House, ngà, or river landing, ngô kà)
so as to advise others of its discovery and intent by the finder to exploit the colony
at some future time. This is done by describing the nest’s habitat and geographical
location, as well as identifying the bee itself. The finder then has usufruct rights to
the colony. If another person raids the claimed colony, misunderstanding and
anger can result. Tirades against poachers are sometimes heard in the Men’s
House. Usufruct claims are strongest when bee colonies are located in the old gardens (puru-tum and ibe-tum) of the finder.
A variety of technologies is used to exploit colonies, depending on the nest
site, habitat and aggressiveness of the species. Nests of non-aggressive species
(wajabore) are simply opened with axes when the tree is not too large nor the nest
too high. With large trees, or extremely high nests, the Indians build a special
platform with ladders to get to the colony. This platform can be quite elaborate,
with several stages, all carefully constructed from poles tied together with vines.
In large trees or trees of very hard wood, holes are opened only large enough to
insert the hand and arm to pull out the brood and honey pots. Nests high in trees
of less than one metre circumference are taken by cutting down the tree. The
opening in the forest produced by the fallen tree (bà-krêti) is later utilized for
planting medicinal and food plants (see Posey 1983c, 1983e, 1984a). These forest
openings also attract game and birds for hunting. Thus exploitation of bees figures prominently in the overall system of forest management practised by the
Kayapó and leads to the diversification of floral and faunal species that occur in
the forest (Posey l984a).
Aggressive bees (akrê), such as Trigona amazonensis, Oxytrigona tataira and
Apis mellifera, are taken with fire and smoke. Dry leaves of palms and wild
banana are attached to long limbs and are set on fire. The burning, smoking mass
is held near the entrance of the nest to expel the bees. Sometimes trees are then
felled and fires built near the opening of the nest.
Another effective method of expelling aggressive bees is to put the shaving of
a highly toxic vine called kangàrà-kanê (Tanaecium nocturnum) into the nest
Additional notes on the classification and knowledge of stingless bees
opening (Kerr and Posey 1985). In a short time (one to four minutes) the volatile
components of the vine stun or kill enough bees so that the nest can be safely
opened. Leaves of the same plant are chewed, and the saliva–plant mixture is
passed over the body to prevent stings or bites from the bees. The Indians say that
the use of kangàrà-kanê is only to stun the bees, not to kill the colony; thus it is
left in the colony for only a short time.
We had the opportunity to observe the use of kangàrà-kanê by Kwyrà-kà with
Melipona rufiventris flavolineata. After a small ball (10 centimetres diameter) of
the shaving was put into the opened nest, bees began to die in only one and a half
minutes. Within four minutes the entire colony was dispersed or dead.
Nests of some species, including M. seminigra pernigra, M. melanoventer,
M. rufiventris flavolineata, Scaptotrigona nigrohirta and S. polystica, are
exploited year after year in the fields and forests. This is possible because after
opening the colonies and taking a portion of its contents, parts of the brood
comb, honey, pollen and cerumen are returned to the nest. The Kayapó say this
is to keep Bepkôrôrôti happy. Bepkôrôrôti is the spirit of an ancient shaman
who becomes angry if food is not shared (he has a particular penchant for
honey) and will send lightning and thunder to destroy those who are greedy (see
Chapter 12). Thus, Bepkôrôrôti not only functions to encourage sharing in the
tribe, but he also becomes the protector of bees and ensures the preservation of
bee colonies.
Nests of other species, for example Tetragonisca angustula, Trigona dallatorreana and T. cilipes, are taken to the village in their natural substrates or put into
special baskets called kangri that are made of banana and wild banana leaves.
We observed one colony of T. angustula being carried to the house of Kwyrà-kà
in a kangri to be ‘kept’ (õ-krit) in a cool, dark place in his house in Gorotire.
‘Semi-domesticated’ bees are considered õ-krit species and are listed in Table
General observations and notes
The Indians recognize many ecological relationships between bees and other
ecosystem components. Plants that produce flowers that attract bees are left to
grow, or are even planted, in gardens and alongside forest trails. The Kayapó say
that when there are many bees, there are abundant crops. The relationship
between bees and crop production, as well as the folk concept of pollination, is
yet to be studied in detail.
Relationships of bees with other animals are also recognized. For example, T.
chanchamayonensis is known to frequently nest with an ant called mrum-gogo
(still unidentified); Trigona cilipes likes to nest with another ant called mrumkudjà (Azteca sp.). Certain bees are also frequently found cohabiting in the same
tree or nest site, including Scaptotrigona polystica, T. clavipes, S. nigrohirta, S.
favisetis and T. truncata. Other bee species are always found alone, such as M.
compressipes fasciculata, M. rufiventris flavolineata, T. angustula, M. seminigra
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
Table 11.2 Bee species semi-domesticated by the Kayapó Indians
Kayapó name
Scientific name
ngài re
Scaptotrigona polystica (Moure)
Scaptotrigona nigrohirta Moure Ms.
Trigona dallatorreana (Friese)
Trigona cilipes pellucida (Ckll.)
Scaura longula (Lep.)
Melipona melanoventer Schwarz
Tetragonisca angustula angustula Latreille
Melipona rufiventris flavolineata Friese
Apis mellifera Linn.
Melipona compressipes cf. fasciculata (Smith)
Melipona seminigra pernigra Moure and Kerr
*These names represent revisions (corrections) in names used in previous publications (that is,
Posey 1983f,Table 3; and Posey 1983b,Table 2).
pernigra and M. melanoventer. Two wasps are known to be predators of bees;
these are amuh-kamrô-tyk and kukryt-anhoroti (identifications not yet made).
Certain bees of the imrê family (Lestromelitta limão Prov.) are known by the
Indians to rob honey, pollen and other nest materials from other colonies. Some
species of Scaptotrigona are likewise known to pillage nests of other bees. A
bumblebee, kungont (Bombus transversalis), is famous as a robber of pollen
(Weaver 1978). The mammal called krok-krok-ti (irará, Eira barbara) is despised
because it destroys the nests of the semi-domesticated species when searching for
its favourite food, honey. The small bird tõ-wa-pêtê (Hypocmenis cf. cantator)
helps the Indians locate bee hives because it sings when successful in its attack on
adult bees.
Another interesting phenomenon observed by the Indians is the coexistence of
commensal acarines inside the bee colonies. These acarines are called nhure and
are believed to be the property of the bees – each bee has its own nhure that it
raises (õ-krit) just as Indians raise dogs. The nhure are said to eat the trash left by
the bees (mehnõ-ja’um) just as village dogs clean up after the Indians.
In relation to the Africanized honey bee (Apis mellifera, generally known as
the ‘Brazilian bee’), the Kayapó are keenly aware of its presence and effect in the
region. They say that this bee (ngài-pere’y) arrived during the full moon in
February 1966. The Indians report that this bee began to attack and pillage ( ỳrwai-djà) the nests of Meliponinae. Likewise, the ngài-pere’y are so aggressive as
to attack other bees at flowers, particularly the flowers of inajâ (Maximiliana
regia), as well as at water sources near the margins of rivers and streams. Bees
that are particularly vulnerable to Apis mellifera are imrê-ti (S. polystica), imrênhy-kamrek (S. nigrohirta), udjy (M. seminigra pernigra), tôtn-my (Tetragona
dorsalis), my-krwàt (Tetragonisca angustula), among others. Currently the
aggressiveness of the ngài-pere’y is said to have diminished, thereby allowing the
Additional notes on the classification and knowledge of stingless bees
native bees to gather pollen and nectar peacefully and therefore to produce more
honey. The Kayapó do not like the Apis honey as well as that of the Meliponinae.
Apis honey is usually traded or sold, whereas meliponine honey is kept for local
The purpose of this study is not to compare indigenous knowledge of
Meliponinae with that of Western science, but to report indigenous knowledge to
aid our search for new ideas about stingless bees and bee behaviour. To this end,
we feel our work, although only in its beginning phases in relationship to the complexity and sophistication of Kayapó knowledge, has helped to define some
important and interesting areas for further biological research.
Characteristics used in Kayapó meliponine taxonomy are indeed similar to that
of Western science, although the reliance upon chemical qualities (odours) of
species needs to be further investigated. Likewise, bee behavioural groups recognized by the Indians (mehn-akrê, mehn-ôkabin-djwynh, mehn-ô-petx-djwynh)
could represent actual divisions of labour in addition to those currently accounted
for by age variations (see Kerr and Neto 1953; Hebling et al. 1964; Bassindale
1955; Sakagami 1982; Wille 1983).
Research to date documents communication by odour trails only for Trigona,
whereas in Melipona sound is thought to be the principal means of communication (Lindauer and Kerr 1960; Lindauer 1967; Esch et al. 1965; Kerr and Fales
1981; Kerr 1960; Kerr et al. 1963). The Kayapó, however, insist that other bees
have trails of odour as well, including M. rufiventris flavolineata, which has an
especially distinctive odour during swarming. Is there a chemical component in
communication and orientation of Melipona?
Acarine mites that live with Meliponinae are little studied until now
(Flechtmann and Camargo 1974; Rosa and Flechtmann 1983; Delfinado-Baker et
al. 1983) and are considered commensal. The Indians, however, believe the
species to be symbiotic. Can Indian knowledge give insights into this little-known
Ecological zones and microzones preferred by specific species of Meliponinae
is one of the specialities of the Kayapó, but these have not been systematically
studied. However, factors affecting the tendency of certain species to share or not
share habitats, as observed by the Indians, is of significance to ecological
research (Roubik 1979a, l979b, 1983).
Impact of the invasion of the Africanized Apis mellifera into new ecological
zones is also little known (Roubik 1979b, 1980, 1981, 1983), yet it has been carefully observed by the Kayapó and deserves further study.
Another important subject that must be considered in future research is to what
extent the Kayapó knowledge of biology is reflected in their social and cultural
systems. Are their beliefs about social bee behaviour (including social division of
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
labour, moving of colonies, aggressiveness and attacks, pillaging, defence, differential food distribution and other behaviour) really only anthropomorphic
explications of observed biological phenomena? Or, as the Kayapó insist, were
these social and cultural patterns really intentionally developed based upon ideas
and knowledge by an ancient shaman of social insect behaviour? Was Kayapó
society created upon an intentional ‘natural model’ or is it simply explained by a
‘natural reality?’ These are questions rarely raised by anthropologists or biologists, but should no longer be avoided.
Concluding remarks
This and other published works on Kayapó knowledge of meliponines represent
still only superficial treatment of a much larger and more complex body of
indigenous information about stingless bees. Further investigation of this knowledge will have to proceed with care and perseverance to ‘discover’ the more
intricate aspects of Kayapó folk science. Frequently the most interesting and
revealing cognitive structures and their logical constructions lie submerged in the
non-verbal realm of indigenous thought. The noted bee expert of the GorotireKayapó, Kwyrà-kà, for example, was able to separate for us quickly and
accurately numerous closely related Trigona species, but was unable to verbalize
the reasons for such decisions. This is because his knowledge of nature comes
from silently observing, rather than verbally analysing. Observations are registered in a gestalt manner along with a myriad of information regarding niche,
habitat, ecological zone, geographic coordinates and associated elements of the
same ecosystem.
Nonliterate societies depend upon symbols transmitted orally for the dissemination of knowledge. Myth, therefore, functions as a compact vehicle for the
transmission of ecological concepts (Posey 1983e). To understand myth and what
it really communicates to the people who understand its symbols, the scientist
must understand the symbolic language that generates and interprets the secrets
of oral tradition. Until this is done, the ethnobiologist can never evaluate the
validity of indigenous ideas about nature. Judgements of ideas as being ‘absurd’,
‘impossible’, ‘mere superstition’ or just ‘quaint, with no true scientific value’,
must be purged from the self-proclaimed superiority of ethnocentric western science. In the true spirit of scientific inquiry, however, hypotheses can be
generated, stimulated by indigenous ideas, and subsequently tested with proper
scientific rigour. In this manner, ethnobiological research offers an unequalled
philosophy and methodology for the enrichment and advancement of a world science.
One of the most valuable results of the investigation of Kayapó knowledge of
meliponines is the understanding of how stingless bees are seen by the Indians as
an integral part of a complex natural system. Clearings produced by trees felled to
take honey, for example, serve as garden openings where medicinal and edible
plants are planted and transplanted. Fruit trees and leafy vegetation also provide
Additional notes on the classification and knowledge of stingless bees
food for wildlife, with some species actually planted by the Indians to attract
desirable game animals (Posey 1985b). Thus management of bees is part of an
overall strategy for the conservation and exploitation of secondary forest.
It is precisely this type of integrated knowledge, based upon intricacies of
indigenous science, that offers many new ideas for those persons and institutions
interested in long-term, ecologically and socially sound plans for development
and conservation in the humid tropics (Parker et al. 1983; Posey, Frechione et al.
1984). Thus specific studies such as this one on Kayapó knowledge of
meliponines represent only initial stages of a truly comprehensive model of ethnobiological research. It is our hope that these notes will help to stimulate other
ethnobiological studies that will, in turn, expedite the creation of the larger model,
founded upon respect for other scientific systems and the urgency of their systematic study.
Chapter 12
Keeping of stingless bees by
the Kayapó Indians of Brazil 1
Previously I have pointed out the widespread use of insects by indigenous peoples
in the lowland tropics of the New World (Posey 1978, 1979e, 1980). Inevitably
stingless bees (Meliponinae) are one of the most valued insect resources. Beekeeping for the Maya of Mesoamerica, for example, was an elaborate science
(Schwartz 1948). For the Kayapó Indians of the middle Xingu region of Brazil,
bee-keeping is not as complicated as that of the Maya; however, knowledge and
utilization of stingless bees is well developed.
As an anthropologist with entomological training, I was initially attracted to
the role of bees in the Kayapó culture by the elaborate semantic domain of social
insects and by the extensive mythological corpus collected about social insects
(Posey 1981a). Social communities of Hymenoptera are thought to mirror
Kayapó communities; indeed, it is believed that Indians learned how to live as
social beings from an ancestral wise man (wayanga), who gained his knowledge
from the study of bee, wasp and ant behaviour (Posey 1979c, 1979e). This belief
serves as a social charter to the Kayapó to continue their observations of nature in
general and of Hymenoptera in particular, and accounts for their reputation as
keen ethologists (Posey 1981a, 1981d).
The social and ecological context
The Kayapó recognize three major ecological zones (see Table 8.1, page 61), and
native consultants (informants) were able to group stingless bees under these ecological zones with consistency, reflecting the various habitats frequented by the
specific folk species of bees. A morphological taxonomic system also exists
(Chapters 9, 10, 11 this book), but the ability of the Indians to identify most bees out
of their habitats is unreliable. A few species are widely known by men and women
and can even be identified away from their nests (e.g. Apis mellifera, Melipona
rufiventris flavolineata, and Trigona dallatorreana). These are recognized by general morphological features such as body colour, markings and relative size. Out of
a village population of approximately 600, I found only two bee ‘experts’ who are
Keeping of stingless bees by the Kayapó Indians of Brazil
reasonably consistent in identifying folk species from morphological characteristics
alone. Both bee specialists were males. Women know little about bees since the collection of honey and wax rests within the male social domain.
During the dry season, groups of men often go off for days to procure honey.
Honey is constantly sought on hunting trips and is highly prized. Meat and gathered foods are generally brought to the village and given to the wife or wife’s
mother (the eldest female of the household). She then distributes the meat or produce as she pleases among relatives. This is not the case with honey: a man is free
to distribute honey as he pleases. Rarely does any honey ever reach the village,
however, for it is usually drunk at the collection site.
The Indians make honey containers on the spot from multiple layers of banana
leaves. The leaves are folded upward to form a collection vessel. When no honey
remains in the vessel, the leaves are licked to glean the last drops that may have
escaped through the leaf cracks.
The Kayapó masticate the thick bases of stalks of wild ginger until an absorbent
brush-like object is produced. This is dipped into the honey and pulled through the
mouth. This is an efficient way for several people to consume honey at the same
time. Some Kayapó dispense with any proprieties and drink the honey like water. I
have no data on how much honey is consumed by the average Kayapó in a year,
however I have seen a single Indian boy drink a half-litre of honey in one sitting.
The Kayapó men like to drink honey until they feel light-headed (Posey 1981d).
Often sections of the nest combs that are filled with larvae, pupae or pollen are
also eaten. These have a very light, wafer-like texture and taste and are excellent
when eaten with the honey, and are as highly prized as the honey itself (see Table
8.7, page 75).
When honey is removed from the hive, a portion of the brood comb and honey is
always left behind for Bepkôrôrôti, a powerful shaman who was taken into the sky
in a flash of lightning. Functionally this secures the perpetuation of certain species
that will return to re-colonize. He resides in the clouds, or rather is the clouds, and
sends lightning, thunder and rain. Anyone who does not share with Bepkôrôrôti and
his fellow Kayapó risks being struck by lightning.
Honey, wax and bees are associated with the heavens and rains because of
Bepkôrôrôti’s penchant for honey. Beeswax is burned to produce a smoke that is
believed to attract storm clouds and rains. The smoke is also believed to repel evil
spirits, purge houses from lingering ancestral spirits, and protect children from
Beeswax is also used for many Kayapó artefacts. In most cases I was unable to
ascertain if the beeswax had special ceremonial importance in artefact production, or if it served purely functional purposes.
Feathers and bow points are cemented into arrows with beeswax. Wax is also
used to strengthen and lubricate bow strings. Black wax is used to darken cotton
string that is used in making various wooden and bone artefacts (Posey 1979e).
The most impressive article made from beeswax is the mẽ-kutôm, a hat worn
by young men about to receive ceremonial names. The beeswax for these hats is
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
inherited and stored as a ball in a hole in the earthen floor of the family’s house.
At the time of a name-giving ceremony, the wax ball is exhumed and formed into
the mẽ-kutôm by a male relative of the boy.
The form of the mẽ-kutôm is highly symbolic (Figure 12.1). The front point of
the mẽ-kutôm is called the ‘morning sky pole’ (kàikwa kratx); the rounded back is
the ‘evening sky pole’ (kàikwa-not). These poles represent the beginning and ending points of the sun’s path across the sky. The two ‘legs’ (pa) are equivalent to
north and south cardinal directions. There are painted patches on the pa that represent the idealized geographical relationships between village and fields. The
village is the nhi-pôk, or centre circle. The circle also represents the sun. The
smaller circle inside the nhi-pôk represents the moon superimposed over the sun.
The painted paths from the sky poles indicate the paths of the sun and moon
through the sky (kàikwa) and over the earth (pyka).
From a side view (Figure 12.2), the mẽ-kutôm represents another plane and the
relationship between sky and earth. The wax hat itself is seen as a floating, somewhat concave, disc with small ‘feet’ (pa). The circle ( nhi-pôk) as seen from above
is really an elevated hump into which is inserted a thin stick. Onto the stick is
woven an arch of bamboo and cotton. Macaw feathers are inserted into the bamboo to produce a radiating arc of red and blue feathers. This represents the sky
(kàikwa). The Kayapó believe they once lived above the sky and lowered themselves to the earth by means of a woven cotton rope that was dropped through an
armadillo hole. The stick represents the cotton string that once brought the
Kayapó from the upper world to the earth (Posey l98lb).
It is said that the wax used for the mẽ-kutôm is the same as that brought by the
ancient Kayapó from the sky. It is a direct and highly valued link with the very
origins of Kayapó culture. It is the one material continuity the Kayapó of today
have with their most ancient ancestors.
The Kayapó recognize six species whose nests can be raided and, if the queen and
part of the brood chamber are returned to the nest, the bees will return to re-estab-
Figure 12.1 An overview of the mẽ-kutôm, showing major symbolic components.
Keeping of stingless bees by the Kayapó Indians of Brazil
Figure 12.2 A lateral view of the mẽ-kutôm, showing the symbolic relationships between
earth (pyka) and sky (kàikwa).
lish the colony. Thus there are trees known by, and in a sense owned by, certain
Kayapó men that are consistently raided year after year.
The Kayapó also ‘keep’ several species in or nearby their houses. For example,
when nests of certain species of Trigona (T. dallatorreana and one unidentified
species) are found in the forest, they are brought back still attached to their limbs
and the complete nests erected from an eave of the house. Yet other species
(Trigona amalthea and Melipona rufiventris flavolineata) are brought with the
nest intact in a hollow log and placed at the margin of the forest near the village or
field clearing. Other species (Trigona cilipes and Scaura longula) tend to prefer
building sites in exposed rafters of houses and are allowed to coexist with the
household residents. The nests of all of these ‘kept’ species are raided at prescribed times when the honey cache is known to be optimal.
The Kayapó also encourage the establishment of bee nests in their fields. To do
this, they sometimes dig large holes or utilize existing armadillo holes. Into these
holes they place logs, which attract several Trigona species (including T. fuscipennis Friese). T. fulviventris guinae Ckll. nests directly in the earthen walls of the
hole. The presence of bees is associated by the Kayapó with crop success,
although there is no clear notion of pollination per se. I do not know about the
actual role of pollination by these species.
In my collection of bees from Gorotire, 56 folk species were discerned. J. M. F.
Camargo, Universidade de São Paulo, Riberao Preto, kindly inspected and identified the Gorotire collection.2 He found 66 scientifically recognized species of
which 11 were unknown or as yet not described (one species of Frieseomelitta;
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
two of Partamona; one of Tetragona; two of Centris; three of Megachile; one of
Mesoplia; and one of Tetrapedia).
In a normative comparison between folk and scientific species, therefore, we
find that there is approximately an 86 per cent correlation. Such high correlative
quotients are not uncommon (Berlin 1973; Hunn 1975).
Chapter 13
Ethnopharmacological search
for antiviral compounds:
treatment of gastrointestinal
disorders by Kayapó medical
specialists 1
Known antiviral compounds still present significant drawbacks, such as a narrow
spectrum of activity, limited therapeutic usefulness and variable degrees of toxicity
(Van den Berghe et al. 1978). On the other hand, the prevalence of virally related
diseases is of growing concern; therefore, the development of new and better
antiviral compounds is desirable. It has been shown that viruses respond differently to plant extracts, and suggested that natural products are preferable to
synthetic compounds as sources of new antiviral agents (Van den Berghe et al.
1978; Vlietinck and Van den Berghe 1991).
The study of flora in general, and medicinal plants in particular, has been considered a fruitful approach in the search for new drugs (Svendsen and Scheffer 1982;
Samuelson 1989; Farnsworth 1990). Plant collections for drug discovery can follow
different approaches, including the random collection of plants, collections guided
by chemotaxonomy, and collections based on ethnopharmacological data. Because
medical systems as products of particular cultures are enormously varied in terms of
health practices and beliefs, detailed ethnography is needed to select plants that may
be sources of cross-culturally effective drugs. It is through the correlation of traditional therapeutic practices with Western biomedical concepts that species can be
selected and scrutinized for particular pharmacological activities (Elisabetsky and
Setzer 1985). Selection of species that are claimed by humans to have a given clinical activity may constitute a valuable short-cut for drug discovery.
Ethnopharmacologically based strategies have been applied to several therapeutic
areas, such as cancer (Duke 1986; Cordell et al. 1991), immunomodulators
(Labadie, Van der Nat et al. 1989), allergy (Elisabetsky and Gély 1987; Wagner
1989), contraceptives (Xiao and Wang 1991), analgesics (Elisabetsky and Castilhos
1990), antimalarial agents (Phillipson and Wright 1991; Brandão et al. 1992),
antidiarrhoeal/antimicrobial compounds (Caceres et al. 1990; Heinrich et al. 1992a,
1992b) and antiviral agents (Vlietinck and Van den Berghe 1991).
Gastrointestinal disorders are frequently associated with viral diseases:
rotavirus is responsible for at least 50 per cent of infections that lead to acute diarrhoea (Krej 1988). We offer in this chapter an analysis of Kayapó treatment of
gastrointestinal disorders, which might be useful for the selection of plant species
as potential sources of antiviral compounds.
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
Intellectual, cultural and scientific property
The authors of this chapter embrace the principles of the Covenant on
Intellectual, Cultural and Scientific Property developed by the Global Coalition
for Biological and Cultural Diversity (for the full text of the Covenant, see Posey
and Dutfield 1996: 175–8. See also Elisabetsky and Posey 1993: 227). The data
were obtained with full consent of the Kayapó people. The chapter is published in
the spirit of joint partnership with the Kayapó to advance knowledge for the benefit of all humanity. Any information used from it for commercial or other ends
should be properly cited and acknowledged: any commercial benefits that should
accrue directly or indirectly should be shared with the Kayapó people.
Research for this chapter was carried out in Gorotire where D. A. Posey has conducted ethnobiological research since 1977. This chapter is based on a
collaborative effort with E. Elisabetsky, who made two trips to the village (one
month each) in November 1983 and April 1984. Plant collections during these
trips were made by Dr Anthony Anderson; these are currently deposited in the
Herbarium of the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi, Belém, Pará, Brazil. Additional
visits to the village by E. Elisabetsky in 1985 and 1986 provided complementary
data and concepts.
Our principal informants were Kwyrà-kà, Beptopoop (two shamans or
wayanga) and José Uté and Tereza (noted medicinal plant knowers or mẽkute
pidjà mari). Basic ethnobotanical information was collected by E. Elisabetsky
and D.A. Posey in the field, with subsequent ethnopharmacological interviews in
the project house. Additional sessions were held to discuss the more general concepts of Kayapó diseases, their symptoms and cures. Both concepts and plants
were discussed with these four key informants, as well as with members of the
village in general.
Between 1987 and 1989 contacts with Kayapó Indians, both in Belém and at
the FUNAI Hospital in Icoaraci, were frequent. Time spent with Paiakan and his
family, at that time living in Belém, was used for clarifying concepts on Kayapó
life in general and their medical system and practices in particular.
Kayapó medical system
It is beyond the purpose of this chapter to describe fully the intricate medical system and practices of the Kayapó (Bamberger 1967; Elisabetsky and Posey 1988,
1991). Points relevant to understanding medical uses of species dealt with in this
chapter are discussed.
Disease epidemics often preceded by months or years what was considered
‘first contact’ with indigenous groups (see Chapter 2). Trade routes and extensive
travelling brought remote indigenous peoples into contact with groups already
Ethnopharmacological search for antiviral compounds
infected with kuben kanẽ (non-Indian diseases) (see Chapter 2). Traders or raiding
parties then spread the diseases and/or brought them back to their villages.
‘Permanent contact’ with the Kayapó was not established until 1936. Missionaries
and FUNAI (the Brazilian Indian Agency) routinely used Western medical treatment to secure contact with Indian groups. According to Horace Banner, one of
the first Protestant missionaries to live with the Kayapó, the inhabitants of
Gorotire had little choice but to establish peaceful relations with the White Man,
because they were weak from kuben kanẽ and had been reduced to only 250 people; within a year that number had fallen to only 85. Such a demographic collapse
obviously had profound effects on all aspects of Kayapó society, especially their
health and medical beliefs. Medicines brought into the region by the
Unevangelized Fields Missions were attributed with saving entire Kayapó villages (such as Kubẽn-krã-kein and Kokrajmoro) in the 1950s. Such ‘miracles’
convinced the Kayapó that kuben medicine was powerful, although they never
abandoned their traditional cures.
The Kayapó are unanimous in insisting that prior to the arrival of kuben kanê,
Indians died only from old age or accidents, not from diseases. With the arrival of
white people, however, deadly new diseases appeared along with a general weakening (mẽtykdjà) of the Indians that permitted their own diseases to become more
powerful and deadly. Today, there is generally a clear distinction between what is
a non-Indian disease (kuben kanẽ) treated with non-Kayapó medicine and what is
an Indian disease (mêbengôkre kanẽ) treated with traditional medicine.
Sociological considerations
Medical specialization must be viewed within the sociological (emic) context of
local concepts of life, death, illness and curing (Fabrega 1975). Curers amongst
the Kayapó can be classified into two basic categories: mẽ kute pidjà mari (medicinal plant knowers) and wayanga (shaman). The former deal only with
non-spiritual diseases, while the latter also manipulate spirits in their curing
methods; both cure with a variety of plants and plant concoctions. Our survey of
the village in 1984 showed that five per cent of the population were considered as
wayanga, with 26 per cent of the population being considered as practitioners in
one or more disease specialities.
To understand the nature of the power of the wayanga to cure, one must understand how a person can become a shaman. This transformation was explained to
D.A. Posey by Beptopoop in Gorotire in 1978 (see Chapter 6). A wayanga is
capable of leaving his/her body (kà) and being transformed into other physical
forms. The energy (karõn) can be stored temporarily in rocks, but inevitably gets
transformed into armadillos, doves or bats. The spider’s web represents the barrier
between the visible and invisible worlds. Armadillos are persistent animals that
know how to burrow under the web; doves are powerful fliers and can break
through the barrier; while bats are such skilful fliers that they can manoeuvre
through the strands.
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
The most powerful shamans can transform themselves into not just one of the
animals, but all of them. Once on the other side of the spider’s web, after passing
through the endless dark chasm, they enter into the spectral frequency for each
animal (mry-karõn). Some shamans learn the secrets of only one or a few animals
and their energies, while others ‘know all’ (in the words of the myth). They have
learned about all of the spectral frequencies and their respective animal energies.
Upon return to their bodies, the wayanga begin to ‘work with’ (nhipex) the animal energies encountered in their transformations. There are literally dozens of
different specialists (Elisabetsky and Posey 1985, 1991). The basis of the ‘work’
is to maintain a balance between animal energies and human energies (see
Chapter 4). Eating the meat of, coming in contact with, or even dreaming about
animals can cause an imbalance in these energies, as can a well-elaborated list of
antisocial actions. Wayanga use a great variety of techniques for restoring balance, but plants are the most common ‘mediators’ (Elisabetsky and Posey 1991).
Plants have qualities that can either harm or help the balance between human and
animal energies – indeed, most Indians say that all plants have curative values.
In any case, the Kayapó respect both plants and animals, because their energies
are keys to the health of the Kayapó society. Permission is asked when taking the
life of an animal, and songs of appreciation are offered to the spirits of the dead
animals. Likewise, annual rituals extol the importance of plants and instill a great
sense of respect for their overall role in the socioecological balance (see Chapter
4). The Kayapó have no question about their existence and future health being
dependent upon plants and animals and the forces of nature.
Kayapó diseases that include gastrointestinal disorders
Hàk kanê (bird disease) and tep kanê (fish disease) are two major classes of diseases that include gastrointestinal symptoms as important markers. Hàk kanê is
associated with dizziness and diarrhoea. Tep kanê is associated with diarrhoea,
yellow body and generalized pain. Gastrointestinal disorders, with or without
diarrhoea, can have both spirit and non-spirit causes. Spirit-related diseases are
difficult to evaluate in ethnopharmacological research, because cultural factors
are too complex to be easily interpreted. All Kayapó diseases, however, include
some treatment practices that lend themselves to field and laboratory evaluation.
For the Kayapó, gastrointestinal disorders can have spirit-based sources transmitted by the wrong food that is eaten by a child’s father or some other relative.
Food taboos help differentiate age grades and lineage groups. Dietary infringements cause a spiritual/social imbalance that, in turn, causes the child to become
sick without any direct contact with the relative. Sometimes food can be improperly hunted, collected, cleaned or prepared and, through eating the food, the
person gets sick; a mother can contaminate her child through her milk. All circumstances are common with hàk and tep kanê.
Whether a disease is spirit related or not is not always obvious to the specialist
(mẽ kutê pidjà mari). Frequently, the illness is considered to be spirit based when
Ethnopharmacological search for antiviral compounds
Table 13.1 Plant species used to treat hàk kanê and tep kanê
Plant species used to treat hàk kanê
Part of plant
Flower, leaf
Whole plant
Whole plant
Whole plant
Leaf, sap
Whole plant
External, oral
Whole plant
Whole plant
Whole plant
Whole plant
Whole plant
Oral, sniff
External, oral
External, sniff
Sniff, stuff nose
Mandevilla cf scabra K. Schum
M. tenuifolia (Mikan) Wood.
Aristolochia sp.
Barjonia sp.
Blepharodon sp.
Arrabidaea cf. cinnamomea
(DC) Sandw.
Protium unifoliolatum Engl.
Terminalia sp.
Wulffia baccata Kunt.
Rourea induta Planch.
Sapium poeppigii Hemsl.
Sebastiania corniculata
Coutoubea ramosa Aubl.
Whole plant
Olyra latifolia L.
Cassia sp.
Desmodium adscandens DC
Periandra heterophylla Bentz.
Whole plant
Whole plant
Whole plant
Whole plant
Phaseolus sp.
Whole plant
Spigelia anthelmia L.
Whole plant
1010 Utricularia oliverana Steyerm.
Byrsonima aerugo Sargot.
Diplopterys pauciflora Niedenzo
Miconia barbigera DC
Ashes of
whole plant
Whole plant
Whole plant
Whole plant
eye drops,
nose drops
External, oral
Drops in eyes,
ears, nose,
mouth; oral
Drops in eyes,
ears, nose and
mouth; sniff
Eye drops,
nose drops
Cissampelos tropaeolifolia DC
Heliconia psittacorum Sw.
Ouratea hexasperma
var. planchonii Baill.
Oxalis barrelieri Willd. ex Zucc.
Whole plant
Whole plant
Whole plant
Whole plant
Drops in eyes,
ears, nose and
mouth; external,
External, oral
Eye drops, nose
drops, oral
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
Table 13.1 Continued
Part of plant
Desmoncus sp.
Borreria sp. G.F.W. Mey
Whole plant
Whole plant
Faramea egensis M.Arg.
Geophila gracilis DC
Whole plant
Whole plant
Palicourea quadrifolia
(Rudg.) Steyerm.
Psychotria sp.
Spiranthera odoratissima
St. Hil.
Whole plant
Whole plant
Eye drops
Eye drops; drops
in eyes, ear and
Drops in eyes,
ears, nose and
Eye drops, nose
drops, oral
Drops in eyes,
ears, nose,
Plant species used to treat tep kanê
Part of plant
Whole plant
Fruit, flower, bark
Whole plant
External, oral
Whole plant
Fruit, stem
Whole plant
Whole plant
Whole plant
Ruellia sp.
Annona coriacea Mart.
Annona crassifolia Mart.
Mandevilla tenuifolia
(Mikan) Wood.
724 Aristolochia sp.
767 Helosis cayenensis Spreng.
766 Cleome gulanensis Aubl.
796 Vernonia herbacea Rusby
1003 Croton aff. agraphilius M.Arg.
727 Coutoubea ramosa Aubl.
655 Arachis sp.
649 Sauvagesia erecta L.
788 Passiflora alata Dryand
Piper snethlagei Yucker
Polypodium phyllitidis L.
Psychotria lupulina Benth.
Anemia oblongifolia Sw.
Zingiber officinale Rosc.
Xyris sp.
External, oral
External, oral
External, oral
Drops in eyes,
ears, nose and
mouth; external, oral
Whole plant
Whole plant
Leaf, whole plant External, oral
Whole plant
External, oral
Whole plant
Ethnopharmacological search for antiviral compounds
normal cures are unsuccessful or symptoms worsen after treatment.
Simultaneously occurring sicknesses also complicate diagnosis and usually
wayanga are called in for evaluation and treatment. A series of wayanga may be
consulted before the correct specialist is found.
Kayapó pharmacy
The Kayapó are precise in regard to their traditional pharmacological technique and posology. Modes of preparation of medicines include: plants
prepared with cold or warm water, plants mixed with cold water then left to
boil, plant sap extracted by squeezing, plants heated over fire, plants crushed
and mixed with Genipa americana (genipapo) and charcoal or with Bixa orellana for body painting. The principal ways to administer a medicine are: cold
tea, hot tea, topical baths of specific parts or the whole body, external topical
application (heated leaf or sap) over affected areas, drops in eyes, nose or ears,
rubbing on the face or affected areas, wrapping bark around affected parts of
the body, sleeping on top of a plant, sniffing, inhaling the smoke and stuffing
in the nose.
Each treatment includes the time of day a medicine will be given, almost
always between one and five times daily. Times are indicated by pointing to the
sky, with the temporal points being: sunrise, mid-morning, noon, mid-afternoon
and sunset. A specific number of days is prescribed, depending upon the diagnosis by the curer. Most treatments require medication for between one and five
days, although some are indicated for ‘use as long as needed’. Dosage is adjusted
for each patient, especially infants and children. Certain curers have preferences
for modes of preparation and application of their medicines.
Results and discussion
Plants used for tep kanê include 19 species, distributed among 18 genera and 18
families (see Table 13.1); most treatments are internal. Plants used for hàk kanê
include 34 species, distributed among 33 genera and 21 families (see Table 13.1);
most of these treatments are also internal. Plants used for diarrhoea include seven
species, distributed among six genera and five families (Table 13.2); all species
are given orally. All the plants listed are prepared in water.
Several classes of natural substances such as alkaloids (e.g. castanospermine,
lycorine and papaverine), polyphenolic compounds, phenolic glycosides, tannins, lectins, protein polysaccharide complexes, sulphated polysaccharides,
mixtures of sugars, proteins and inorganic elements, flavonoids, flavones and
saponins are reported to posses antiviral activity (Ieven et al. 1982; Van Hoof et
al. 1984, 1989; Vlietinck and Van den Berghe 1991). Flavones, a class of
flavonoids, are of special interest because they have attractive antiviral mechanisms of action, a pronounced and broad spectrum of activity and do not show
induction of resistance.
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
Table 13.2 Plant species used to treat diarrhoea1
Collection Species
Part of plant
Whole plant
Fruit, root
Flower, leaf
Sap, whole plant
Psittacanthus biternatus Blume
Struthanthus marginatus (Desr.) Don
Eugenia punicaefolia DC
Palicourea cf. crocea Schlecht.
Selaginella penniformis (Lam.) Hieron
Qualea grandiflora Mart.
Q. multiflora Mart.
All plant extracts are given orally; those of S. penniformis may also be applied externally.
Most genera employed by the Kayapó for the treatment of gastrointestinal disorders include species that contain classes of compounds relevant to antiviral
activity, or are related to species used by other peoples for viral diseases or gastrointestinal troubles. Among medicinal species used by several Amazonian
Indians, for instance, Ruellia colorata is used by the Kofán as a vermifuge and
vomitive and Ruellia aff. malacosperma is used for diarrhoea, measles and fever
(Schultes and Rauffauf 1990).
Among the Annonaceae, Heinrich et al. (1992a, b) report that Annona muricata is used in Mexico for diarrhoea; Caceres et al. (1990) report that Annona
cherimola, A. muricata and A. reticulata are used in Guatemala for diarrhoea; and
Grenand et al. (1987) found that Annona ambotay and Annona haematantha are
used in French Guyana as febrifuges. Also in French Guyana, Aristolochia staheli
is used as a febrifuge; Aristolochia leprieurii is used for diarrhoea; and
Aristolochia trilobata for hepatitis and malaria (Grenand et al. 1987). Ieven et al.
(1979) report that Aristolochia elegans and Aristolochia forckelii have antibacterial activity against Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas
aeruginosa. Helosis guyanensis is used for diarrhoea and dysentery.
Among the Bignoniaceae, Arrabidea chica is used by the Tikuna for common
conjunctivitis (especially in children), whereas they use Arrabidea xanthophylla
for serious conjunctivitis (Schultes and Rauffauf 1990). Several Protium species
are used for relieving nasal congestion associated with colds (Schultes and
Rauffauf 1990). Wulffia baccata is used in Guyana for colds, nausea and as a
febrifuge (Grenand et al. 1987). Byrsonima species are rich in tannins and
Byrsonima ciliata is used by the Kubeo for diarrhoea and is said to be very effective (Schultes and Rauffauf 1990). Several species of Eugenia (like Eugenia
uniflora) are used in Brazil for diarrhoea; their effect is usually attributed to the
high tannin content of many species of this genus. Eugenia florida and Eugenia
patrissi are used by Indians for treatment of respiratory problems (Schultes and
Rauffauf 1990). Heinrich et al. (1992b) report antibacterial and antifungal activ-
Ethnopharmacological search for antiviral compounds
ity for Eugenia acapulcensis, used orally to treat diarrhoea and dysentery by the
Mixe in Mexico.
Among the Gentianaceae, Grenand et al. (1987) report that Coutoubea ramosa
is used as a vermifuge and febrifuge. Miconia barbigera is used in Guyana to
treat dysentery (Grenand et al. 1987). Cissampelos pareira is used in Mexico for
diarrhoea and dysentery (Heinrich et al. 1992a) and in Guatemala for diarrhoea,
dysentery, stomach pains and worms (Caceres et al. 1990). Ieven et al. (1979)
report that Heliconia psittacorum has activity against S. aureus, E. coli and
Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
Very little is known about the chemistry of Ochnaceae, but tannins and
flavonoids were reported in Sauvagesia species; Sauvagesia erecta is used by the
Siona for stomach-ache and other Sauvagesia species are used by the Kofan for
stomach pains (Schultes and Rauffauf 1990). According to Grenand et al. (1987)
S. erecta is used in French Guyana as a febrifuge.
Species of Passifloraceae are known to contain alkaloids, phenols and tannins.
Passiflora cumbalensis and Passiflora killipiana are used for treating fever,
whereas Passiflora phaeocaula is used for conjunctivitis and Passiflora serratodigitata for eye inflammation (Schultes and Rauffauf 1990). According to
Caceres et al. (1990), Passiflora ligularis is used for diarrhoea, dysentery, stomach pains and indigestion in Guatemala. Passiflora edulis is active against
Pseudomonas aeruginosa (Ieven et al. l 979) and devoid of antiviral activity (Van
den Berghe et al. 1978). Grenand et al. (1987) report the use of Passiflora coccinea for conjunctivitis and Passiflora laurifolia as a vermifuge.
Species of Piperaceae are commonly used in many medical systems. Ethereal
oils, mono- and sesquiterpenes, phenyl propanoids, polyphenols, lignans and alkaloids were reported to be present in the family and alkaloids are common in the
genus Piper. Piper arboretum is used to treat stomach poisoning; Piper augustus
and Piper caudatum are used as carminatives; Piper futuri is for ‘sick stomach’
and Piper macerispicum for stomach pains (Schultes and Rauffauf 1990).
Faramea (Rubiaceae) are little known chemically but alkaloids were found in
two Brazilian species: Faramea anisocalyx is used to treat food poisoning;
Faramea glandulosa and Faramea saliafolia are used for fever (Schultes and
Rauffauf 1990). Palicourea species are known to be bioactive and sometimes
highly toxic: Palicourea buntigii is used for respiratory problems, Palicourea
corymbifera for persistent cough and chest ailments, Palicourea crocea as an
emetic after food poisoning from fish or meat, and Palicourea guianensis as a
vermifuge (Schultes and Rauffauf 1990).
The genus Psychotria is rich in bioactive alkaloids: Psychotria brachiata is
used for problems in breathing, Psychotria capitata for severe colds, Psychotria
egensis as an emetic, Psychotria poeppigiana for pulmonary ailments and
Psychotria rufescens for dysentery. Psychotria lupulina is reported to yield strong
positives in alkaloid tests (Schultes and Rauffauf 1990).
From the relatively unknown Vochysiaceae, deoxyflavones were isolated;
Qualea acuminata is used as a vermifuge (Schultes and Rauffauf 1990).
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
Therefore for at least 18 genera there is additional evidence for biological
activity and/or related use relevant to Kayapó treatment and usage. Interestingly,
for the Kayapó nearly all plants take their names from the diseases they are used
to treat. Thus the plant ‘families’ of tep kanê and hàk kanê are based not on morphological characteristics, but rather on functional similarities that cover a wide
range of Western taxonomic botanical families.
In the search for plant-derived antiviral agents, the screening of a relatively low
number of randomly selected plants has afforded a remarkably high number of
active leads in comparison with screening of synthetic compounds. Comparing different approaches of plant collecting, Vlietinck and Van den Berghe (1991) showed
that folk-based collections give a five times higher rate (circa 25 per cent) of active
leads, whereas random collections offer fewer leads but more novel compounds.
It is noteworthy that natural substances interfere with a range of viral targets,
which can mean that they show mechanisms of action complementary to those of
existing antiviral drugs. Because natural products are known to yield prototypic
drugs, with innovative mechanisms of action, the end-points of screens must be
carefully selected and interpreted in order to avoid false negatives. In vivo assays
continue to be the stepping-stone between in vitro evaluation and human trials.
Too often, the therapeutic ratio of active compounds is inadequate. This may be in
part because the concentrations in target tissues are not sufficient under dosing
conditions owing to species-specific characteristics of absorption, tissue distribution, metabolism and excretion (Vlietinck and Van den Berghe 1991). As a result,
election of species claimed by humans to be therapeutically useful in the treatment of viral conditions might be a very significant gain in the research and
development of antiviral drugs.
The Kayapó have great faith in their medicines for treatment of ‘their’ diseases. They offer us an interesting list of candidates as potential sources of
antiviral compounds. The diversity of genera and species included in these lists is
unlikely to be obtained by following any chemotaxonomy based strategy. These
species should be considered with the seriousness deserving of the original discoverers, because their medical concepts are still the best guides to biomedical
evaluation and understanding of the parameters of their diseases.
Chapter 14
Use of contraceptive and
related plants by the Kayapó
Indians (Brazil) 1
Contraceptive drugs are widely used today, but they still present a series of undesired side-effects. Safer contraceptives are becoming increasingly important in
countries where there is a growing consciousness of the benefits of family planning, both in individual and social contexts. Natural products as a whole, and
medicinal plants in particular, have historically contributed ‘prototype drugs’
(Malone 1983) to the medical sciences. Such drugs have completely different
chemical structures to existing agents, and entirely different medical applications.
The discovery of each new prototype drug has resulted in major changes in medical practices, and evidence of the interest in plant sources for prototypic
contraceptive agents has been provided by a World Health Organization programme devised specifically for this purpose (WHO 1977) and numerous
investigations (see Farnsworth et al. 1975 for review).
Traditional medical systems view illness, curing and human physiology as a
series of interrelationships between nature, supernature, society and the individual (Fabrega 1975). Research projects aiming to evaluate the pharmacological
effects of traditional medicines would have a significantly better success rate if
native medical concepts were taken into account in the generation of working
hypotheses (Wassen 1979; Davis and Yost 1983; Elisabetsky and Setzer 1985).
If ethnopharmacological information on the use, preparation and posology of
ethnomedicines is not carefully analysed from a culturally relativistic perspective, then the selection of plants to be evaluated by biomedical methods will
inevitably include those used to treat diseases not recognized by western medicine. This could limit the cross-cultural application of prototype drugs.
The purpose of this chapter is to present ethnopharmacological data on concepts of fertility and conception held by the Kayapó Indians of Brazil’s Amazon
Basin. It is hoped that such data can promote and improve design of scientific
investigations aimed to test for cross-cultural effectiveness of drugs affecting
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
Chronology and methods
The results reported in this chapter are based on general data on the Kayapó collected by Posey since 1977, and specific botanical and ethnomedical data were
collected during three visits of approximately one month each, by Elisabetsky and
Posey in November 1983, March 1984 and October 1985. The botanical field collections were made with the assistance of Dr Anthony B. Anderson and his
assistant Carlos Rosario, Department of Botany, Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi,
Belém, Pará, where the material is deposited in the Murça Pires Herbarium.
Collection numbers (CN) listed in Table 14.1 refer to the filed numbers of
voucher material, and those with an ‘S-’ prefix refer to specimens collected as
sterile material.
Ethnopharmacological data were collected from informants during the botanical survey and collecting trips. Additional ethnographic data were subsequently
recorded in the village using dried specimens, which also served to cross-check
informants’ responses in the field. At least three informants were consulted for
each plant, with additional random information acquired from approximately 40
men and women.
The Kayapó medical system
The Kayapó Indians maintain a complex and active traditional medical system
despite several decades of contact with Western missionaries, medical and paramedical professionals (Elisabetsky and Posey 1985). They make a distinction
between their own diseases (mêbengôkre kanê) and those brought by white people
(kuben kanẽ). Since the introduction of white people’s diseases, to which they
have no acquired immunity, their general health has become increasingly poor,
and the Kayapó state that this weakness accentuates the negative effects of native
diseases. Disease almost caused the complete disappearance of the Kayapó in the
middle of the twentieth century (Verswijver 1985; Posey 1987c). The appearance
of diseases unknown to the Indians defied native curers, shook their confidence in
their traditional medicines, and opened a ready door for Western medicine. Today,
both traditional and Western systems have their own niches in Kayapó society.
Within the traditional Kayapó system there are two major classes of diseases:
those caused by spirits (karõn) and those of non-spiritual origin (karõn ket).
These appear to correspond to what Foster (1976) calls naturalistic/personalistic
diseases. In general, spiritual diseases are regarded as more difficult to treat and,
therefore, more dangerous. As with other aspects of Kayapó classification, systems boundaries are frequently obscured by overlapping elements (Posey 1983c);
thus, a disease may have both physical and spiritual causes.
The Kayapó recognize two major kinds of medical professionals: wayanga, the
‘true shamans’, who are able to deal with physical as well as spiritual diseases;
and the mẽ kutê pidjà mari (literally, ‘the ones who know medicines’), who prescribe medicines for diseases caused by non-spiritual agents. Both are paid for
Use of contraceptive and related plants by the Kayapó Indians
their services. Most wayanga are specialized, i.e. each shaman has specific
knowledge about a certain disease family or families. The spiritual aspect of this
knowledge is acquired through a shamanistic flight into spiritual realms, where
the shaman ‘becomes a friend’ with a certain animal(s) spirit(s) to which he learns
to ‘speak’ (mry karõn kaben) (see Chapter 6). Some shamans are specialized in
the diagnosis and treatment of non-spiritual conditions or diseases, such as
shaman Aibi of Gorotire who specializes in fertility modification, which may or
may not include spiritual elements.
Kayapó pharmacotechnique
Today it should seem obvious to us, that, as Evans-Pritchard long ago pointed out
(1937: 448), ‘medicines are not natural objects but human artifacts’. Thus, modes
of preparation of medicines are extremely important for complete ethnopharmacological analysis (Elisabetsky and Setzer 1985). Native curers can describe in
detail these procedures when explaining plant collections and their therapeutic
There are many traditional ways to prepare remedies, each of which significantly alters the quality and quantity of the active principles absorbed. The
principal method of preparation used by the Kayapó includes water extraction,
which varies with the temperature chosen, from cold (kryx) to warm (kangro ngri)
to hot (kangro). The time needed for the extraction can vary from a few minutes
to three or more days. Preparations are determined to be ready when colour, smell
and taste are judged to be correct. Examples of various methods of preparation
can be found in Table 14.1. It is interesting to note that tubers, bulbs, false bulbs
and leaves may be consumed in their natural states, and leaf sap is frequently
squeezed out for consumption in its pure, fresh form.
For fertility-related remedies the Kayapó use teas, baths, the ingestion of crude
plant parts, sleeping on leaves (e.g. Barjonia sp.), wrapping body parts with vines
(e.g. Bauhinia guianensis), and rubbing or massaging plant parts onto the body,
usually on the stomach (e.g. Hippeastrum equestre, Mandevilla cf. scabra,
Helicteres guazumaefolia, Zornia virgata). Topical treatments can also take the
form of body paints, made from mixtures of plant ashes or charcoals and masticated green fruits of Genipa americana varieties. When curing is desired,
medicinal plant(s) are added to this mixture. Banner (1961) reports that another
body paint, made from Bixa orellana seeds, is believed to give protection from the
evil influences of spirits (mẽ karõn).
Plants used to manipulate sexual activities
Sexual activity among the Kayapó is regarded as a natural and desired part of life.
At an early age children engage in sexual games and often paint their bodies with
designs of enlarged sexual organs. Rules regarding sexual activity and taboos are
complex, and vary between sex and age-grade groups (see T. Turner 1965; J.B.
cf. dumetosa
aff lucidum
aff sclerophilum
cf. candida
f, fr
Part used6
l, r
fb, s
fb, s
Part used6
Plants used as kukryt kanê
Plants used as mẽmỳ rerek djà
Table 14.1 Plants used as mẽmỳ rerek djà1; kukryt kanê2; mẽ tu jaro djà3; and me kra ket djà4
Sleep on it
Crude (sap)
Cold tea
Cold tea
Cold tea
Around belly
Hot tea
Cold bath
Cold tea
Cold tea
Cold tea
Cold tea
Hot tea
Mode of preparation
Hot tea
Hot tea
Cold tea
Cold tea
Mode of preparation
Table 14.1 Continued
cf. subulata
cf. scabra
K. Schum.
Part used6
fb, l
Part used6
Plants used as me kra ket djà
Plants used as mẽ tu jaro djà
Cold tea
Cold and hot tea
Cold tea
Cold tea
Warm tea
Hot tea
Mode of preparation
Mode of preparation
Mẽmỳ rerek djà lit.‘the penis weak stuff’
Kukryt kanê lit.‘the tapir disease’ – abnormal menstrual flow
Mẽ tu jaro djà fertility medicine
Me kra ket djà contraceptive medicine
CN = collective numbers
l = leaves; s = stem; fb = false bulbs; r = roots; wp = whole plant
Also considered contraceptive
Table 14.1 Continued
f, s
Part used6
Mode of preparation
Use of contraceptive and related plants by the Kayapó Indians
Turner 1965; Vidal 1974). Although infringement of these rules can lead to conflict, sexual fidelity seems to be more a matter of individual choice than strict
social requirement. As stated by Kwyrà-kà: ‘There are those men who do not like
their women to be with someone else; there are the ones who do not bother. There
are some women who do not like their men to be with other women; there are those
who do not bother. Those who don’t mind stay together. Those who mind break
apart.’ Many Indians get married, separate and remarry several times. Some Indian
men, specially chiefs, may have several sexual partners. During the advanced
stages of pregnancy, a woman ceases to have sexual intercourse. After this point,
her husband is permitted to seek another woman for sexual activities known as
prõn kaàk, or ‘false wife’ (T. Turner 1965). Some women, known as menire kuprã,
choose not to have a husband, but prefer to be sexual partners of several men of a
men’s society (Verswijver 1985). Menire kuprã have been described by Werner
(1984) as sexual specialists, paid for their services. According to informant
Paiakan, however, menire kuprã refers to adult women who have never married,
have separated from their husbands, or have become widows.
Special places in the forest are reserved for courtship and love-making. Islands
of forest in the campo-cerrado, called apêtê, for example, are used for this purpose (Posey 1984b). Traditionally, group sex (paja’ô) is included in certain
ceremonial events (see T. Turner 1965; Verswijver 1985). Basically, plants used to
manipulate sexual activities are divided into two groups: (a) those that stimulate
male activity, called mẽmỳ tyx djà (literally, ‘the penis hard stuff’) and (b) those
that diminish male performance, called mẽmỳ rerek djà (literally, ‘the penis weak
stuff’). The latter were described by informant Kudjare as medicines that women
give to men ‘when a man does not allow the woman to sleep’.
As J.B. Turner (1965: 60) noted, and our fieldwork confirms, payment for sexual medicines often involves ‘exorbitant fees’ (pajnh rax). Knowledge of sexually
manipulative plants is frequently secret and is said to be controlled by men.
Knowledge of these plants is usually guarded and highly valued. Table 14.1 lists
plant species used as mẽmỳ rerek djà.
Plants used to control menstruation
It is assumed that a girl has had sexual experience before her first period. Since
the bride is very often a teenager, the Kayapó would not distinguish between
blood from the first menses and blood from first sexual intercourse. During menstrual periods women do not go to their plantations, but remain near rivers and
streams and bathe frequently. According to J.B. Turner (1965: 63), Kayapó
women seem to have quite irregular menses, ‘for many women pass months without a period’. However, in contrast to Turner’s conclusion that the Kayapó do not
look upon menstruation as ‘a normal organic function, but rather as a disease’, we
found menstruation to be regarded as a normal part of female physiology (menire
kamrô). If the menstrual period is heavy, with abnormally profuse flow (menorrhagia) and painful spasms, it is considered to be a disease. Depending upon the
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
intensity of the episode, the following names are used: kukryt kanê (literally ‘the
tapir disease’) or kamrô kanê (literally, ‘the blood disease’). Kukryt kanê is the
stronger, recurrent form of the two, considered the more difficult to treat. Women
with this disease can suffer debilitating pain, weakness and very intense bleeding.
It is common in the Kayapó medical system to name diseases after animals
(Elisabetsky and Posey 1985). In this case the Kayapó say that the strong blood
flux is similar to the jet-like nature of the tapir’s urine stream. Since Kayapó contraceptives are said to ‘dry the women’s body’, leading to no menstruation, milk
or pregnancy, this may account for Turner’s observation of irregular menses.
Referring to Kayapó contraceptives, Banner (1961: 13) states that ‘it is at least
possible that these interrupt the menstrual cycle’.
Plants used to restore menstrual flux to normal levels or to stop it entirely, and
eliminate pain, are listed in Table 14.1. It is interesting to note that two of the
kukryt kanê plants are also considered contraceptives (mekraketdjà, see Table
14.1). Use of the same plants varies depending upon the part of the plant used and
the dose. It is interesting to note that compounds used in some Western contraceptive pills may also be used, depending on dosage, to control menstrual cycles.
Thus, there is an interesting parallel between Kayapó and Western fertility management methods.
Plants used to promote fertility
The relation between sexual acts and pregnancy is not easily defined for the
Kayapó. On the one hand, contraceptive plants (mekraketdjà) are thought to have
sufficient force to protect a woman from pregnancy despite having had sex with
one or more men. As one chief said in testimony to the plant’s effectiveness, ‘a
woman can go with as many men as she wants and will not get pregnant’. On the
other hand, some plants (mẽ tu jaro djà) are considered to be sufficiently effective
to cause pregnancy even without having any sexual relations whatsoever. In this
case, according to informant Uté, the plant itself is the ‘source’ of the child. This
is corroborated by another informant, Pykatire, who offered the following observation: ‘Just look at my son. Isn’t he beautiful? Now, look at me. See, the reason
he is beautiful like this is because my wife was treated with the plant and, therefore, he is the plant’s son.’
It may be difficult for a woman to get pregnant when her body is considered
dirty. The following cleansing treatment was described by shaman Kwyrà-Kà:
‘The husband should go to the forest to collect and prepare the medicines (mẽ tu
jaro) to be used. Early in the morning, both husband and wife should go together
to a stream and there the man covers the wife’s body with river mud mixed with
already prepared medicines. The waters of the river are then allowed to wash
away the mixture covering the woman’s body along with the dirtiness that is preventing her from getting pregnant. The best season for this treatment is after the
dry season, when small rivers start to receive new clean water. At night the husband should sleep with an eye on his sleeping wife. Whenever he ‘sees’ that she
Use of contraceptive and related plants by the Kayapó Indians
is dreaming, he should wake her up and listen to her report. If she has been
dreaming of a child, then she is already pregnant.’
Dreams are frequently used by the Kayapó to predict events and diagnose diseases. Dreams in this case are thought to be provoked by qualities inherent in the
mẽ tu jaro djà. This belief is related to the Kayapó idea of energy (iprê-re) that
must be ‘sung’ into a woman to create a child (opex djà mengrere). According to
the informant Pykatire, it is the singing of the shamans that transfers the iprê-re of
the plant spirit (karõn) into the woman. These special shamans are called me kute
mẽ tu jaro mari and are said to have special plants that determine the sex of children. Plants used to ‘produce’ male children are called mekra my djà; plants for
female children are called mekra nire djà.
Table 14.1 lists plants used as fertility medicines, some of which are specific
as to the sex of the child (Hippeastrum equestre for female children; Helicteres
guazumaefolia for male children). Mandevilla cf. scabra is a general fertility
medicine that does not affect sex determination. All the listed medicines are
applied topically.
Plants used during pregnancy
Plants known as meprire kin djà are slept on or bathed with in order to ensure the
birth of healthy and strong children. One such plant, Piper marginatum Jacq., is
said to produce children with desirable jet-black hair (ka krã tyk).
Table 14.1 lists some of these plants. Helicteres guazumaefolia Pilger, according to shaman Beptopoop, is also used to ensure male children; the same plant
collected on another occasion (CN 646) was said by the same shaman to be used
as post-partum medicine.
Plants used during and after labour
Birthing ideally takes place in the home and in the presence of the woman’s close
female relatives. Only under certain circumstances, such as when the child is in an
abnormal position, is a male shaman (mẽ kra-o pôx djà mari) allowed to be present. At
the onset of labour pains the woman’s relatives massage her stomach with Bixa orellana leaves. A mixture of the seeds of Dipterix cumaru and the apex of the operculum
of the fruits of Bertolletia excelsa HBK are used to prepare a tea that is then drunk.
If control of post-partum bleeding is necessary this is achieved through the use
of the heated seed of Bixa orellana.
When a child is born, latex of the Hymatanthus aff. obovata (Muell.-Arg)
Woodson (CN 561) is used to paint a stripe between the eyes, over the nose and as
a collar. This is said to protect the new born child from diseases that will result if
his father kills a snake. The stem of the Helicteres guazumaefolia (CN 646) is
then wound about the mother’s wrist to make her sleep. The wrist is the preferred
location because ‘it stays near the face’. Medicines used in this way are said to be
so strong that just smelling them is enough.
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
Plants used as contraceptives and abortives
Contraceptive plants are known as mẽ kra ket djà (‘the no child stuff’); abortives
are called mẽ pari djà (‘killing stuff’). It is important to emphasize that mẽ kra ket
djà is not a single plant, but rather a group of plants considered to have the same
therapeutic properties. It is common in the Kayapó system of plant classification
to find large family groupings based upon related therapeutic effects (Posey
Dreyfus (1963) reports only externally applied contraceptives, whereas Banner
(1961) reports the use of oral contraceptives as well. Neither author provides scientific names of plants used. J.B. Turner (1965: 60) reports the use of the
pseudobulb of the orchid Rodriguesia secunda (Dunsterville and Garay 1979),
which is crushed and rubbed over the woman’s body. Based upon our specimen
(CN 536) however, this orchid has been determined to be Epistephium aff.
lucidum (Martius and Eichler, 1896), and is used both topically and orally.
Contraceptives are said to be taken only once in order to ‘never have children’.
According to some, but not all, specialists, mẽ tu jaro djà (‘fertility medicine’)
can be subsequently taken to reverse the effects of the contraceptives. This is said
to be very hard to attain.
If undesired pregnancy occurs, a woman may take mẽ pari djà to abort the
pregnancy. This latter practice appears to be most common among young women
who have never had children (mẽ kurerere) and has already been reported by
Banner (1961). Although male specialists collect and prepare fertility-related
drugs, women recognized our drying specimens and confirmed multiple use. One
unconfirmed report indicates that collective abortion occurs before festivals, ‘in
order to allow the woman to dance freely’. The only positively identified specimen used as an abortive is Tanaecium vulgare (kangàra-kanê), which is drunk in
a single dose as a strong tea. It is known that this species contains cyanogenic
alkaloids (Kerr and Posey 1988), which may account for the described action.
It is interesting to note that 59 per cent of the mẽ kra ket djà plants described to
date fall into only three botanical families: Compositae (33 per cent),
Orchidaceae (13 per cent) and Polygalaceae (13 per cent). Out of the 15 collected
plants, 12 are orally ingested.
Discussion and conclusion
The Kayapó have great faith in the effectiveness of their fertility and contraceptive medicines. It is interesting to note that in 1979, according to Indian Bureau
(FUNAI) and missionary census, the Kayapó women had an average of only 2.3
children (Posey 1979b). During this period, the Gorotire Kayapó had a general
policy of limiting reproduction because several old shamans had had visions that
the Kayapó lands would be overtaken by ranchers; therefore, it was not desirable
to raise children under such conditions. In the mid-1980s, promise of land demarcation and protection of indigenous rights generated new hope and a change in the
Use of contraceptive and related plants by the Kayapó Indians
village elders’ policy toward an increase in children. Today, for example, women
are discouraged from using mẽ kra ket djà. According to a missionary census
done in 1985, 20–30-year-old women have on average 5.2 children.
These data are inadequate to generate sophisticated demographic analyses.
Furthermore, various historical factors have influenced fertility rates, including
pacification, inter-village migration, and complex changes in nutritional and
social patterns (Werner 1983; Verswijver 1985). As Newman (1986: 11) points
out ‘determinants of fertility behaviour often derive from values or perceptions
that have little to do with conception and contraception themselves’. As Kayapó
concepts relating sexual acts to procreation are culturally complex, evaluation of
the effectiveness of fertility-related medicines is further complicated.
However, the variety of plants used for fertility control by the Kayapó, their
detailed knowledge about preparation, administration and dosage, and their faith
in the effectiveness of these methods, are sufficient to justify evaluation procedures. Since the screening process is expensive and time consuming, it is
necessary to optimize selection for both species and methods to achieve the highest possible success rate.
Natural products research aimed at the discovery of new therapeutic compounds has two main instruments available for this selection: chemotaxonomy
and ethnopharmacology (Elisabetsky and Gély 1987). Chemotaxonomy indicates
plant families with a higher likelihood of containing certain classes of compounds, and is specially useful in the discovery of new sources of known (or
closely related) compounds. Ethnopharmacology identifies species through information provided by native users, perhaps pointing out sources of prototypic
Some uncertainties inherent to ethnopharmacological data may be minimized
by comparing uses of the same plant species by various ethnic groups. If several
species from a given plant genus or family are used by different ethnic groups for
related therapeutic effects, these plants are probably more likely to have relevant
pharmacological actions. In other words, if the same species is used for the same
purpose by several groups, these species have a higher likelihood of cross-cultural
The analysis of preparation methods and routes of administration can give
insights to better plant selection. For instance, taking into account that water-soluble compounds are poorly absorbed through skin, it can be suggested that topical
treatments are effective only if the mode of preparation is such that the remedy
contains absorbable compounds. In this context, a leaf that is heated and applied
to an affected area or a massage with a medicinal oil, is more likely to be effective
than a bath with a cold-water preparation. Cold baths could be effective if there is
a volatile active compound that might be inhaled.
Table 14.2 shows those Kayapó plants (or related species) that are similarly
used by other societies. It is noteworthy that 48 per cent of the species used by the
Kayapó as medicines to interfere with sex or fertility are also used by other cultures for related purposes.
Ethnobiology and the Kayapó Project
As for the fertility promoting plants, it should be noted that all species collected
to date are used topically. Moreover, the whole concept of fertility promotion,
along with treatment description, suggest that these are culturally bound medicines. Species of Mandevilla are used by other groups as treatments for venereal
diseases and also fertility promoters. Mandevilla vellutina has shown anti-inflammatory and bradykinin-antagonist activities (Calixto et al. 1985, 1987).
Regarding the contraceptives, it is noteworthy that Polygala monyicola var.
brizoides Steyerm and Polygala longicaulis H.B.K. are used by both Kayapó and
Chinese for the same purpose. P. longicaulis seems especially interesting since it
is used orally. Another relevant aspect of these two species is that they come from
cerrado (savanna) rather than forest. Our field data suggest that the savanna plants
are the most popular contraceptives in Gorotire. Werner (1983: 239) reports that
the Mekranoti Kayapó state that contraceptives obtained from the forest are not
effective; they ‘insisted, however, that certain contraceptives found in the cerrado
regions of Brazil were effective’. It is conceivable that the difficult environment
of the cerrado leads these species to metabolic pathways that generate biologically active compounds (Janzen 1974).
Eupatorium squalidum DC is used orally as a contraceptive by Kayapó. E. inulaefolum is used as a contraceptive in Paraguay; E. laevigatum, E. macrocephalum
are used in Argentina as abortives and E. polyanthum is used in the same region as
emmenagogue. Vernonia herbaceae, another Composite, is also used orally, either
to control menstruation or as a contraceptive, with different modes of preparation.
Both E. squalidum and V. herbaceae are found in cerrado.
The orchid Epistephium lucidum Cogn. deserves mention, since it is used orally
and is elsewhere reported for other Kayapó groups (Turner 1965). It appears to be
the most popular in Gorotire. We were unable to identify the species of Cuphea
used orally by the Kayapó. Nonetheless, the genus seems to be interesting since C.
glutinosa, C. longiflora and C. racemosa are all used as emmenagogues in
Argentina. The latter is also reported in the region as an abortive. Hyptis crenata is
used orally by Kayapó. In Argentina, H. floribunda and H. mutabilis are used as
abortives. All of these species are found in the cerrado.
Therefore, the most promising of the Kayapó contraceptives for ethnopharmacological research are those belonging to the genera Polygala, Eupatorium,
Cuphea and Hyptis, and the orchid E. lucidum. Since these contraceptives are said
to have permanent effects, screening experiments should check for possible
actions upon the pituitary gland.
The relationships between ethnomedical practices and remedies with physiological processes can perhaps be better understood through spirit (karõn) relationships.
What has generally been ignored as being ‘non-scientific’ can, after all, be a highly
codified and symbolic manner of recognizing – and streamlining for the sake of
efficient oral transmission of cultural information – a wide range of related observations through accumulated years of cultural history by native groups. Studies of such
symbolic systems requires a long-term commitment to learning language and culture, but may in the long run offer the greatest breakthroughs in medical knowledge.
Fertility promoter
Cissampelos sp.
Mandevilla cf. scabra
Bauhinia guianensis
Bowdichia virgilioides
Sida cordifolia
Polygala monyicola
var. brizoides
Cuphea sp.
Eupatorium squalidum
Menses control
Menses control
Menses control
Venereal disease
Fertility promoter
Venereal disease
Polygala longicaulis
Venereal disease
Irregular menses
Irregular menses
Asclepias cf. candida
Group 2 use
Kayapó use
Table 14.2 Uses of related species by Kayapó and other groups1
Crovetto (p.284)
Arenas (p.299)
Morton (p.512)
Crovetto (p.284)
Kong (p.32)
Crovetto (p.283)
Morton (p.674)
Morton (p.553)
Morton (p.279)
Morton (p.280)
Kong (p.26)
Kong (p.32)
Morton (p.687)
Morton (p.687)
Kong (p.33)
Kong (p.32)
C. carthagenensis
C. glutinosa
C. longiflora
C. racemosa
C. racemosa
E. inulaefolia
S. szechuensis
C. pareira
M. subsagittata
M. subsagittata
B. excisa
P. arillata
P. aureocauda
P. japonica
P. telephioides
Related species
Group 2 use
Crovetto (p.285)
Crovetto (p.285)
Crovetto (p.285)
Related species are listed whenever species used by Group 2 are not identical to the species used by the Kayapó.
Hyptis crenata
Kayapó use
Table 14.2 Continued
E. laevigatum
E. macrocephalum
E. polyanthum
H. floribunda
H. mutabilis
Related species
Part III
Kayapó land management
Chapter 15
Preliminary results on soil
management techniques of
the Kayapó Indians 1
Amazon soils issues in context
The grisly history of the Amazon is one of conquest, disease, slavery, persecution
and displacement of the natives, leading to dizzying demographic collapses (cf.
Hemming 1987). More than just colourful rituals and quaint folkways were lost in
the attrition and extinction of native populations. The science constituting the
material base of these societies was often partially or completely destroyed,
including their soil knowledge and management techniques. The Kayapó certainly suffered from contact, but they were never formally dominated or enslaved
(Bamberger 1967). To the contrary, they routinely terrorized other groups of the
upper Xingu and Araguaia River Basins. They have been able to maintain and
reproduce their sciences of agronomy and pedology thereby providing hints of
forms of intensive agriculture which might have permitted the growth of larger
regional populations.
This study addresses two theoretical issues in current Amazonian anthropology: the soil limitation hypothesis in its various incarnations (Gross 1983;
Meggers 1957, 1971; Roosevelt 1980), and the significance of concentric ring
agriculture (Beckerman 1984; Stocks 1983) which is found in several Amazonian
groups (Candoshi, Bari, various Jê groups such as the Kreen Akrore, Xikrin,
Mekronotí and Kayapó among others). The data we present are preliminary, and
at this stage we make no final claims, but suggest that the topic of indigenous soil
management can recast the substance of these debates.
Soil limitation hypothesis
The limitations of soil fertility on crop productivity and agricultural potential
have been used in the anthropological literature to argue that in pre-Columbian
Amazonia there were low human population densities in the uplands, and to
explain a variety of social and cultural features of some Amazon populations
(Carneiro 1970), ranging from trekking, migration dynamics and particular rituals, to the absence of complex states (cf. Gross 1975, 1983; Meggers 1957, 1971;
Roosevelt 1980). The evidence of large populations, complex social organization
Kayapó land management
and large chiefdoms indicated by the riverine Santarém and Marajó cultures are
explained by Meggers as an outcome of Andean migration rather than the result
of a flourishing local culture.
Roosevelt’s (1980) work incorporates several points of Meggers’s analysis
(1957), but argues that on the floodplains, complex cultures were not the result of
Andean migrations, but developed in response to better soils. The decisive feature
for cultural development was that the relatively nutrient rich várzea (floodplain)
soil permitted the cultivation of maize, a far more nutritionally complete (and
storable) foodstuff than upland staples. The types of surpluses that could be produced in the floodplain environment with intensive maize cultivation, and the
structural and managerial complexity necessary to organize, store and distribute
the harvest, allowed the development of complex societies based in the várzeas
with hegemony or tribute exaction over upland hinterland areas. Roosevelt’s
hypothesis remains essentially an environmental determinist position (or at least
an environmental possibilist one, viz. Ellen 1983). Her model, however, underestimates the agricultural potential of the uplands by oversimplifying the nature
of the agricultural base of Amazonian upland environments, and ignoring the
diversity of agriculture, cultivars and agricultural techniques which may have
been able to support far larger populations. It assumes, like virtually all other
environmental models, that soils are static, immutable features of nature, instead
of highly malleable ecosystem attributes.
Whether upland populations were as depauperate as Meggers (1957) and others claim (cf. Chagnon 1973; Chagnon and Hames 1979; Gross 1975, 1982) is the
subject of some debate (cf. Bamberger 1979; Beckerman 1979; Denevan 1976).
Recent studies of subsistence patterns of upland non-native and indigenous populations (cf. Almeida 1988; Anderson and Anderson 1983; Denevan et al. 1984;
Posey 1984a, 1985c; Schwartzman 1988) and ethnohistorical data, suggest that
indigenous populations could have been far larger than original estimates. In the
terra firme of the Upper Amazon, the Jivaraon uprising in 1599 talks of the mobilization of more than 25,000 warriors (Harner 1984). In the case of the Kayapó,
both the chronicle records and ethnohistorical reports indicate settlements numbering in the thousands (Bamberger 1979; Coudreau 1897b).
Concentric ring agriculture
The rationale behind segmented planting patterns such as concentric ring swiddens has also been a subject of speculation. Stocks (1983) advanced four
hypotheses to explain this agricultural architecture:
It minimized shading and thus reduced plant diseases
It maximized the dispersal of a single crop to reduce pest/disease problems
It located plants most vulnerable to insect predation furthest from the forest
It placed the most nitrogen-demanding crops closest to nutrients in leaf fall
from the surrounding forest.
Preliminary results on soil management techniques
Beckerman (1984), expanding from point (3), suggests that this concentric structure limits incursions of mammalian pests. We present an alternate hypothesis that
argues that soil-crop management, particularly the manipulation of fertility gradients within the swidden, may be another rationale for this type of agronomic
Current settlement
In the contemporary context, soil nutrient decline is viewed as one of the central
forces behind deforestation processes. When productivity declines, both smallscale farmers and large-scale ranchers seek new areas to clear in order to maintain
production (Nicolaides et al. 1985; Sanchez et al. 1982). Soil factors, and the
related carrying capacity issues, are often viewed as major causes in colonist failure (Fearnside 1986, 1987; Maxwell 1982; Moran 1981a). The underlying factors
pushing deforestation and colonist attrition are a good deal more complex than
soil dynamics (cf. Browder 1987; Coy 1987; Hecht 1985; Hecht et al. 1988;
Mahar 1979), but declines in productivity certainly contribute to land use instability. In an attempt to reduce ‘soil driven’ deforestation, national and
international research organizations working in Amazonia have devoted a large
proportion of their budgets to soil research as a response to the problems of maintaining soil fertility after forest has been converted to other land uses. The
approach adopted by such organizations has tended to focus on the use of purchased inputs to maintain production, whilst ignoring indigenous knowledge
Human agency and soil properties
The human modification of the soil base of agriculture for both good and ill is a
characteristic of human agricultural history. In Latin America several land techniques that have important effects on soil properties and agricultural productivity
are well documented. The raised-field agriculture of Ecuador, Peru and Colombia
(Denevan 1976; Erickson 1988); the chinampas of Mexico; and irrigation and terrace systems of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia (Treacy 1988) are but a few of the larger
infrastructure systems that substantially modified soil bases for local production
systems. These kinds of agricultural infrastructures have often persisted long after
the cultures that produced them disappeared. These structures were physical, and
have analogues in our own cultures. They have been far more visible to researchers
than ‘soft technologies’ such as mulching systems, successional manipulations,
soil protection and tillage practices, and burning techniques which were incorporated into indigenous agricultural systems. These techniques, along with the
genetic materials of the cultivars, the knowledge of how they are integrated into
agricultural systems, and their effect on local environments, constitute an agronomic ‘tool kit’ whose subtler aspects have often been overlooked by many
agricultural analysts. The relative ‘invisibility’ of such agricultural technologies
Kayapó land management
should not cloud the recognition of their sophistication, or their importance in
maintaining and sustaining agricultural systems.
The preliminary results we present in this chapter indicate that land manipulation by the Kayapó is far more complex than has been generally recognized in the
literature. This is expressed in the types of soil manipulation practised, and their
outcomes on soil properties. We feel that indigenous soil management is an
under-researched area with enormous implications for understanding native
Amazonian settlement and for developing stable land-use systems for the region.
Researchers in ethnobiology have demonstrated that indigenous and traditional
communities possess an impressively comprehensive, and scientifically accurate
knowledge of their environments (Alcorn 1983; Berlin and Berlin 1983; Berlin et
al. 1974; Conklin 1957; Moran 1981a; Posey 1984a, 1985c). Systematic emic
analysis of soils or ethnopedology remains extraordinarily under-represented in
studies of indigenous science, which is rather surprising given the central role of
soil resources in subsistence. Amazonian research reflects this general deficiency
although there are several studies that incorporate useful soil insights (Behrens
1988; Flowers et al. 1982; Gross 1983; Hill and Moran 1983; Johnson 1983;
Moran 1981a). This oversight is all the more curious in that edaphic data is a powerful tool, and the results, if used carefully, can generate powerful comparative
analyses because:
Soil properties can be more precisely specified than vegetation processes
Edaphic data from one site can illuminate the probabilities of land-use outcomes on other sites
Soil data are useful instruments for evaluating the effects of land management over time.
In the following section we outline some features of Kayapó subsistence and land
management that illustrate the importance of human intervention in manipulating
soil fertility for agriculture in upland Amazonia. The changes we document suggest that the soil limitation hypothesis and explanations of concentric ring
agriculture can be usefully informed by analysis of indigenous soil management
techniques. Moreover, these results suggest that the principles of Kayapó soil
management could provide useful directions for management techniques of value
for small farmers.
The Kayapó: site and subsistence
The Gorotire Kayapó inhabit a region in southern Pará on the Rio Fresco that is
both vegetationally and geologically heterogeneous. The Kayapó have well-developed land differentiation systems based on general geomorphic, soil and
Preliminary results on soil management techniques
vegetational features, although vegetation is usually the main topic. Table 15.1
outlines the regional diversity of vegetation formations, and the Kayapó classification. These include discrimination of eight forest types, eight cerrado types,
lowland and montane formations, and the transitions between these formations.
The Gorotire Reserve falls within the Grande Carajas formation, and includes
geologic materials of acid (granites, andesites and rhyolites) and basaltic origins.
The complex geomorphology and relief (Precambrian shield formations contacting
granitic and basaltic extrusions, and recent sedimentary formations) result in a great
deal of soil heterogeneity over relatively small distances. Oxisols, ultisols, alfisols,
entisols and inceptisols – more than 90 per cent of the soil types found in Amazonia
– are located within very short distances of each other. Entisols and inceptisols are
usually associated with riparian depositional or hill erosional features, and include
both high and low base status forms, depending on the parent material. High base
status alfisols, the terra roxa estructurada soils, are found in the reserve. The red
oxisols of the area (orthoxes) or latosolos vermelhos of the Brazilian classification
system, are often transitional between the alfisols and other ultisol and oxisol formations. The red oxisols appear to be derived from the Uatuma volcanic material of
Table 15.1 Kayapó natural vegetation classification
Forest – Bà
‘True’ forest
Liana forest
High forest
Forest in which light penetrates to the ground
Forest gaps
Gallery forest
High dark forest
Forest transition zone
Grassland – Campo
Kapôt kêin
Kapôt kumrenx
Kapôt mêtx
Kapôt punu
Kapôt jajôre
Kapôt imôk krê pôk re
Kapôt kam imo
Kapôt imo noi pok
Kapôt no kra
Kapôt krã nhi môk
Open campo with few trees
Open campo with numerous forest patches
Low grassy campo
Closed scrubby campo
Open campo with small scrub patches
Small open areas surrounded by scrub forest near large campos
Seasonally inundated campo
Campo openings on the tops of mountains
Campo forest transition
Campo rupestre
Kayapó land management
the Sobreiro formation, and are of moderate fertility. Table 15.2 outlines the dominant soils of the region. Because of the varying parent materials, relief, and
inundation patterns, the soil types have several textural variants and catenas. It is
also for this reason that Kayapó soil taxonomy is quite detailed (see Chapter 16).
This environmental background serves as the canvas on which Kayapó subsistence is painted. The Kayapó site their villages with environmental heterogeneity
as an important dimension, and for both philosophical and practical reasons, prefer
zones that incorporate many types of ecosystems.
The subsistence base of the Kayapó is outlined in detail in several different sources
(cf. Bamberger 1967; Kerr and Posey 1984; Posey 1983e, 1984a). Resource use
and management patterns are complicated by the obligations of kin and non-kin
sodalities, and mobile and sedentary forms of exploitation, of both animals and
plants. The primary sources of carbohydrates in the Kayapó diet are sweet potatoes
(Ipomoea batatas, Convolvulaceae), manioc (Manihot esculenta Kranz.,
Euphorbiaceae), yams (Dioscorea, Dioscoreaceae) and various Musa species
(Musaceae). The Kayapó protein resources include fish, mammals, insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds, brazil nuts (Bertholletia excelsa, Lecythidaceae), piquí
nuts (Caryocar villosum, Caryocaraceae), palm fruits (such as Orbignya phalerata, Palmae), and a variety of minor extractive products, as well as maize and
vegetable protein derived from various legumes in the cultivation systems.
Table 15.2 Dominant soil orders of the study area
USDA classification
Brazilian classification
Latosolo vermelho
Latosol vermelho distrofico
Latosol vermelho
Podzolico vermelho-amarelo
Podzolicos vermelho-amarelo distrofico
Podzolicos vermelho-amarelo alico (cascalhente)
Terra roxa estructurada distrofico
Terra roxa estructurada eutrofico
Cambisol distrofico
Solos alluviais
Glei pouco humico,
Solos alluviais (distrofico. eutrofico)
Transition ultisols
Alfisols (paleudalfs, hapudalfs)
Inceptisols (dystropepts, humaquents)
Source: Field data, Sudam 1979. Reconhecimento Pedologica na Area do São Felix.
Preliminary results on soil management techniques
Table 15.3 outlines the activities that the Kayapó classify as agriculture, and
which involve conscious manipulation of the flora for human purposes. These
activities represent a gradient of intervention from total ecosystem transformation,
which occurs in the swidden plot, to transplanting or planting in existing vegetation formations, to merely protecting spontaneous, valuable species via weeding,
etc. This gradient of manipulation is well documented for Amazonian caboclos at
the mouth of the estuary, and for other indigenous groups (Alcorn 1983). These
planting processes can also involve soil manipulation. This diversity of agricultural
systems relates to the requirements of a society that has members periodically
absent from the swidden gardens, and where, for the convenience of trekkers,
hunters and travelling war parties, plantings and vegetational manipulation are carried out at distances (sometimes 100 kilometres or more) from the village to
supply medicinals, oils, protein, calories, poisons and ritual plants. Since treks can
last for weeks and months, carrying root crops or manioc cakes is not feasible. Far
more efficient is ‘ground’ and ‘environmental’ storage. How far flung Kayapó
plantings can be is suggested by Werner’s (1983) report that the Mekronotí
(Kayapó) frequently raided distant Kayapó plantings for root crops. The nearest
Kayapó village in this case was about 150 kilometres away. Moreover, the Gorotire
Kayapó themselves report transferring planting material in an area roughly the size
of Western Europe (Posey 1985c).
The trekking pattern of the Kayapó has several consequences for the structure
of agriculture and resource management. Because men are often periodically
absent, ‘nomadic agriculture’ plantings, such as those along trails, in forest gaps,
and resource islands, are more likely to be under their aegis, and to be characterized by plantings with long harvest times – such as the starch, kupa (Cissus
gongylodes, Vitaceae), or brazil nuts – or species with game-attracting qualities.
Other groups of plants are associated with certain age cohorts, kin groups and nonTable 15.3 Agriculture formations of the Kayapó
Village gardens
Forest planting
10 Natural ecosystem gaps (bà-krêti)
11 Manmade gaps
12 Plantations in mature forest (viz. Euterpe,
Household gardens
Swidden plots (puru)
Successional plots from swiddens
Grave sites
Marantaceae gardens on hill slopes
(krãi kam puru)
‘Nomadic agriculture’
13 Fruit groves ‘in memory of the dead’
Cerrado planting
Trails between villages and gardens 14 Medicinal, fibre, edible, and varied useful
plants in apêtês (forest patches in the savanna
Trails between villages
and grass lands)
Hunting/trekking trails
Planting around old camp sites
Kayapó land management
kin sodalities, so vegetation management requires a more detailed analysis than
can be presented here (Anderson and Posey 1989; Appendix, this volume).
‘Ownership’ of agricultural land follows female lines because the women often
stay in the village whilst the men are on trek, and there is a rich women’s tradition
in the ‘classic’ agronomic disciplines: plant breeding, plant protection, propagation, agricultural management, soil science, and specialized horticultural systems
such as the Marantaceae gardens (krãi kam puru).
The agriculture of the Kayapó is based on: sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas)
of which they have 22 cultivars; manioc, both sweet and bitter (Manihot esculenta
Kranz.) of which at least 22 cultivars have been described (Kerr and Posey 1984);
some 21 cultivars of yam (Dioscorea sp.); 21 varieties of maize; and 13 types of
Musa sp. The Kayapó also plant pineapples (three types), squashes (eight types),
cotton, arrowroot, rice, two varieties of fava bean (Vicia faba, Leguminosae), four
varieties of Phaseolus sp. (Leguminosae), two types of bush bean (Vigna sp.,
Leguminosae), three kinds of tobacco, four varieties of papaya (Carica,
Caricaceae), and three types of peanuts (Arachis, Leguminosae). At least 46 types
of fruit and nut trees are planted. These have specific planting ‘niches’ and are
generally planted in the successional agriculture (ibe), along trails (pry), in home
gardens (ki krê bum), in the forest (bà), in forest gaps (bà kre-tí), or in various
savanna sites (apêtê). Because of the complexity of Kayapó agricultural systems,
this chapter concentrates primarily on Kayapó soil management in the swidden
plot through the manipulation of site fertility and planting strategy.
Soil fertility management
In much of the literature on indigenous Amazonian swiddens, one has the impression that soil properties remain static, however soils are extremely malleable
features of ecosystems. Soil characteristics can be modified through management,
and these manipulations affect crop productivity and the overall sustainability of
production systems. In this section we outline how the Kayapó manipulate and
modify soil properties by burning, mulching, direct nutrient additions and fallowing. These management techniques create a pattern of soil microdiversity that is an
important factor in Kayapó cropping patterns both in space and time.
The foremost tool used by the Kayapó for modifying soil properties is fire.
They use fire in a variety of ways ranging from burning savanna, forming the
swidden plot, and as a means of soil management within the swidden plot. This
‘in-field burning’ involves setting small localized fires in the swidden plot
throughout the cultivation cycle for roughly the first three years of agricultural
production. The control of the biomass volume, seasonal timing, diurnal timing,
and temperature of the burn can be manipulated, and this influences the solubility,
quantity, and timing and quantity of nutrient release. The species burned can further affect fertility characteristics. How important ash is to the range of
land-management techniques is suggested by the numerous linguistic descriptors
that exist for ash, as well as the large body of songs pertaining to burning. Ash
Preliminary results on soil management techniques
also has important ritual and medicinal functions, and there are shamans who specialize in burning methods.
While burning is a critical factor in creating in-field microdiversity within
Kayapó swidden fields, mulching is also an important activity in crop-soil management. Favoured mulches include the leaves of the inaja palm (Maximiliana
maripa Corr. Serr., Palmae), banana leaves, urucu husks (Bixa orellana L.,
Bixaceae), and some crop residues such as rice straw, bean vines, sweet potato
vines and chopped weeds. Some of the mulch materials, mainly the crop residues,
are derived from the agricultural field itself. The larger-leaved mulches, such as
the palm fronds and banana leaves, often come from outside the field representing
a net nutrient input which can compensate for, or exceed, nutrients lost when
crops are consumed away from the garden. Mulches protect the soil from raindrop
compaction, reduce weed germination, reduce soil temperatures and provide a
slow release of nutrients.
Direct nutrient additions applied to particular crops, or mixed into the planting
medium of particular trees, are also used by the Kayapó. These direct nutrient additions tend to be applied to longer-lived species, such as the various Musa,
long-lived yams, Marantaceae, urucu, genipap (Genipa americana, Rubiaceae),
pineapple (Ananas sp., Bromeliaceae), and other minor crops that are planted at the
perimeter of the swidden garden. The sources of nutrients range from ashes of particular species to plants, termite nests, bones, Azteca ant nests and shredded leaf
mulches. Table 15.4 shows the chemical content of the more common additions.
The manipulation of fallows by indigenous groups is well documented (Alcorn
1983; Denevan et al. 1984). This manipulation includes the addition of perennial
Table 15.4 Fertility elements of planting additions used by the Kayapó
Maximiliana ash
Maximiliana ash
Maximiliana ash
Ki (field hearths)
Ki (field hearths)
Ken po ti ash (ash from
ritual rock outcrop)
Mrum kra ti*
Rorot tyk+
Rorot tyk+
Rorot tyk+
Planting mix apêtêo
OM (%) N (%)
P (ppm) K (ppm) Ca
100 g)
100 g)
*Termite mounds. +Azteca ant nests. oLeaves and ant nests.
Kayapó land management
plants to the annual cropping system, and protection of particular plants when
weeding in the earlier stages of the swidden. Nitrogen-fixing leguminous trees
such as Inga species (Leguminosae) are sometimes planted into the fallows, and
Trema micanthra (Ulmaceae), a non-leguminous nitrogen-fixing plant common
in secondary succession, is protected in Kayapó agricultural fields. The manipulation of successional processes is not limited to the swidden field, and includes
natural and manmade forest gaps (bà-krê tí), apêtê plantings, and forest plantings
of Euterpe (Palmae) and Bertholletia, among others. Manipulation of secondary
successional processes varies substantially, depending on the vegetation formation in which it is practised, the particular species that are used, and the purpose of
the plantings.
The use of soil microdiversity, either inherent in the site or created through infield burning, nutrient additions or planting patterns within the Kayapó swidden
field, permits good productivity in relay planting strategies and fine tuning of
soils to crop requirements, or vice versa. While the importance of regional soil
diversity for choosing swidden sites has been documented by Moran (1981a), the
significance of soil and agronomic microdiversity within Amazonian field gardens has been mainly a subject of speculation (Stocks 1983). In later sections we
show that there are clear soil fertility differences in various planting zones, which
reflect coordination between planting and soil parameters. Moreover, nutrient
‘hot spots’ that are richer in bases and micronutrients than the soil of the background zone, can be used for planting crops with specific nutrient demands that
might be difficult to seed more generally, such as beans, with their higher demand
for phosphorus and microelements such as molybdenum.
The swidden plot
The Kayapó engage in ‘concentric ring’ or spatially segmented planting zones in
the swidden garden: a central zone, dominated by relay-planted sweet potatoes; a
secondary ring, which often begins in maize, and through a complex of relay
plantings generally ends in a manioc/sweet potato polycrop; and the external ring
which includes yams, kupa, bananas, pineapples, urucu and fruit trees. The plots
are roughly circular and about one hectare in size. The Kayapó swidden plots stay
in active production for about five years, and continue to produce at lower levels
for as long as eleven years. The swidden cycle is about 15 years although this
varies with soil type and management choices.
There is a great deal of variability among Kayapó gardens reflecting local
resource characteristics (background soil type, relief); household labour availability;
hierarchical obligations (communal and ceremonial fields whose surplus is distributed by the chief, warrior gardens); personal preferences (such as a fondness for a
particular kind of sweet potato, peanuts, beans); ritual obligations (households sponsoring naming ceremonies require large amounts of manioc and bananas, or families
in which there has been a death, plant a garden devoted only to maize for a death ceremony at the maize harvest time); internal markets (rice is now increasingly grown in
Preliminary results on soil management techniques
the early phases of the cropping cycle, intercropped with maize or in pure stands, to
trade among households or to sell to local loggers and gold miners). Within the diversity of improvizations of individual household gardens the pattern of segmented,
more or less concentric planting zones remains a common structure.
The architecture of the Kayapó agricultural plot begins in the clearing stage.
Trees are often felled so that they fall with their crowns facing the perimeter of
the puru. The inner concentric circle receives manipulation and plants well in
advance of the burning, and is managed somewhat differently from the rest of the
plot. This area is kept relatively free of large slash throughout the cultivation
period and is burned often. The second concentric ring includes the boles of large
trees as well as some sites of secondary burning of slash, known as coivara. The
practice is ubiquitous in the Amazon Basin and distinct from what we designate as
‘in-field burning’. Coivara operations generally occur at the beginning of forming a garden, often prior to any planting. In-field burning, however, occurs
throughout the first years of the production cycle. This zone will be dominated by
short-cycle maize, beans and peanuts, and longer-producing manioc, sweet potatoes, yams and papaya. The final circle is composed primarily of bananas, yams,
urucu and pineapples.
(a) The central zone
The central plot in the swidden field is generally devoted to a monoculture of
diverse cultivars of sweet potatoes. The crop-soil management here is unique
when compared with other indigenous production practices throughout
Amazonia, since sweet potatoes are of singular importance in the northern Jê diet
and production systems. The sweet potato has the highest solar-energy-fixing
efficiency among tropical food crops. It is resistant to drought and extremely tolerant of the hot shadeless conditions that prevail in the centre of a Kayapó garden.
Moreover, very warm temperatures appear to increase total plant production of
Ipomoea (Hahn 1975). It is the first crop planted in any Kayapó swidden because
several cultivars are fire tolerant and are planted even before the forest is completely felled. This early planting gives time for subterranean plant development
before the burn takes place, enabling the sweet potatoes to take advantage of the
most soluble fertility elements. In addition, the fires in this central zone probably
result in heat disinfection of the planting material (Nielson 1977).
The central plot receives a ‘cool’ burn during the formation of the swidden –
compared to the rest of the garden – because the cut biomass at this site is not as
great as in the other zones. However, the central part of the plot is subject to intense
management and more frequent in-field burning than the other zones of the garden
since the area in sweet potato is relay planted and remains in continuous production for as long as four years. Mulching with inaja, weed and crop residues (which
are subsequently burned), and roasting tubers in field hearths (ki) also occurs.
These provide additional sources of ash, rich in potassium. After harvesting tubers
and replanting, vines are clipped and dried for three to five days, often piled up on
Kayapó land management
remaining stumps and logs in the central zone, and then burned on site at midday.
This ensures complete combustion, although the fire is considered relatively ‘cool’
because the volume of the dried vines is less than ten kilos per cubic metre. The
burning releases nutrients stored in the foliage, and as the central section of the
swidden plot is a monoculture and therefore susceptible to pathogens, it effectively
fumigates the soil.
Burning dynamics are particularly significant because frequent burns are associated with relatively high levels of potassium in tropical topsoils. The central
zone has significantly higher levels of potassium than the other planting rings as
Table 15.5 indicates. Sweet potato production correlates with potassium and
phosphorous but with the highest positive correlation for potassium (Tsuno and
Fusige 1968; Villareal and Griggs 1982). Higher levels of potassium increase the
net photosynthetic rate and accelerate the translocation of carbohydrate into the
tuberous root (Hahn 1975).
Table 15.5 indicates there are significantly higher nutrient levels of phosphorous, potassium and calcium in the central zone compared to the middle and outer
zones, and the forest control, and significantly higher levels of organic matter
compared to the second planting zone, but on average slightly less organic matter
than the outer ring. The external inputs (mulches and ashes from cooking fires)
and the constant recycling of crop nutrients creates a soil microenvironment that
is particularly tuned to supplying the fertility elements that correlate most
strongly with sweet potato production. The high levels of calcium probably reflect
more complete combustion of the remaining slash because of the frequent in-field
burning, and the casual spread of ashes from cooking hearths. In addition, the fire
frequency may very well help control the spread of disease through soil fumigation and the destruction of crop residues where pathogens may breed.
Another important soil manipulation occurs in the sweet potato section of the
swidden plot where soil is aerated with a machete. Because sweet potato vines are
rather lanky, and because the plot is a relatively pure stand with no vertical differentiation, the soil in the central part can become compacted. Inadequate aeration
in compacted soils inhibits nutrient uptake and favours fungal diseases (Villareal
and Griggs 1982). In dry compacted soils, roots tend to lignify more quickly
(Hahn 1975). Women cultivate the soil when necessary, breaking up any fine
crusts that develop on the soil surface. Given the high levels of soil compaction
that often occur in continuously cultivated monocultures in the tropics, the friability of the Kayapó central zone is quite remarkable despite years of cultivation.
The central section of the swidden plot is cleanly weeded, unlike other parts of
the puru. The monocultural characteristics of the site facilitate manipulations
needed for maintaining intensive production of Ipomoea varieties.
(b) The second concentric ring
The second ring in the swidden plot is the zone where the largest proportion of
forest biomass will be destroyed, because it is here where most of the tree boles
Ten samples were taken randomly from each zone to a depth of 10 cm.
Adjacent forest
Middle zone
Centre zone (sweet potato)
P (ppm)
K (ppm)
Ca (meq/100 g) Mg (meq/100 g) OM (per cent)
Table 15.5 Means and standard deviation of fertility elements in Kayapó garden planting zones1
Kayapó land management
will fall. It is also here where microdiversity, resulting from uneven combustion
or uneven distribution of ash, will influence planting strategy the most. This is the
zone where coivara is practised (although the outer zone often receives more
coivara burning) and so there are several extremely rich nutrient sites. The distribution and size of slash, and the position of coivara burning mounds, create
planting sites that vary in the relative volume of nutrients and in the rates of
release. Coivara sites generally have extremely good chemical status but the elements will be relatively soluble. Sites near logs will have longer release and
moderate fertility. Finally, the places in the plot without additional nutrient inputs
from coivara or proximity to logs will demonstrate ‘background’ post-burn site
fertility. This fertility varies according to the basic soil type, as well as burning
In terms of overall species diversity, this is where the greatest number of crop
species is found over time, including varieties of sweet and bitter manioc, yams,
maize, beans, peanuts, papaya, urucu, rice, sugar cane, cotton and tobacco. The
planting pattern of these crops, however, is not entirely random, but is linked to
the soil microdiversity of the ring, and crops are planted in polycrop relay systems
that initially begin with a maize × melons/squashes and mounds of yams and
sweet potatoes. Manioc can also be planted immediately, or it can be introduced
during ripening or later after the maize harvest. As the cropping succession proceeds, the middle zone will be dominated by a manioc × sweet potato intercrop.
The coivara areas, high-nutrient and fast-release sites, are given over to either
the long-cycle crops that can produce for several years (bush beans, yams) or the
most fertility-demanding short-cycle crops of the Kayapó: beans, squashes,
watermelons, tobacco and sometimes maize, although maize is usually planted in
the second zone after the main swidden burn when the soil is most rich in nutrients. These are planted in the mounds after the maize seeds have been immersed
in the pulp of rhizomes of wild ginger (Costus warmingii) at the moment of planting, which is said by the Kayapó to improve germination and yields. In the case of
beans, the mounds are the sites where nitrogen fixation is least likely to be limited
by insufficient levels of phosphorous and microelements, to which rhizobia are
particularly sensitive.
Other crops that are relatively nutrient demanding are tobacco and cotton.
These are planted in areas where ash is somewhat richer, and along logs and slash
to assure adequate nutrient levels. For tobacco, adequate levels of potassium are
particularly important in otherwise very potassium-deficient soils. Relatively
minor crops such as peanuts, sugar cane, melons and squashes are planted according to the nutrient demands of the crop. Arachis is planted in intermediate fertility
sites similar to those of the yams.
Yams are also planted in the second ring. In this case a site is chosen near an
incompletely burned trunk, giving a source of slow nutrient release and providing
structural support for the vines. Next, a hole is dug in which crumbled Azteca ant
nests are sometimes placed, or in which ashes are mixed with the mounded soil and
two varieties of yams per mound are generally planted. Yams are somewhat more
Preliminary results on soil management techniques
nutrient demanding than either sweet potatoes or manioc. Since yams produce for
several years, their proximity to a slow-release source of nutrients in the form of a
tree bole, or worked into the soil in the form of ashes or charcoal, is essential for
sustained production. Alternatively, mounding ash later in the crop cycle may also
contribute to the long-term production.
Manioc, sweet potatoes and yams are frequently replanted in the swidden plot, but
how they are planted may vary. Replanting of yams and sweet potatoes may occur in
the coivara mounds after the cultivation of rice, beans or maize, where residual fertility is somewhat greater, and in sites where crop residues, mulches and slash are
burned. In contrast, manioc is never replanted on sites where yams, sweet potatoes or
maize have previously grown, but is replanted into sites where it has already been
producing, including replanting into the same hole (Kerr and Posey 1984).
After three or four years, the first and second rings may be reburned for a final
replanting and many of the longer-term tree crops such as urucu, mangoes, etc.
are then gradually introduced once the danger of fire is past.
As Table 15.5 indicates, the middle ring is the area where soil fertility levels
are lowest for all nutrients. This reflects the basic dominance of manioc. Many of
the varieties of indigenous manioc appear to be tolerant of low nutrient levels and
higher soil aluminium (Kerr 1986). The more demanding crops, like maize, that
appear in this zone take advantage of the initial fertility, or concentrated nutrient
pockets, but for the most part, this zone, which generally comprises more than 70
per cent of a garden, has overall lower soil fertility levels, reflecting relatively low
nutrient demands of the dominant crop, manioc.
(c) The outer ring
The perimeter of the swidden ring is primarily devoted to Musa and yams. In this
area, nutrients are derived largely from felled forest canopy: leaves, fine branches
and some parts of stems. Although much of the slash is relatively fine, burning is
often incomplete because of the proximity to living moist vegetation. For this reason, small coivara piles are quite common, and the resulting ash is mounded, mixed
with soil and planted with yams. Bananas are also often planted into a richer pile of
nutrients. Bananas are not the most demanding of Kayapó crops, but they do require
some nutrient subsidies during the establishment phase, and over their long production life. Bananas will often be mulched, and ash nutrient additions applied
throughout the production cycle. Later, the soils of the zone receive litter from adjacent forest, so there is a long-term nutrient addition that can be significant.
In this outer zone, polyvarietal planting is the norm, with at least two varieties
of banana/plantain stocks planted in the same hole. Sugar cane and papaya are
interspersed with tree crops like Bixa, genipap, mangoes, etc. in this area of the
plot. The planting of kupa also occurs here, where adjacent forest trees can be
used to provide structural support for the vine. This zone remains in production
for virtually the entire ‘successional’ cycle of the puru, and these banana plantations are cursorily cleaned and managed when collection occurs.
Kayapó land management
The Musa/yam ring at the perimeter of the Kayapó plots is not the most fertility-demanding of the crops, and runs counter to Stocks’ assertion that
high-nutrient-requiring crops are placed in the peripheral ring because they need
proximity to the forest for nutrient additions (Stocks 1983). What is more at issue
is the length of time that the bananas and yams of Kayapó gardens remain in production. In this case, low-level additions from forest over time (12 years) are more
significant, but are also supplemented with direct nutrient additions. For yams,
the proximity to peripheral trees provides support for vines.
The nutrient status of soils in the perimeter are shown in Table 15.5. Soils in the
outer zone are relatively rich in potassium, calcium and organic matter compared
to the second zone. The more intensive use of coivara, plus some nutrient additions
and mulches (particularly to bananas), and the nutrient ‘rain’ in the form of litter
from the adjacent forest vegetation, create the nutrient pattern of this zone. What is
critical here is that the perimeter is the zone of long-producing perennial crop
plants. As well as receiving forest litter, nutrient additions tend to be worked into
the planting medium and are applied to specific plants over the production period.
When the Kayapó manage their agricultural plots they must work with a variety
of interacting factors including the background soil fertility, the heterogeneous
quality of ash and its distribution, crop nutrient requirements, cropping cycles,
management requirements, and pest and disease control. In the Kayapó gardens,
each concentric ring defines classes of plant-soil management units where soil
and fire manipulation, and crop planting and management patterns interact. The
soil fertility differences between the planting zones are statistically significant,
and reflect a strategy of fine-tuning soils to crop demands. The close linkage
between planting practices and surface ash distribution (and manipulation) in
Kayapó swidden agriculture may suggest that multicrop planting in swidden gardens, often described in the literature as random, may in fact be a deliberate
pattern associated with in-plot soil fertility gradients.
Burning control and crop-soil management are important considerations in the
concentric structure of the swidden fields of the Kayapó, and figure prominently in
discussions of the fields with the Kayapó. This does not invalidate the hypotheses
suggested by Stocks (1983) or Beckerman (1984), but implies that concentrating
crop-soil management in space facilitates practices that may damage other plants,
or that are more easily carried out when they are spatially segmented from other
crops. In any case, soils are neglected when analysing concentric ring structure.
In the first sections of this chapter we argued that indigenous soil management
could inform several research areas in Amazonian agricultural settlement. Soils
are mutable features of ecosystems and soil fertility levels can be modified in
Preliminary results on soil management techniques
both the short and the long term. Kayapó swiddens produce at high levels for
extended periods of time compared with most of the production systems that have
been recently introduced into Amazonia. Moreover, the positive results of Kayapó
manipulation appear to persist through time (Hecht and Posey – see following
chapter). That specific agricultural lands occur on virtually all regional soil types
and are passed down the female line suggests that households capitalize their
agriculture on the results of intergenerational land improvements. If, as Balée
(1987) and Posey (1985c) suggest, forest ecosystems are cultural artefacts, many
of the features of soils that underlie these forests are also the outcome of human
intervention. Certainly the large extension of ‘Indian black earths’ (terra preta do
índio) suggests this is the case (Balée 1987; Smith 1980). We believe that complex crop-soil management technologies could have existed for intensive upland
agriculture. The idea that inherent chemical features of soils determine human
population densities becomes meaningless.
Second, we have argued that the concentric ring structure of the Kayapó gardens correlates with statistically significant differences in soil fertility between
planting zones, and that crop-soil management demands could be a useful topic
for analysing this cropping pattern.
Finally, we suggest that the principles of Kayapó soil management might be
useful for developing low-input cropping systems for other Amazonian farming
systems. While the Kayapó systems are complex, their basic techniques –
mulching, ash application, and site-crop specific planting strategies – are not.
With the local knowledge of caboclos and agronomists, Kayapó soil management
could inform the development of sustainable production systems for non-native
Chapter 16
Indigenous soil management
in the Latin American tropics:
some implications of
ethnopedology for the
Amazon Basin 1
During the last 20 years, more than 20 million hectares of lowland forests in
the Amazon Basin have been converted to other land uses (INPE 1988). The
potential long-term impacts will affect the global carbon balance, atmospheric
moisture recycling, hydrological resources and genetic diversity. While these
changes are speculative, and the subject of much debate, the most consistently
documented impact of deforestation is the degradation of soil resources once
the nutrient flush from conversion of forest to pasture or agriculture is over.
The main forms of regional agriculture that follow forest conversion are very
unstable, and declining soil fertility is frequently identified as a factor in agricultural failure (Buschbacker 1986; Hecht 1982a, 1982b, 1985; Fearnside
1980, 1986; Sanchez 1976, 1985; Sanchez et al. 1982; Sanchez and Benites
1987; Smith 1982). As soil nutrients become exhausted, and the costs of weeding become more arduous, farmers and ranchers abandon old areas and clear
new ones, creating an ever expanding front of forest removal and land degradation.
This chapter focuses on two main themes. First, it discusses indigenous versus
modernization approaches to soil management in Amazonian research and development strategies. Kayapó systems are compared structurally with current
regional agricultural strategies. While indigenous systems are complex, the principles that underlie them are not, and native land management models could
inform land resource management approaches to a greater extent than they have
so far. Finally, the outcomes of Kayapó colonist and livestock systems are compared in terms of soil fertility and yields.
Amazon soils and research approaches: from
transnational to tribal paradigms
The dynamics of agricultural and pasture failure in Amazonia are extremely complex and are not uniquely determined by soil parameters (Hecht 1985; Hecht
1988b). What is clear, however, is that Amazonian soils for the most part are
extremely poor, and soil constraints are severe for many crops grown under current cropping systems. As Table 16.1 indicates, more than 90 per cent of
Indigenous soil management in the Latin American tropics
Amazonian soils are deficient in phosphorous and nitrogen; about 75 per cent are
deficient in potassium, have serious problems of aluminium toxicity, or have low
levels of calcium and magnesium. Only about four per cent of the soils of the
Amazon Basin exhibit no major agricultural constraints. The problems inherent in
conventional crop-soil management in areas with such poor soils have given the
Amazon a reputation for ‘fragility’. This perception ignores the resiliency of
many tropical forest formations and overlooks the fact that indigenous
Amazonian populations have developed complex systems of agriculture and
intensive soil management that have overcome these difficulties.
The dramatic nature of soil degradation after forest conversion is recognized in
much of the regional research on tropical agronomy (cf. Falesi 1976; Sanchez
1976; Sanchez et al. 1982; Tropsoils 1985; CIAT 1987). Research related to soil
management is a central focus for most agronomic research stations in the humid
tropics, and indeed more than 60 per cent of the research budgets involve surveying, mapping and classifying soils, and fertilizer and management trials. This
research, along with climatic data and germplasm selection, is viewed as essential
for developing the scientific basis for technical transfer of improved crops and
cropping systems. In the main, these results argue that soil constraints, considered
to be the most critical agronomic limitation, can be overcome by the application
of fertilizers and other modern inputs (Sanchez et al. 1982; CPATU 1984; CIAT
One of the arguments used to justify conventional soil research is the idea that
if production systems, especially annual production systems, could be stabilized
through the use of modern inputs, then migration and deforestation linked to
cropping failures would be diminished. Hence the overwhelming preponderance
of fertilizer and varietal trials in tropical research stations.
Table 16.1 Main soil constraints in the Amazon under native vegetation
Soil constraint
Hectares (m)
Per cent of Amazon
Phosphorus deficiency
Aluminium toxicity
Drought stress
Low potassium reserves
Poor drainage/flood hazard
High phosphorus fixation
Low cation exchange capacity
High erodibility
No major limitations
Slopes of over 30 per cent
Laterite hazard
Source: Sanchez and Benites 1987.
Kayapó land management
The Yurimaguas model
The most famous Amazonian example of this approach is that developed by
Sanchez’ group in Yurimaguas. Following the US Land Grant College model of
agronomic research and development, soil and crop management strategies
focus on target crops or soil problems, with minimal reference to local knowledge systems and land-use practices. This kind of approach has generated useful
results, but as a strategy it concentrates primarily on what scientists have been
able to learn through the application of scientific techniques to rather narrowly
defined pedological/agronomic problems. The overriding response to soil management problems has emphasized agronomic techniques rooted in temperate
zone agricultural intensification models that consist principally of fertilizer
applications (Sanchez et al. 1982; Sanchez 1985; Sanchez and Benites 1987). By
approaching soils issues in this manner, a large body of local knowledge about
soil potential and management has been ignored, and the social and economic
contexts in which most agriculturalists in the humid tropics must function are
often overlooked.
There are a number of reasons why an approach based on soil management
which focuses on chemical fertilizers, such as the Yurimaguas model, is open to
question. Some of these issues have been outlined elsewhere. For example,
Fearnside (1987) examines agronomic issues such as (i) soil nutrient imbalances
and micronutrient deficiencies that cannot easily be monitored by most
Amazonian peasants; (ii) pest outbreaks that can reduce yields regardless of soil
management; (iii) erosion problems; and (iv) physical changes in soil properties.
Institutional factors include: (v) availability of inputs at the proper time; (vi)
access to inputs; and (vii) adequate quality of inputs. Finally, market factors such
as (viii) adequate return; (ix) affordable transport costs; and (x) affordable credit,
are also important. Broader structural questions which impinge on the use of such
technologies may include issues such as the very low incomes of most Amazonian
inhabitants, about US$1,000 per year or less. The $250–300 per hectare costs for
fertilizer represent almost one third of an average household’s income for producing commodities whose prices are often controlled, whose marketing is difficult
and costly, and whose production in Amazonia is quite risky. While credit is usually proposed as the solution to this impasse, only about four per cent of
Amazonian peasants receive credit. The inherent riskiness of annual crops often
reduces the use of high technology packages (Scott 1978), and the opportunity
costs of investment of labour and cash in annual cropping systems limit the adoption of such crop/soil technologies. The Yurimaguas approach has undergone
several modifications over the years and increasingly incorporates practices that
demand fewer inputs (Sanchez and Benites 1987).
Some analysts are beginning to argue that tropical land use models should be
based on land management methods developed by local populations, presumably
more closely integrated into the dynamics of tropical ecological systems and the
needs and constraints of local peoples (Altieri 1987). Researchers increasingly
Indigenous soil management in the Latin American tropics
recognize the role of native populations in the development of ecologically sound,
productive land uses. However, the amount of research on indigenous soil management techniques, and how well they perform in the tropics, is a research
question that has received little attention in spite of the enormous budgets devoted
to tropical pedology and agronomy. One might well ask why research on such a
central issue in tropical development has so systematically ignored local knowledge systems.
The Kayapó model
The characteristics of the Kayapó and Yurimaguas systems are outlined in Table
16.2. This table shows the rich array of techniques and strategies for managing
relatively low fertility soils, and the points of intersection between the modernization and traditional models. The Kayapó system includes a soil taxonomy;
selection for variety diversity; and complex planting patterns in space, e.g. concentric ring planting (see Chapter 15; Stocks 1983) and intercropping, and time,
e.g. continuous planting for certain crops, relay planting and successional strategies. Several soil conservation practices are incorporated within this physical and
temporal structure. These include the use of spatial segregation in planting systems; multiple cropping systems; crop rotations; crops with scandent habits;
concentrated tillage; direct addition of nutrients as ashes, mulches, residues,
dung, and enriched soils; complex co-planting; transferring forest litter; composting; and controlled periodic, in-field burning. There are clearly points of
similarity in the Yurimaguas and Kayapó systems in the use of crop residua, relay
planting, nutrient additions and short fallows. The active ‘arsenal’ of the Kayapó
agricultural system is much richer, and requires no purchased inputs.
Researchers should also recognize that there is a complex intellectual system
that underlies the native management of soil resources, the ensemble of which is
‘ethnopedology’. Ethnopedology includes the study of native land classification
systems, management techniques and their variability, and how practical and theoretical knowledge is developed, expanded, encoded and reproduced.
Land uses reflect some implicit or explicit assessment of the relative capabilities of soils, and practical techniques ranging from crop selection to soil
management to address these capabilities. Folk soil taxonomies are widespread
(although generally underinvestigated) and generally correlate well with discernible quantitative differences among soil types (Carter 1969; Conklin 1957;
Toledo and Barrera-Bassals 1984; Christanty 1987; Behrens 1988; Johnson
1982). Crop genetic selection and experimentation is impressively widespread in
Amazonia (cf. Chernela 1986; Boster 1984; Kerr and Posey 1984). An emerging
body of ethnobiological work in Amazonia suggests that native populations have
developed complex systems of resource management that are ecologically sustainable, and may generate levels of income that exceed the regional average
(Anderson et al. 1985; Hecht and Schwartzman 1988; Denevan and Padoch 1988;
Clay 1988).
Kayapó land management
Table 16.2 Kayapó and Yurimaguas agricultural systems
Soil classification
Crop diversity
Medium cycle crops
(2–4 year production periods)
Arboreal species
Polyvarietal planting
Plant structure
Nutrient inputs
Residue return
Slash and burn
Slash and burn
Concentric ring
Ashes, mulch, termite
nests, litter, palm fronds
Rice, maize stalks, banana
leaves, vines of yam,
sweet potato,
manioc peelings
Pure stand
Rice and cowpea
Cultivation practices
Continuous planting
In-field burning
In-field mulch pits
Weed control
Scandent crops
5–10 years
1–2 years
The study of indigenous soil management has many of the advantages of classic soil research:
Soil properties can be more precisely specified than vegetation processes.
Edaphic data from one area can illuminate the probabilities of land-use outcomes on similar sites more clearly than vegetation data.
Indigenous soil management in the Latin American tropics
Soil data are particularly powerful tools for evaluating and comparing the
impact of land management over time.
In addition, insights from millennia of tropical land management experience that
have survived the test of time and the vagaries of environment, can contribute to
the formulation of new strategies and testable hypotheses. Given the power of this
form of analysis, it is rather surprising that so little serious attention has been paid
to native land management techniques. If Kayapó techniques can sustain productivity on a given site by maintaining soil fertility, or increase output through soil
modification and crop management, these could serve as the foundation for sustainable agricultural models for small-scale farmers in Amazonia.
Comparing Kayapó agriculture with colonist agriculture
and livestock in eastern Amazonia
The Gorotire Kayapó inhabit a region characterized by complex geology and geomorphology in southern Pará, Brazil. Lying at the interface between the
Precambrian Brazilian shield and more recent metamorphic and sedimentary formations, several major soil orders are found within short distances. Most Kayapó
agriculture is carried out on four main soil types: a high fertility alfisol, a relatively high fertility ultisol, a low fertility ultisol, and a low fertility oxisol (see
Table 15.2, page 170). Because the four soil orders managed by the Kayapó are
similar to more than 90 per cent of Amazonian soils, the principles, the techniques
and the impacts of Kayapó management could have wide implications for tropical
soil management in the Amazon Basin.
The Kayapó designate 14 types of land use as ‘agriculture’ (see Table 15.3,
page 171). These various land uses are complex, and include ceremonial planting,
reforestation, and resource islands, ‘nomadic agriculture’, as well as swidden
plots. The Kayapó practice concentric ring/crop segregation agriculture based on
sweet potatoes, manioc, yams and perennials, periodically intercropped with
maize, beans, cucurbits, introduced rice, and numerous other minor crops and ritual plants. Kayapó swiddens stay in active root crop production for about five
years, and continue to contribute agricultural produce at reduced levels for as long
as 12 years (see Chapter 15). This is an exceptionally long production period that
is a function of eight main factors: (i) a mixture of short- and long-cycle cultigens
and cultivars; (ii) sequential harvesting and replanting; (iii) root crop cultivars
well adapted to fire (including fire tolerant manioc, sweet potatoes, yams,
Marantaceae); (iv) systematic, differential, periodic burning within the agricultural field for the entire production sequence; (v) mulching; (vi) nutrient
additions; (vii) agricultural structure; and (viii) manipulated fallows.
Informants indicate that concentric zones facilitate the creation or manipulation of in-field microvariability that ‘fine tunes’ soil nutrients to crop demands.
Considering the dominant physical and chemical properties of the regional soils,
slight lateral changes in those properties can be strongly reflected in the growth
Kayapó land management
and productivity of most annual and biennial crops. Concentric field architecture
permits the use of specific soil nutrient management techniques in a controlled
manner. For example, the frequent use of in-field burning throughout the agricultural cycle requires that particular crops be separated from others to control
nutrient additions, and to minimize fire damage. Mulch application, specific
nutrient additions and soil aeration can be practised more effectively when crops
are spatially segregated.
Comparing land uses in eastern Amazon
The dominant forms of land use in the Amazon are pasture and short-cycle agriculture which are notorious for their lack of sustainability and low rates of
economic return (Browder 1988a; Moran 1981a; Hecht 1985; Hecht and
Schwartzman 1988; Hecht et al. 1988; Fearnside 1980, 1986). The features of
Kayapó agriculture are outlined and compared with these two other land uses in
Table 16.3. There are significant structural differences in these production systems, including: field pattern; crop species diversity; total time in production; use
of arboreal species; and harvest patterns. Table 16.3 demonstrates a gradient of
management intensity, ecological complexity and declining labour allocation per
Table 16.3 Comparison of the structure of Kayapó, colonist and livestock production
Clearing size
Planting patterns
Cropping zonation
Continuous cropping
Continuous planting
Relay cropping
Polyvarietal crops
Arboreal species
Cultivated species in field
Harvest pattern
Soil conservation practices
Main crops
Slash and burn
About 1 ha
Slash and burn
2–5 ha
Slash and burn
Up to 20,000 ha
Sweet potato, yams,
manioc, maize, Musa,
beans, squash
4 md/ha
Rice, manioc
25 md/ha
4.5 md/ha
Indigenous soil management in the Latin American tropics
Table 16.4 Production of proteins per hectare of Kayapó, colonist and livestock systems
over time
Production system
Five years
Ten years
Production of all crops1 (kg/ha)
Protein (kg/ha)2
Production of all crops3
Protein (kg/ha)
Production (kg/ha)
Protein2, 4
Estimates based on in-field measurement, area/harvest weights, household harvests, and informant
estimates.The crops here include sweet potato, yam, manioc, plantains and bananas, maize, beans,
squash, peanuts. Many other minor crops such as Colocasia and other tubers, papayas, watermelons,
peppers, mangoes, pineapples, are not in the calculation.
Protein estimates derived from Wu Leung (1961), Dufour (1988), USDA (1981).
Based on average yields of rice, maize and manioc in colonist agriculture in Amazonia.
Assumes that virtually the entire animal, including the hide, is consumed. Protein is estimated at
roughly 30 per cent of total body weight. If the animal is dressed out, it yields about 60 per cent of
its liveweight.This protein yield is indicated in parentheses.
hectare. Because the systems are so different, the production comparison in Table
16.4 focuses on production yields and proteins.
The edible harvest and protein yields for each of the land uses are outlined in
Table 16.4 for periods of five and ten years.2 The Kayapó yields per hectare over
five years are roughly 200 per cent higher than colonist systems, and 175 times
that of livestock. Colonist agriculture rarely continues beyond five years, hence
there is no comparison between the Kayapó and colonist in the ten-year period.
However, animal production is a mere 700 kilos of animal to more than 84 tonnes
of Kayapó product.
The data follow the same trends when protein production is analysed. Kayapó
protein yields from vegetable sources are roughly double those of colonists, and
more than 10 times the protein production for the entire animal. The protein per
100 grams of beef is roughly 30 grams (USDA 1981). If the dressed-out animal
(that is, one with hide, bones and offal removed, usually about 40 per cent of live
animal weight) is used as the basis of the analysis, the kilos of pure protein produced over five years are a scandalous 63 kilos/per hectare. In ten years, using
these calculations 1 hectare of pasture has produced less than a tonne of meat, and
slightly more than 100 kilos of protein, or roughly five per cent of the protein gen-
Kayapó land management
erated by the Kayapó system. Incidentally, Kayapó gardens in their later phases
become habitat for animals such as agouti, peccaries and deer, and thus producers
of animal protein during the fallow (Redford and Richards 1987). This protein
production is not taken into account in this study.
The Kayapó system is based on root crops, especially sweet potatoes which are
very productive in the tropics. The sheer volume of production assures carbohydrate adequacy and, with minor supplements, protein sufficiency. While these
crops are often reviled for their low protein contents (cf. Gross 1975), nutritional
studies by Huang (1983) on adult Yami tribesmen show that diets were nutritionally adequate when subjects ate 2.5 kilos of sweet potatoes a day. Several studies
in New Guinea show that protein content varies significantly between cultivars
(Hayward and Nakikus 1981), and that intestinal flora of some groups of New
Guinean sweet potato eaters may have been able to fix nitrogen (cited in Huang
and Lee 1979).
Soil effects
The next issue is what impact this high production has on soil properties compared
with colonist and livestock systems. Soil samples were taken on sites with similar
soil characteristics, in this case dystrophic paleudalfs. Adjacent forest sites were
used as ‘controls’ and samples were collected from areas in the first, fifth and tenth
years of production. Sampling areas were roughly 1 hectare in size, and the samples were collected randomly. Ten samples were taken per ‘treatment’.
Table 16.5 shows several clear trends. First, pH tends to improve with burning, and this effect persists over time in all the systems, mainly as the result of
decomposition of larger tree boles. In the Kayapó case, a higher pH is maintained for a longer time, probably due to the continual in-field burning, cooking
within the fields themselves, and importing wood for cooking fires. Nitrogen
levels are very low in all three systems, but the importance of low nitrogen is less
pronounced in Kayapó agriculture because of its emphasis on root crops rather
than grains for most of the production cycle. Rice requires about 23 kilos of
nitrogen per tonne, while manioc and sweet potato remove 3.7 and 0.3 kilos per
tonne respectively, and require little nitrogen for good production (Sanchez
1976). Phosphorous levels are low in all the soils but Kayapó production maintains higher levels of P over time. Potassium is a very labile element, easily
leached in tropical conditions, and one which is closely associated with productivity in root crops like manioc and sweet potatoes. The use of high K mulches
such as Maximiliana leaves, crop residues and ashes from cooking fires (see
Chapter 15, page 173) maintains high K levels to compensate for the production
losses. This element stays at levels equal to the first year of production because
of these practices. Kayapó soil management techniques also ensure that calcium
and magnesium levels are maintained over time in spite of the crop off-take.
Kayapó land management produces more product and protein at less environmental cost than the livestock or colonist systems. While the labour demands are
Indigenous soil management in the Latin American tropics
Table 16.5 Changes in soil fertility elements in Kayapó, colonist and livestock systems
N (per cent)
P (ppm)
N (per cent)
P (ppm)
N (per cent)
P (ppm)
Year One
Year Five
Year Ten
*milli-equivalents/100 gm.
Data derived from soil samples taken at Gorotire (Kayapó), Nixdorf cattle ranch near Redenção
(livestock), and colonist agriculture of squatters on the Nixdorf Ranch. Colonist and livestock agriculture sampled in 1982.
greater in this system, it does assure the reproduction and subsistence of tropical
forest. Tropical soils are difficult, not impossible to manage. The Kayapó have
much to teach us about how this can be done.
This chapter emphasizes two main points. First, indigenous knowledge systems,
and the agriculture on which they are based, are rich in management techniques
for nutrient-poor tropical soils. Second, these systems are better producers of
calories and proteins than any of the alternatives without damaging the resource
The real question becomes, why do some production systems prevail over others? The livestock story has been the subject of a spate of recent articles (Browder
Kayapó land management
1988b; Hecht 1982b, 1985; Hecht et al. 1988; Fearnside 1986; Buschbacker
1986), and colonist migrations are the central feature of the Amazon’s twentiethcentury history. These land uses and the deforestation associated with them are
driven by an array of social and economic factors including inter alia government
policy, credit incentives, land speculation and rural violence. The political
economies of accumulation and subsistence associated with the new occupation
of the Amazon drive the destructive and low productivity patterns that we see.
These patterns are related to processes that have very little to do with the question
of technological adequacy, in spite of the discourse that posits production failure
and land degradation as the central driving force behind deforestation. For this
reason, neither the Yurimaguas nor indigenous models will be very effective at
altering this particular deforestation process.
This does not make exploration of sustainable management systems a trivial
exercise. Answers to technological questions about land management in the
Amazon could increase production or at least maintain it longer. However, hundreds of millions of dollars have been funnelled into surveys and experiments
which have not made colonists’ agriculture more stable, or livestock more productive. At the same time, the total budget for exploring indigenous Amazonian
soil management which is based on locally available inputs, and whose principles
are straightforward, cannot have exceeded $40,000. Why this critical source of
knowledge has been systematically ignored requires explanations, few of which
have to do with the welfare of Amazonian populations.
Finally, the populations which have created the cultivars and sustainable land
resource management techniques are under extraordinary pressures. Our society
pays for libraries, universities and research facilities of all types. It should be prepared to protect the producers of the sustainable Amazon land use systems and the
cultures that support them. No investment in R and D is likely to have greater
Chapter 17
The keepers of the forest 1
Refined over millennia, Amazon Indian agriculture preserves the soils and the
ecosystem. But who will preserve the Indians?
I remember my first flight to the remote Kayapó Indian village of Gorotire: six
hours in a rumbling old DC-3, seemingly endless green forest and savanna, occasional clearings for small huts and fields. The overwhelming feeling was of great
But after only a few weeks in the Kayapó village, I began to realize that the
sense of isolation was only an illusion. Just over the ridge was a fazenda (plantation) of nearly 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) in the process of being
stripped of its native vegetation and planted in non-native pasture grasses and
crops. Vast clouds of smoke, literally obscuring the sun, rose from the east where
the forest was being cleared and timbers burned to make way for mechanized
farming. When the wind direction was right, we could even hear the heavy rumble
of huge tractors and bulldozers gnawing away at timber and land.
The Amazon Basin is being stripped of its trees in part because of a widely
held belief that, while the forests offer lumber and a few useful commodities like
guarana and cacao, they offer no native plants suitable for large-scale production,
and little information useful for ‘advanced’ Western agriculture.
Yet how do we know that? Current aboriginal cultures are small in number and
have only limited agricultural productivity, but centuries ago civilizations in the
millions flourished from the mouth of the Amazon deep into the interior, and
sweeping even to the foot of the Andes. Because great epidemics of European diseases rapidly swept away indigenous peoples and their cultures, only sketchy
records and archaeological data are left to suggest the vastness of aboriginal populations and their ecological adaptation.
We know very little even of the agricultural systems of the few indigenous
peoples who have survived into our modern scientific era. But what we are beginning to realize is that indigenous agriculture did not just spring up overnight
across the Americas, but evolved over millennia of experimentation and refinement. We have much to learn from the native Americans’ familiarity with soils,
plants and ecological systems, if only we take the Indians seriously.
Kayapó land management
Fitting the crop to the soil
Although the Kayapó remain nomads for at least part of the year, they are certainly
more stationary today than in earlier times and their agriculture has altered perceptibly as a result. While the older Kayapó recall when hunting and gathering were of
much greater importance, modern Kayapó rely more extensively on their gardens.
The soils along the Rio Fresco, which are mostly products of weathered basalt,
are fertile, at least in comparison to most Amazonian soils. The Kayapó recognize
three major soil types: pyka-tyk (black soils), pyka-kamrek (red soils) and pyka-ti
(sandy soils).
Specific types of trees and vegetation are associated with each major soil type,
and the Indians plant crops according to which do best in a particular soil. Kayapó
seeking to stake out a site for cultivation make an effort to select an area that
includes all soil types and consequently will support a wide variety of vegetation.
The Kayapó, like other groups in the Brazilian Amazon Basin, plant maize
(corn), beans and squash, along with various starchy root crops like manioc (cassava), taro, yams and sweet potatoes. Other important plants are also grown, such
as tobacco, urucu (Bixa orellana), cotton, melons and mamão (papaya). A wide
variety of bananas always seem to complement these crops.
Kayapó fields average 0.8 hectares, although within a matrilaterally extended
household, sisters may choose contiguous sites, producing a combined forest
clearing of two, three or more acres.
The men begin to prepare the fields by felling large trees, which carry to the
earth in their thunderous crashes myriad smaller trees and vines. Fields are traditionally circular in shape and since tree felling begins from the centre of the field
site and radiates outward, debris also radiates outward like spokes of a wheel. The
bulk of the forest canopy biomass thus ends up near the perimeter of the circle,
with corridors of relatively open areas lying between the tangled masses of tree
Burning in forests
Indigenous agriculture in the American tropics is called ‘slash and burn’ agriculture, reflecting the manner in which natives slash the trees and underbrush to
carve out a field site, and later burn the dried remains to clear the way for planting. It is also called ‘shifting’ agriculture because new field sites are cleared
annually and newly planted crops shifted to them.
The Kayapó plant in various stages and actually plant a portion of their first
crops before they burn their fields. Approximately one-fourth of the root crops
(yams, sweet potatoes, taro and manioc) are planted in the open corridors left
after the forest is cleared. The young cultigens are already rooted and the manioc
is sometimes ankle high before burning occurs.
The Kayapó cut the forest in the middle of the six-month dry season, April to
September, which leaves plenty of time for the trees and brush to dry thoroughly
The keepers of the forest
before burning. The Kayapó study cloud formations to time their burns carefully,
which are begun just before the onset of the season’s rains.
Burning is carefully managed and not a haphazard event. Tribal elders agree
upon an appropriate day when winds are minimal and the fields will burn thoroughly but not too quickly. The men begin burning the radiating piles of dried
debris in a counter-clockwise fashion. When one pile is nearly consumed by fire,
a second is begun.
Burning of a single plot may take most of the day – this protracted burn minimizes
the heat produced so that root crops already planted will lose their new greenery but
not the viability of their underground root systems. Ash from the burned plant material provides essential nutrients, which can be absorbed by the sprouting crops when
the rains begin. These pre-burn crops have the additional advantage of having a head
start on weeds, which also flourish on the newly cleared fields.
The crops’ roots protect the fragile tropical soil. In four to six days, after the
fire has subsided and the ground has completely cooled, the Kayapó women plant
the remainder of their root crops.
The Kayapó plant to make best use of the nutrients made available by the burn.
For example, papaya, bananas, cotton, urucu and tobacco, which require a high
quantity of nutrients, are planted on the outer margins of the field, where the ash
and nutrient concentrations are highest.
Kayapó fields are left directly exposed to the elements for only a short time.
Maize and manioc, followed by bean, potato and yam vines, shelter the clayey
soils from direct exposure to sun and heavy tropical rains.
One or two weeks after the burn, Kayapó men return to the fields to gather up
unburned sticks and limbs. These are stacked in piles in various parts of the field
and set afire a second time. In the new piles of ash that result, the rest of the highnutrient-requiring plants like beans, squash and melons are planted.
The second planting is one means by which the Kayapó stagger maturation
times, and extend the harvest period. The use of varying soil types also causes
variations in ripening times.
Productive old fields
The common assumption that Kayapó slash-and-burn fields are abandoned after a
few years’ harvests is incorrect. Cultivated fields furnish produce for two to three
years and are then left to return to forest for fallow, but fallowing does not mean
that the fields are abandoned. Although the untrained eye sees only the growth of
the secondary forest vegetation, the Indian continues to reap an ongoing harvest.
A careful examination of ‘old’ fields, those that are over three years old, shows
that fields continue to yield edible produce for years after planting has ended.
Sweet potato and yam, for example, bear in fields four to five years old. Bananas,
urucu, and domesticated varieties of a large vine-like plant called kupa (Cissus sp.)
commonly continue to bear edible leaves and stalks for 8–12 years, and some
30–40-year-old fields still yield edible kupa.
Kayapó land management
In fact, the Kayapó use old fields to attract plants that colonize naturally in the
reforestation sequence, thus establishing such plants in areas convenient for the
Kayapó to use. Many of the spontaneously colonizing plants have important medicinal value to the Kayapó, who have a well-developed knowledge of herbal
medicine. Numerous plants also offer small seeds, berries and roots for food.
While some plants offer direct benefits, others function indirectly. Several of
the colonizing plants bear fruits that make excellent fish bait; others attract animals or useful birds. A leguminous tree that shoots up in fields after five years or
so produces berries that attract hundreds of small birds. Young boys climb into the
branches of this tree, construct a hunting blind of palm leaves, and wait poised for
the kill of any bird that comes to feast on the berries. A single little boy may kill
five or six small birds in a day. This is not just play, for little boys must fend for
themselves, and they are mostly self-sufficient in protein intake by the age of six.
Abandoned fields as ‘game preserves’
Another of the major misconceptions about slash-and-burn agriculture is that
fields are abandoned to fallow after one or two years because the soil loses its fertility, and weeds and insect pests begin to take over. Loss of fertility of the soil,
however, is not the factor that determines that agriculture takes a shifting pattern.
Soil analyses show that the soils are not exhausted after two or even three
years. Furthermore, soils are totally rejuvenated after 10–12 years of fallow. Yet
no Kayapó field in Gorotire is replanted in less than 15–20 years. Kayapó field
plots in most cases are scattered three to four hours’ journey away from the village, although suitable, adequately fallowed, old plots might be only 15–20
minutes away. The Kayapó ordinarily seek to minimize effort and work so that
this seems to be a great inconsistency in their cultural pattern.
The Kayapó recognize that the high forest is relatively sparse in animal life,
while forest clearings furnish habitat for smaller leafy and bushy plants that
attract wildlife. They know that leaving ‘abandoned’ fields to the natural reforestation sequence artificially creates domains that stimulate wildlife populations.
They also know that the more widely their ‘abandoned’ fields are dispersed, the
greater the area available to attract game – and the easier the hunting. Dispersed
fields also naturally limit viral, fungal and insect crop pests.
This sensitivity to forest succession explains why the Kayapó are willing to let
close-by old fields remain fallow. Although it might be easier to replant nearby
fields more frequently, it would just mean having to go further away to hunt for
game and for the essential gathered products from the secondary forest.
‘Nomadic agriculture’
While today the Kayapó rely most heavily on their gardens, in the days before
contact with Western ways (and well within the memory of many living tribespeople) they depended more upon wild foods from forest and savanna. Journeys
The keepers of the forest
lasted six to eight months; no stored foods whatsoever were carried, and the entire
tribe lived off plant products and wild game.
Although ‘settled’ for several decades now, the Kayapó have not deserted their
semi-nomadic habits entirely. They spend several months each year in the brazil
nut groves living in communal houses; go on frequent collecting and hunting
trips; and before major festivals make two- or three-week treks to acquire ceremonial game and feathers.
The Kayapó have never left everything on their journeys to chance, however,
but have developed an interesting ‘nomadic agriculture’, which they continue to
use today.
While routinely scavenging about the forest, the Indians gather dozens of
plants, carry them back to the forest campsites or trails, and replant them in natural forest clearings. The plants include several types of wild manioc, three
varieties of wild yams, a type of bush bean, and three or more wild varieties of
These ‘forest fields’ are always located near streams, which generally guarantee a stand of trees. Even in the savanna, where patches of forest are often few and
far between, there are areas where collected plants have been replanted to form
food depots.
The Kayapó once maintained an extensive system of interlacing trails linking
all their vast territory. Most of the ancient trails are now abandoned, but not all,
and the Kayapó are still masters of the forest and savanna and travel considerable
I once travelled for five days with four Kayapó men on long-abandoned trails
to an ancient village site. Although the trails were overgrown and difficult to follow, they had been used so much that in some places they were etched six inches
into the hard earth. Each night we would stop at a stream in some spot flattened
and hardened by years of use. The men would slip off into the forest and soon
return with a variety of roots, tubers, stalks and fruits. Food was readily acquired
even on parts of the trail known to have been abandoned 40 years before.
It was nearly two months after I began my life with the Kayapó that I realized
that not all collected roots, seeds and cuttings ended up in stomachs. For example,
a Kayapó would find it natural to replant a portion of what he had foraged near
where he defecated. Plant nurture is so much a part of Indian nature that the
details of such activities easily escape the ethnographer’s eye.
This peculiar inventory of semi-domesticated plants gives Kayapó subsistence
its special nomadic agricultural twist. It is an extremely important natural strategy
that is all but unknown to Western science.
New look at domestication
The Indians’ system of manipulating wild plant communities raises some intriguing questions for anthropologists, geographers and botanists. Perhaps the most
far-reaching question concerns the origins of plant domestication.
Kayapó land management
There are nearly as many theories on the subject of domestication as there are
domesticated plants, but little data. The Kayapó are particularly intriguing
because they were semi-nomadic in recent history, follow traditional slash-andburn agriculture, and use both wild plants in the forest fields and domesticated
counterparts in the village fields.
The Kayapó way of life seems to suggest that plants once gathered from the
forest by nomads and planted in forest fields were eventually adapted to more permanent human care. It implies a gradual development of semi-cultigens, a
circumstance that only eventually made a sedentary existence possible. And it
contradicts the common notion that the development of agriculture, or at least the
intentional manipulation of plants and plant communities, emerged after a sedentary life style had already developed.
There is every evidence to support a belief that agriculture like that of the
Kayapó was widespread throughout Amazonia, but unfortunately reliable data is
The Kayapó situation also raises questions about our current understanding of
forest ‘carrying capacity’: how many people a given area of tropical forest can
support. The availability of protein is considered the crucial factor limiting human
populations. But calculations of protein availability are generally based on
sketchy data that reflect only evident sources of food, like permanent or shifting
fields, and fish and game. Yet the aboriginal Kayapó population was at least ten
times its present size (perhaps reaching 10,000 individuals) and supported itself
on semi-domesticates for one half to three quarters of the entire year. Westerners
have been overlooking entirely a major system of ecological exploitation.
It is absolutely clear that the agriculture of the Kayapó is hardly that of a ‘marginal tribe’. The specialized burning and planting strategies of the Kayapó are
sophisticated adaptations to the tropical ecological zones of the Xingu Basin, a
complex symbiosis between man, cultigens, soils and pests.
In the still poorly understood world of Amazonia, the Indians are the experts.
Unfortunately, only a scattered handful of traditional indigenous cultures remain
and they are disappearing with a rapidity that outruns even Western notions of
Agricultural model for the rain forest
The contrast between the Indians’ practices and those of the West are striking. In
those areas in the Amazon where Western-style agriculture predominates, mechanization requires that, for cost-efficiency, huge tracts of land be cleared. But the
vast openings that are left exposed for months respond poorly to the destructive
effects of sunlight and the compacting force of heavy rains.
Even after planting, the huge monocrop plots protect the soil only poorly and
the driving rains carry away precious soil nutrients. Fields are so extensive that
once an insect or virus pest makes its way into the single-host crop, the results are
swiftly disastrous.
The keepers of the forest
The greatest tragedy, however, is that once the forest is cleared in such vast
tracts and left exposed, there is little chance of rejuvenation. Even if there is forest close enough to furnish the plants needed for fallow and reforestation, the clay
soils have already been turned into brick-like pavement, on which few colonizing
plants can make headway. In short, in 10 to 15 years, what was once forest
becomes desert. Large farm and ranch owners are forced to move on to virgin forest – field abandonment in a tragically true sense.
How the perceived national political need to develop Amazonia can be reconciled with the ecological viability of the Basin and its native peoples is a very
complex problem. Indeed, it is perhaps one of the major issues facing the world’s
scientists and diplomats. Yet the most obvious answers are likely to be found in
the simplest and most convenient place: in the people who have lived there for
thousands of years.
Chapter 18
Indigenous management of
tropical forest ecosystems: the
case of the Kayapó Indians of
the Brazilian Amazon 1
Indigenous societies have been living in Amazonia for unknown millennia, during
which time they developed their own strategies for management of forests and
campo-cerrados. Serious investigation of indigenous ethnobiological/
ethnoecological knowledge is rare, but recent studies (Alcorn 1981a; Carneiro
1983; Denevan et al. 1984; Frechione 1981; Hames 1979, 1980; Kerr and Posey
1984; Parker et al. 1983; and others) show that indigenous knowledge of ecological zones, natural resources, agriculture, aquaculture, forest and game
management is far more sophisticated than previously assumed. Furthermore, this
knowledge offers new models for development that are both ecologically and
socially sound (Posey 1983e; Posey et al. 1984).
This chapter presents a general outline of management strategies of the
Kayapó Indians of the Brazilian Amazon to illustrate how they utilize, conserve
and even create tropical forest patches (apêtê) in campo-cerrado. Secondary forest management is also important, employing Kayapó knowledge of conceptually
similar ecological zones to concentrate transplanted (and possibly semi-domesticated) and planted (principally domesticated) species close to population centres
or areas of need. It becomes clear that the Kayapó view forest management as an
integrated system of plant communities rather than individual species; likewise,
manipulated wildlife and even semi-domesticated bees figure in the overall management strategies. The long-term management strategies of the Kayapó, which
actually increase biological diversity, offer many fundamental principles that
should guide development throughout the humid tropics along a path that is both
ecologically and socially sound.
Management and use of campo-cerrado
Kayapó ecozones
Little is known of indigenous campo and cerrado management, although the ecological diversity of these systems provides a wealth of natural resources for
Indigenous management of tropical forest ecosystems
Indians like the Kayapó (Posey 1984b). The Kayapó classify campo-cerrado
(kapôt) into a variety of folk ecological zones or ‘ecozones’. The term ‘ecozone’
is used in this chapter to refer to ecological zones recognized by indigenous peoples, i.e. cognitive or emic categories (see Table 15.1, page 169). The Kayapó also
recognize the following transitional types of campo-cerrado:
krã-nhinon ã kapôt: campo at top of mountains
krã-nhi kratx ã kapôt: campo at base of mountains
kapôt nô kà: transition zones between savanna and forest
pô’ê kô: cane breaks
pô’ê te: very closed forest with cane.
Of specific interest is the Kayapó classification of forest ‘islands’ (apêtê) that
occur in campo-cerrado and are frequently managed and exploited by the Indians.
Typological classification is based on size, form and dominant species in the
apêtê, although full criteria have not yet been fully worked out. Principal apêtê
types are:
apêtê-nu: newly formed vegetative clumps
apêt: small, low vegetative patches
apêtê kryre: larger forest patch, with small trees and shrubs
apêtê ngri: forest plot with some trees and large shrubs
apêtê (kumrenx): ‘real apêtê’ with shade from tall trees
apê-ti: large forest islands with many tall trees (2+ ha)
apêti poire: oblong apê-ti
apêti rhynh: long corridors of forest (for defence).
In the vicinity of Gorotire, a notable increase in the number of apêtê forest
patches/islands in the campo is apparently found in comparison to campo areas
distant from the village. This is the direct effect of indigenous influence. Although
cursory examination appears to show these apêtê to be natural, closer scrutiny
reveals that a sizeable percentage (as much as 75 per cent) is indeed manmade.
A preliminary study of apêtê made with Dr Anthony Anderson (Museu
Paraense Emílio Goeldi) in November 1983 shows that of the 120 different plant
species collected, only two were not considered useful by the Kayapó (see
Appendix). It is equally astonishing that more than 75 per cent of the plants collected in ten sampled forest ‘islands’ were actually claimed to have been planted
by the Indians. This amazing fact requires that we rethink what has been previously considered ‘natural’ in campo-cerrado environments where there are
indigenous populations. Even in areas where Indians have long since disappeared,
the hand of human manipulation and management may still be evident.
The creation and uses of apêtê
Creation of apêtê is in itself an interesting process. Compost heaps are prepared
in existing apêtê from sticks, limbs and leaves. These are allowed to rot, then are
Kayapó land management
beaten with sticks to produce a mulch which is subsequently taken to a selected
spot in the campo and piled onto the ground. Slight depressions in the surface are
usually sought out because they are more likely to retain moisture. These depressions are filled with the mulch, which is mixed with soil from the mounds of a
termite called rorote (Nasutitermes), and smashed up bits of the nest of an ant
called mrum kudjà (Azteca sp.). Living ants and termites are included in the mixture. The resulting mounds of earth, called apêtê-nu are generally one to two
metres in diameter and 50 to 60 centimetres deep. The apêtê-nu are usually
formed in August and September, just before the first rains of the wet season, and
are then nurtured by the Indians as they pass along the savanna trails to their gardens (puru-nu). Over the years, the apêtê-nu ‘grow’ into large apê-ti (see Figure
18.1, page 210). How long this process requires is still under study. Perhaps as
much as one hectare per ten years is possible since there are apê-ti of four
hectares in Gorotire, which is known to have been permanently inhabited for at
least 40 years. This figure may be high, however, because Gorotire was an ancient
campsite long before it became a permanent village.
The Kayapó created apêtê for a variety of reasons. Until fairly recent times,
they were still at war with other Kayapó and non-Kayapó groups (principally
Shavante, Carajas, Tapirapé and Brazilian). Their post-contact history seemed to
be punctuated daily by wars, raids and disease epidemics. The Kayapó prefer village sites in campos: kapôt is considered to be ‘healthier’ than forest (bà) because
there are fewer diseases. Campo villages, however, are hard to hide and defend.
Apêtê are utilized as disaster shelters in cases of raids or epidemics when it is
safer temporarily to abandon the village. The ideal apêtê, therefore, is one in
which all the necessities of life are close at hand to afford self-sufficiency to families dispersed from their homes during times of emergency. Since epidemics and
periods of warfare could be prolonged, apêtê are a valuable resource and security
to the Gorotire family. Apêtê have been observed being used as refuges during the
threat of a measles epidemic as recently as April 1983.
Plants found in Gorotire apêtê are used as food (tubers, roots, fruits, nuts),
medicines (for fevers, bleeding, diarrhoea, body aches, dizziness, headaches,
toothaches, abortives, and anti-conceptuals), materials for daily life (for baskets,
cords, needles to open wounds, bow and arrow wood, insect repellents), firewood,
ceremonial items (wrist bands, ear spools, lip plugs), body paint, poisons, shade,
and leaves for containers and wrappings. Certain trees (e.g. Alibertia edulis,
Annona crassiflora, Byrsonima crassifolia, Caryocar villosum and Solanum paniculatum) are even planted to attract game and birds. Palms (such as Astrocaryum
tucuma, Mauritia vinifera, Maximiliana regia, Oenocarpus distichus and
Orbignya martiana) figure prominently in the inventory because of the variety of
uses they afford. Shade trees are also highly valued, and even vines that produce
drinkable water are transplanted in apêtê.
Apêtê also serve as barriers, parapets and lines of defence for the village.
Warriors could hide in the bush, await their enemies, and then surprise them
from their verdant palisades. Apêti poire and apêti rhynh are specifically used
Indigenous management of tropical forest ecosystems
for these purposes. Apêti poire are manmade forest corridors formed by uniting
a chain of apêtê.
In peace time, apêtê are used as places of rest, to pass the hottest time of the
day, to paint bodies of relatives with urucu (Bixa orellana) or genipapo (Genipa
americana), or for supervised play for children. They are also a favoured spot for
sexual intercourse. Perhaps because of the latter reason, combined with the concentration of valuable resources in the apêtê, children are discouraged from
entering alone into these forest patches. They are told that ghosts (karõn) hide
there and that balls of light of powerful shamans (wayanga karõn) appear there in
the night. These stories serve to protect the apêtê and are enhanced and perpetuated by the shamans, who frequently have their medicinal gardens hidden in large
Fire is important in the management of apêtê, but contrary to existing theory,
the Kayapó use fire to protect and encourage the forest patches rather than to create larger campos. Campos (kapôt) in range of Gorotire are burned annually. The
Indians say the fires produce beautiful effects in the night skies (kàiwka metx,
metire) and have practical effects: they decrease the population of snakes and
scorpions, and prevent excessive growth of the grasses and thorny vines that
make walking and hunting in kapôt difficult. Burning is not random. The time for
burning is decided by the old people (mebengêt) and announced by the chiefs
(benadjwyrà). Burning occurs before the ‘birth’ of the August moon (muturwa
katôrô nu) and before the buds of the piquí tree (Caryocar villosum) are too
developed. If burning occurs after this time, the highly prized fruit of the piquí
(pri) will not be abundant. Not all kapôt are burned on the same day, nor even during the same week. When selected kapôt are designated to be burned, the ‘owners’
of the apêtê go out to cut dried grasses and shrubs around their apêtê to produce a
fire barrier. They then set the fires and await with branches of palms and banana
braba (Ravenala guyanensis) to beat out any flames that come too close.
Not all apêtê, however, are protected from fire in this manner, The Indians recognize a group of plants that are actually stimulated by burning. Fire stimulates
the fruiting or leaf production of some plants, and these plants are said to ‘like’
fire (xêt okin) and produce more fruit as a result. Burning of grasslands also tends
to make the blooming of most fruit trees more uniform, thereby facilitating pollination. And, following a burn, grasses produce new growth, which is succulent
and attractive to game animals. Only apêtê that have an abundance of fire-liking
trees – such as Byrsonima crassifolia, Astrocaryum tucuma and two species of
Alibertia – have their undergrowth burned.
Another apêtê management practice is that of slashing the old leaves of palm
trees throughout the year. The Indians say this causes them to have stronger stalks
and better leaf growth. Palms are among the first species to be planted to enlarge
forest islands.
Azteca sp. ants (mrum kudjà) are not only used to create soil for the apêtê-nu,
but are also highly prized for their abilities to repel saúva leaf-cutting ants (Atta
sp., mrum-krã-ti). The Azteca has a pungent smell that distinguishes it to the
Kayapó land management
Kayapó, and is apparently the same smell responsible for repelling the saúva.
Colonies of the mrum kudjà are broken into small pieces and carried to bits of
forests where no colony exists. This transplanted colony will then begin to replicate and spread their natural protection against leaf-cutter ants.
A sophisticated agriculture
Management of campo and cerrado is more complicated than we yet understand.
For one thing, it is impossible to ascertain the true extent of Indian influence in
either forest or campo. Today’s relatively small Kayapó villages are only remnants
of ancient villages that were once linked by sizeable and extensive trails (see
Chapter 8). Old villages and campsites dot the vast area between the Araguaia and
Tapajós Rivers that was the Kayapó domain.
It is probable, moreover, that many tribes throughout Brazil once practised
campo and cerrado management. Even in areas where Indians have disappeared,
botanical evidence of human manipulation and management is still discernible,
and we hope that further research will uncover information on the extent of management practices. But even the preliminary data we possess make it obvious that
our ideas must be re-evaluated to admit the possibility that aboriginal management and manipulation of these ecosystems have been widespread.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of these new data is the implication for reforestation. The Indian example not only gives us new ideas about how to build
forests from scratch, but also how to manage successfully what has been considered to be infertile campo and cerrado.
One must also think of how artificial are our own categories and how they have
limited our own investigation of human manipulation of nature. For example,
while we distinguish between ‘campo’ and ‘forest’, the Indians recognize the
many different proportions, types and configurations of campo-cerrado-forest.
And while our categories include such opposing entities as ‘domesticated’ and
‘wild’, to the Indians manmade apêtê are mirrors of forest openings. For example,
whilst gallery forests and swampy forests close to Gorotire were cleared to
decrease mosquitoes and lower the risk of malaria, nearby, but in another direction, forest islands were being formed in campo for protection and the production
of useful materials. Thus at the same time clearings were being formed in forests
and forests were being created in campos.
Who can say that plants so useful to the Kayapó, so carefully selected, transplanted and nurtured for countless centuries, are truly wild? In campo and cerrado
environments, much of the ‘natural’ flora has in fact been planted.
It is time for us to discard our neat categories. We must try to generate new
hypotheses, those based on the knowledge, ideas and practices of people who
have lived for millennia in the diverse ecozones of Amazonia.
A study of planting sequences and the process of maturation of apêtê is forthcoming, but with available data it is obvious that our ideas of ‘natural’
campo-cerrado and forest must be re-evaluated with an eye toward the possibility
Indigenous management of tropical forest ecosystems
of widespread aboriginal management and manipulation of these ecosystems.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the new data is the implication for reforestation. The Indian example not only provides new ideas about how to build forests
‘from scratch’, but also how to manage successfully what has been considered to
be infertile campo-cerrado.
Management and use of secondary forest
‘Anything-but-abandoned fields’
Contrary to persistent beliefs about indigenous slash and burn agriculture, fields
are not abandoned after a few years from initial clearing and planting. Recent
studies show that, on the contrary, old fields offer an important concentration of
highly diverse natural resources long after primary cultivars have disappeared
(Carneiro 1961; Alcorn 1981a; Denevan et al. 1984).
Kayapó ‘new fields’ (puru nu) peak in production of principal domesticated
crops in two or three years but continue to bear produce for many years; e.g. sweet
potatoes for four to five years, yams and taro for five to six years, manioc for four
to six years, and papaya for five or more years. Some banana varieties continue to
bear fruit for 15 to 20 years, urucu (Bixa orellana) for 25 years, and kupa (Cissus
gongylodes) for 40 years. The Kayapó consistently revisit old fields seeking these
lingering riches.
Fields take on new life as plants in the natural reforestation sequence begin to
appear in maturing fields (puru-tum). These plants soon constitute a type of forest
called ibe (mature old fields) and provide a wide range of useful products, including food and medicine, fish and bird baits, thatch, packaging, paints, oils, insect
repellents, construction materials, fibres for ropes and cords, body cleansers, and
products for craft production – to name but a few.
Old fields are perhaps most important for their concentrations of medicinal
plants. Ninety-four per cent of the 368 plants collected from puru-tum and ibe
were of medicinal significance.
Old fields also attract wildlife to their abundant, low, leafy plants (Linares
1976; Hames 1979). High forests, in contrast, are sparse in game. Intentional dispersal of old fields by Indians and management of them by systematic hunting
extends the human influence over the forest by providing, in effect, large ‘game
farms’ near human population concentrations. A delicate balance is necessary to
manage these old fields. Game populations that are too dense can cause severe
damage to crops; thus hunting provides meat for food while protecting new fields
from excessive destruction. In the Kayapó division of labour, the women work in
the fields while their husbands hunt in the surrounding forests.
Game animals are particularly attracted to fruit trees planted by the Kayapó in
new and old fields, as well as along trails (see Table 18.2, page 214).
Tree plantings illustrate long-term planning and forest management since
many of the trees require many years to bear fruit; castanha do Pará (brazil nut),
Kayapó land management
for example, does not produce its first nuts for 20 years. Fruit and nut-producing
trees are also planted to attract birds, and even fish during high water river and
igarapé cycles. Most of these trees also provide food important in human subsistence. Thus old fields should perhaps be called ‘game-farm orchards’ to
emphasize their diverse resources (Smith 1977; Posey et al. 1984).
Semi- and non-domesticated resources in manipulated old fields
Old fields serve as important repositories of ‘semi-domesticated’ or manipulated
plants. The term ‘semi-domesticate’ is used to indicate plants that are intentionally manipulated by the Indians, who knowingly modify the plant’s habitat to
stimulate growth.2 The genetic consequences of this process are still unknown but
merit serious study (Kerr and Posey 1984).
Relatively open forests are given special names (bà-ràràra and bà-êpti) and
are known refuges for light-loving plants that also grow well in old fields.
Gathering trips to primary and secondary forests are frequently made to collect
appropriate plants for transplanting into old fields.
The Kayapó also see forest areas disturbed by either natural or manmade
events as habitats that approximate field clearings. Forest openings (bà-krêti)
caused by trees that have fallen through natural processes (old age and storms) or
that have been felled by Indians to raid bee hives create microenvironmental conditions similar to those of field clearings (Posey 1984a). Likewise, openings due
to abandoned camp and village sites, or wide swaths left by trails, are also
reserves for plants that thrive in old fields. These areas are visited on gathering
trips with the goal of transplanting forest plants to old fields or apêtê, thereby
making needed forest products more readily available.
The Kayapó custom of transplanting is only part of a much broader system that
has been described (Posey 1982a, 1983e) as ‘nomadic agriculture’ and was
undoubtedly once widespread in Amazonian tribes. Until recently, Kayapó
groups travelled extensively in the vast areas between the east–west boundaries
of the Tocantins and Araguaia Rivers and the north–south limits of the Planalto
and the Amazon River. Today the Kayapó still carry out several month-long
treks per year, although much of the old network of trails and campsites is now
Food and utensils, because of their bulk and weight, are not carried out by the
Indians on treks. Food gathering for 150–200 people cannot, however, be left
solely to chance. Gathered plants are transplanted into concentrated spots near
trails and campsites to produce ‘forest fields’ that make readily available to future
passers-by the necessities of life, including: food, cleansing agents, hair and body
oils, insect repellents, leaves for cooking, vines that supply drinkable water, house
construction materials, and especially medicinals.
Indigenous management of tropical forest ecosystems
Forest-fields intentionally replicate naturally occurring ‘resource islands’ (kô),
which are areas where specific concentrations of useful plants are found. These
resource islands include: brazil nut groves, fruit tree stands, palmito and nut
sources, cane breaks, etc.
Dependency on naturally occurring ‘resource islands’ and their manmade ‘forest-field’ counterparts allow Kayapó groups to travel months at a time and great
distances without need of domesticated garden produce. Today only remnants of
this once vast system remain.
Trailside plantings
In addition to the ‘forest-fields’ near campsites and trails, the sides of trails (pry
kôt) themselves are planting zones for the Kayapó. It is not uncommon to find
trails composed of four-metre-wide cleared strips of forest. It is hard to estimate
the extensiveness of aboriginal trails that interconnected distant Kayapó villages;
a conservative estimate of existing trails associated with Gorotire (one of 11
modern Kayapó villages) yields 500 kilometres of trails that average 2.5 metres
wide. Trailsides are planted with numerous varieties of yams, sweet potatoes,
Marantaceae, Cissus, Zingiberaceae, Araceae, and other as yet unidentified edible
tubers. Hundreds of medicinal plants and fruit trees also increase the diversity of
the planted flora.
In a survey of a three-kilometre trail leading from Gorotire to a nearby garden,
the following were observed: (i) 185 planted trees representing at least 15 different species; (ii) approximately 1,500 medicinal plants of an undetermined number
of species; and (iii) approximately 5,500 food-producing plants of an undetermined number of species.
The immediate one- to four-metre-wide swath provided by trail clearing is not
the entire effective distance of human activity. An additional factor is the distance
away from the trail that the Kayapó choose for defecation/urination. I have measured the average distance, a rather culturally fixed proxemic unit, at five metres
(or 14 metres in width, considering both sides of the trail and the trail itself).
While squatting to defecate the Kayapó often plant tubers, seeds or nuts they
have collected during the day and stored in a fibre pouch or bag. This activity,
combined with the natural process of seed transportation through faecal material,
makes the overall distance near trails under human influence even more extensive
and significant. The effect is further accentuated by the age of the trails: some are
uncounted centuries old.
Plantations in forest openings
For the Kayapó, openings in the primary forest are called bà-krêti and are seen as
natural prototypes for gardens. As mentioned, there are two types of bà-krêti: (i)
openings caused by trees or limbs that fall due to old age or storms; and (ii) openings that are manmade by felling large trees to take honey from bees (Posey
Kayapó land management
1983b). Both types of forest openings create new microhabitats and planting
zones due to light reaching the forest floor and creating conditions similar to
those of garden plots. The idea for planting gardens may have come from the
Indians’ study and use of bà-krêti or may be a logical extension of their management of such forest openings.
Bà-krêti are used to transplant domesticates and semi-domesticates like varieties of manioc, taro, kupa, yams, sweet potatoes, beans and arrowroot. These
thrive in such habitats and according to Kayapó agriculturalists, their productivity
is significantly increased as the result of this transplantation.
Hill gardens
Another form of agriculture that is related to bà-krêti plantations is the krãi kam
puru or ‘hill garden’. Tuberous plants, like Zingiberaceae, Araceae and
Marantaceae varieties, are planted in these well-drained, hillside plots. These
fields are principally reserved as food sources in case of floods or crop disasters,
and are considered as very valuable plant ‘banks’ or reserves. Hill gardens are
exclusively kept by old women (mebegnet) under the direction of the Kayapó
female chief (mẽnire nhõ mẽbẽnjadwỳra), the highest ranking female authority. To
form the plantations, old fields of eight to ten years of fallow are cleared of underbrush. Pieces of tuber stock are then planted in shallow holes in fertile pockets of
soil when the new rains have soaked the soils in September. Little care, other than
cutting back of competing vegetation, is required to maintain these fields. Harvest
occurs at the onset of the dry season (June), although representative plants are
always left behind to preserve the tuber ‘bank’ (reserve).
Plant communities and microzonal planting
Another interesting aspect of Kayapó agriculture is based upon management of
plant communities associated with bananas. As banana trees grow in maturing
fields, they produce shading and modify soil conditions that produce a specialized microenvironment. The Kayapó know approximately two dozen varieties of
edible tubers and numerous medicinal plants that thrive under these conditions
and are planted in the banana plantation (tytyti-kô). These plants are called ‘companions of the banana’ (tytyti-kotam) and continue to grow together with the
banana until the height of the secondary forest is no longer conducive to the
growth of the plant community. When this occurs, shoots of old bananas are transferred to new fields, while the ‘companions’ are transplanted to already
established plantations of bananas in other maturing fields.
This illustrates not only how Indians exploit the properties of fields in transition between new and old (puru to ibe) but also shows how microenvironmental
planting zones are created to modify effects of secondary forest growth. Equally
significant is the indigenous conceptualization of plant communities, rather than
individual species, as the basis for ecological management. Other plant compan-
Indigenous management of tropical forest ecosystems
ions under investigation by the authors for future publication are papaya, genipap,
and urucu, all of which are viewed as foci of other managed plant communities
and produce their own unique microzones for planting.
Quintal management
‘Quintal’ is a Portuguese word that describes areas adjacent to homes that are generally planted with useful or decorative plants. The idea is more ancient than the
European introduction, since the Kayapó too rely on areas near their homes (ki
krê bum) to grow useful plants. A partial ki krê bum survey has produced 86
species (estimate based on tentative identification) of food plants and dozens of
additional medicinal plants.
The practice of medicine is highly elaborated for the Kayapó. Almost every
household has its complement of common medicinal plants, many of which are
domesticates or semi-domesticates. Shamans (wayanga) specialize in different
disease treatments, each of which requires specific plants. Dozens of ‘medicine
knowers’ (pidjà mari) also effect minor cures with their own array of medicinals.
Medicinal plants are often kept in secret forest plantations since their use forms
part of the private knowledge of the curer; others are overtly grown in the quintal
and only their use is secret. Thus each quintal reflects the medicinal knowledge
and specialization (or lack thereof) of its owner.
A major result of quintal management is the formation of topsoil. Some of the
richest and most productive soils in Amazonia are those called ‘terra preta dos
índios’, produced by Indian manipulation of generally poor Amazonian soils
(Smith 1980).
Ken-po-ti (‘rock gardens’)
One of the most unusual ecozones manipulated by the Kayapó is the ken-po-ti,
which is a basaltic outcropping transformed into a special ‘rock garden’. These
outcroppings frequently occur in the middle of forests. The area of exposed rock
creates open spaces within the forest that become hot and dry when heated by the
tropical sun. Environmental conditions in parts of ken-po-ti resemble those of
campo-cerrado (kapôt), yet their margins are shaded by the encompassing forest,
and water seepage is common from aquifer cracks. Thus a variety of microclimates are available for exploitation by the Indians, who concentrate plant
resources in ken-po-ti through plantings and transplantings from a variety of other
ecozones. Frequently forest mulch and rich soils are carried to the outcroppings
and placed in existing cracks in the rocks or piled high between stones arranged to
form planting containers. Piles of the planting medium provide productive plots
for the raising of plants requiring special care and growth conditions. A managed
ken-po-ti, in sharp contrast to its barren unmanaged counterpart, looks like a lush
Japanese garden. For the Kayapó, stone outcroppings have significance because
they have special cosmic energies and are associated with powerful spiritual
Kayapó land management
forces. Only shamans do not fear these forces. Thus ken-po-ti are mostly used by
shamans, who plant some of their most powerful and important medicinals there.
An indigenous model of cognitive integration
In studies of the Kayapó Indian classification, overlapping sets have been described as being in contiguous ‘sequences’ that form ‘continua’ between polar
types (Posey, l983a). That is, members of classification units frequently share
diagnostic characteristics with members of other contiguous units. Each unit is a
‘focal’ or ‘ideal’ type, which is the member that is most characteristic of the set.
The more any set member differs in characteristics from the ideal type, the more
likely it is that the member will co-occur in other sets. Extremes or poles of the
continuum represent the maximal divergence possible within the domain, and
thereby define the parameters of the higher taxonomic grouping.
One of the most salient of the taxonomic continua in the Kayapó system is that
between forest (bà) and campo-cerrado (kapôt). The ideal or ‘focal’ type of forest is
bà-kumrenx (‘true forest’), which is the most productive of the forest types. Trees of
at least eight metres in height provide many edible fruits, nuts and seeds as well as
useful woods and fibres. A herbaceous understorey is rich in medicinal plants.
The ‘focal’ kapôt type is kapôt-kumrenx (‘true campo’), which is open land
with knee-high grasses. The landscape is also dotted with patches of forest-like
vegetation called apêtê.
Apêtê are the link between the poles of the bà-kapôt continuum (Figure 18.1).
They are composed of many sun-tolerant, heat-resistant species that survive in the
demanding climate of the campo-cerrado, yet also have many forest species. Thus
they unite diagnostic elements of both poles of the continuum.
Different planting zones are found within apêtê, as represented in Figure 18.1.
Apêtê-nu consist of only one planting zone. Apêtx (an intermediary form between
apêtê-nu and apêtê) have a relatively shady centre (nhi-pôk), with a sunnier edge
(nô-kà). True apêtê have a shady centre area (nhi-pôk), an outer edge (nô-kà), and
an additional shadow zone (ja-kà) formed by higher vegetation that shields the
Figure 18.1 Apêtê formation: planting zones.
Indigenous management of tropical forest ecosystems
zone from morning or evening sun. Note that in the centre of the apêtê is an opening where light penetrates. This is called the irã and functions to preserve the
‘patchiness’ of the apêtê to maximize microenvironmental variation. Patchiness
helps preserve the biological heterogeneity of larger apêtê. Irã are usually connected to the open kapôt by trails (pry-kôt).
Large apêtê, or apê-ti, have all the planting zones found in an apêtê, plus a
darker, middle zone where less light can penetrate (a-tã-rĩ). Irã may be numerous
to maintain patchiness and light penetration. Large irã are ringed by a bright zone
called the irã-nô-kà which is a good all-purpose planting zone. Trails (pry) connect irã and the kapôt and are frequently wide enough to provide a light margin
(pry-kôt) that also serves as a planting strip.
Variations in planting zones, therefore, seem to be based principally upon
variations of shade and light, plus associated variations in temperature and
moisture. Planting zones in apêtê are matched with ecological types recognized
by the Indians in the forest (see Table 18.1). Plants that grow well in certain forest environments can be predicted to do well in apêtê zonal counterparts. For
example, plants found in the dark, damp forest (bà-tyk) are likely to do well in
the a-tã-rĩ or the nhi-pôk of an apê-ti. Plants that thrive in the light-penetrating
forest (bà-ràràra) would be planted no-kà or a-kà-kôt. Species found at the
margins of the forest or the edges of other apêtê would be transferred to the jakà or a-kà-kôt.
Plant species are said by the Indians to have been brought for planting or transplanting in Gorotire apêtê from very distant areas. Most species encountered in
apêtê are common campo species, but the Kayapó say that certain varieties have
specific desired qualities (taste for food, texture for wood or fibre, medicinal
properties, etc.) and were acquired from Indian groups such as the Tapirape,
Karaja, Mundrucu, Assurini, Shavante, Canela, Gavião and Sororo. Thus if stated
origins of plant varieties are accepted, Gorotire apêtê are composed of a concentration of plant varieties brought from an area the size of Europe.
Table 18.1 Apêtê planting zones in relation to corresponding ecological units
Ecological zones in apêtê
Corresponding ecological units recognized
by the Kayapó1
nhi-pôk (shady centre)
nô-kà (sunny edge)
ja-kà (shadow zone)
irã-nô-kà (edge of open centre)
a-tã-rĩ (darker middle zone)
a-kà-kôt (light-penetrating margin)
bà-ràràra, bà-kamrek, bà-krêti
bà-kôt, bà-ràràra, bà-krêti
kapôt, bà-kôt
bà-ràràra, bà-kamrek, bà-krêti
bà-tyk, bà-kamrek
bà-ràràra, bà-kumrenx
Forest units: bà-kamrek gallery or riverine forest; bà-ràràra forest in which light penetrates to the
forest floor; bà-krêti forest openings; bà-kôt forest edge; kapôt savanna or scrub savanna; bà-tyk high
dark forest; bà-kumrenx forest with large trees and a herbaceous understorey.
Kayapó land management
Conceptually, apêtê are related to other human-made ecological zones
described in this chapter, such as trailsides (pry-kôt) and field gardens (puru),
since all are planted with many of the same varieties of useful herbs and fruit
trees. Furthermore, old fields are managed in much the same way as apêtê, since
long-term management of plant and animal communities is fundamental to the
exploitation strategies of both. Old fields (ibe) for the Kayapó are like apêtê that
are surrounded by forest rather than campo.
Other zones that are, conceptually, linked with apêtê are: (i) bà-krêti3 (forest
openings); (ii) ken-po-ti (rock gardens); and (iii) ki krê bum (quintal or yard).
Given the various ecological zones recognized by the Kayapó, it is possible to
construct a more generalized pattern of cognitive relatedness on the bà-kapôt
continuum. Figure 18.2 represents the overlapping sets of bà, ibe, puru, tum,
apêtê (and related cognates), pry, ken-po-ti, and kapôt. Sets with more savanna
elements are placed closer to the kapôt pole; sets with more forest elements are
placed closer to bà.
In this scheme, apêtê are intermediary between poles. Cognitive variants of
apêtê, puru and bà-krêti, occupy the same classification space. That is, puru
(fields) are considered as types of bà-krêti, which in turn are inverse models of
apêtê. Kikrêbum (quintals) are likewise related since they unite elements of all
ecological zones.
Figure 18.2 Ethnoecological units on the bà-kapôt continuum.
Indigenous management of tropical forest ecosystems
For the Kayapó the most productive ecological systems are those in secondary
forest created through human activity. Whether they are apêtê forest patches in the
campo, or ibe forest resulting from management of old fields, the Kayapó system is
built upon the maintenance – or actual increase – in biological diversity. Forest
‘patchiness’ is the principal mechanism for the preservation of diversity, both in the
creation of irã in apêtê and bà-krêti in the forest. Kayapó resource management,
therefore, focuses upon the intermediary forms (apêtê, bà-krêti, quintal, pry, etc.)
between the polar forest and campo-cerrado types because it is in these zones that
maximal biological diversity occurs. To put such a statement in more ecological
terms, the Indians not only recognize the richness of ‘ecotones’, they create them.
Concluding remarks
Recognition of diagnostic similarities within a contrasting continuum of forest
(bà) and campo-cerrado (kapôt) allows the Kayapó Indians to manipulate a variety
of ecological zones and microclimates through the exchange of botanical materials
between units perceived as similar. Fundamental to indigenous management is the
reliance upon a wide range of plant and animal resources integrated into long-term
exploitation of secondary forest areas and specially created concentrations of
resources near areas of need (forest fields, forest openings, rock outcroppings, old
fields, trailsides, agricultural plots and hill gardens). Forest patches (apêtê) created
by the Indians in campo-cerrado also provide dense concentrations of useful
species. Maintenance of, or more usually increase in, biological diversity is the key
to successful indigenous conservation and exploitation.
The Kayapó example teaches us that sophisticated management must be based
upon recognition of likeness between ecological units: contrast should never
obscure similarity in ecological typologies. Furthermore, that secondary forest
can, indeed, be maximally productive without endangering the long-term survival
of native species nor ecological systems.
Creation of apêtê is likewise of great potential in understanding more about
campo-cerrado utilization. Indigenous management of apêtê has far-reaching
implications for the study of forestation in savanna areas and reforestation in
areas denuded by deforestation.
Presence of extensively managed areas by indigenous peoples emphasizes the
necessity for the re-evaluation of concepts about the natural landscape.
‘Naturalness’ of ecological communities can never be assumed without investigating the human history of the area.
This chapter has merely attempted to outline some of the major principles of
Kayapó forest management in an effort to show how indigenous knowledge can
help generate alternative philosophies for a more rational system of resource management in the humid tropics. The Kayapó are only one of many, small enclaves of
native peoples located in remote parts of the world, but the lessons they have
learned through millennia of accumulated experience and survival are invaluable to
a modern world in much need of rediscovering its ecological and humanistic roots.
marmelada (lisa)
marmelada do campo
tucum (2 varieties)
castanha do Pará
urucú (4 varieties)
piqui (3 varieties)
Allagoptera cf. pseudocalyx
Alibertia edulis A. Rich
Alibertia sp.
Annona crassiflora Mart.
Artocarpus integrifolia L.f.
Astrocaryum tucuma Mart.
Astrocaryum vulgare Mart.
Bertholletia excelsa Humb. and Bonpl.
Bixa orellana L.
Byrsonima crassifolia H.B.K.
Caryocar villosum (Aubl.) Pers.
Citrus aurantiifolia
(Christm.) Swingle
Citrus aurantium L.
Citrus limonia Osbeck.
Coffea arabica
Portuguese name
Scientific name
ngra djàre
toi-ti (mrà)
pỳ kumrenx
pỳ pot ti
pỳ krã re
pỳ jabiê
prĩ kà ti
pre kà ti
pre kumrenx
pidgô ngrã
pidgô ti
pidgô poi re
Kayapó name
Table 18.2 A partial list of tree species planted by the Kayapó Indians
Planted for:
body paint
Lecythis usitata Ledoux
Lecythis usitata Miers, var. parensis
(Ducke) Knuth
Mangifera indica L.
Manilkara huberi (Ducke) Stand.
Mauritia martiana Spruce
Mauritia vinifera Mart.
Maximiliana maripa
Oenocarpus bacaba Mart.
Orbignya martiana
Hancornia speciosa Gomes
Hymenaea coubaril L.
Inga sp.
cereja Kayapó
(2 varieties)
(2 varieties)
Cordia sp.
Endopleura uchi
Eugenia jambos L.
Euterpe oleracea Mart.
Genipa americana L.
Portuguese name
Scientific name
Table 18.2 Continued
kuben poi re
krwya no kamrek
ngrwa ràre
moi (motx)
tire, ngrãngrã, tyk
pi’ỳ tê krê ti
kudjà redjô
pidgô nore
kamere kàk
(kamere kàk ti)
mroti, mrotire
Kayapó name
Planted for:
body paint
banana braba
Parinari montana Aubl.
Persea americana Mill.
Platonia insignis Mart.
Pourouma cecropiifolia Mart.
Pouteria macrophylla (Lam.) Eyma
Psidium guajava L.
Ravenala guyanensis
Rollinia deliciosa Baill.
Solanum paniculatum L.
Spondias lutea L.
Spondias lutea L. (S. mombin)
Theobroma cacao L.
Theobroma grandiflorum K. Schum.
kuben krã ti
p˜i pannê ka tire
atwỳrà krã krê
pidgô kamrek
tytyti djô
miêchet ti
Kayapó name
Planted for:
Identifications primarily based upon Cavalcante (1972, 1974, 1979) from comparisons with common names of the region.
Portuguese name
Scientific name
Table 18.2 Continued
Chapter 19
The continuum of Kayapó
resource management 1
The principle elements of Kayapó management have been previously described in
some detail (Posey 1983c, 1985b, 1987a, 1995, 1997b), and include: (i) overlapping and interrelated ecological categories that form continua (ii) modification of
‘natural ecosystems’ to create ecotones; (iii) emphasis on long-term ecotone utilization (chronological ecotones); (iv) concentration on non-domesticated
resources; (v) transfer of useful plant varieties between similar ecological zones;
(vi) integration of agricultural with forest management cycles.
Several options are possible for representing indigenous resource management
models. I believe the most inclusive and descriptive representation of the Kayapó
system places savanna or grasslands (kapôt) at one end of a continuum as the
‘focal type’ (example that most typifies the category) and forests (bà) at the other
(opposite focal type) (see Figure 18.2). Kapôt types with more forest elements
would be represented to the right of the diagram, while bà types that are more
open and with grassy elements would lie on the continuum diagram to the left, or
toward the savanna pole.
This would put apêtê at the conceptual centre of the continuum, since forest
elements are introduced into the savanna to produce these anthropogenic zones.
Agricultural plots (puru) also lie conceptually near the centre of the continuum,
because sun-tolerant vegetation is introduced into managed forest openings.
Apêtê can be thought of as the conceptual inverse of puru: the former concentrates resources in the forest using sun-tolerant species, while the other does the
same in the savanna using forest species.
Even though ecological types like high forest (bà-tyk) or transitional forest
(bà-kamrek) are securely located at the forest pole, they are not uniform in their
composition. All forests have edges (kà), margins (kôt), and openings caused by
fallen – or felled – trees (bà-krêti) that provide zones of transition between different conceptual zones. Thus, a plant that likes the margins of a high forest might
also grow well at the margin of a field (puru-kà, or puru-kôt) or in an apêtê. A
plant that likes light gaps provided by forest openings might also like forest edges
(bà-kà, or bà-kôt) or old fields (puru-tum or ibe-tum). Plants from open forest
types or forest edges can predictably proliferate along edges of trails or thicker
zones of apêtê. Using this logic, the Kayapó can transfer biogenetic materials
Kayapó land management
between matching microzones so that ecological types are interrelated by their
similarities rather than isolated by their differences. These interfaces can be considered ecotones, which become the uniting elements of the overall system.
There is another interesting dimension to the model that appears when looking
diachronically (temporally or historically) across the system. Agricultural clearings are initially planted with rapidly growing domesticates, but almost
immediately thereafter are managed for secondary forest and non-domesticated
resource species. This management depends upon planting and transplanting,
removal of some varieties, allowing others to grow, encouraging some with fertilizer and ash, and preparing and working the soils to favour useful species.
Management aims to provide long-term supplies of building materials, ceremonial objects, medicinals and other useful products, as well as food for humans
and animals. The old fields (puru-tum) are at least as useful to the Kayapó as agricultural plots or mature forest.2 A high percentage (an initial estimate is more than
75 per cent) of plants in this transition have single or multiple uses. When the secondary forest grows too high to provide undergrowth as food for animals (and
hunting becomes difficult), then the large trees are felled to create more hospitable conditions for management and/or re-initiation of the agricultural cycle.
Likewise, apêtê are managed to maximize useful species in all stages of the forest
succession. When their centres become dark and unproductive, openings (irã) are
created that allow light to again penetrate the forest and re-initiate a new cycle.
The Kayapó resource management system is, therefore, based on the conservation and use of transitional forests in which agriculture is only a useful (albeit
critical) phase in the long-term process. Apêtê exhibit parallel transitional
sequences in the campo-cerrado and depend almost exclusively on non-domesticated resources. The degree to which genetic materials are transferred between
similar microzones of different ecological types points to how the Kayapó exploit
ecotones that host the highest diversity of plants. Management over time can be
thought of as management of chronological ecotones, since management cycles
aim to maintain the maximum amount of diversity and the greatest number of
Part IV
Continuing adaptation by
the Kayapó
Chapter 20
From warclubs to words 1
I remember going to visit an abandoned Kayapó village site near Conceição do
Araguaia, in July of last year. I was guided there by Beptopoop, a wise and
respected shaman and tradition-knower from Gorotire village, and one of my
most beloved mentors. The old village had been abandoned for 40 or 50 years,
but Beptopoop, who had known the village as a child, was able to show us medicinal roots, edible tubers, fruits and nuts that had been planted decades earlier by
his grandparents. After all those years the forest still reflected the indigenous
hands that had moulded it. The forest path, however, soon took us to the other
side of the old site. There we encountered, as far as the eye could see, burned
vegetation and gigantic charred trees reduced to useless, bleak memorials of the
rich and productive forest where Beptopoop’s grandparents once planted their
yams, bananas, cotton, beans, squash, corn and pumpkin. Beptopoop exclaimed,
waving his arms: ‘Why do the white men burn all of this, destroying it all, and
then not even plant anything to feed their children? Do they not know that their
children and their children’s children must have food to eat? I am too old to
understand any of this!’
When I began my work with the Kayapó Indians in 1977, they were already at
odds with ranchers and squatters invading their lands. During my first months in
Gorotire I joined 150 warclub- and spear-wielding warriors in a raid to expel
workers from a ranch encroaching on the eastern edge of their reserve. I met
Paulinho Paiakan and his cousin Kube-i during that raid. Paiakan was 22 years old
– strikingly handsome, articulate and interested in everything. He was the son of
a famous chief, and, like Kube-i, destined to be a chief himself. I was amazed
when he recognized that the instruction manual of the power-saw he took from the
raided ranch – and carried through nearly 50 miles of Amazon jungle – was in
English. He had studied some English with the missionaries in Gorotire, and he
knew how to read and write in both his own language and Portuguese.
As I translated the manual for the first power-saw to arrive in Kayapó land
that night so long ago, I realized that, like it or not, I would be a strange, foreign
force in an unknown process of adaptation to rapidly changing times. But I
never imagined that 12 years later Paiakan, Kube-i and I would be the defendants in a celebrated case that galvanized Brazil’s environmental and Indian
Continuing adaptation by the Kayapó
rights movements, providing a focal point for uniting the two major movements
to preserve the human and biological richness of the Amazon and the planet.
As a scientist, observer and friend, I watched the Kayapó buy their first airplane to bring elders together from distant villages to re-establish nearly lost
rituals. I also witnessed the arrival of the road and the first trucks; the instalment
of a satellite antenna in the village plaza; and the arrival of the first baby buggy to
wheel about toddlers painted head-to-toe in black and red.
I also watched thousands of gold miners invade Indian lands, and I followed
the sharp rise in malaria and other exotic diseases that resulted. I have seen the
burning of the Amazon forest for encroaching ranches and farms obscure the sun
throughout the entire day. I have seen the traditional diet of natural fruits, nuts,
vegetables and game give way to the much less nutritious beans, rice, manioc and
coffee. I watched truckload after truckload of huge mahogany logs being shipped
out in clouds of Amazon dust. And I have seen village chiefs opening their bank
accounts – in Pierre Cardin suits no less – in the nearest frontier town.
Anthropologists tend to be cultural conservatives – purists perhaps. We flinch
when we see ‘our people’ lose those distinctive features that made us want to go to
the Amazon in the first place. With most of the changes I had to swallow hard and
bite my lip. But I tried to not be a paternalistic white man who knows what is best
for Indians. I tried to listen more than talk, and to help create the scientific, social
and political space for Indians themselves to speak and be heard.
Chapter 21
The Kayapó Indian protests
against Amazonian dams:
successes, alliances, and
unending battles 1
Indians in Brazil have historically been considered, at best, as ‘relatively incapable’ human beings that must be ‘protected’ as wards of the federal government.
The Brazilian Indian Foundation (Fundação Nacional do Indio–FUNAI) serves as
the official organ responsible for Indian affairs. Under past national constitutions
FUNAI was considered the only legal institution that could represent or defend
native peoples. Land demarcation, sales of mineral rights and lumber, judicial
proceedings, even labour contracts and agricultural sales were all conducted by –
and legally only by – FUNAI officials.
With decrees such as those made in 1985 by Brazil’s ex-President Figueiredo
authorizing the sale of mineral and other natural resource rights even within
legally protected Indian reserves, FUNAI and other government officials came
under increased pressure to ‘help create the heads’ of the indigenous leaders so
they would consent to mining and lumbering on their lands. In many cases, however, the Indian leaders were not even consulted on decisions to exploit their
natural resources.
Claims of corruption within FUNAI have swollen to a level equal to accusations against its predecessor, SPI (Sociedade para Proteçäo do Indio), which was
extinguished in 1967 for scandalous dealings. As Manuela Carneiro da Cunha
(1987: 13) points out, ‘the Indian question today is centred around disputes over
mineral and natural resources on Indian soils and subsoils’. Those who lobby for
the exploitation of these resources have the entire capitalist machine in their
favour and, consequently, are very powerful. Native peoples, by virtue of their low
numbers (approximately one per cent of the Brazilian population) and cultural,
social and political differences – as well as being marginalized by a system that
officially considers them ‘relatively incapable’ – are markedly disadvantaged in
this deadly serious battle.
Much of the general strategy to dominate the ‘Indian question’ depends upon
the maintenance of traditional stereotypes of Indians as ‘primitive’ and ‘incapable’.
In a country where paternalism is as much a part of the national fabric as Carnaval,
it has been all too easy to mask attempts to thwart native independence movements
with rhetoric about ‘helping’ Indians to make decisions about ‘what is best for
them’. Rarely have Indian leaders been heard, because, it is said, they could not
Continuing adaptation by the Kayapó
possibly know enough about white man’s society to make good judgements. Thus,
‘indigenistas’ (non-Indians who supposedly represent Indian interests) are called
upon to advise on government decisions. Even FUNAI, the government organ
specifically in charge of indigenous affairs, has shockingly few Indians in any of
its ranks, but especially few are involved at decision-making levels. This means, of
course, that native leaders have been, and continue to be, denied valuable decisionmaking opportunities as well as the experience of working in the governmental
system. This conveniently perpetuates the ‘incapable’ Indian myth, since government decision-makers must be persons ‘with experience’.
It is equally important for the strategy of those who wish to exploit Indian
lands – especially in Amazonia, which is the refuge of over two-thirds of Brazil’s
remaining aborigines – to say that such lands are unproductive and/or unoccupied. The whole of the Amazon Basin, for example, is considered empty (Moran
1981a: 5) – one great frontier where only a few ‘primitive’ Indians and ‘cultureless caboclos’ strugg1e to survive. ‘Indian lands are, in reality, treated as
“no-man’s lands”: always considered as the first option for mining, hydroelectric
projects, land reform, and development projects in general’ (Carneiro da Cunha
1987: 14). This strategy has been relatively easy to maintain over the years
because of the difficulties native peoples and caboclos have to organize and represent themselves in a dominant society where minority rights were traditionally
never even considered an issue.
Despite major victories by tenacious and energetic Indian-support and defence
groups such as CPI (Commission for the Indian), CEDI (Ecumenical Center for
Documentation and Information), CIMI (Indigenous Mission Council), and others such as the ABA (Brazilian Anthropological Association), the relatively
unified voice for indigenous protection was faint in the halls of power. The ecological/conservationist movement, with growing political and economic influence
in the developed world as well as Brazil, had – until very recently – managed to
divorce ecological issues from Indian/human rights. Thus these two major movements for ‘preserving’ the human and biological richness of the planet were at
best disunited, and often at loggerheads.
During the last decades, however, major changes have occurred. Most indigenous organizations have taken strong stands on environmental issues, while
conservationists have realized that 98 per cent of the entire biodiversity of the
planet is still being preserved by the few remaining native peoples who struggle to
survive in it. Luckily, human- and minority-rights issues have also become more
and more of an international cause embraced by those nations in economic and
cultural vogue. Even the scientific community began to realize that indigenous
knowledge is an invaluable human treasure which offers knowledge of plants and
animals, and alternative resource management models that can provide solutions
to disastrous planetary ecological homogenization.
One significant advance for indigenous and ecological rights came with the
proclamation of the new Brazilian Constitution on 5 October 1988. The Articles
that treat Indian peoples represent a considerable improvement and are the results
The Kayapó Indian protests against Amazonian dams
of perseverance by anthropologists, religious Indian rights groups, and Indian
leaders, such as Kayapó chiefs Paiakan and Kube-i, who led no less than four
‘invasions’ of the Constitutional Convention by Kayapó warriors at critical lobbying and voting times.
Even though Indians continue to be legally considered ‘relatively incapable’,
they at least gained the right to seek legal representation and take legal action
independent of FUNAI. Furthermore, exploration of subsoil resources can only
be authorized with consent of the National Congress. Surface resources are protected by equally progressive Articles protecting the environment that call for stiff
penalties for careless destruction of natural resources. One of the major tests of
the 1988 Constitution was a court case by the Brazilian Justice Ministry against
two Kayapó chiefs, myself, and our lawyer, José Carlos Castro.
Initial charges stemmed from a trip to Miami, Florida in January, 1988 by
Paiakan, Kube-i and myself to participate in an international symposium on ‘Wise
Management of Tropical Forests’, organized at the Florida International
University by the university and a number of national and international ecological
conservation groups. I delivered a scholarly paper on my ethnobiological research
into indigenous natural-resource management systems, and chaired a symposium
session on the practical application of scientific research. I also translated for the
Kayapó chiefs as they spoke to the general assembly.
Participation of the Kayapó leaders in the international symposium was a logical extension of the philosophy of a 12-year multidisciplinary ‘Kayapó Project’ to
study traditional ethnobiological knowledge. The Project had already taken
Paiakan and Kube-i, and other Indian leaders, to a number of national scientific
meetings and symposia. Both Paiakan and Kube-i had accompanied the research
teams’ investigations of the plant, animal and ecological knowledge of the
Kayapó; both had served as consultants on native strategies of resource management; and both were fluent in the ecological terms that are used in Portuguese to
discuss maintenance of biodiversity, conservation of nature and sustained development of renewable resources.
The two Kayapó leaders explained how indigenous peoples preserve biological
and ecological diversity, while utilizing the renewable resources available to them
in their Amazon homes. They also emphasized the threats from outside forces that
they must face daily: mining and mercury pollution; erosion; massive burning of
the rainforest; logging roads that penetrate deep into their forests; and mega-projects, such as those that call for the construction of huge hydroelectric projects.
Specifically, they voiced their concerns about the Altamira-Xingu Complex
that, if approved, would inundate 7.6 million hectares (approximately 15 million
acres) of rich river-bottom land – almost all of which belongs to various Indian
groups. The US$ 10.6 billion project, the world’s largest, would displace thousands of Indians from 11 different nations, all of which have already been reduced
to a dangerously low number of individuals.
Equally disastrous would be the loss of the knowledge that each group preserves in its oral tradition about the natural diversity of local ecosystems. Since
Continuing adaptation by the Kayapó
equivalent ecosystems do not exist outside the Xingu River Basin, their disappearance would mean there would be no reason to continue the rich oral lore about
useful plants and animals of that region. Thousands of years of accumulated
knowledge – from 11 very different folk scientific systems – would be lost forever.
Members of the assembly urged Paiakan and Kube-i to take their protests to
the World Bank. Representatives of the National Wildlife Federation, and the
Environmental Defense Fund members present at the meeting, even offered to
pay their expenses to Washington and to organize the visit. The two Kayapó chiefs
accepted the invitation, and plans immediately got underway for their trip in the
first week of February.
During the chiefs’ exhausting blitz of Washington, they visited four Executive
Directors (ED) of the World Bank and the Bank’s technical staff for Brazil.
Although they were met with defensive hostility by the technical staff, the leaders
were heard with great interest by the directors. The directors for the United States,
Britain, the Netherlands and West Germany seemed disturbed that the Bank’s progressive-to-liberal policy on native peoples was not being respected by
Bank-supported projects. The policy demands that native peoples be consulted
and their decisions respected in order to get World Bank funding. Paiakan and
Kube-i assured the directors that neither they, nor any of the indigenous leaders of
the Xingu, had ever been consulted or informed about the proposed hydro-electric
project. The American ED assured the chiefs that he would continue to vote
against the ‘Power-Sector Loan’ to Brazil that would be destined for the Xingu
Dam construction. Other EDs were less committed, but assured the Indians they
would investigate infringements of Bank rules protecting native peoples and the
natural diversity upon which they depend.
Paiakan and Kube-i also met with State Department and Finance Secretary
representatives, as well as members of Congress. Congressman John Porter,
chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, listened with great interest
as the two spoke of their frustration within Brazil at not being heard – and their
inability to get facts about mega-projects that uproot native cultures and remove
Indians from their lands without their consent.
The Kayapó spoke of personal acquaintances from other indigenous groups
such as the Parakanã, Gaviäo and the Atrori-Waimi, all of whom had been
expelled from their lands without due compensation – and even without guaranteed land rights (Treece 1987). Everywhere the Kayapó leaders went they asked
which countries were financing the disaster that native peoples and the Amazon
were experiencing. There were many red faces, but few straight answers.
Paiakan and Kube-i also met with Native American leaders of the North
American Indian Congress and Americans for Indian Opportunities, as well as
indigenous lawyers that lobby for native rights and represent Indians in legal
struggles over land and mineral rights. It appeared to me that they were beginning
to see their struggle in a much larger context – and to realize that there exist international agreements and a legal infrastructure to support Brazilian Indians in their
The Kayapó Indian protests against Amazonian dams
Upon return to Brazil, we all faced repeated police interrogation. We learned
that a special Brazilian ministerial delegation was in Washington at the same time
as the Indians. They had gone to renegotiate the Bank power-sector loans that
Kube-i and Paiakan were trying to stop. The Brazilian delegation had charged that
the loans had been paralyzed because of our visit, which jeopardized Brazil’s economic relations, thereby, ‘provoking an economic crisis in Brazil’. This had,
according to the federal police accusation, ‘denigrated Brazil’s image abroad’.
I was specifically charged with having ‘illegally taken Indians out of the country’. Not only this, but I had done so – according to the accusations – with
premeditated maliciousness to ‘use’ the Indians to denigrate and jeopardize
It became very clear through our evidence presented in the preliminary investigations, that the Indians had been granted permission to leave the country by
FUNAI, which is responsible for its ‘wards’. Furthermore, I pointed out that the
federal police itself controls the national frontiers and that no one – especially a
foreigner – could have ‘illegally taken’ anyone out of or brought anyone into
Brazil without consent and knowledge of the federal police itself.
I also produced documents proving that the invitation to go to Washington, as
well as the financing and organization of the visit, had been provided by the internationally respected non-governmental groups, National Wildlife Federation and
Environmental Defense Fund. Paiakan repeated his denouncements made in
Washington and declared his responsibility for what he had said. He even produced newspaper articles from Brazil published well before our trip to the United
States that quoted him saying exactly the same things as he had said in
However, such explanations were to no avail. As the federal police investigator
told me in my second interrogation: ‘Someone had to be behind those Indians.
They would never have gone to Washington and said those things by themselves’.
That logic is legally supported, since ‘relatively incapable’ wards of the state cannot be held responsible for ‘crimes’ committed in Washington. Worse still is that
most people believe this outdated view of native peoples.
With no evidence, we were certain that the whole story would end with the preliminary investigations by the federal police. It seemed indisputable that my role
had been as interpreter, and that I had acted totally in a professional and ethical
manner as a concerned scientist. The only ‘crimes’ that had been committed,
therefore, were that the Kayapó chiefs had voiced the truth of their views and concerns in centres of international economic and political power.
The Federal Justice Department, however, had other ideas. On 8 August 1988,
Paulo Meira, the Federal Prosecutor in Belém, Pará, brought formal charges
against me (Process Number 35340-1st Region of Pará State, 3rd Vara) in the federal District Court evoking the Law of Foreigners (the same articles as in the
original police accusation). Much to everyone’s surprise, the charges (evoking
article 129 of the Penal Code) included the two Kayapó chiefs as accomplices to
my ‘crimes’. The specific charges were that I had taken Paiakan and Kube-i to
Continuing adaptation by the Kayapó
Washington, where I had manipulated through my translations their testimonies
with the ‘intention of frustrating [sic] the execution of Brazil’s Energy Plan’. The
‘denouncement’ states that the Indians’ testimonies were so effective that ‘at the
very least, credit negotiations were suspended until the Indians’ charges could be
investigated ... by the entities contacted’.
These charges shocked the national and international community. First and
foremost because never before, in nearly 500 years of white-Indian relations in
Brazil, had Amerindians been prosecuted as foreigners in their native land.
Shocking as well was the allegation that ‘crimes’ committed outside Brazilian
national territory could be prosecuted by Brazilian courts. The attempt to extend
Brazilian authority outside the country, as well as to prosecute Amerindians under
the Law of Foreigners, was formally protested by the Brazilian Legal Society,
OAB (Ordem de Advogados do Brasil), Brazil’s most powerful legal entity
(reported in O Globo, 16 August 1988).
In a special despatch, OAB’s influential Human Rights Commission called for
national and international protests against the federal Justice Department, which
was being manipulated by powerful economic interests from southern Brazil.
According to José Carlos Castro, President of the Commission and legal representative for the accused, ‘authoritarian measures were being forced upon the
Amazon by powerful economic interests outside the region wanting to exploit its
natural resources at any cost’. One such measure, according to Castro, was ‘to use
police investigations and judicial procedures to intimidate those trying to defend
it from destruction’. He continued alleging that authoritarian decisions are the
lifeline of mega-projects, such as the Altamira-Xingu Hydroelectric Complex,
which are always decided in secret and without consulting the local people who
will be most affected.
OAB’s call for protests began a series of similar measures by the Brazilian
Anthropological Association, the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of
Science, the International Society of Ethnobiology, Cultural Survival, Survival
International, Amnesty International and literally hundreds of non-government
groups concerned with ecological conservation, Indian and human rights, and
Amazonian issues. Thousands and thousands of irate letters have been sent to José
Sarney, President of the Republic, and petitions of support have been circulated
around the world. None of this seemed to have any effect on the determination of
the government to continue its prosecution.
On 3 August 1988, Paiakan and I were called for the opening testimony for the
trial. Nothing more could be said than had been given as testimony in the previous
federal police interrogations. In the official dossier of prosecution, we were
amazed to learn that the only evidence against us was newspaper clippings from
Brazilian newspapers reporting the Indians’ visit to Washington. It became even
clearer that the entire case was, as José Carlos Castro had already pointed out, ‘a
politically motivated manoeuvre to silence the scientific community and native
leaders’ so as not to speak out against mega-projects supported by the authoritarian government.
The Kayapó Indian protests against Amazonian dams
Despite lack of evidence and much public opposition, the case continued on 14
October 1988, when Kube-i was summoned to give his testimony. What was
unexpected and unprecedented was that Kube-i did indeed arrive at the court
building for the testimony – but with over 400 Kayapó warriors to accompany
him. Brazil had never seen such a well-organized show of force by indigenous
As the amassed warriors blocked one of Belém’s busiest avenues, Paiakan
unveiled a large map that he had acquired during his trip to Washington. It was a
map, never before seen in public in Brazil, showing the nine dams that were
planned for the Xingu River Basin. Paiakan repeated the charges he and Kube-i
had made in Washington. This time, their outrage was being reported by journalists and filmed for broadcast not only in Brazil, but around the world.
Inside the courthouse the judge, Ivan Velasco Nascimento, announced that he
would refuse to hear Kube-i’s testimony if the Indian leader did not appear in
‘proper dress’ (shirt and trousers). Kube-i was wearing only shorts and sandals,
but was otherwise – by his cultural standards – dressed for the most solemn occasion in parrot-feather head-dress and black and red body paint.
The judge, however, insisted that Kube-i was ‘semi-nude and in costume’,
thereby showing ‘disrespect’ for the court. Kube-i was given 20 minutes to appear
in proper dress. If he did not do so, declared Judge Nascimento, his testimony
would not be heard, and his actions considered as refusal to testify. Kube-i refused
to dress as the White Man – and announced his refusal to the assembled press.
The judge and federal prosecutor called a special session of the court to formalize
their decision. Our lawyer protested that refusal to hear the chief in his traditional
dress was contrary to the newly approved Brazilian Constitution that prohibits
racism and considers the denial of minority rights a crime. The spectators in the
Court Room, which included representatives of the OAB Human Rights
Commission and the international press, were jolted by what was to follow. The
judge, echoed by the federa1 prosecutor, stated that their position was the only
defensible one because ‘Indians must become acculturated’.
The justice officials also ordered that psychological, psychiatric and anthropological tests be administered to Kube-i and Paiakan to ‘determine their level of
acculturation ... and to what extent they were aware of their complicity in the
"crimes" committed’.
The following day, front-page headlines in Brazil read ‘Indians Offer
Solidarity to Their Chief: Testimony of Kube-i Attracts International Press’
(Correio Braziliense), ‘Kube-i Stopped From Testifying Because Not Dressed as
Whiteman’ (O Liberal), ‘Indians Protest Against Government’ (The State of Säo
Paulo), and ‘Kayapó Protest Takes 400 Indians to the Tribunal’ (O Globo).
International headlines were reported in most European and North and Latin
American countries. National and international television carried the story for
The struggle of the native peoples of Brazil to preserve their lands and natural
resources was suddenly on the lips of even average citizens around the world. If
Continuing adaptation by the Kayapó
the Kayapó in their protests in Washington against hydro-electric projects had
‘denigrated the image of Brazil’, the government’s insistence to prosecute such
‘crimes’ was eradicating all vestiges of Brazil as a major world democracy that
respects human rights and ecological issues.
On 18 October, our lawyer, José Carlos Castro, filed formal charges against
the judge under Article 5/Paragraph 41 of the Brazilian Constitution that prohibits
racial discrimination. The judge’s refusal to hear Kube-i in traditional dress, as
well as his public declarations that Indians must be acculturated, were cited as evidence. Anthropological and legal experts had been consulted, all of whom agreed
that the judge’s statements were not only racist, but a clear call for ‘cultural genocide’.
Interestingly, under the Constitution, racism is considered a crime for which
the accused can be jailed without bond if sufficient evidence is presented. Given
that the witnesses were official representatives of OAB and the international
press, the situation provoked an amazing stand-off. Castro also filed a formal
petition protesting the administration of psychological, psychiatric and anthropological tests to the Indians. From a procedural point, if such tests were to be
considered necessary, they should be requested by the defence, not the prosecution. Furthermore, he stated, such tests are completely unviable since
‘acculturation’ has never been legally defined, nor is even recognized as possible
to define by the scientific community.
Castro specifically charged the justice officials with racism and incompetency.
The judge responded by formally charging Castro with ‘injúria’ (disrespect and
defamation), thereby provoking yet another judicial case linked to the original.
This charge provoked strong reactions in favour of Castro, who is a character
beloved throughout Brazil for his fearless defence of popular causes.
In November Paiakan undertook a trip to eight countries in Europe and North
America. The purpose of the Indian leader’s trip was to make citizens in the
Developed World aware of the case, and of the devastating effects on native peoples and their environments that are provoked by projects financed by the banks
and governments of their countries.
Paiakan’s trip publicized even further the absurdity of the case, and the urgent
need for protection of the rainforest and its peoples against hydro-electric and
other mega-projects. His eloquent speech and charismatic manner won many to
his side and showed with unquestionable clarity that he was perfectly capable of
speaking for himself. It was not necessary for anyone to ‘be behind’ a ‘relatively
incapable’ native to tell him what to say, as had been alleged in the indictment.
Despite much national and international pressure, the federal Supreme Court
refused in December 1988, to ‘deactivate’ or suspend the case. Continuation of
the trial was set for 6 March to hear witnesses for the prosecution: the two
Brazilian journalists who covered the Indians’ visit to Washington (Roberto
Garcia of Journal do Brazil, and Moisés Rabinovich of O Estado do São Paulo),
the regional superintendent of FUNAI, and the vice-director of the Museu
Paraense Emílio Goeldi – where, according to the original indictment, the two
The Kayapó Indian protests against Amazonian dams
Indians and I are employed. In fact, I was a researcher at the museum, but the
Indians have never had any official ties with the museum whatsoever.
Defence witnesses were named as: Robert Keating, United States Executive
Director of the World Bank; Hon. Representative John Porter, Member of the U.S.
Congress and Chairman of its Human Rights Caucus; Bruce Rich, Environmental
Defense Fund; Barbara Bramble, Director of International Programs, National
Wildlife Federation; Dr Nelson Papavero, Museum of Zoology of the University
of São Paulo; and Dr Elaine Elisabetsky, Director, Laboratory for
Ethnopharmacology, Federal University of Pará.
Most observers felt that the trial would never reach the point of such embarrassing hearings taking place. The general feeling was that the police
investigation and the federal prosecution were primarily intended to intimidate
scientists who opposed financially important mega-projects, and to weaken
indigenous leadership. Therefore, since both objectives had horrendously backfired, the case would be ‘quietly closed’.
On 12 February 1989, in the wake of Carnaval, a favourable decision by the
Brazilian Supreme Tribunal was handed down based on the habeus corpus
request. Since this whole complex of cases was profoundly political, the outcome
may have been something of a measure of the rapidly changing politics of a presidential election year – the first direct popular elections for a president Brazil had
held in more than two decades. It may also have been an index of the degree to
which the military and government leaders were finding it increasingly difficult
to convince the Brazilian people that the move to ‘save the Amazon and its peoples’ was nothing more than an international plot to steal national territory. In this
view, Indians are simply being manipulated by internationally motivated powers
to weaken their strategic defence of Brazilian ‘patrimony’. This ‘conspiracy’
apparently includes Indians, human-rights groups, environmentalists, drug traffickers and ethnobiologists.
Interestingly, during Paiakan’s trip to Europe and North America, he was able
to raise money for a project that he and Kube-i had dreamt about for many
months: a meeting of indigenous leaders from the Xingu River Basin, with Indian
leaders from all over Brazil and even other countries, to force public debate over
proposed hydro-electric projects.
That meeting, ‘The First Encounter of Native Peoples in the Xingu’, took place
from 20 to 25 February 1989 in the tiny Amazon town of Altamira, the centre of
the proposed dam project. Over 600 indigenous leaders from throughout the
Americas participated. Non-Indian leaders met in parallel sessions to consolidate
their network and to give solidarity to the Indians. Together with indigenous leaders they elaborated an historic document to guide this new alliance of forces. This
document’s title was: ‘A Unified Strategy for the Preservation of the Amazon and
its Peoples’.
The ‘encounter’ in Altamira was the end of a long, tiring and tedious struggle
to bring together native peoples and conservationists to preserve the rapidly disappearing bio-, eco-, and ethno-diversity of the Amazon – and the planet. The
Continuing adaptation by the Kayapó
‘encounter’ was historic for another reason: it was organized by the Indians themselves, who, instead of being represented by non-Indians, had the unusual
experience of having to limit time for the non-Indian leaders to express their
views. Brazil, despite the efforts of its government and justice department, had
suddenly become the centre of an indigenous-led movement to fight ecologically
and socially damaging forces that threaten the Amazon.
The Kayapó protest against the Xingu hydro-electric project has been one of
the great successes in the environmental and human-rights movement. Not only
were the Altamira dams stopped, but the entire hydro-electric project was dropped
by the World Bank. Funding from other sources has been impossible, and civil
resistance against such mega-projects within Brazil makes such plans politically
unviable. The alliance between indigenous peoples and environmentalists continues, although solidarity is difficult due to differing social, cultural and economic
The environmental community in general holds romantic notions about the
nature of indigenous peoples. Thus, when economic conditions necessitate that
indigenous groups sell timber or take up ranching, they are ‘dropped’ by their
allies for not being ‘real Indians’.
A classic example of this attitude occurred during the Earth Summit (the
United Nations Conference on Environment and Development) in 1992. Brazilian
magazines and newspapers splashed the photo of Paulinho Paiakan across their
covers, alleging that he had raped the 17-year-old tutor of his daughters, then tried
to murder her after ritually drinking her blood. ‘The Savage’ was the headline
across Paiakan’s face in Brazil’s major weekly, Veja. Roberto Smeralti, President
of Friends of the Earth Italy, gave an interview saying that neither he nor his group
had anything to do with Paiakan because he had been responsible for selling
mahogany from his reserve. ‘That’s what happens’, Smeralti is quoted as saying to
a reporter of O Globo, ‘when Indians leave the forest’. He had, interestingly
enough, been responsible a year or so earlier, for organizing a European trip for
Paiakan to speak on environmental issues. Steven Cory, Director General of
Survival International, went even further. In an interview to Folha de São Paulo,
he related the alleged rape to a general disorientation of the Kayapó due to outside
trade forces linked to a Body Shop trading project with Paiakan’s village.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature in this high-profile event is that none of
the environmental or human-rights NGOs that had been responsible for Paiakan’s
various trips to North America, Europe and Japan, even bothered to obtain the
facts in Paiakan’s case. The alleged victim was 23, had never tutored anyone’s
children, and was seen alive and well minutes after the alleged rape in the house
of friends. Furthermore, the physician that examined her was being prosecuted by
Paiakan because he had sterilized Paiakan’s wife without her consent, and the
arresting officer is now in jail for extortion. None of these facts, however, have
interested the press, nor most environmentalists.
It seems more crucial to ask why Paiakan was ‘set up’ in this manner. Brazil
has a long history of using press scandals for political ends. A few weeks after the
The Kayapó Indian protests against Amazonian dams
accusations against Paiakan, Kube-i was charged by the police with murder of a
farm worker. The fact that Kube-i was not even in the vicinity of the murder when
it occurred did not stop the flow of ‘facts’ about his guilt in the press.
One might ask: but why Paiakan and Kube-i? There are many other Indian
leaders to be silenced. Perhaps the collective memory in Brazil is better than we
think. It may be no coincidence that the two Kayapó leaders who dealt the
Brazilian government one of its most painful stings are now suffering the famous
Latin vingança (vengeance). There is an old Kayapó saying: ‘When you win a
battle, become even more prepared; the enemy will always return and always better armed than before!’
Management of a tropical scrub
savanna by the Gorotire Kayapó of
Brazil 1
Annona densicoma Mart.
Duquetia spixiana Mart.
Guatteria gracilipes R.E. Friese
Guatteria sp.
Antonia ovata Pohl.
Ilex aff. affinis Gardn.
Schefflera sp.
Tapirira quianensis Aubl.
Forsteronia aff. guianensis M.Arg.
Himatanthus articulatus
(Vahl.) Woodson
Himatanthus sucuuba
(Spruce ex M.Arg.) Woodson
Scientific name
A wa rire
Pĩ’ô kra japêt
Akrô ôkre
Bã’y kanê
A krwàt krã ti
Bà rôkre
P˜i’o jagote
Pĩ’kai krit te
Pidjô ngra ti
Kapôt kuben me
Bà nho ro
Bà nho ro ti
Ngỳ re
Kayapó name3
body paint, ✓
axe handles
wrist bands ✓
Pi tu
Kupa kaàk
Tu re
Tabebuia serratifolia (Vahl.) Nichols.
Bombax aquaticum (Aubl.) K. Sch.
Ràb kudjà re
Ràb ti
Caryocar brasiliense St. Hil.
Maytenus sp.
Hirtella cf. racemosa Lam.
Licania latifolia Benth. ex Hook. f.
Pĩ kare ô kryre
Pĩ ka re
Mẽ udjỳ dijá
Prĩn /piquí ?
Ràb tytx
Crepidospermum goudotianum
(Tul.) Tr. and Pl.
Protium unifolilatum Engl.
Tetragastris altissima (Aubl.) Sw.
Kà rà ja nhy
Akrô kangô ti
Rô a akro
Philodendron cf. acutatum Schott.
Kayapó name3
Arrabidaea inaequalis
(DC. ex Splitg.) K
Jacaranda rufa Manso
Scientific name
bow wood ✓
Wulffia baccata (L.f.) Kuntze
Rourea cf. cuspidata Benth.
ex Baker
Erythroxylum macrophyllum Cav.
Erythroxylum suberosum St. Hil.
Erythroxylum subracemosum Turcz.
Doliocarpus dentatus
(Aubl.) Standl.
Piptocarpha sp.
Curatella americana L.
Combretum rotundifolium Rich.
Buchenavia sp.
Tapura amazonica Poepp. and Engl.
Scientific name
Mrômrô tire kanê
Tôtn kanê
Djwy kanê
Djà ràrà krô
Bà’ỳ kanê
Pĩ kàre
Mo ja nhu
Pĩ’ô krê jamin
Totonk nhy nõ rã
Màdn nhõ ỳ re
Kutenk prĩ re
Kayapó name3
sandpaper, ✓
Chaetocarpus sp.
Mabea fistulifera Mart.
Maprounea guianensis Aubl.
Pera distichophylla (Mart.) Baill.
Sapium sp.
Carprotroche sp.
Casearia arborea (Rich.) Urb.
Casearia sylvestris Sw.
Humiriastrum cf. cuspidatum
(Benth.) Cuatr.
Clusia insignis Mart.
Kielmeyera cf. rugosa Choisy
Vismia cayennesis (Jacq.) Pers.
Lasiacis aff. ligulata Hitchc. and Chase. 1308
Scientific name
Kro my kâk nho
Mẽ miomi o kango ✓
Bàri pra kài krit
Pĩ pa nhe kati
Mẽ pri re
eijkwa kanê
Pĩ kà tonk re
Pĩ ja re po
Bàri djwa ô kry re
Bàri pra ô
Pĩ kà re
Pĩ ’ôk re
Kudjà ra ô kryre
Pĩ kai krit
Pĩ’ô ka re
Pĩ’ô krê japetx
Pĩ’ô jabie ti
Kayapó name3
Scientific name
Sacoglottis cf. ceratocarpa Ducke
Sacoglottis aff. guianensis Benth.
Emmotum fagifolium Desv.
Emmotum aff. nitens (Benth.) Miers.
Lacistema aggregatum (Berg.) Tusby
Andira cuiabensis Benth.
Dioclea macrocarpa Huber
Enterolobium ellipticum Benth.
Enterolobium schomburgkii Benth.
Hymenaea courbaril L.
Machaerium acutifolium Vog.
Machaerium pilosum Benth.
Plathymenia foliosa Benth.
Vatairea cf. macrocarpa
(Benth.) Ducke
Ngoi bôro
nhõ bari
Ka katx
Angà ti
Kàdjwa ti pr˜i re
Môtx têrê
Bài ka ngrã re
Kapôt kam pi
kam mrôre
Bàri djwa
Me krê ka kô
Kukryt nho kryre
Pĩ ka tyk ô po ti
Pĩ ka ô jabiê
Me udjy
Kayapó name3
spines used
for minor
sandpaper ✓
body paint ✓
Scientific name
Vatairea sericea (Ducke) Ducke
Byrsonima coriacea (Sw.) Kunth
Byrsonima crassifolia (L.) H.B.K.
Heteropterys sp.1
Heteropterys sp.2
Mascagnia sp.1
Mascagnia sp.2
(Não identificada)
Miconia alata (Aubl.) DC
Miconia ciliata DC
Miconia macrothyrsa Benth.
Miconia cf. melinonis Naud.
Mouriri sp.
Siparuna guianensis Aubl.
Ràb re ô
Ngô nhe djà
Ngô nhe djà
Ngô nhe djà o
nho krê ràrà
Pidjo kryre
Ngra nho kryre
Kutenk kryre
Ropre my ka te tu
Akrô ô tai te
Akrô poi re
Akrô onhõ kre
Rop re my kate
tu ô kryre
Krê kra po
Ngoi bôro nhõ
bari (ti)
Kayapó name3
fish poison ✓
Eugenia eurycheila Berg.
Eugenia cf. patrisii Vahl.
Eugenia cf. protacta Berg.
Virola sebifera Aubl.
Eugenia cf. cupulata Amsh.
Ficus gomelleira Kunth
and Bouche
Sorocea guilleminiana Gaudich.
Ficus amazonica (Miq.) Miq.
Cecropia palmata Willd.
Ardisia sp.
Cybianthus myrianthos
Miq. vel. sp. aff.
Cybianthus sp.
Scientific name
Kamri te i ngo
o po ti
Pi kám mere
Pi o ti kryre
Pi kám mere
Pi kám mere
O ko no re
O ko no re o
po ti
O ko no re
Pi’ô jabiê ti
Mẽ ô mie kango
Mẽ ô mie
kango ti
Pidjo kra nhire
Pi’ô ô nhire
Kayapó name3
bow string
and cord
Scientific name
Myrcia atramentifera Barb. Rodr.
Myrcia cf. fallax (Rich.) DC
Myrcia obtusa Schau.
Neea sp.
Ouratea nitida Engl.
Syagrus cocoides Mart.
Syagrus comosa (Mart.) Mart.
Coccoloba excelsa Benth.
Coccoloba paniculata Meissn.
Roupala montana Aubl.
Alibertia edulis Rich.
Alibertia myrciifolia K. Sch.
Roi krã ti (re)
Roi krã ti
Ro xêt kudjà re
Mehn kanê
Pàt kanê
Nhiadhy kanê
Pĩ’ô po ti
Pidjô tyk kaàk
Kudjàt djê tyk
Pidjo kamrek
Pi dju djure
Krỳwà no ôk djà
Kayapó name3
hair remover ✓
Matayba guianensis Aubl.
Serjania sp.
Simarouba amara Aubl.
Smilax cf. schomburgkiana Kunth.
Solanum grandiflorum R. and P.
Solanum cf. juripeba Rich.
Krwàt kamrek
Micropholis cf.
calophylloides Pires
Pi o ngra re
Màdn ne kanê
Faramea cf. longifolia Benth.
Palicourea crocea (Sw.)
Roem. and Schult.
Psychotria sp.
Mra nhi
Mra nhi kajê ti
Xuru xuru
Go ti ô kryre
Pi tai te
Akrere kumrenx
Mo tu
Kuben kra kopre
Alibertia verrucosa S. Moore
Amaioua cf. guianensis Aubl.
Kayapó name3
Scientific name
ritual masks
fish bait
carving or ✓
digging sticks,
flowers for
Styrax guyanensis A. DC.
Symplocos guianensis (Aubl.) Ducke
Symplocos sp.
Vitex flavens H.B.K.
Qualea parviflora Mart.
Qualea sp.
Vochysia divergens Pohl.
Kre kre
Pĩ ka tykre
Krã re
Kamri te’i ngô
Djudje kamrek
Bàri djwa (re)
Bàri djwa
Me kre ka ko
Bàri djwa
Kutx ô kre
kamrê ti
Kayapó name3
ear spools
ear spools
From: Anderson, A.B. and Posey, D.A. 1989. ‘Management of a Tropical Scrub Savanna by the Gorotire Kayapó of Brazil. Advances in Economic Botany 7: 159–173.
Presented as publication no. 97 of The New York Botanical Garden, Institute of Economic Botany. [See Anderson and Posey (1985) for an earlier version of this manuscript in Portugese.]
No. refers to collections of A.B.Anderson, deposited in the herbarium of the Museu Goeldi in Belém, Brazil.
In case of disagreement between informants concerning names, more than one indigenous name is furnished per species. Disagreement over whether a species was
planted or not is indicated by a question mark (?).
Cultural data concerning uses and management of the vegetation were obtained from two informants, José Uté and Beptopoop, with subsequent confirmation and elaboration by Kwyrà-Kà and others.Ten ‘islands’ (apêtê) were randomly selected for botanical inventory of all plants taller than one metre. Freshly collected specimens were
shown independently to the informants to elicit data on their use and management.At least two informants were consulted for each specimen; numerous specimens
were randomly checked with other informants. Specimens were subsequently deposited in the herbarium of the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi in Belém, Brazil.
Scientific name
1 The science of the Mẽbêngôkre
1 Originally published in Orion magazine, 187 Great Barrington, MAQ 1230. Summer
1990, pp.16–23.
2 Contact before contact: typology of post-Colombian interaction
with the Northern Kayapó of the Amazon
1 Boletim do Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi, Série Antropologico 3(2) 1987:135–54.
2 Transitional ecological zones form major resource areas for the Kayapó Indians. Within
various zones are ‘resource islands’, i.e. areas of high resource concentration. Some
resource islands are natural; others are created by the Kayapó, who gather selected
useful plants over a wide geographical area and replant them near camp and village
sites. This type of species manipulation or semi-domestication forms the basis for
‘nomadic agriculture’ (see Chapter 18).
3 Understanding of resource utilization by tropical peoples is still rudimentary. The more
we know about indigenous and aboriginal subsistence patterns, the less adequate are
our data to make pronouncements about potential population growth. Ignorance of
‘nomadic agriculture’, inadequate understanding of gathered products as nutritional
sources, and lack of appreciation for the use of ‘abandoned fields’ make totally invalid
arguments regarding ‘carrying capacity’ and ‘protein capture’ (e.g. Gross 1975; Ross
4 ‘The historical relationships between the southern Kayapó (also spelled Caiapó and
Cayapó) and the northern Kayapó of this study remain unclear. Cunha Matos
originally applied the name ‘Caiapó’ to northern Jê-speakers, but Nimuendajú (1952:
427) established the ethnographic distinction between groups. Both groups speak a Jê
language, but Wilbert (1978: 22) and Turner (1966: 2–5) argue that the groups are only
remotely related linguistically and culturally. This hardly resolves the matter, however,
for oral tradition and historical documents record raiding and wandering of northern
Kayapó groups far to the south (Verswijver 1986). It would come as little surprise,
therefore, that some of the early manuscripts referring to Kayapó raids on gold
caravans do indeed refer to northern rather than southern Kayapó groups.
5 Accounts of meetings with Caiapó are numerous. Hemming (1978) outlines numerous
encounters. The best historical sketch of early Portuguese and Caiapó (southern
Kayapó) relations is found in Southey’s (1819) nineteenth century history of Brazil. It
deserves emphasis here that modern geographical distribution of Kayapó groups does
not necessarily coincide with the aboriginal pattern. Mobility of indigenous peoples in
the Americas is much greater than previously assumed. The ancestors of the so-called
‘northern Kayapó’ groups of today were most certainly encountered by the Portuguese
colonials along the great gold caravan routes from São Paulo to both Goiás and Cuiabá
(cf. Hemming 1978: 405–8).
Various authors have surveyed in detail the historical documents specifically related to
the northern Kayapó groups (see Dreyfus 1963; Bamberger 1967; Vidal 1977;
Verswijver 1986).
Some of the most accessible and accurate reports of the status of current Indian tribes
comes via the Anthropology Resource Center and Cultural Survival, Inc., Survival
International and CEDI (Centro Ecumenice de Documentacio e Informacio).
When I visited the village of Kokrajmoro in 1979, one old couple (probably in their late
60s) had been enticed by relatives to move there from another Kayapó village
(Kikretum). Their principal function was to instruct the youth of the village about the
Kayapó ways. During my 22-days stay in Kokrajmoro, the old man would sit in front of
his house every night to sing and tell stories. A considerable portion of the village would
sit in concentric semicircles facing the old man (mẽ-bêgnet age grade) and listen
attentively. Because of the specialized nature of ceremonial knowledge, however, the old
man was only able to repeat that portion of the complete Kayapó ceremonial knowledge
that he had inherited from his elder relatives. The number of festivals that could be
performed was extremely limited since there were no people alive who knew how to, or
had inherited the right to, perform the essential parts of the complex ceremonies.
This is a controversial stance since malaria is assumed not to be endemic to the New
World by many scholars. My demographic data, however, as well as those of
missionaries of the Unevangelized Field Mission (MICEB), bear out that Indian
mortality due to Plasmodium vivax malaria is lower than for whites.
Horace Banner in his unpublished account of his first direct contact with the Kayapó also
reports that the Gorotire were already in possession of European clothing, guns and beads.
See Prince Aldabert’s (1849) accounts of his travels in the Xingu (pp. 310–11), as well
as Henderson’s (1821) History of Brazil (pp. 241–2) for accounts of early contact with
the Kayapó.
Special ‘go-betweens’ connected the European colonists with remote parts of the
interior. ‘Free Indian traders’ are discussed by Magalhães (1922: 150 ff.). Indian ‘gobetweens’ are common in historical accounts, e.g. Prince Aldabert (1849: 275–6).
Historical accounts of trade by and with the northern Kayapó confirm the extensive
aboriginal interaction between Brazilian Indian groups. For example, see Bernardino
(1874: 3) for an account of Kayapó–Mundurucu exchanges. Prince Aldabert describes
the typical trade items he used in his Xingu expedition (1848: 221, 275–6), which are
practically the same as modern trade items.
‘Regatões’ were known as ‘the scourge of the Amazon’ by early residents of Grão Pará.
There was little they would not do for profit at the expense of Indians or colonials (see
Henderson, 1821: 132–4).
The penetration of most remote areas by rubber-tappers is a staggering record in
bravery (or stupidity).
The history of Grão Pará and Maranhão is filled with accounts of slave revolts (e.g.
Aldabert, 1849: 267; Magalhães 1922: 149, 151, 165), as well as example of Indians
selling other Indians as slaves (e.g. Magalhães 1922: 175; Smith, 1880: 68–9,
Residents of Gorotire over 60 years of age (of which there were at least 18 in 1979)
still remember living in Pyka-tô-ti. Accounts of its size and population are consistent
and, although data are sparse, there is sufficient evidence to merit urgent
archaeological excavation. Likewise, the Casa de Pedra with its rock drawings will be
made easily accessible next year by a new road. Excavations at this site could help to
resolve questions about the antiquity of Kayapó occupancy of the Xingu valley.
18 This pattern was still preserved in Kubẽn-krã-kein. In 1977–79 several chiefs had
followers who lived much of the year in dispersed circular villages near their fields.
During ceremonial periods, however, they convened at the main village site to enact
important name-giving and agricultural rituals. Aeroplane travel is now used to bring
together dispersed specialists from different groups in order to recreate ‘lost’ rituals
and reinstate disappearing names.
19 In 1980, I spent five months studying the journals, letters and manuscripts of Horace
Banner in his private library in Cheshire, England. I am very appreciative to his family,
especially his widow ‘Dona Eva’, for the courtesies and assistance so generously
bestowed. Accounts in his 1949 and 1950 journals (just prior to contact with the
Kubẽn-krã-kein Kayapó) offer particularly vivid descriptions of fear of attack upon the
Gorotire by neighbouring groups.
During my stay with the Gorotire in 1977–78, there were constant rumours of raids
by the Kikretum village downriver. Gorotire had split in 1976 when Chief Pombo was
expelled and forced to form this new village. Such anxiety seems much more
imaginary than real, but nonetheless ‘cold war’ remains an important part of modern
Kayapó world view.
20 The Gorotire still abandon a house if several deaths occur in it over a short period of
time. For example, two deaths occurred in 1977 in Gorotire, all within a period of three
months, causing a house to be abandoned.
21 Piá àm is a difficult word to translate from Kayapó. It is a type of ‘shame’ or ‘social
distancing’ that comes from breaking social rules. Fighting between kinsmen and
lineages produces piá àm and ‘much shame’ is spoken of in terms of the hostile
relationships that existed.
3 Environmental and social implications of pre- and post-contact
situations on Brazilian Indians
1 Extracted from ‘Environmental and Social Implications of Pre- and Post-contact
Situations on Brazilian Indians: the Kayapó and a new Amazonian synthesis’. Chapter
12 in Roosevelt 1994: 271–86.
2 The film Jungle Pharmacy was produced by Herbert Girardet for TV Trust for the
4 Time, space, and the interface of divergent cultures: the Kayapó
Indians of the Amazon face the future
1 Revista de Antropologia (São Paulo) 25:89–104. The original version of this paper was
presented at the American Society for Ethnohistory, Annual Meeting, Albany, New
York, October 1979, and was written while a Fellow at the Newberry, Chicago, Illinois.
2 The initial contact with the Kayapó was effected by the Reverend Horace Banner of
the Unevangelized Fields Mission after earlier disastrous attempts by the legendary
‘Three Freds’. This early history is recorded in three books by Horace Banner –
Banner n.d.; 1963; and 1975.
3 Recent developments in the Kayapó’s relations with the ‘outside’ world are monitored by
the Anthropological Resource Centre and reported in their Bulletin. The recent bloodshed
over land rights is reported in Bulletin 4, (5 January 1980), 15–17. Also see Informe
Amazônico, Ano 1, Número 1, September 1980.
4 Anton Lukesch refers to this dynamic quality as ‘metamorphosis’ in Chapter 1 (Lukesch
1976). Many Kayapó myths deal with the nature of transformed/transforming entities,
including what Johannes Wilbert categorizes as myths in the genre of ‘origins’ and
‘animal stories’ (Wilbert 1978).
5 The best expression of the nature of the dynamic energy that is central to life for the
Kayapó is in their beliefs about shamans (wayanga). Shamans have experienced firsthand the spiritual realm that vibrates and shimmers with energies of all types
represented by animal ‘spirits’ (karõn). The wayanga can ‘talk’ and ‘commune’ with
these energies and can even manipulate some of them to produce observable results in
Kayapó society. Myths about Kayapó shamans can be found in Lukesch (Lukesch
1976, especially pages 215, 233, 236–41). The important relationship between
physical and spiritual transformation (or ‘metamorphosis’ to use Lukesch’s term) as
embodied by the shaman is also reflected in myths recorded in Johannes Wilbert
(Wilbert 1978). See ‘The man who turned into the rain’ (p. 117), ‘The spirit man’ (p.
123), ‘The man who made people’ (p. 156), and ‘The talking animals’ (p. 247) to name
a few; also see Vidal (1977, 210–12). For a discussion of the ‘flight’ of the shaman
from his body through the dynamic realm of the spiritual world, see Chapter 6.
6 The best source of knowledge about the Kayapó concepts of plants and animals is in
their myths. In Anton Lukesch’s book (Lukesch 1976) see Chapter 6, for myths
describing the relationship between humans and animals, and Chapter 7, for
human–plant relationships. On pages 77–80, Lukesch also discusses the ancient
notions of balance and harmony that permeate Kayapó thought.
7 See Vidal (1977: 77–80). The ideal field for the Kayapó is a circular one of about 0.6
ha. Contact with ‘civilizados’ has altered the shape and size of Kayapó fields. (See
Bamberger 1967: 108–17; also see Posey 1979c).
8 Micky Stout confirms (private correspondence) that the Kayapó see their round graves
in symbolic opposition to the square graves of the Brazilian.
9 The spirit ‘flight’ associated with becoming a shaman and its relationship with fevers
is discussed in some detail in Chapter 6 of this volume [see f.n. 5 above].
10 The elaborate and complex nature of one of the most famous of Kayapó ceremonies
(Bemp) is described in T. Turner 1965, Chapter 4, Section 4: 167–245.
11 The term ‘elevated state’ is used ambiguously in anthropological literature. There is
considerable research on the subject, for which a good introduction is in Hillgard (1977).
Suffice it to say that there are various ‘levels’ of elevated states of consciousness. The
elevated state described here is one bordering on extreme euphoria or mesmerization.
Dancing and singing do not generally induce ‘deep’ states, but rather the loss of specific
temporal and spatial orientations. This ‘state’ is not unlike that which can be effected by
modern rock concerts and similar ‘intense’ or ‘heavy’ experiences. The rituals associated
with dancing and singing often, but not always, produce elevated states of consciousness
for male participants. Not all participants experience elevated states at every ritual every
time any more than every Catholic has a ‘religious experience’ at every mass. As Jeffrey
Golliher points out (Golliher 1981) Catholics attend mass for a variety of social, political
and religious reasons. The idealized goal, however, is to achieve a ‘sacred state’, just as
the idealized goal for the Kayapó is to experience the ‘dynamic realm’ through their
12 I do not wish to imply that all dancing and singing ceremonies have as their sole
purpose the induction of ‘elevated states’. This is definitely not the case for the bulk
of Kayapó singing and dancing, which can be labelled as simply recreational. For
ceremonies that are prolonged and associated with important events in the ecological
and structural time cycles, however, ‘elevated states’ become a mark of the seriousness
with which the Kayapó view the dancing and singing associated with the event.
13 Whereas dancing and singing for the average Kayapó leads to ‘slight’ elevated states of
consciousness, the Kayapó shaman (wayanga) can go into ‘deep’ trance states. The
ability to effect such a trance is part of the knowledge attained from the spirit ‘flight’
previously described. Shamanistic trance states are induced through fasting, chanting
and smoking (tobacco or genipapo leaves).
5 The Kayapó origin of night
1 Latin American Indian Literatures, Fall 1981. Vol. 5(2): 59–63.
6 The journey to become a shaman: a narrative of sacred transition
of the Kayapó Indians of Brazil
1 Latin American Indian Literatures, Spring 1983. Vol. 7(1): 13–19.
2 This myth was related in Kayapó to me in Gorotire by Beptopoop in July 1977.
Translation into English was subsequently carried out in Brasilia in October 1979, with
the assistance of Mickey Stout, Summer Institute of Linguistics.
3 I am unable to translate the formal language used in wails and certain ceremonies.
4 There are four versions of the myth that I collected in Gorotire. The variations each deal
with the nature of the karõn in its initial separation from the body. The variations seem
to be the reflection of individual interpretations of the sensation of leaving the body.
5 The Gorotire Kayapó say that none of the strongest of wayanga exist today: the last
one, a woman, died in 1965.
7 Report from Gorotire: will Kayapó traditions survive?
1 Focus, July/August 1985: 3.
2 Native peoples may categorize species in ways not yet confirmed by science.
8 Indigenous knowledge and development: an ideological bridge to
the future
1 Ciência e Cultura, 1983 (July), 35 (7): 877–94.
2 It is now accepted that many so-called ‘natural’ landscapes are in fact cultural or
anthropogenic landscapes (Posey 1997a), and their link with the conservation of
biological diversity has been recognized under the 1972 UNESCO Convention
Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (‘The World
Heritage Convention’). Since 1992, a new category of World Heritage Site has been
created, the ‘Cultural Landscape’, which recognizes ‘the complex interrelationships
between man and nature in the construction, formation and evolution of landscapes’
(UNESCO 1996).
3 Linguistic symbols conform to the orthographic form approved by FUNAI. See Stout
and Thompson (1974).
4 Grading is a term used to define the cognitive placement of any given object or
concept in relation to other relative fixed categories. These relationships are best
analysed as ‘fuzzy sets’ (Kempton 1978; Posey 1982d).
5 The mrum-kamrek-ti (probably Solenopsis sp.) has a vicious sting and is used for the
men’s hunting magic to make man and dogs strong and aggressive in the chase. The
mrum-re (small, red ant, probably Phiedale sp.) does not sting and is, therefore,
considered weak (wajobôre), but is admired by the women for its industrious and
organized activity. It is common for the Kayapó to mix bits of insects into their body
paint (mainly with urucu, Bixa orellana) in order to acquire the perceived qualities of
the insect utilized in the mixture. This story was related by a female head of household
to her grand-daughter (tàb djwa) in Gorotire, July 1978.
6 The attractiveness of extra-floral nectaries to ants is summarized by Bentley (1977).
7 A recent expedition with Dr Gerhard Gottsberger to the Kayapó was very successful
in collecting medicinal plants. Plant identifications will soon be published.
8 Species undetermined. Madn-tu is not, however, the same wild ginger commonly
grown by Brazilians (Zingiber officinalis).
9 The Kayapó have relatively stationary villages, but are nonetheless semi-nomadic,
spending four to five months per year away from the main village. Kayapó families
often spend weeks at a time in their gardens; women go on frequent gathering trips that
may last several days: lineage groups spend one to two months in river camps where
the primary activity is gathering brazil nuts (Bertholletia excelsa). Men are the most
fond of trekking, spending two to four months hunting prior to the major festivals in
the ecological cycle (Posey 1979e).
10 When the nests are found in the forest or savanna, the Kayapó climb up to the nest and
close the opening to the nest with leaves to prevent the bees from escaping.
11 Usual figures are two to five years for the productive life of slash/burn fields (Alvim
1972, 1981).
12 The complicated subject of universal energy in the Kayapó belief system is treated in
greater detail in Chapter 6.
9 Wasps, warriors and fearless men: ethnoentomology of the
Kayapó Indians of Central Brazil
1 Journal of Ethnobiology. 1(1): 165–74. May 1981.
2 A collection of nearly 6,000 insect specimens was deposited with the Museu Paraense
‘Emílio Goeldi’ (Belém-Pará), under the supervision of Dr William L. Overal, head of
the invertebrate zoology section. I am indebted to Dr Overal for his limitless assistance
in identification of both collections.
10 Hierarchy and utility in a folk biological taxonomic system:
patterns in classification of arthropods by the Kayapó Indians of
1 Journal of Ethnobiology 4(2): 123–39. December 1984.
2 I was told that no shaman in any Kayapó village today had this power. The last shaman,
a woman, had died in Gorotire in 1972. The most powerful shamans that exist today
are those who speak to the water eel (mry-kaàk).
3 See Posey 1987b for fuller ethnoentomology of Brazil.
4 Termites (rorote) are also included in the superordinate category of nhy (ñy). The fact
that they are not differentiated at the subordinate level as are other members of the
group is explained in Chapter 12.
11 Additional notes on the classification and knowledge of stingless
bees (Meliponinae, Apidae, Hymenoptera) by the Kayapó Indians
of Gorotire, Pará, Brazil
1 Posey, D.A. and de Camargo, J.M.F. 1985. ‘Additional notes on the classification
and knowledge of stingless bees (Meliponinae, Apidae, Hymenoptera) by the
Kayapó Indians of Gorotire, Pará, Brazil’. Annals of Carnegie Museum 54(8):
12 Keeping of stingless bees by the Kayapó Indians of Brazil
1 Extracted from: Posey, D.A. ‘Keeping of Stingless Bees by the Kayapó Indians of
Brazil’. 1983. Journal of Ethnobiology 3 (1): 63–73.
2 Specimens from the Gorotire collection are now in the possession of J.M.F. Carmargo,
Dept. de Biologia, Universidade Federal do Maranhan, 65.000 São Luis, MA (Brazil).
13 Ethnopharmacological search for antiviral compounds: treatment
of gastrointestinal disorders by Kayapó medical specialists
1 Extracted from: Elisabetsky, E. and Posey, D.A. 1994. Ethnobotany and the Search for
New Drugs. Ciba Foundation Symposium 185, Ciba Foundation, London, pp.77–94.
©John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Reproduced with permisson.
14 Use of contraceptive and related plants by the Kayapó Indians
1 Extracted from: Elisabetsky, E. and Posey, D.A. 1989. Journal of Ethnopharmacology
26: 299–316. Elsevier Scientific Publishers, Ireland Ltd. Reprinted with permission
from Elsevier Science.
15 Preliminary results on soil management techniques of the Kayapó
1 Hecht, S.B. and Posey, D.A. 1989 ‘Preliminary Results on Soil Management
Techniques of the Kayapó Indians’. Advances in Economic Botany 7: 174–188. 
1989 The New York Botanical Garden.
16 Indigenous soil management in the Latin American tropics: some
implications of ethnopedology for the Amazon Basin
Hecht, S.B. and Posey, D.A. 1990. ‘Indigenous Soil Management in the Latin
American Tropics: Some Implications for the Amazon Basin’. Ethnobiology:
Implications and Applications. Proceedings of the First International Congress of
Ethnobiology, Belém 1988: 2:73–86.
2 The Kayapó data were derived from yield measurements of crops in the field,
household harvests, and informant estimates. Because Kayapó planting and
harvests are continuous and our field presence was not, the numbers cited are
probably underestimates. Colonist production data were derived from field
interviews, and estimates from the Conceição de Araguaia IBGE office, as well as
generalized estimates on colonist agricultural productivity derived from
government and academic literatures (Smith 1982; Moran 1982; Butler 1986;
EMBRAPA 1984). Livestock data are derived from field research. The livestock
and colonist fieldwork was undertaken 25 km from Redenção in the direction of
Gorotire. The Kayapó work has been underway since 1984. The other data were
collected in 1982.
17 The keepers of the forest
1 Garden, 6(1) 1982: pp.18–24.
18 Indigenous management of tropical forest ecosystems: the case of
the Kayapó Indians of the Brazilian Amazon
1 Agroforestry Systems. 1985: 3:139–58. With kind permission from Kluwer Academic
2 ‘The continuum between agriculture and forestry is filled by the vast number of plant
and animal species that are neither agricultural domesticates nor timber species, but
nonetheless provide most of the needs of local communities. Many of these species have
been genetically selected, planted, and transplanted to enhance and modify local
ecosystems. These are sometimes known as ‘semi-domesticates’ or ‘human modified
species’ (Posey 1993), although non-domesticated resources (NDRs) is my preferred
term. NDRs have systematically been undervalued and overlooked by scientists, yet
provide a vast treasury of useful species for food, medicines, shelter, building materials,
dyes, colourings, repellents, fertilizers, and pesticides’ (Posey 1997a).
3 It is interesting to speculate that bà-krêti and puru are cognitive inverses of apêtê. They
form relatively open, sun-penetrating patches of forest, whereas apêtê are relatively
shady areas in the campo. The result is the same: areas of concentrated plant diversity
in ecologically similar conditions. Gardens clearly show zonation (Kerr and Posey
1984), albeit an inside-out version of apêtê planting zones.
19 The continuum of Kayapó resource management
1 This extract first published in ‘Indigenous knowledge, biodiversity, and international
rights: learning about forests from the Kayapó Indians of the Brazilian Amazon’. The
Commonwealth Forestry Review. A.J. Grayson (ed.). Oxford, The Commonwealth
Forestry Association, 1997, 76(1): 53–60.
2 These old fields are sometimes erroneously considered as ‘abandoneds’ or ‘fallows’
by scientists, but this gives the false impression that they are unused and only waiting
to become useful again for timber or agriculture.
20 From warclubs to words
1 Extracts taken from: ‘From Warclubs to Words’, NACLA, Vol. XXIII, No.1 (May
1989): 13–18.
21 The Kayapó Indian protests against Amazonian dams: successes,
alliances, and unending battles
1 McDowell, C. (ed.) 1996. Understanding impoverishment: the consequences of development-induced displacement. Refugee and Forced Migration Studies 2. Providence,
R.I. and Oxford: Berghahn Books. Reprinted with permission from Berghahn Books.
aben tàk
amuh (kumrenx)
amuh mẽtôrô
apêtê (kumrenx)
bee swarm
the same
to fight
lower batumen (with drainage channels)
thread-waisted wasps
monkey’s comb flower
woody vine with poisonous bark
aggressive, brave
wasp’s nest
human disease associated with rats
social wasp
Wasp Dance
ichneuman fly
close cell with wax
small, low vegetative patches
forest patches in savanna
larger forest patch, with small trees and shrubs
medium-size ‘real apêtê’ with shade from tall
large forest islands with many tall trees (2+ ha)
forest plot with some trees and large shrubs
newly formed vegetative clumps
oblong apêti
long corridors of forest (for defence)
mud daubers
large wing
wing vein
wing joint
apê-ti, apêtê-ti
apêtê ngri
apêti poire
apêti rhynh
ara ngri-re
bemp nhõ djà
djyjarejn kumrenx
hàk kanê
idjy mex
small wing
good, ready honey
already hard (pupae)
transitional zone
liana forest
gallery forest
high forest
forest transition zone
clearings, forest gaps
‘true’ forest
forest in which light penetrates to the ground
high dark forest
chief’s child
chief’s wife
principal chief
new year’s ceremony
colourful rays
ceremonial language
ceremonial name
secondary burning
true tradition
mouth, entrance
entrance gallery
dense forest
bird disease
spiders, harvesters
mature old fields, enriched secondary forest
old field
beautiful name
varzea forest
giant water beetle
kàikwa kam àk
kaj krit krã kramrek
kanê tytx
kangro ngri
kapôt imo noi pok
kapôt imôk krê pôk re
kapôt jajôre
kapôt kam imo
kapôt kein
kapôt krã nhi môk
kapôt kumrenx
kapôt mêtx
kapôt nô kà
kapôt punu
karõn, karõ
ki krê bum, kikre bunum
krãi kam puru
open centres of apêtê
body, shell
circular ball of the spirit [only applies to
harpy eagle
flower called ‘flor do sarão’
disease, fever
‘strong’ fevers
‘bee medicine’; medicinal vine
bee basket
savanna, campo
campo openings on the tops of mountains
small open areas surrounded by scrub forest near
large campos
open campo with small scrub patches
seasonally inundated campo
open campo with few trees
campo rupestre
open campo with numerous forest patches
low grassy campo
campo forest/savanna transition
closed scrubby campo
giant cockroach, mantid
human disease associated with tortoises
rocky areas with black soil deposited between
the rocks
resource island
leafhopper, cicada
quintal, home garden
hill garden
kra kuni
krã-nhi kratx ã kapôt
krã-nhinon ã kapôt
kra-pôt ket rã’ã
krukỳt mẽtoro
krytkañet (kumrenx)
kuben kanẽ
kungont, kungõnt
kwỳra kangô
mak, makre
makkryre, mak
màrà ombikwa
brood comb
2nd instar larvae
brood chamber
rhinoceros beetle
hills and mountains
campo at base of mountains
campo at top of mountains
1st instar larvae
unpigmented pupae
still pupae
pre-defecating larvae
post-defecating larvae
joint, eastern
grouse locust
Indians ‘civilizados’
disease brought by white people
howler monkey
base of antenna
solitary bee, wasp
human disease associated with capybaras
shell of nest
manioc or cassava juice
Lit. ‘unimportant things’, animals with ‘shells’
and no ‘flesh’
big-headed beetle
relatives of beetles
dung beetle
big, black beetle
mẽbẽnjadwỳra rax
mẽ-bêgnet, mebegnet,
mẽbengôkre kanê
mẽ ĩngrà kanẽ
mẽ kra ket djà
mẽ kutê pidjà mari
mẽ pari djà
mẽ kutôm
mẽnire nhõ mẽbẽnjadwỳra
mêtê kam ami tê o wai ri
mẽ tôro
moi ‘ô’ ja ‘àrà
mrum kudjà
mry kati
secondary chiefs, giver of the Ben
head chiefs
older men or women
Kayapó autonym. Lit. ‘people from the water’s
Kayapó diseases
honey pot
‘black’ diarrhoea
contraceptive plants. Lit. ‘the no child stuff’
health specialists who possess knowledge of
medical plants
abortive plants. Lit. ‘killing stuff’
warrior bees
honey storage pot
honey wasps
fermented / spoiled honey
bee odour trail
bee trash
scout bee
worker bee
plants for regulating fertility
beeswax hat: head-dress which symbolizes the
universe of the Mẽbêngôkre
female chief, the highest ranking female authority
young Indian man
rotate leg
put resin on leg to carry pollen
seasonal ceremonies
fair weather
social bees
leaf-cutting ants, saúva (Atta spp.)
‘smelly ants’ (Azteca sp.)
animals with ‘flesh’
a ferocious animal
Lit. ‘false flesh’ or ‘no meat’, an animal type of
nekrêtch, nê kretx
ngô kôt
ngô ngrà
ngô tàm
ngrôt krỳre
nhy (ñy, ny)
ombikwa, ombiqua
pàt kanê
piá àm
pô’ê kô
pô’ê te
sand wasp
inherited [songs and stories?], inheritance
inheritance group
Men’s / Warrior’s House / East–West Men’s House
minute insects, small flies (collective)
low water season
high water season
mole cricket
egg liquid
handful of ashes represented by [representing?]
a cluster of seven stars – the Pleiades
opening to pot; pot opening
stored pollen
pollen pot
empty pollen pot
social insects
newly emerged adult
small adult
emerging adult
young, weak adult
the ‘owner of the night’
eye (compound)
ocelli (simple eye)
apêtê margins
animal being raised
relative, similar
tongue cover
limb (arm, leg or foot)
group sex
human disease associated with anteaters
plant fibre
dead trunk
cane breaks
very closed forest with cane
forest trail, path
pry kôt
puru mẽtoro
puru nu
pyka ti ngrà
tep djwa
tep kanê
ture rã
tỳrỳti djô
wayanga, wajanga
wayanga kumrenx
spider wasp
trails in the savanna lined with trees
swidden plot, fields
feast of the fields
edge of fields
new fields
maturing fields
anchiote, urucu
red soils
potter wasps
sandy soils
wide beaches
black soils
abandoned fields
palm weevil
velvet ant
long, thin
affix pollen to leg
mites, ticks
fish tooth
fish disease
end of abdomen
Lit. ‘banana neighbours’ or plants grown in
association with bananas
yellow flower
wild banana fruit
banana plantation
‘companions of the banana’ – plants grown
in banana plantations
house, village
labrium (labrum)
non-aggressive, cowardly
teeth of mandible
true shamans
wet kanê
wewe jaká
walking stick (Orthopteriod)
sickness caused by the scorpion’s sting
white butterflies
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Abortion 158; collective 158; plants for
158, 160, 161, 162; abortive 202
Age grades 25, 35, 42, 142, 151, 171
Agronomy 55, 165, 183, 184, 185
Altamira 30, 32, 225, 228, 231, 232;
Altamira-Xingu complex 225, 228, 229,
232; see also hydroelectric projects
Amazonian ecology 14, 15, 32, 33, 56;
empty wilderness concept 224
Animal behaviour 5, 8, 62, 63, 73, 80, 90,
107, 108, 134
Animal spirits 60, 95, 109; see also spirits
Anti-aphrodisiacs 155, 161
Antibacterial agents 146, 147
Antiviral agents 139, 145, 146, 148
Ants 9, 63, 65, 115, 129, 203, 204; apêtê
202; classification 88, 89, 105–10,
113; nests 6, 56, 76, 122, 173, 178
Apêtê 27, 28, 31, 56, 155, 171–4, 200,
206, 212, 213, 217, 218; creation 6–7,
201–4; emergency refuge 202;
inventory 236–45; planting zones
Aphrodisiacs 155, 161
Armadillo 48–9, 74, 136–7, 141
Ash 8, 172, 173, 175, 176, 178, 179, 180,
181, 185, 190, 195, 218
Banana plants 7, 9, 74, 174, 175, 179,
180, 189, 194, 195, 208, 221
Banner, H. 2, 33, 42, 44, 59, 60, 141, 151,
156, 158
Basic object level (BOL) 85, 86, 89, 110,
111; subordinate 93, 94–108;
superordinate 93, 108–9
Bats 48, 49–50, 141
Beans 65, 68, 170, 172, 175, 178, 179, 187,
188, 189, 194, 195, 197, 208, 221, 222
Bees see stingless bees
Beeswax 9, 17, 73, 79, 112; Hat 112, 125,
135–137; artifacts 135
Beetles 73, 83, 85, 94; classification 86,
89, 96–8, 99, 100, 108–9; myth 89–90;
rhinoceros 89–90, 96, 98
Belief system 4, 5, 39, 60, 78, 79, 92, 108
Bepkôrôrôti 129, 135
Beptopoop 9, 28, 42, 47, 48, 112, 140,
141, 157, 221, 245
Biodiversity xiii, xiv, xv, 6, 57, 81, 200,
211, 213, 218, 224, 225, 231
Birth 39, 46, 157; medicinal plants 157
Body paint 65–8, 106, 151, 202, 203, 214,
215, 222, 229, 236, 240
Brazilian Government; development
schemes xiv, 3, 33, 81, 192, 199, 223,
224, 228, 233; new constitution 224,
225, 229; see also FUNAI
Brazil nuts 28, 55, 170, 171, 197, 205, 207
Burning 167, 172–6, 178–80, 185, 186,
187, 188, 194, 195, 198, 203;
coivara/secondary burning 175,
178–180; destructive 193, 221, 222, 225
Butterflies 26, 83, 85, 88, 102–3
Cacao 19, 193, 216
Campo-cerrado see savanna
Captives 21, 42, 45, 82
Carrying capacity 73, 167, 171, 197, 198,
Ceremonial fields/plantings 174, 187;
animals 109; artefacts 4, 79, 112, 125,
135, 136, 202, 236, 244; feathers 21,
197; fish 4; food 174; game 4, 197
Ceremonies 3, 4, 16, 21, 24, 26, 31, 38,
39, 40, 45, 46, 48, 64, 78–80, 90, 101,
Chiefs 3, 21, 25, 27, 47, 62, 79, 155, 174,
203, 221, 222, 225, 226, 227, 229;
female chiefs 21, 27, 208
Cicadas 83, 85, 88, 103
Circular universe 35–7, 40, 90, 91
Circular village 21, 38, 115; fission 21–3
Classification 210; apêtê 201; diseases
150; fevers 48; land 169, 185, 210,
212, 217; plants 80, 158; soils 169,
170, 185; see also basic object level;
ethnoentomology; stingless bees
Cockroaches 85, 88, 99–100
Co-evolutionary complexes 14, 65
Colonist agriculture 15, 167, 182, 187–92
Communal fields 62, 174
Concentric ring agriculture 7, 165, 166–8,
174, 175, 180, 181, 185, 186–8; central
zone 175–6; outer ring 179–80; second
ring 176–9
Conception 149, 159
Conservation xiv, 55–7, 73, 74, 81, 133;
bee colonies 129, 135, 136; movement
224, 225, 228, 231; soil 185, 188, 213
Contact; direct 17, 20, 23, 31, 60; indirect
17, 23, 31; initial 15, 16, 18, 20, 23,
24, 31, 33, 59, 60, 140; intermediate
17, 18, 23, 31
Contraception 139, 149–62; contraceptive
plants 149, 156, 158, 160–2; social
limitation of reproduction 158–9; see
also fertility modification
Cotton 45, 68, 136, 172, 178, 194, 195,
Cultivation see domestication
Cultural transmission 16, 65, 160; see also
Curers 45, 50, 95, 141, 145, 150, 151, 209
Dancing 3, 4, 27, 30, 36, 38–40, 45, 79,
90, 95, 158
Death 15, 16, 21, 23, 24, 31, 39, 45,
48–51, 59, 79, 100–2; biological death
49–51; social death 49–51
Deculturation 16, 24, 26, 27, 31
Deforestation 33, 58, 167, 182, 183, 192,
193, 213, 221, 225
Demonstration over rites 30, 225, 229
Depopulation 15, 24, 25, 31, 59, 141, 165
Desertification 33, 58, 199
Disease, cure and causation 21, 26, 50, 79,
95, 99, 100, 101, 109, 139, 140, 141,
150; ‘bird’ disease/hàk kanê 142–5,
148; ‘fish’ disease/tep kanê 142–5, 148
Disease, treatment 9, 17, 26, 142, 146,
148, 149, 209
Disease vectors 17, 18, 31, 60; see also
European diseases
Domestication and semi-domestication 10,
11, 14, 27–31, 197, 198, 204; animals
14, 73, 80; bees 73, 107, 112, 124,
126, 127, 129, 130, 137; plants 66, 67,
68, 71, 78, 80, 197–8, 200, 205–7, 209,
Doves 48–50, 141
Dreams 142, 157
Earth layers of universe 35–7, 45, 50, 91,
92, 105, 136, 137; see also circular
Ecological control mechanisms 7, 11, 14,
56, 72, 79, 170, 217
Ecological destruction 33, 58–9, 81, 198,
199, 221, 224, 225, 228, 232
Ecological planning 40, 78, 80, 133, 185,
208, 231
Ecological systems i, 4, 6, 11, 184, 213
Ecological time 35, 38; see also time
Ecological zones and subzones 5, 6, 14,
59, 61–5, 72, 79, 80, 83, 102, 107, 131,
132, 134, 198, 200, 201, 204, 209–213,
217, 218; see also transitional
ecological zones
Ecotones 6, 213, 217, 218
Ecozones 64, 200, 201, 204, 209
Elders 28, 29, 31, 79, 82, 90, 109, 158,
159, 195, 203, 222
Energy balance 35, 38, 40, 48, 79, 142
Environmentalists 224, 227, 228, 231, 232
Epidemics 16, 17, 20, 21, 23, 25, 31, 59,
140, 193, 202
Erosion 58, 78, 169, 184, 225
Ethnoagriculture xiv, 6, 10, 14, 27–30, 74,
78, 165–7, 170–81, 193, 194, 198, 200,
204, 217; see also concentric ring
agriculture; nomadic agriculture;
slash/burn agriculture
Ethnobiology xi, xiii, 29, 53–162, 168,
185, 200, 225, 228, 231
Ethnobotany xiv, 9, 10, 28, 140;
classification 158
Ethnoecology 4, 5, 6, 7, 28, 29, 61, 193,
200, 212
Ethnoentomology 82–111; classification
86–9, 92–111; see also stingless bees
Ethnomedicine xiv, 7, 9, 10, 26, 29, 66,
95, 99, 100, 101, 124, 127, 128,
139–48, 149–62, 173, 196
Ethnopedology xiv, 7, 8, 29, 61, 165, 168,
Ethnopharmacology xiv, 9, 10, 29,
139–48, 149, 159
Ethology 63, 105; see also animal
Exotic diseases 16, 20, 21, 23, 24, 25, 31,
59, 140, 141, 150, 165, 193, 222
Extinction i, 16, 41, 58, 80, 165
Fallowing 80, 172–4, 185–7, 190, 195,
196, 199, 208
Fertility modification 149, 151, 158, 159;
Aibi, 151; cleansing treatment 156;
cross-cultural use 159–62; female
stimulants 156, 160; male stimulants
155; plants used 152–4, 157, 159;
preparation of plants 151, 159; sex
determination 157
Fields see new fields; old fields
Flies 85, 88, 103, 104
Flood basins 56, 61, 62, 166
Folk ecology 4, 35, 38, 41, 59, 60, 198, 201
Food plants 67, 128, 209, 221; see also
plant management; ethnoagriculture;
Forest fields 6, 10, 14, 27, 28, 31, 36, 71,
72, 80, 172, 174, 194, 197, 198, 206,
207, 213, 217
Forest gardens xiv, 56, 68, 132, 172, 174,
196, 208
Forest management xiv, 4, 5, 10, 61,
196–200, 206, 210–12, 217, 218; see
also apêtê
Forest openings 10, 27, 62, 71, 128, 132,
171, 174, 196, 197, 204, 206, 207–9,
211–13, 217, 218
FUNAI ( Fundaçao Nacional Do Indio) 16,
25–7, 33, 140, 141, 158, 223–5, 227,
230; corruption 223; paternalism 223
Game attraction 4, 8, 10, 56, 62, 74, 79,
83, 128, 133, 171, 190, 196–206,
214–16, 236–45; fish bait 56, 64, 101,
196, 206, 244
Gastrointestinal disorders 9, 121, 139,
142, 145–7, 202
Gorotire reserve168–70, 187, 221
Grasshoppers 83, 100–2
Harvest 166, 171–8, 187–9, 195
Hill gardens 208, 213
Honey 9, 55, 73–7, 88, 107–8, 112–13,
121, 124–7, 135, 137
Hunting 1, 4, 7, 10, 36, 62, 63, 78, 194,
196, 205, 218; camps 68, 72, 197, 206;
dogs 92, 106, 110, 125; treks 79
Hydroelectric projects 224–32; World
Bank involvement 30, 226, 227, 232
Indian rights movement 222–5;
acculturation 229, 230; ‘relatively
incapable’ status 223–30; support
groups 224, 228, 229
Indigenous resource management 6, 27,
31, 33, 40, 55, 59, 64, 78–81, 170, 171,
182, 185, 191, 192, 200, 204, 213, 217,
218, 225; see also wildlife
management; plant management
Informants 28, 29, 84, 86, 89, 97, 113,
134, 140, 150, 155, 156, 187, 245
Inheritance groups 26, 42, 95, 142
Insects 66, 73, 83–111; pests 78, 81, 97,
166, 196; classification forms 84, 85;
morphology 86, 92, 94, 96–111; social
insects 89, 105–8, 110, 112, 131, 132,
Ira Kayapó 9, 91, 112
Jê 15, 18, 42, 45, 165, 175
Kayapó Project xii, xvii, 10, 29, 53–162,
225; land management 185–7; world
view 34–41
Knowers; medicine 26, 95, 140, 141, 150,
209; plant 26, 31, 95, 140, 141; see
also curers
Kube-i 221, 225–7, 229, 231; persecution
kubẽn 19, 21, 35, 36, 92, 140
Kwyrà-Kà 9, 26, 28, 47, 48, 112, 129,
132, 140, 155, 245
Land use comparisons 188–92
Lineage see inheritance
Lip disk 3, 11, 27
Livestock systems 188–91
Lumber 193, 222–5
Macro-time see time
Maize 65, 69, 79, 109, 166, 170–9, 187,
194, 195, 221
Manioc 65, 69, 70, 79, 109, 170, 172, 174,
178, 179, 187, 190, 194, 195, 197, 205,
Marriage 155
Mẽbêngôkre 4, 5, 9–11
Medicinal plants 139–48, 150, 196,
203–10, 218, 221; application 143–9,
159; chemistry of 146–8; classification
158; preparation 145, 149, 151, 159; see
also contraception; ethnomedicine;
fertility modification; plant management
Mekranoti Kayapó 160, 165, 171
Melons 178, 194, 195
Men’s House 3, 21, 25, 35, 37, 42, 128;
Eastern 25, 26; Western 25, 26
Menstruation 155, 156, 160
Microclimate 209, 213
Microenvironment 208, 209, 211, 218
Migration 165, 166, 183
Mining 34, 56, 175, 222–5
Missionaries 16, 19, 23, 26, 27, 31, 44,
140, 150, 158, 159, 221
Moon 37, 38, 136
Mulching 167, 172–80, 181, 185, 187,
188, 190, 202, 209
Museo Goeldi 84, 106, 140, 150, 201,
230, 245
Myths 26, 29, 42–6, 48–51, 56, 65, 80, 82,
89, 90, 110, 132
Naming ceremony 16, 26, 135, 136, 174;
beautiful names 4, 26
Natural forces 35, 38–40, 48, 142, 209
New fields 8, 10, 28, 171, 174, 175, 176,
194, 195, 205, 208, 212, 213, 217, 218;
see also swidden
Night, origin of 42–6
Nomadic agriculture i, 14, 27, 28, 31, 68,
72, 80, 171, 187, 194, 196, 197, 206
Non-native expansion 34, 40, 56, 57, 158,
167, 182, 192, 221
Nutrients for crops 166, 167, 172–80, 182,
185, 187, 188, 190, 195; deficiencies
182–4, 191; fertility 167, 172, 176–9
Nutrition 66, 82, 83, 159, 166, 190, 196,
197, 222; carbohydrate staples 170,
190; protein staples 170, 190, 196,
Old fields 10, 28, 29, 56, 62, 71, 74, 80,
128, 195, 196, 205, 206, 208, 212, 213,
217, 218
Organic compounds; antiviral 145–8;
contraceptive 159–60; soil 176
Out-of-body experiences 38, 48–51, 141
Paiakan 140, 155, 221, 225–32
Palms 55, 56, 170, 203
Papaya 172, 178, 179, 194, 195, 205, 209
Pará 4, 33, 94, 168, 187
Peanuts 172, 174, 178
Pedro Kayapó 113, 114
Pineapple 68, 172, 174
Plant management 28, 55, 56, 67, 68, 80,
166–7, 170–2, 174–81, 185, 212, 218;
pests 180, 184, 196, 198; plant diseases
78, 81, 166, 176, 180, 196; plant
gathering 67, 79, 194, 196–8, 206; see
also ethnoagriculture
Plant variety origins 28, 56, 171, 211
Planting zones; apêtê 210–11; concentric
rings 175–7, 180, 181; fields 174, 175,
208; forest opening 208; trailside 10,
207, 211
Population estimates 4, 14, 23, 31, 33, 58,
59, 82, 158, 159, 165, 166, 193, 198
Portuguese speakers 15, 19, 27, 47, 82, 83,
Pregnancy 39, 155, 156
Production yields 189–91
Property rights xiii, xv, 11, 140, 158, 222,
223, 225; denial of 223, 224, 226
Prosecution 225, 227–31; defence
witnesses 231
Pykatire 156, 157
Pyka-tô-ti i, 21–4, 30, 31, 72
Quintal 209, 212
Raids 11, 12, 15, 20, 21, 23, 28, 31, 45,
60, 171, 202, 221
Reforestation 10, 14, 74, 78, 81, 187, 195,
196, 198, 204, 205, 213
Relationships, soil-plant-animal-human
59, 61, 62, 64, 78, 80
Resource islands 55, 68, 71, 72, 79, 80,
171, 187, 202, 206–7, 213
Rice 174–5, 178, 179, 187, 190
Rio Fresco 4, 55, 61, 63, 83, 168, 194
Rituals 4, 16, 21, 26, 38–40, 48, 60, 64,
78–80, 83, 95, 108, 142, 165, 173, 174,
187, 222
Rock gardens 209–10, 212, 213
Savanna zones 5, 6, 56, 61, 100, 160, 169,
172, 197, 200–4, 210–13, 217, 218, 235
Seasons 3, 4, 35, 46, 79, 83, 156, 194,
195, 202, 208
Secondary forest 56, 80, 133, 195, 196,
200, 208, 213, 218
Sexual activity 39, 46, 151, 155, 156, 159,
160, 203
Shaman 9, 26, 31, 38, 40, 42, 45, 47–51,
79, 89, 95, 99, 100, 101, 103, 106, 108,
109, 112, 127, 128, 131, 134, 141, 145,
150, 157, 158, 173, 203, 209, 210, 221
Sky layers 36, 45, 90, 91, 136
Slash/burn agriculture 10, 74, 78, 80, 175,
176, 179, 194, 195, 198, 205
Social organization of Kayapó 86, 90, 108,
112, 132, 134, 165, 166
Soil enrichment 8, 29, 167, 185, 209, 218
Soil fertility 168, 172, 176–80, 182, 185,
187, 191, 194, 196
Soil limitation hypothesis 165–6, 168
Soil management 165–92, 218; research
184, 192
Soil types 61, 62, 80, 166, 168–70, 174,
181, 185, 187, 194, 195; deficiencies
182–3; degradation 182–3, 192;
heterogeneity 194; microdiversity 172,
174, 176, 178, 187, 208; topsoil 209
Songs 26, 38, 42, 45, 95, 172
Sorcery 20, 21, 23, 31, 95, 103, 124
Specialists 9, 21, 26, 45, 47–51, 60, 95,
141, 142, 145, 150
Species diversity 58, 62, 81
Spiders web 48–51, 141
Spirit related diseases 142, 150
Spirits 24, 26, 31, 35, 38, 47–51, 79, 89,
95, 100, 109, 141, 150, 151, 160, 209,
Squash 172, 178, 194, 195, 221
Stingless bees 9, 55, 73, 74–7, 88, 89,
107–8, 110, 112–38, 200, 206
Stories 26, 42, 45, 82; see also myths
Structural time see time
Sugar cane 178, 179
Sun 37, 136
Sweet potatoes 8, 10, 70, 170, 172, 174–9,
187, 190, 194, 195, 205, 207, 208
Swiddens 166, 167, 171–81, 187, 212,
213, 217, 218; see also new fields
Symbiosis 131, 198
Synergy, plant groups 7, 208, 209; insect
groups 105, 106
Taboos; food 142, sexual 151
Termites 6, 56, 88, 89, 92, 105, 115, 173,
Time 34–5; ecological time 35, 38; lineal
time 34, 40; macro-time 35, 40;
structural time 35, 38; western concept
Tobacco 172, 178, 194, 195
Trade networks 17, 18, 23, 31, 60, 140,
Traditions 55, 221; clothing 229, 230; oral
225, 226; see also myths
Trailside planting 171, 172, 205, 207, 211,
212, 213, 217
Trails 10, 68, 129, 197, 202, 204, 206, 211
Transitional ecological zones 62, 72, 73,
80, 100, 201, 204, 210, 212, 217, 218
Transplanting 6, 9, 10, 71, 72, 171, 197,
198, 200, 204, 206, 208, 209, 213, 217,
Tree species, cultivated 214–16
Trekking 11, 21, 28, 36, 55, 60, 72, 79,
165, 171, 197, 206
Tropical rainforest 58, 191, 225, 230
Universe see circular universe
Upland zones 166, 168
Urucu 71, 92, 174, 194, 195, 205, 209; see
also body paint
Uté, J. 140, 156, 245
Utilitarian classification 93, 94–111;
behavioural 93; cultural significance
96, 108, 110; functional 108–9;
morphological 93; practical 93, 111;
symbolic 93, 108, 110, 111
Vegetative cover 78, 80, 195, 198
War 202
War gardens 27, 31, 174
Warriors 30, 89, 90, 103, 106, 166, 202,
221, 225, 229
Wasps 63, 88–90, 106, 110, 115, 130;
dances 27, 90; nests 90, 106
Wayanga see shaman
Western culture 33–41, 44; agriculture
193, 198; ecological theory 41;
medicine 139, 141, 149, 150, 156;
science 34, 39, 57, 59, 72, 80, 132,
197; technology 41, 59, 184
Wild plants 66, 67, 80
Wildlife management 55, 56, 73, 74, 78,
80, 81, 200, 205, 212, 213, 217, 218
Witchcraft see sorcery
Women’s gardens 65, 78, 172, 176, 181,
194, 195, 205, 208
Xikrin 82, 165
Yam 70, 170, 172–74, 178–80, 187, 194,
195, 197, 201, 205, 207, 208, 284
Yurimaguas 184–6, 192