From Indigenous Peoples in Brazil
Photo: Beto Ricardo, 1999


Ipatse ótomo, Ahukugi ótomo, Lahatuá ótomo
Where they are How many
MT 802 (Siasi/Sesai, 2020)
Linguistic family

Nowadays the Kuikuro are most populous people of the upper Xingu. The constitute a Carib sub-group alongside other groups that speak dialect variants of the same language ( Kalapalo, Matipu and Nahukuá) and make up the multi-lingual system known as upper Xingu, found in the southern part of the Indigenous Park of the Xingu. The Carib peoples can be considered to be as important as the Aruak peoples ( Waujá and Mehinako) in the history of the development of this system, although the Aruak are credited with being the original source. This section provides detailed information on the language, history, and other characteristics of the Kuikuro, producers of the famous snail shell necklaces and belts that continue to play a key role in the traditional system of exchanges and payments in the upper Xingu. For other cultural and social aspects, such as shamanism, cosmology, festivities and rituals, the section Xingu Indigenous Park provides an overview of the aspects also found among the Kuikuro.


At the end of the 19th century the German ethnologist Karl von den Steinen (1940) recorded the existence of the Guikuru or Puikuru or Cuicutl amongst the various peoples of the banks of the Culuene river. Steinen observed his difficulty in representing in writing one particular and very common sound in upper Xingu Caribe languages – a type of ‘g’ produced by a click of the uvula. Nowadays the Kuikuro write this sound as ‘g’, whilst non-indians tend to write it as ‘r’.

The word ‘Kuikuro’ has a history. The name that Steinen heard and tried to record was that of a group living at the time in the Kuhikugu village, a contraction of kuhi ekugu (‘true kuhi’), on the banks of a lake with abundant fish kuhi (Potamorraphis, fam. Belonidae). The people of Kuhikugu constituted the first village of a new local group that had separated from other Carib groups of the upper Xingu in the middle of the 19th century. They were the founders of a people that non-indians call Kuikuro to this day. The mispronunciation of the name of the former Kuhikugu ótomo ended up as the collective name for their descendants and the surname for each individually: to non-indians ‘Kuikuro’.

Auto denomination is always achieved by taking the name of the location or village and adding the term ótomo, ‘lords or masters’. Thus current day Kuikuro are Ipatse ótomo or Ahukugi ótomo or Lahatuá ótomo, ‘the masters of Ipatse, of Ahukugi or of Lahatuá’, the names of the three villages that exist today. Many older members however continue to use the term Lahatuá ótomo, from the name of the village forcibly abandoned after the measles epidemic of 1954 had decimated half the population.

Location and population

The Kuikuro form part of what may be called the upper Xingu Carib sub-system. This is nowadays made up of four groups: the Matipu, Nahukwá and Kalapalo, as well as the Kuikuro. Their traditional territory is the eastern part of the catchment area that forms the Xingu river (the Culuene, Buriti and Curisevo rivers). The Kuikuro currently inhabit three villages. The most important and largest of these is Ipatse which has more than 300 people and is set slightly back from the left bank of the middle Culuene. In 1997 the village of Ahukugi was founded on the right bank of the Culuene, upstream from Ipatse, and with a current population of more than a hundred. More recently a third village was founded on the site of the former Lahatuá site by a family group of a dozen people. Some thirty Kuikuro live in the Yawalapiti village. Strong political and marriage alliances between the Kuikuro and the Yawalapiti contributed to the revival of the Yawalapiti as a village (and as a group) after the 1950s. As a consequence of inter-marriage, some Kuikuro also live in other villages in the upper Xingu, mainly those of other Carib peoples of the region.


At the end of the 19th century the German ethnologist Karl Von den Steinen collected wordlists of upper Xingu languages, amongst which the nahukuá language. Steinen encountered the Nahukuá during his first voyage down the Xingu river and extended this name to all the karib peoples of the upper Xingu, including the then Kuhikugu (Steinen, 1940). It was Steinen who correctly identified the nahukuá language as belonging to the karib family. Kuikuro is thus a southern karib language.

The Kuikuro, Kalapalo, Nahukuá and Matipu all speak dialect variants of a single language (upper Xingu karib). Linguistic identity is one of the most important identifiers of the social identity of local groups. Thus the contrasting interplay of the socio-political identities of local karib groups is achieved on the basis of differing rhythmic (pronunciation) structures which reveal the dialect variants. Kalapalo and Nahukwá speak the same variant. The Matipu are losing their variant, now spoken only by the oldest members; Matipu appears to be a sub-variant of the Kuikuro variant.

From the perspective of internal genetic classification of the karib family, the karib language of the upper Xingu is a kind of unique island in its syntactic and morphological structures. From the standpoint of morphosyntactic typology, it is an ergative language (at least as regards nominal case morphology). An initial comparison of the upper Xingu karib language with northern karib languages (north of the Amazon river) and with other southern languages ( Bakairi, Ikpeng, Arara, Yaruma and Apiaká of the Tocantins, these last two extinct) enable us to propose a prehistory scenario under which there was an initial separation of proto-karib which resulted in the proto-languages of the present day upper Xingu karibs and a second later separation which resulted in the proto-language of the other southern karib peoples.

Inter-marriage has resulted in Kuikuro (or in the upper Xingu karib language) monolingualism being the characteristic of many, but not all the inhabitants of the Ipatse, Ahukugi and Lahatuá villages. There are more than a few bilingual or trilingual individuals with knowledge of other regional languages, Aruak or Tupi. In the Yawalapiti village Kuikuro appears to be the dominant language. Command of Portuguese varies according to age and sex. Some men with specific life histories (chiefs, political leaders) and the younger generation (currently those under thirty) are familiar with Portuguese to varying degrees of fluency. It is still unusual for women to speak Portuguese, although the number is increasing.

Kuikuro is a language that is still living and complete, used by everyone in all aspects of life, though not when communicating with whites and other indians. Schooling, increasingly intense contacts with the outside world, frequent trips to local towns, the increasingly dominant presence of television and other media mean that understanding and use of Portuguese is growing rapidly. Like all indigenous languages, Kuikuro is a minority language of an oral tradition surviving in a context that does not favour the maintenance of its vitality.


Índios kuikuro recebem roupas por ocasião do contato com a expedição Roncador-Xingu, dos irmãos Villas-Bôas. Foto: acervo Museu do Índio, década de 1950.
Índios kuikuro recebem roupas por ocasião do contato com a expedição Roncador-Xingu, dos irmãos Villas-Bôas. Foto: acervo Museu do Índio, década de 1950.

According to the latest archaeological studies (Heckenberger 1996, 2001), the prehistory of the upper Xingu started around a thousand years ago. Radiocarbon dating indicates that the first inhabitants were Aruak-speaking peoples between 950 and 1050 AD. During this period the cultural patterns of the upper Xingu traditions were set. These can be recognised from the archaeological evidence by distinctive pottery and settlement pattern, and circular villages with central patios. The pattern continues until today. The upper Xingu is the only area of the Brazilian Amazon that clearly shows continuity of indigenous occupation from prehistoric times to the present day. By 1400 AD, if not before, the prehistoric villages had reached impressive proportions (20 to 50 hectares). This makes them amongst the largest in any lowland South American area in prehistoric times. They comprised a variety of structures including linear causeways along the margins of the main paths, central patios and deep ditches. These would doubtless have been accompanied by above ground structures such as palisades, bridges and entry gates. It is estimated that such villages could house around a thousand people and that more than ten thousand indians probably lived to the west of the Culuene river in the upper Xingu region.

From the work of Heckenberger and oral history studies (Franchetto, 1992 e 1990) we can hypothesise that the Carib-speaking peoples of the upper Xingu arrived in the region from the east during the first half of the 18th century. West of the Culuene they encountered Aruak-speaking peoples. Tupi-speaking groups would later arrive. There is archaeological evidence for a single occupation east of the Culuene between 1400 and 1500 composed of two or three population groups. The Tehukugu site has a circular house 55m in diameter and dates from 1510. It was subsequently occupied by Kamayurá and other upper Xingu groups. Further east on the Tahununu lake, the Kuguhí site dates from 1610. We therefore have a period for which we can identify an eastern Carib complex that included the now-extinct Yarumá (or Jaruma), and a western Aruak complex, separated by the Culuene river. We can imagine that in mid-18th century Carib groups speaking the same language began occupying the lands to the west of the Culuene, forcing the Aruak peoples living there to the west and the north.

The Kuikuro state that their origins start with the separation of a group led by a number of the chiefs of the former complex of oti (‘grassland’) villages located on the upper reaches of the Burití river, probably in the mid-19th century. Those that remained in the óti were the originators of what are now called the Matipu (Wagihütü ótomo). The language changed slightly, giving rise to the two variants or dialects (Matipu and Kuikuro). The new group (Kuikuro) settled in various locations, with successive villages on the banks of the lakes between the Buriti, Culuene and Curisevo rivers. The first was called Kuhikugu. The former villages were large and numerous.

As regards written records, the first ethnographer to visit the upper Xingu was the German Karl Von den Steinen. During his two voyages in 1884 and 1887 (Steinen, 1886/1942; 1894/1940) he mentions the upper Xingu Caribs, and amongst these the Kuikuro of the Culuene. Steinen is remembered in Kuikuro narratives as Kalusi, the first white man (kagaiha) who ‘came in peace’ bearing presents and goods to exchange. It is through him that we know that more than 3,000 indians lived in the upper Xingu at the end of the 19th century, in 31 villages, 7 of which were Carib. Kuikuro oral history extends back beyond the visit of Steinen and recalls the first encounters with whites on the upper Xingu. This was in the second half of the 18th century, the time of the bandeirantes (armed exploratory bands) who captured and killed indians during their expeditions to Brazil’s interior (see the Kuikuro testimony The Appearance of the Whites).

After Steinen other scientific and even military expeditions entered the region and recorded the presence of its inhabitants: Hermann Meyer (1897a; 1897b, describing his visit of 1896), Max Schmidt (1905; 1942, describing his visit of 1900-01), Ramiro Noronha (1952, describing his visit of 1920); Vicente de Vasconcelos (1945, describing his visit of 1924-25); Vincent Petrullo (1932, describing his visit of 1931). From the 1940s onwards a new chapter in the history of the Xingu peoples begins, closely linked to the history of the creation of the National Park.

From 1915 onwards exploration of the headwaters of the Xingu intensified and included the participation of soldiers of the Rondon Commission. The Carib groups continued to be found in the same locations recorded by Steinen and Meyer. All the reports make reference to an incredibly rapid process of depopulation. Agostinho (1972) provides us with a tragic estimate of the consequences of bacterial and viral contact. Between the end of the 19th century and the mid-1950s the population of the region had fallen from 3,000 people to 1,840 in 1926 and to little more than 700 indians by the end of the 1940s.

In 1943 the Expedição Roncador-Xingu (ERX) was created, the forerunner of the Fundação Brasil Central, for the settlement of the central regions of Brazil. The Villas-Boas brothers arrived in the region where the headwaters of the Xingu rise. They too observed that the peoples encountered in the Culuene region downstream to its confluence with the Xingu headwaters were the same peoples found there at the end of the 19th century by Steinen.

The scientific expeditions of the Museu Nacional starting in the 1940s also recorded a picture of substantial changes. In the century that followed the celebrated arrival of Cabral on the coast of Brazil the large Xingu communities suffered catastrophic population losses, most probably as a result of the first epidemics caused by infectious-contagious diseases arriving from the Old World. A marked demographic decline after 1500 until 1884, when the written history of the upper Xingu begins, is clearly indicated by the significant reduction in the size and numbers of villages across the region from the late prehistoric period to the 20th century. Between 1884 and 1960, when systematic vaccination programmes started on the upper Xingu, the population of the region dropped by almost 80 percent. Infections from the influenza virus and measles caused a violent drop in population, reaching its peak in the measles epidemic of 1954. As a result the Carib groups of the Culiseu and Culuene rivers were forced to move closer to the Posto Leonardo, to the north of their traditional territories, like the Kalapalo, Kuikuro, Matipu and Nahukwá indians who, decimated by the flu brought by the Expedição Roncador-Xingu, had come to depend on the medical aid provided by the Fundação Brasil Central posts. Subsequently, once demographic recovery started in the 1960s thanks to vaccination programmes, the various local groups began organizing for the recovery of their traditional lands. These had never been abandoned and were continually visited and used, as they contained historic sites, cemeteries, and vital natural resources. In the 1980s an opposite trend started, with the splitting of local groups and the establishment of new villages in a visible process of demographic recovery and return to the situation as documented at the end of the 19th century.

The limits of the Park as established in 1961, with an area ten times smaller than that of the 1952 draft proposal, left out the territories of several indigenous groups, amongst which the Aruak (Waurá and Mehináku) and the Carib (Kuikuro, Kalapalo, Matipu and Nahukwá). The 1968 Decree altered the southern limits, partially recognizing the error of the previous decade. The territories of the Aruak and Carib groups remained separate and were finally incorporated into the Park, but not in their entirety, by the 1971 Decree which located the boundary along latitude 13.1° South above the confluence of the Tanguro and Sete de Setembro rivers. Former Carib sites and pequi groves remained outside the southern boundary of the Park.


Foto: acervo do Museu do Índio, s/d.
Foto: acervo do Museu do Índio, s/d.

Kuikuro villages are similar to all upper Xingu villages. The organization of the villages, their circular layout with a central patio and the regional pattern of village distribution are further aspects of upper Xingu culture that reveal its continuity from earliest times to the present.

The circular villages with a central patio are laid out in accordance with precise principles and orientation that provide an understanding of the political and social organization of Xingu society. The patios and radial paths (similar to the main trails of pre-historic villages) that leave the patio are aligned with the points of the compass (north-south, east-west) and with important elements of the local landscape such as other communities, ports and bridges. This layout reveals not only the integration of multiple villages across the territory but also a sophisticated understanding of architectonic design, astronomy and geometry.

Kuikuro houses, like all those of the upper Xingu, are large oval-shaped longhouses (malocas). Their structure and construction reveal an extremely complex level of architectonic understanding.

Economic activities

The fragments of pottery scattered around Xingu villages old and new provide clear evidence of their cultural continuity over almost two thousand years, not just in terms of technology but also in terms of the economic basis of all the upper Xingu peoples: planting manioc and fishing. Other crops planted are sweet potato, maize, cotton, peppercorn, tobacco, annatto. Nowadays banana, watermelon, papaya and lemon are also grown.

The upper Xingu is an example of how Amerindian technologies are able to support large sedentary populations. Although it appears that land use was more intensive in prehistoric times, these patterns in the Xingu provide an important model of how intensive agriculture, with complex systems of land use rotation over long periods, could be possible in an Amazon environment. It is a model that offers an alternative to the destructive patterns of land use employing western technologies commonly adopted in the Amazon.

The crops cultivated, above all manioc, make up 85 to 90 percent of food intake. The Kuikuro are familiar with 46 varieties of manioc, all poisonous, of which just six provide 95 percent of their crop. The pequi (Caryocar brasiliense) planted next to the manioc gardens is a seasonally important food crop from which the pequi oil used to anoint and protect the skin is extracted. Annatto, genipap, white clay, charcoal and resins are used to make the pigments used both for body painting and for artefacts.

Swidden gardens are cleared at varying distances near the forest edge and cultivated for three or four years. In order to remove the prussic acid from the bitter manioc, like all upper Xingu groups the Kuikuro have developed a sophisticated technology for washing the mash obtained from grating the tubercles. Beiju (unleavened bread) and different types of drinks are made from the flour or starch of the manioc.

Collecting honey, seasonal wild fruits, turtle eggs and leafcutter ants complements the traditional diet.

Hunting is not important. People of the upper Xingu do not eat any type of ‘land or furry animal’, with the exception of a species of cebus monkey. Guans and curassows, some types of pigeon, turtles and monkeys substitute fish when consumption of this is prohibited. Fish consumption represents 15 percent of food intake and the Kuikuro are familiar with around a hundred species of edible fish. The upper Xingu with its rivers, streams and lakes is a world of waters. To the traditional methods of fishing with bow and arrow, spear, different types of trap and dam and timbó poison, fishing is also practiced nowadays with hook and line, harpoon and net.

Traditional production of artefacts such as stools, mats, baskets and feather adornments continue to be used for everyday and for ceremonial purposes, for payment of services such as traditional healing or for sealing marriage alliances, as well as for the ritual exchanges within and between villages known as ulukí. The Kuikuro like other Carib groups participate in the economic and ritual system of the upper Xingu as specialists in the production of necklaces and belts made from the shells of land snails, high value goods. These adornments are often used as payment for the pottery dishes produced by the Aruak peoples of the same region.

Nowadays the production of a sizeable volume of varied handicrafts that replicate and innovate traditional objects and patterns is a source of cash that is essential for the purchase of goods that have become indispensible, such as fuel, fishing material, ammunition, beads and foodstuffs that have become part of the diet (rice, salt, sugar, cooking oil, to mention just the most important). A considerable amount of time is now dedicated to the production of ‘ethnic’ objects sold wholesale and retail on the ‘indian art’ market or to purchasers visiting the villages.

Social and political organization

Foto: acervo do Museu do Índio, s/d.
Foto: acervo do Museu do Índio, s/d.

From the continuity of the spatial organization of the village centred on the patio one can infer continuity of social and ritual organization. Ceremonial activities take place in the patio, above all those related to the principal rites of passage that mark the trajectories of chiefs. The complex system of ‘masters’ and ‘chiefs’ controls political dynamics and ritual life; in other words the very existence and reproduction of the local group (village).

There is more than one chief and more than a single category of chiefdom in the village, including ‘master (I) of the patio’, ‘master of the village’, ‘master of the path’. Women can be chiefs. Becoming a chief is the outcome of a calculus of bilateral descent, in other words it has a hereditary component; but it is above all the result of an individual political trajectory, of an individual’s efforts to acquire and retain prestige through generosity in the distribution of his wealth, of his abilities as a leader and representative of the village as well of his ritual knowledge, ceremonial speeches and oratory. Chiefs and their families constitute a species of ‘noble’ social stratum distinct from the ‘commons’.

Each house has its ‘master’ (oto), the man who built it and has brought together around him his own family group. A swidden gardens has a ‘master’, the man or woman who has responsibility for and commands the work of clearing the forest, preparing the ground and planting. A pequi groves has its ‘master’, the person who planted it. Each festivity has its ‘master’, the person who sponsored its organization in accordance with the wishes of the village on that specific occasion. To be ‘master’ of a festivity signifies having the capacity to mobilize family and collective labour for the production of large quantities of food and to pay for the various types of services.


The basic unit is the nuclear family, which can be enlarged (extended family) by adding further relatives such as widows and married children. The rule is that the newly married son goes to live with his in-laws, taking part in the everyday productive activities of this family (uxorilocality). After a few, or many, years the couple may build their own house.

Descent is bilateral. Types of inheritance, including that of chiefdom, derive equally from the paternal and maternal lines. Transmission of proper names is carried out from grandparents to grandchildren, also bilaterally. Thus an individual will carry all the names by which his mother calls him and all the names by which his father calls him. The names given a few months after birth are changed at specific moments of the cycle of life: at the boy’s or girl’s initiation, on the birth of children and grandchildren. New names can be bought or, more rarely, donated.

Kinship terms reveal a Dravidian form with variation in cross cousin classification. In other words, parallel cousins – one’s mother’s sister’s children and father’s brother’s children – are called and treated as brother and sister. The distinction between parallel cousins and cross cousins – these being a mother’s brother’s children and a father’s sister’s children – is fundamental, as marriage always preferred between cross cousins. The terminology of bilateral cross cousin marriage derives from this. Cross cousins are however defined as such, or as parallel cousins, depending on their social or genealogical distance, with attendant consequences for the classification of descendants.

Cosmology, shamanism and healing

The traditional narratives that non-indian call ‘myths’ and the Kuikuro call akinhá ekugu (‘true’ narratives) tell that the universe exists just as it is and explain the origins of singing, festivities (rituals), cultural goods, cultivated plants, categories of beings. Everything that exists and merits explanation is associated with one or more narratives. Giti (Sun) is the cultural hero par excellence, the creator, along with his twin brother Aulukuma (Moon). The creator gods however include a series of ancestors of the Sun and Moon, descendents of the marriage between Atsiji (Bat) and Uhaku (a tree). The time of creation was (and is) the time when humans and non-humans communicated with each other, when all talked, when humans lived surrounded by the itseke. These are supernatural beings that live in the forest and at the bottom of the waters. They are dangerous and seductive, cause illness and death, and have the power to change themselves into humans or animals. Many animals and even artefacts have both a real, current and proper existence and a monstrous, excessive existence like the itseke. At the same time they can be auxiliary spirits to the shamans (hüati) in their role as healers or in their visions and voyages that others may neither see nor try. Only shamans have the power to establish (dangerous) relations with the itseke; although illness and dreams are states that can put humans in general into contact with itseke.

In rituals undertaken to re-establish order, equilibrium and health, masks represent the different types of itseke. Becoming a shaman is an individual choice and a supernatural calling that results from episodes of illness or dreams. The shaman acquires his powers by means of a long and difficult initiation, learning from another older shaman, and undergoing sexual, dietary and other restrictions that characterize a state of reclusion. He can then become a healer, someone with exceptional vision able to diagnose the causes of illness, death, theft, ‘natural’ disasters in order to identify the kugihe oto, the ‘masters of witchcraft’. The cost of his services is high and paid in precious goods. There is a difference between the shaman (women can become shamans) and the kehegé oto, the ‘master of the prayers’. The latter learns to use ‘prayers’ to cure different types of disease or to assist at childbirth.

The ‘prayers’ are formulae transmitted from generation to generation, partly in Aruak and partly in Carib, and uttered in whispers in the patient’s ear. ‘Baptisms’ are similar to ‘prayers’ and serve to ‘baptise’ the first fruits of certain vegetable foodstuffs such as pequi and maize. Cures can also be achieved by means of medication given the considerable knowledge of plants growing in the various ecosystem of the upper Xingu. Remedies (embuta) are not just for curing; the people of the upper Xingu produce and use emetics, antiseptics, and substances regarded as fortificants for those undergoing periods of reclusion.

There is a heavenly world (kahü) whose ‘lord’ is a two-headed vulture and where the dead and the itseke live in villages. The akunga (‘shadow’, ‘soul’) of the dead person is released from the body, wanders for a certain time amongst the living and later sets off on a long journey of encounters and battles with birds and monsters who sometimes manage to completely destroy the akunga. The dead have different destinies depending on the type of death they died.

The Kuikuro have a sophisticated understanding of the stars and constellations and project mythical characters and event onto the heavens. Observation of the heliacal rising of certain stars regulates productive activities and rituals, organizing the dry season (May to October) and the rainy season (November to April).

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