Foto: Gustaaf Verswijver, 1991

Mebêngôkre (Kayapó)

  • Autodenominação
  • Where they are How many

    MT, PA11.675 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
  • Linguistic family

Subgroups, migrations and contact

The earliest clearly reliable data on the Kayapó date from the end of the 19th century and are used as a basis for establishing kinship ties between the different extant villages. An ethnohistorical examination shows that the Kayapó used to live divided into three large groups: the Irã'ãmranh-re (“those who wander on the plains”), the Goroti Kumrenhtx (“the men of the true large group”) and the Porekry (“the men of the small bamboo”). The first two each numbered three thousand people and the last about one thousand, giving a total population of about seven thousand people.

Sharing a common origin, these three large groups once inhabited the region bordering the lower course of the Tocantins river. This territory comprises plains cut by rivers bordered by gallery forest. Villages were never built far from the forest cover, thus allowing the Kayapó to attain the best possible use of resources from totally different biomes. But this mode of economic life was upturned with the appearance at the start of the 19th century of the first explorers and colonizers.

The consequences of the first direct contacts between the Kayapó and the ‘whites’ can be characterized as disastrous to say the least. Bands of conquerors attacked the Kayapó villages causing countless victims. Many women and children were captured and sold as slaves in the towns and urban areas situated to the north. The Kayapó had no means to resist. Although numerically stronger than these devastators, they confronted an enemy much more efficiently armed. It was an unequal combat, muskets versus warclubs. After it became clear that nothing could be done to repel these powerful invaders, the Kayapó abandoned their traditional territory, fleeing to the west and the interior of the country.

The resultant period of calm was brief, though. The colonizing frontier expanded ceaselessly and 30 years later the conquerors reappeared. This time, their imminent arrival provoked discord among the Indians. There was an internal split between those sympathetic to establishing friendly with the “tribe of pale strangers” and those opposing the idea. The sympathizers were clearly seduced by the numerous goods owned by the conquerors: they were led to believe that once the bonds of friendship were cemented, they too would be able to possess those objects (including guns).

Opponents of the idea, for their part, emphasized the dangers involved in such transactions. In fact, the Kayapó had already noted that each direct contact with ‘whites,’ however brief, was followed by a period during which many people died for unknown reasons: a confrontation with western diseases, not infrequently attributed to the sorcery of the whites.

These internal tensions resulted in a series of successive divisions, which provoked the fragmentation of the three main groups into various subgroups. It should be noted that the groups that at the time decided to live on friendly terms with the whites disappeared from the face of the earth: before 1930, two of the three Porekry subgroups were extinct and the entire Irã'ãmranh-re group succumbed to the same fate.

The remaining Goroti Kumrenhtx and Porekry formally refused to establish friendly contacts with the whites, opting to flee instead. In their migration westwards, they abandoned the recently occupied territory, arriving in a transitional region between tropical rainforest and the open plains. Once established, they began to systematically attack all those who approached their territory. They very quickly became known for their aggression, and the inhabitants of Brazil’s hinterland started to classify them among the most bellicose Indians in Amazonia. As an outcome of their frequent and repeated attacks, few people dared to approach the Kayapó territory. This is one of the reasons why a large part of Central Brazil remained almost entirely unexplored until recent times.

But this situation became impossible to sustain. Under pressure from local political figures, the government decided in the 1950s and 1960s to send several teams led by specialists with the remit to pacify these ‘savages.’ The threatened approach by government officials once more led to discord, and the Kayapó divided again into small communities. Some of these groups, such as the Mekrãgnoti (“the men with large red designs on their faces”), withdrew further inland, settling in a territory almost exclusively covered in tropical rainforest. But the government officials penetrated deeper little by little until they arrived at the most inaccessible spots of the Kayapó territory and thus the majority of the surviving communities entered into permanent contact with our society.

Main groups Groups Subgroups Villages Population
Goroti Kumrenhtx Gorotire Gorotire Gorotire
Las Casas
3000 1890
Kuben-Kran-Krên Kuben-Kran-Krên
Kôkraimôrô Kôkraimôrô 980
Kararaô Kararaô
Mekrãgnoti Mekrãgnoti Baú
Mekrãgnoti (antes chamado Kubenkokre)
Metyktire Kremoro (kapôt)
Irã'ãmranh-re   Kren-re
Kuben Ken Kam
Me Mranh
  3000 0
Xikrin (Purukarw'yt) Xikrin (Purukarw'yt) Xikrin Cateté (Putkarôt)
1000 650
Ôkôrekre   Bacajá
Total       7000 3520