Foto: Gustaaf Verswijver, 1991

Mebêngôkre (Kayapó)

  • Autodenominação
  • Where they are How many

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

History and occupation of the region


Most of the reports dating from the period of discovery and exploration of Amazonia teach us that the majority of indigenous tribes – in contrast to the Kayapó – lived concentrated along the course of the main navigable rivers. This concentration is explained above all by their potential for river transport. Long journeys through the forest are frequently tiring and demand a lot of time. During the rainy season, forest trekking becomes even more difficult due to the floods and the bad state of the pathways. Transportation by motorized boat is easier, represents fewer risks, demands less effort and is possible all year round. But the Kayapó opted otherwise. The so-called ‘river-dwelling’ tribes, located primarily along the navigable waterways, generally live in dispersed settlements, forming numerous small and generally sedentary colonies, which contain at most 80 people per village. Contact between more remote villages is maintained by small groups which navigate ceaselessly up and down river. Settling on the shores of the rivers makes communication easier and more efficient, equally favouring the division of the small local groups across the tribe’s territory, also leading to a lowering of demographic pressure. A weak point to this mode of urbanism is the fact that these riverine groups make themselves relatively vulnerable due to the ease with which they can be located by enemies.

Recent studies suggest that the reason a particular site is chosen to found a community is due not so much to its transport potential but to ecological factors. As well as a larger quantity of fish, the largest rivers provide substantial concentrations of all kinds of animals and, more precisely, the biggest mammals. This phenomenon is strongly linked to the annual seasonal cycle.

The big rivers carry enormous amounts of fertile alluvium. When the water courses overflow, a large quantity of this alluvium is deposited over the temporarily flooded terrain. Consequently, the large tracts of forest bordering the rivers are more fertile zones. Swiddens are more productive there and more fruiting plants and trees can be found. Many species of animals consume these fruits as their staple food and are therefore attracted to these regions. In turn, these herbivores attract many carnivores and scavengers. As a result, life along the important rivers usually offers excellent hunting and fishing, in addition to fertile conditions for agriculture. We can ask, then, why the so-called ‘forest’ Indians, such as the Kayapó, withdrew to the upper courses of smaller rivers and went to live so far from the more fertile regions. How do these Indians manage still today to provide themselves with the food types necessary for their physical well-being?

Traditionally, the Kayapó economy is based on hunting and slash-burn agriculture. The society recognizes a division of tasks based on sex.