Foto: Gustaaf Verswijver, 1991

Mebêngôkre (Kayapó)

  • Autodenominação
    Mebêngôkre
  • Where they are How many

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

Female activities

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Producing the large quantity of high-calorie foods needed by the population is primarily a female task. Women are responsible for managing the swiddens, usually cultivated within a radius of four to six kilometres around the village. Each family possesses its own swiddens containing staple crops such as sweet potato, maize, sugar cane, bananas and manioc, extremely rich in calories. Some tropical fruits, as well as cotton and tobacco, are also planted.

The Kayapó are demanding in the choice of potentially fertile lands: the ideal oasis is a tract of forest without overly dense vegetation, situated at the foot of a hill close to a river. The Kayapó distinguish between various types of terrain and forests. Selecting a convenient site for a new village or a new swidden is not a decision to be rushed into. Specialists carefully examine the soil colour and composition. The existing vegetation is likewise taken into consideration.

The men have the arduous task of cutting down the trees to clear the swiddens. The trees are felled at the start of the dry season (May) and remain there for some months until the rainy season. The nature of the soil poses a considerable problem in the tropical rainforest due to the extremely low concentration of minerals. Hence, as October approaches, the Kayapó burn the trees whose timber has had by now enough time to dry. The minerals contained in the wood remain in the ashes, forming a layer that acts as a fertilizer. After burning, the women start planting. Many varieties of crops are planted in concentric circles. This mixed culture presents a number of advantages; for example, large-leafed plants protect the soil from torrential rain and drying, while tall plants offer protection from the scalding sun. Some plants also help combat insects. Medicinal plants are usually located on the periphery of the swidden. Many of these plants produce a nectar that attracts a particular species of aggressive ant, natural enemies of phytophagic insects. Although it may appear disordered, the Kayapó swidden is organized in accordance with a highly structured logic.

The women go to the swiddens every day to collect the crops as needed. A Kayapó woman's life is somewhat monotonous. But a few times during the year, generally during the dry season, small groups of women go to the forest to gather wild fruits and palm oil. The shortest trips last a couple of says, the longer trips a week. The women never separate completely from the village, remaining within a radius of 30 km, the territory with which they are more familiar and that is continually crossed by hunters.