Foto: Gustaaf Verswijver, 1991

Mebêngôkre (Kayapó)

  • Autodenominação
    Mebêngôkre
  • Where they are How many

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

Male activities

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The life of Kayapó men is marked by an exceptional mobility. Most of men’s activities are undertaken outside the home: hunting, fishing, trekking, the manufacture of objects and tools, or simply conversation in the men’s house. As work in the swiddens is primarily a female concern, men feel under no obligation to perform domestic duties in the village. In fact, they spend most of the days in the forest hunting and fishing.

The Kayapó enjoy fatty meats, such as tapir, collared peccary and deer. But it is not everyday that they happen across these large mammals. Most birds are killed only for their colourful plumage. Jaguars, wild cats and pumas are killed when they cross the hunter’s path, but are not specifically hunted. In fact, the Kayapó believe that consuming feline meat can cause certain kinds of sickness. Monkeys, agoutis and especially land turtles are frequently hunted and form an essential part of the Indian’s diet.

Men generally hunt alone. At dawn, they disappear one by one into the forest. A hunter lucky enough to kill prey straight away will return around midday. Others who end up pursuing a cold trail or who prove luckless will wander in the forest until nightfall. Traditional weapons are increasingly substituted by rifles. Bows, arrows and spears are only used during solemn ceremonies or when ammunition runs out.

A man never returns empty-handed. Even when he fails to bring back game, he will gather medicinal plants, fibres or wild fruits to make utilitarian or decorative objects. On arriving in the village, the successful hunter hands the game to his wife or, if he is unmarried, to his mother or sister. A lot of people soon appear hoping for a share of the meat. All Kayapó men and women are thus continually located in exchange positions with a series of other people in the village. In fact, the successful hunter is morally obliged to cede some of the meat, especially when the animal is of a respectable size. But likewise he will knock on other people’s doors when his luck runs out or when he is too ill to go out hunting. The constant exchanges ensure that the daily influx of meat is shared out within the community. It is thus rare for a family to have no meat to eat for more than a day or so.

Ceremonies often lasting many months require an enormous quantity of meat. Three or four large expeditions are therefore organized each year. In principle, woman and children accompany the men, leaving the village abandoned. A new encampment is made in the forest every day, a few kilometres away from the previous one. From there, the men leave to hunt.

Apart from land turtles, all meat is eaten in the forest itself. Only the turtles are kept for the final festival. It is difficult to conserve large quantities of meat in the tropical rainforest and the turtles thus provide the simplest alternative: these animals can remain alive for a long time without eating or drinking. It is nonetheless true that transportation becomes problematic. To carry them more easily, the turtles are bound side by side between two wooden poles. These structures can carry at most 15 turtles and may measure three metres in height and weigh up to 60 kilos. Making these treks through the forest no easy task. Consequently, every day young men leave before the hunters to clear a corridor through the vegetation with their axes. The hunters, each with his load of turtles, advance slowly through the forest; they do not return to the village before assembling enough animals to hold a banquet. This generally entails finding 200 or 300 animals, which may take one or more months.

Fishing is a year-round activity, but it is above all with the onset of the dry season, when the water level is at its lowest, that fish are caught in large numbers. To achieve this, the Kayapó use timbó vines. The men beat the vines for hours with small clubs (sticks wider at one end). The liquid thereby obtained modifies the oxygen level of the water. The fish rise to float on the surface due to the lack of oxygen and thus become easy prey. But as the Kayapó live close to small rivers, they mostly catch modestly sized species of fish.

In Kayapó society, fishing is not as productive an activity as hunting. As mentioned above, the economy of this people endures a double disadvantage owing to the setting of villages in unfavourable ecological zones and to the high demographic density of the large communities. How do the Kayapó resolve this problem? The other indigenous forest groups who live in similar zones are generally of a smaller size and pursue a nomadic lifestyle. They travel continuously, moving through regions without exposure to intensive hunting activities and able to rely on the products available in the forest. They work in small swiddens that quickly meet their needs, cultivating manioc and potato.