Foto: Gustaaf Verswijver, 1991

Mebêngôkre (Kayapó)

  • Autodenominação
  • Where they are How many

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


Nomadism is not a solution for the Kayapó. Continually relocating throughout the forest with a population of a thousand Indians or more is impossible in practice, and this would do no more than transpose the problem of a lack of proteins for a lack of calories. For numerous Kayapó groups, nomadic life would only be possible if the community life of the large villages was abandoned – an idea beyond consideration, whether for defensive reasons or for social and ritual reasons.

We have seen that a sedentary way of life is difficult to maintain in unfavourable regions. The Kayapó learnt this lesson themselves when they arrived in their current territory in the middle of the 19th century. After arriving, they remained for a long time in the same place and animal game became increasingly less abundant. At the same time, it was necessary to open swiddens ever more distant from the village. Women’s work thereby became more arduous and with their long daily walks to the swiddens they exposed themselves much more to enemy attacks. When the women began to express their discontentment, small groups made up of small families – composed of immediate or distant kin or through alliance – began to build small temporary villages close to the more distant swiddens during the dry season. The maximum distance between these so-called ‘satellite’ villages was no more than 40 km. Somewhat far for exploring new hunting grounds, but not enough to prevent visits. The ceremonial system is a centrifugal force: certain rituals demand intense collaboration between the different families. Consequently, during the rainy season the small groups reunited in the large village to hold the ceremonies.

However, these small groups were much too vulnerable to attacks by enemies and this economic model was unable to be sustained. At the start of the 20th century, another system took shape. A number of large villages were built, roughly between 30 or 50 kilometres from one another and inhabited in a rotational system. After a village was occupied for more than one or two years and game became scarce, the entire population moved to another village. The advantage of this constant circulation lay in the fact that the Kayapó returned to the village where the existing swiddens were still partially productive. New swiddens were also opened. During the period spent in other villages, the zoological equilibrium was able to recover in the regions where they had hunted intensively for two years. This form of semi-nomadism was made up, then, of two movement cycles: firstly, there were the biennial migrations to other villages, and secondly, the long hunt expeditions required for the final phases of the large ceremonies. The Kayapó had thus developed a way of life where agricultural products were always available to them, and where the possibilities for hunting had increased considerably. They had managed to keep their large villages in regions that were in principle less ecologically viable.

But this model became difficult to maintain when the Kayapó entered into contact in the 1950s and 1960s with government agents and missionaries, who rapidly set up small posts. At this time, transport through the forest constituted a critical problem and so these posts were built as quickly as possible along the wider navigable rivers, thereby faraway from the territory traditionally traversed by the Kayapó. Attracted by the goods and the medical help they were able to obtain, the Kayapó gradually settled closer to these posts.

This process brought about, in turn, a modification to the economic system. After a few years, the inhabitants of the village stopped moving since the posts and their infrastructure (landing strip, radio installation, a small school, s small room for treating sick people etc.) could not be relocated. Today, migrations still take place, but they are shorter and in general only men take part in them, whereas women and children remain in the village to take advantage of the constant medical treatments.

Thus, the Kayapó are becoming gradually more sedentary and the prospects for hunting in the vicinity of the villages are no longer enough to feed the village’s population. This is the reason why fishing is becoming increasingly more important. In the course of the last two centuries, the ancient occupation of a mixed scrubland and forest environment, where the villages were built near to the smaller rivers, has given way progressively to the occupation of an exclusively forest cover habitat, with villages situated close to the large navigable waterways.