Kayapó Headdress: a glimpse of life in the Amazon rainforest

Headdress, 20th century, feathers (Anodorhynchus Hyacinthinus and Psarocolius Decumanus) and plant materials, approximately 1 m x 60 cm, Kayapó (Cayapo) people, Para, Brazil (The British Museum)

Special thanks to Dr. Jago Cooper, Matthew Cock, Kate Jarvis and The British Museum

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] I’m in the British Museum with Jago Cooper, and we’re looking at this gorgeous, brilliant yellow headdress.

Dr. Jago Cooper: [0:13] This is a Kayapó headdress. It’s quite big. It’s probably almost a meter in height, and maybe 60 cm in width.

Dr. Zucker: [0:20] The interior space is larger than a human head.

Dr. Cooper: [0:23] It is, but surprisingly, this was actually worn by children. This is a headdress which [was] used [in] a rite of passage ceremony. There would have been a string across the middle and it would be wrapped around the child’s head.

Dr. Zucker: [0:34] It’s in such good condition.

Dr. Cooper: [0:36] This object came in in 1990, so it’s quite a recent acquisition.

Dr. Zucker: [0:40] This is not an ancient object, this is a 20th century object.

Dr. Cooper: [0:43] Exactly right. It came in 1990 after a lot of attention on the Kayapó about a dam-building project in the region that brought the world’s attention to this very, very remote place.

Dr. Zucker: [0:52] This is because these people were being displaced by a dam.

Dr. Cooper: [0:55] There was a plan to build a dam in the region off of one of the tributaries of the Xingu, and so these people became the focus of the world’s attention.

Dr. Zucker: [1:01] The Xingu is a tributary of the Amazon River?

Dr. Cooper: [1:04] Right. We’re basically in the south-central portion of the Amazon, between the upper and lower Amazon, and the Xingu is a big river which runs from [the] south into the Amazon. The Kayapó live on the tributaries and on the banks of the Xingu.

[1:16] This is a riverine landscape in deep tropical forests. However, as expansion and the drive of industrialized life has encroached on the Amazon, this is one of those tribes which has been impacted upon.

Dr. Zucker: [1:26] What we’re seeing is an object that is from the 20th century, from an industrial era, but from a people that have one foot in ancient culture and are also very cognizant of the way their world is changing.

Dr. Cooper: [1:38] Absolutely. What this object represents is a way of life that has existed for thousands of years, and the continuation of those practices, but it comes from a time period of great change.

Dr. Zucker: [1:46] These yellow feathers are gorgeous. Are they dyed, or are these natural colors?

Dr. Cooper: [1:50] These are all the natural colors. You do get some feathers which are dyed by peoples at different parts of the world, but in the Amazon, because you get such wonderful birds and such beautiful, brilliant colors, there’s no need to dye them.

[2:01] Those red and blue feathers at the top are from a macaw and the yellow feathers are from a Psarocolius decumanus, is the scientific name for these species of birds.

[2:10] [laughter]

Dr. Zucker: [2:11] I don’t have those in my backyard.

Dr. Cooper: [2:13] No, I don’t think many people do. It’s incredible, also, thinking about the number of birds which are often used to create one of these.

Dr. Zucker: [2:18] When feathers are really precious things, sometimes the birds are actually cultivated, that they’re not hunted in the wild always. Do we know what the case is for this?

Dr. Cooper: [2:27] I don’t know whether these were domesticated birds. What’s interesting about that question is that it provides a different framework for understanding what is a domesticated animal. Are these living in cages? No.

[2:37] Are they brought in and slightly domesticated by being fed, and brought into the region, and looked after, and not hunted?

[2:43] It’s about looking at the cultural practices which look after the flora and fauna around the community, at the animals and birds that live in the community, that ties in with this theme of environmental management.

Dr. Zucker: [2:52] It’s interesting because, from my Western perspective, I immediately think of either something being, basically, caged or hunted. There’s this much more respectful middle ground.

Dr. Cooper: [3:02] This is fundamental to this whole culture. They feel they’ve managed this landscape successfully for thousands of years. Therefore, they don’t want to change. The fact that they’re there and living such good lives is proof of that.

Dr. Zucker: [3:13] How was this used? What does this mean?

Dr. Cooper: [3:16] These objects are not normally worn every day. This particular featherwork and other types of headdress are used for special occasions. Therefore, the symbology, the symbols held within this object, have particular meaning.

[3:27] We know that these objects are used for rites of passage, often in a naming ceremony, when a child would be given a name, often at quite a young age, and the child would be given this headdress to wear.

Dr. Zucker: [3:37] This is before adolescence?

Dr. Cooper: [3:38] Yes, before adolescence.

[3:39] Every time that you look at an object, you look for your own cultural references. These people look at the bird. When they see this, they see the birds. They see the life of that bird and the myths surrounding that bird. That is what they see.

[3:51] They see their own cultural references, which are very focused in the forest.

Dr. Zucker: [3:54] The feathers of a particular bird are not simply being used for their color, but they’re also being used for what the bird itself signifies?

Dr. Cooper: [4:01] Yes. Also, the object, how it’s created, who’s made this object. Is it made by the family, or by a priest? That is the meaning of the object when the person looks at it.

Dr. Zucker: [4:09] Let’s take a close look at it. The feathers are closely overlapped, so there’s this dense quality to that color, it’s so saturated. The quills are then bound together, first with red and then blue, and then they disappear under this really complicated series of flat reeds.

Dr. Cooper: [4:27] Everything is made from natural plant materials and animals. This is a tradition of techniques that could have gone back for thousands of years. There’s no European-introduced technology going on here. It’s showing how these technologies are passed down through the generations. It’s combining the feathers with plant materials and naturally produced fibers that bind it all together.

Dr. Zucker: [4:46] Here, we’re seeing it laid flat. I’m trying to imagine what it would be like if it were suspended by a string from a child’s head, who’s moving around. The feather would be catching the wind. It’s flat, and it would function a little bit like a sail. This is all in motion.

Dr. Cooper: [5:00] Absolutely. You can see the lights reflecting off it there, and that gives every object a different quality.

[5:04] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Jago Cooper and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Kayapó Headdress: a glimpse of life in the Amazon rainforest," in Smarthistory, December 16, 2015, accessed April 15, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/kayapo-headdress/.