Mundurukú Headdress: a glimpse of life in the Amazon rainforest

Seemingly made completely of feathers, this headdress comes from one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.

Headdress (coifa), before 1869, Arara, Mutum and Macaw(?) feathers, cord, 40 x 24 cm, Mundurukú people, Para, Brazil (The British Museum, London)

Special thanks to Dr. Jago Cooper, Kate Jarvis, Matthew Cock, 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 amazing headdress. At first glance, it looks like it’s constructed entirely out of feathers.

Dr. Jago Cooper: [0:15] That’s right. We’re down in the King Edward basement, deep in the bowels of the British Museum. We’re looking here at a Mundurukú headdress, which does indeed seem to be made entirely of feathers.

Dr. Zucker: [0:23] Who are the Mundurukú?

Dr. Cooper: [0:24] The Mundurukú are an Indigenous community which live on the Rio Tapajós, right in the heart of the Amazon, between the upper and lower Amazons. Looking at a map of the Amazon, we’re on the south side of the Rio Amazon, and the Rio Tapajós is one of the tributaries leading into it.

Dr. Zucker: [0:36] We’re seeing this headdress in this basement strongroom, but it’s meant to be seen in a very different environment.

Dr. Cooper: [0:42] We have to understand the connection between the object and the place of origin. This is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, with some of the most wonderful birds and animals living in it, and this is a reflection of that.

Dr. Zucker: [0:52] I’m seeing at least three different kinds of feathers. I’m assuming they’re from three different birds?

Dr. Cooper: [0:57] We know some of the species of birds. This is a arara bird, a mutum bird, and perhaps macaw feathers, or from a vulture.

Dr. Zucker: [1:03] The arara are the yellow feathers that are around the back.

Dr. Cooper: [1:06] Yep. The mutum are these black feathers. Then, we have these lovely red or orange tail feathers which come down [and] are likely to be macaw or a vulture.

Dr. Zucker: [1:14] Whoever constructed this is using the feathers in a way that is taking into account the quality of that feather. You’ve got those long tail feathers, functioning almost like long braids of hair. The short feathers functioning as tufts. The arara delineating the turn of the back of the head.

Dr. Cooper: [1:29] Absolutely. Not only are they selecting these feathers for their aesthetic qualities, what they look like, there’s also another interesting layer, which is that the birds themselves have particular characteristics, particularly myths surrounding them that perhaps go back for hundreds of years.

[1:42] What this means to people is not just what it looks like, but what it means about the animals, the landscape, the environment, from which they come.

Dr. Zucker: [1:49] The behaviors of the birds, the calls of the birds, are being referenced in the use of these feathers.

Dr. Cooper: [1:54] Imagine that you live in the rainforest, and that you’re entirely reliant on the environment around you. Then your entire way of life creates a knowledge base, it’s like education. If you think about the education of Khan Academy, education of the environment in the forest systems…

[2:05] Within each feather, within each animal, within each part of that forest, is a whole education system that is passed down through the generations.

Dr. Zucker: [2:12] This headdress is about a hundred years old. Is it fair to say that it’s continuing a tradition that is older?

Dr. Cooper: [2:17] Absolutely. This is definitely continuing traditions which have gone on for a long time. What’s important is that these don’t preserve in the Amazon.

Dr. Zucker: [2:22] Well, because these are organic materials, that’s an incredibly humid environment. Things survive when they’re in dry environments.

Dr. Cooper: [2:29] When you live in the tropics, your whole way of life is about expediency. Things just go. You change your house roof every few years. Everything happens on a seasonal basis. The whole timelines of the environment are different.

[2:39] The idea of the British Museum, the exemplar of antiquity and permanence of culture through time, it’s almost at the opposite end of the spectrum. Both are absolutely crucial to understanding material culture and the massive diversity around the world.

Dr. Zucker: [2:51] If there is longevity, it’s longevity of tradition rather than of the object itself.

Dr. Cooper: [2:55] Absolutely. It’s longevity of tradition and knowledge. It’s interesting to think about how knowledge is passed down through generations, through social practice, through people doing things in front of each other and learning through time.

Dr. Zucker: [3:05] How was this used?

Dr. Cooper: [3:07] This is definitely a headdress which is used at particular ritual occasions. It’s incredibly dramatic, often associated with a scepter, which you’d hold in your hand. This is not an everyday item. It’s there to display power and authority within the community and within potentially a dance or a ceremony which is being carried out.

Dr. Zucker: [3:23] Although this object is over a hundred years old, it’s in such incredible condition. I’m assuming that the Mundurukú don’t have modern glues. How is this held together?

Dr. Cooper: [3:32] It has this exterior of a fragility, of these delicate feathers. But if you look just beneath the surface, you can see that there’s a very closely-knit web of a string made from local plant materials, and that binds it all together. Each of these feathers is stuck within that lattice.

Dr. Zucker: [3:47] I’m imagining somebody wearing this, these feathers moving, and there’s an iridescence to the darker feathers.

Dr. Cooper: [3:52] Materials don’t have just one quality. You can imagine the light shining off the feathers. It also shines off the water of the river. It shines off of the trees. It starts to connect up themes of the environment, which bind together and give the object meaning.

Dr. Zucker: [4:05] I can’t help but think that wearing feathers conveys some of the power and the special qualities of a bird to the human who wears it. Do we have any sense of what the symbolism is?

Dr. Cooper: [4:15] This idea of taking on the qualities of animals is something which is very common throughout the whole of the Americas. You can’t talk about this particular object, because I don’t know the connotations within the Mundurukú, but yes, the idea that humans can take on the power of animals is definitely a common theme among many cultures of the Amazon.

[4:33] It’s intriguing, because it often gives the idea of the qualities that they’re looking for. So sight, the idea that the bird can go up above the Amazon canopy, be able to see great distances. Also, it ties in with [ideas] about time, about how different temporalities of life within the forest interweave, and how humans are part of that great system of life.

Dr. Zucker: [4:50] Dissolving the distinction between animal and human.

Dr. Cooper: [4:53] Between human and nature, this idea that the forest is this dark place, which is an inhuman place. This is the classic example of why all of that understanding of human environment interrelationships is connected within Amazon society.

[5:05] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Jago Cooper and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Mundurukú Headdress: a glimpse of life in the Amazon rainforest," in Smarthistory, August 10, 2015, accessed April 20, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/munduruku-headdress/.