Cultural Overview

People of the 16 different villages embraced by the encompassing label "Kayapo" or identified as one of the Kayapo subgroups above all refer to themselves as "Mebengokre" or "people of the watery depression." Population currently stands around 5,000 and has been on the increase for some two decades. The communities mentioned are also classified as Northern Kayapo to differentiate them from the Southern Kayapo.

For some 200 years Kayapo have moved steadily westward from the savannah regions in the state of Tocantins toward areas of tropical forest or forest-savannah margins. Large villages with thousands of residents are known historically. As with other Ge language family speakers, settlement residence alternated with treks involving groups of extended families. Subsistence depends on a range of techniques: collective and solitary hunting and fishing, collecting wild plant foods, and slash-and-burn horticulture. An opportunistic orientation that moves people to food resources predominates.

Kayapo settlements are composed of a ring of houses occupied by extended families built up through matri-uxorilocal residence. A men's house is commonly constructed upon the central plaza. Populations average several hundred but may range from under 100 to nearly 1,000. The village center comprises a ceremonial area where dancing and singing occurs almost daily. These performances are often rehearsals leading over weeks or months to a ceremonial climax of whatever festival is underway. That the Kayapo consider themselves to be part of a slowly unfolding ritual much, if not most, of the time seems to make them fairly unique.

Each village is politically autonomous, although bonds of kinship link individuals of different villages. Formal leadership positions exist in association with age grades and men's clubs. Prominent secular leaders are males who combine a number of attributes, including a knowledge of specialized speech and chants (ben) and persuasive and powerful oratorical ability. Leaders drawn from the unmarried men's age grade should be energetic and exemplary workers. Auxiliary women's groupings exist consisting of wives of associated men's organizations, with the wife of the male chief serving as female chief. The visibility of this role is low and appears more as a conceptual counterpart to men's activity and organization rather than a public leadership role. Nevertheless, without a respected wife who exercises her own influence over female public opinion, a man is considered unqualified to lead. Membership in age grades is calculated by social age rather than absolute age, which, in turn, is linked to physical and social maturity, marriage and birth of children, and eventually grandchildren.

Marriage is monogamous and divorce is common, although lifelong spouses are also common and may become extraordinarily close emotionally. Kinship terminology follows an Omaha pattern, but there are no descent groups. Pedigrees may extend back four or five generations, and names are endlessly recycled. Names, ceremonial ornaments, and privileges linked to a name are more important for tracing relationships between living persons than are deep genealogies. Genitors do not name their own children, who receive their ceremonial and nonceremonial names from a class of same-sex social mentors who include genitors' cross-sex siblings and ascending lineal relatives. Both males and females inherit formal friends from their father and this relationship may be inherited patrilineally.

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