The Kayapó live in villages dispersed along the upper course of the Iriri, Bacajá and Fresco rivers, as well as affluents of the voluminous Xingu river, outlining a territory almost as large as Austria in Central Brazil and almost entirely covered in equatorial rainforest, with the exception of the eastern section, filled by some areas of scrubland. Their cosmology, ritual life and social organization are extremely rich and complex, while their relations with non-Indian society and environmentalists from the world over are marked by their intensity and ambivalence.

It is difficult to state with any precision how many Kayapó Indians live in this immense territory (aproximately 8000 persons). In addition to the 19 communities that maintain regular contact with our society, three or four small isolated groups are known to exist, whose population is estimated between 30 and 100 inhabitants; not even the Kayapó have much direct contact with these peoples.

The language spoken by the Kayapó belongs to the Gê linguistic family, a branch of the Macro-Gê trunk. Differences in dialect exist between the various Kayapó groups emerging after the splits that gave rise to these groups, but in all of them language is a feature of wider ethnic reach, leading to recognition that they make up part of a common culture.



Village Life

Traditional Kayapó villages are formed by a circle of houses built around a large cleared plaza. In the middle of the village there is the men’s house, where male political associations meet on a daily basis. This centre is a symbolic place, the origin and heart of Kayapó social and ritual organization, celebrated for its complexity. Notably, this spatial and symbolic structure can also be found among other Gê groups.

The village periphery is constituted by houses set in a circle, divided in regular fashion and inhabited by extensive families. This part of the village is associated above all with domestic activities, the physical development of the individual and his or her integration into the kinship groups. When the women are not working in the swiddens, they collect fruits and firewood or go to bathe.

The rest of the time is spent inside or close to the house, where they weave, look after their children, prepare food or simply pass the time with members of their family. Conceptually, the circle of houses is women’s territory, essentially directed towards ‘female’ concerns. It involves the domain of individual relations, marked by affection and avoidance, as well as relations of reciprocity and mediation. As a whole, this peripheral zone is associated with alimentary taboos, the life cycle, kinship and the bonds of formal friendship.

Agriculture & Subsistence

Producing the large quantity of high-calorie foods needed by the population is primarily a female task. Women are responsible for managing the swiddens, usually cultivated within a radius of four to six kilometres around the village. Each family possesses its own swiddens containing staple crops such as sweet potato, maize, sugar cane, bananas and manioc, extremely rich in calories. Some tropical fruits, as well as cotton and tobacco, are also planted.

The Kayapó are demanding in the choice of potentially fertile lands: the ideal oasis is a tract of forest without overly dense vegetation, situated at the foot of a hill close to a river. The Kayapó distinguish between various types of terrain and forests. Selecting a convenient site for a new village or a new swidden is not a decision to be rushed into. Specialists carefully examine the soil colour and composition. The existing vegetation is likewise taken into consideration.

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. In Kayapó society, fishing is not as productive an activity as hunting

The Spirit World

The villages is the centre of the Kayapó universe, the most socialized space. The surrounding forest is considered an anti-social space, where men can transform into animals or spirits, sicken without reason or even kill their relatives. Beings who are half-animal, half-people dwell there. The further from the village, the more anti-social the forest becomes and its associated dangers increase. As there is always the danger that the ‘social’ may be appropriated by the natural domain, escaping human control, the Kayapó engage in a symbolic appropriation of the natural, transforming it into the social through curing chants and ceremonies which establish a constant exchange between man and the world of nature.

The section of forest in which the village population hunts, fishes and cultivates land is first socialized by the attribution of place names. Thereafter, human modifcations of the nature world are accompanied by rituals. For example, the opening of new swiddens is preceded by a dance presenting many structural similarities to the war ritual. Opening up new swiddens is indeed a symbolic war against a natural rather than human enemy. Returning from the hunt, men must sing to the spirits of the game they themselves have killed in order for the spirits to remain in the forest. Each animal species designates a song that always begins with the cry of the dead animal.

The Kayapó ritual complex consists of a very particular language: the rites express and actualize fundamental values of the society, reflecting in equal portion the image the group has of itself, the society and the universe. Each rite translates a part of this cosmological vision and establishes a link between man and nature, in which above all the human-animal relationship is reinforced.

Kayapó rituals are numerous and diverse, but their importance and duration varies greatly. They divide into three main categories: the large ceremonies for confirming personal names; certain agricultural, hunting, fishing and occasional rites – for example, those performed during solar or lunar eclipses – and, finally, rites of passage. The latter are frequently solemn affairs, though short and only rarely accompanied by dances or songs: they are organized so as to announce publicly the passage of some people from one age set to another.


Information Referenced from the Instituto Socioambiental | Povos Indígenas no Brasil

Date accessed 01.04.15

All photos used on the Xapiri website our copyrighted and the property of Xapiri, Alice Kohler or partners. The user agrees to not copy or use any of the photos for personal or commercial purposes. For information or questions regarding the photography used, please get in touch at peace@xapiri.com