The Kayapo Indians are one of the main Amerindian (native) groups that remain in the rain forest around the Amazon River in Brazil. The Kayapos resisted assimilation (absorption into the dominant culture) and were known traditionally as fierce warriors. They raided enemy tribes and sometimes fought among themselves.
Their first steady contact with Europeans did not occur until the 1950s. Since then, they have had contact with squatters (settlers with no land rights), loggers, miners, and eventually Brazilian government officials. Logging and mining, particularly for gold, have posed threats to the Kayapos’ traditional way of life. Other threats have included agricultural activities and cattle-ranching in cleared-out sections of the jungle. The increasing destruction of the rain forest threatens the delicate balance between humans, plants, and animals successfully maintained for thousands of years by Amazon Indians such as the Kayapos.
When the Portuguese conquerors first arrived in Brazil, there were about five million Amerindians. Today there are only about 200,000, of which a few thousand are Kayapos. They live along the Xingu River in the eastern part of the Amazon rain forest, in several scattered villages. Their lands consist of tropical rain forest and savanna (grassland). The Amazon basin, which includes the Amazon River and its tributaries such as the Xingu, is sometimes referred to as Amazonia. It includes parts of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru
The great diversity of Amerindian languages is partly due to groups of people living considerable distances from each other. Because of their relative isolation, groups developed distinct mythologies, religious customs, and languages. Even quite small groups such as the Kayapos are divided into smaller tribes with their own chiefs, although they all speak the Kayapo language. The pop star Sting (1951–) made the struggles of the Kayapo known to a wider world. One Kayapo chief, Raoni, left his Amazon homeland for a time and traveled widely with Sting. Another Kayapo who traveled with the musician was the panther-hunter N’goire.
There is an interesting legend among the Kayapos who live along a lagoon. They say that if one rises at dawn and looks across the lagoon, one can see the ghost of a white man on horseback galloping along the shore. This ghostly rider is said to wear a full suit of armor, rather like a European knight, or perhaps a Portuguese conqueror.
The Kayapos believe their ancestors learned how to live communally from social insects such as bees. This is why mothers and children paint each other’s bodies with patterns that look like an animal or insect markings, including those of bees.
The flamboyant Kayapo headdress with feathers radiating outward represents the universe. Its shaft is a symbol for the cotton rope by which the first Kayapo, it is said, descended from the sky. Kayapo fields and villages are built in a circle to reflect the Kayapo belief in a round universe.
The Kayapos believe that at death a person goes to the village of the dead, where people sleep during the day and hunt at night. There, old people become younger and children become older. In that village in the afterlife, Kayapos believe they have their own traditional assembly building. Kayapo women, it is thought, are permitted only short visits to deliver food to their male relatives.
Special days for the Kayapos revolve around the seasons. In the Amazon, these are the dry season and the rainy season. Kayapo ceremonies are also linked to their holidays. For example, an initiation rite is held when a boy reaches puberty or when he receives, as a small boy, his special ancestral name. The important dry-season celebration called Bemp (after a local fish) also includes marriage rites as well as initiation and naming ceremonies. Kayapos do not divide their time into secular and religious occasions. The religious, natural, social, and festive elements are all interconnected.