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Ph.D. Dissertation

Chapter 3

6 July 2002



CHAPTER 3 (excerpt)



Morcego and the Ąkkąpa-ri

To the left of the large anthropomorph at Morcego is a group of seven much smaller painted figures (the largest being 38 cm tall), and one faint drawn figure (fig. 140). These anthropomorphs have 'headdresses' unlike any others known in the region. From the top of each figure is a single line, practically the same length as the torso, terminating in a roughly square motif. They each have a different pattern (from right to left: a solid diagonal band, a solid vertical band, completely filled, half filled, two parallel vertical lines, and the last two being too difficult to see clearly). Each of the figures are unique in their torso patterns, yet each one has a phallus on the left, share the same ground plane, and were probably painted by the same hand.

The elevated motifs above each of the figures from Morcego resemble the Mebengokre Kayapó ąkkąpa-ri compound headdress used in the corn ceremony (figs. 141 and 142). The Mebengokre corn ceremony is perhaps their most important and flamboyant event not related to naming (initiation) ceremonies. According to their mythology, an opossum (ngina) taught them to eat corn long ago, and it is still an essential crop in the rainy season (September through January). Among the Gorotire Kayapó, it is hence forbidden to eat opossum.3 The down-feathers also attached to the performers in the corn ceremony, recalls how the first woman to mill corn had adorned herself.4 This particular adornment is called krćjamin ("head-down feathers") or ąkaka ("white from birds").5

The ceremony lasts the entire growth period of the crop. The most important part of the ceremony coincides with the harvest, and terminates with a series of consecutive all-night dances (as many as five).6 For the terminal dance, the men not only don the ąkkąpa-ri, but also the ąkkąti and roriro-ri headdresses (figs. 143 and 144), a body covering of krćjamin and crushed egg shells of the tinamou,7 body paint, and many other ceremonial accoutrements. While the dancing and most elaborate featherwork is restricted to the men, all members of the village stay in the central plaza throughout the last night.8

The ąkkąpa-ri ("feather headdress on foot") is made of two parts, a kutop and an elevated radial diadem. The kutop is a beeswax base 'glued' to the shaved heads of the male participants in the most important phases of the corn ceremony (especially the final night). In a conical protrusion on the top of this 'helmet' is attached a feathered diadem suspended at the top of a long stick. The stick is generally around thirty centimeters long and is attached to a horseshoe-shaped frame of short reeds bound together with cotton thread. Around this frame, various feathers are inserted into the reeds, creating a semicircular radial diadem.9

The ąkkąpa-ri is one of three related headdresses.10 The others include the ąkkąti—a large horseshoe-shaped headdress (occasionally more than half the height of the bearer), suspended just above the head and back, and used by both men (in the corn ceremony) and women (in the major naming ceremonies)—; and, the ąkkąri-re—a small diadem tied around the head (not suspended), worn by the men in their counterpart to the women's major naming ceremony, and mythologically related to the moon. The colors and sources (species of birds) of the feathers vary from headdress to headdress, reflecting the special privileges of each owner. The combinations are myriad (see fig. 145),11 and not only include the color and source, but also which feathers are used (newly grown feathers, or the same ones from a young bird, have a more intense color) and how they are modified (by cutting and clipping them into specific shapes).

The meaning of some of the colors is reflected in Mebengokre corporal art. Gustaaf Verswijver reports the following meanings for three colors used:

Red [kamrźk] always connotes energy, health, and "quickness", both in the sense of swiftness and heightened sensitivity.... [It] is applied on the parts of the body most immediately associated with swiftness, agility, and sensory contact with the outside world (feet, hands, and face).... Black, on the other hand, is associated with transitions between clearly defined states or categories, with "borderline" conditions or regions where normal clear-cut structures of ideas and rules of behavior are "blacked out".... The word for black, tyk, also means "dead", and it is the adjective used for the zone of land just outside the village, which separates it from the completely wild forest and savanna country.... Black is used for the parts of the body most intimately associated with the individual's biological being... his inner self as contrasted with his faculties of relating to the world.... White [aka]... is associated less with transition than with the pure, "terminal" state of complete transcendence of the normal social world. It is, for example the color of ghosts. White clay is the food of the ghosts, and the villages of the ghosts are always located near outcroppings of white clay or rocks.12

The Mebengokre's association of white with ghosts, and the places where ghosts reside, is consistent with their idea that the spirits of their dead depart the village and inhabit villages in the hills. This also recalls the Gorotire Kayapó Ken kikre, the "stone houses" in the serras, where Horace Banner encountered rock art attributed to the men karon.13 While not exemplified by the rock art at Morcego, a common characteristic of the Angelim Style is the white orant figure, outlined in red.

The ąkkąpa-ri is also Mebengokre cosmology given form. The shape of the kutop (the wax 'helmet') is the portrayal of both a female turtle and a horizontal microcosm of the Mebengokre world, seen in a flattened view from above. The central cone (where the diadem support is inserted) represents the ipōk-ri ("center"), the circular Kayapó village. On the sides are rounded protrusions (pa, "arms") representing North and South (the turtle's feet). These pa come together in a small triangular extremity at the front (her genitalia). This is the East, and represents the kąjkwa krax ("beginning, root of the sky;" "place of the enormous spider's web"). The rear of the kutop is a large rounded flap, representing the unknown West, the kąjkwa nhōt (roughly, "end/tip of the sky").14

The elevated featherwork diadem represents the sky, from where the Mebengokre descended by means of a rope (represented by the supporting stick, which intersects the ipōk-ri, the "center/village"). The ąkkąpa-ri, and Kayapó featherwork at large, reflect their close association with birds,15 especially those who fly the highest and can thus "see" farther. This is also reflected in the way they consider "dancing" the same as "flying" (transcending the limits of the profane). Kayapó shamans are considered particularly capable of flight, occasionally becoming harpy eagles. Kayapó songs collected by Terence Turner reflect this intimate relationship with birds. "A bird proudly boasts to his human listener,

Can we (birds) not reach up to the sky?
Why, can we snatch the very clouds,
Wind them round our legs as bracelets,
And sit thus, regaled by their thunder.

Another calls out a stirring summons to earthbound humanity:

I fly among the branches [rays] of the sun;
I fly among the branches of the sun.
I perch on its branches and
Sit grazing over the whole world.

Throw yourselves into the sky beside me!
Throw yourselves into the sky beside me!
Cover yourselves with the blood and feathers of the birds
And follow after me!"16

The Xikrin and Txukahamće17 Kayapó also have a headdress similar to the Mebengokre ąkkąpa-ri (figs. 146 and 147). Some Xikrin okoiaki, or okopari,18 have both wide crescent-shaped diadems, as well as small horseshoe-shaped ones, like the ąkkąpa-ri.19 These sometimes have a woven buriti20 fiber base instead of a beeswax kutop (called a m -kutop by the Xikrin). This is used in Xikrin name-giving (initiation) ceremonies.21

While the Morcego figures represent an isolated example of this iconography, the apparent "feather headdress on foot" is remarkably similar to the Mebengokre ąkkąpa-ri and the Xikrin okopari. Perhaps a similarity in meaning lies in a general cosmology or origin myth, expressed in the elevated diadem (sky) floating above, yet connected to the figures (humanity below). Perhaps these represent the acknowledgement and reconfirmation of a seasonal round, and its metaphoric association with creation in general. Perhaps the rock art means both, and perhaps neither. However formally similar to the living masks of the Mebengokre and Xikrin (surviving members of two distinct Kayapó groups: the Goroti Kumrenhtx and the Porekry),22 it is still an isolated example of this iconography.


The composition from Morcego introduces an important consideration when comparing a living masking or featherwork tradition with a prehistoric painting tradition. The Morcego composition cannot be confirmed as a representation of a men's corn ceremony, although it is strikingly similar to that of the Kayapó. However, these paintings are part of a tradition of anthropomorphization that is still reflected in the living ceremonies. The participants in masking ceremonies are people wearing adornments. The rock art looks like people wearing adornments. The primary commonalities between these arts are that they both represent stylized anthropomorphic forms and they were both made by Brazilian Indians. The elevated diadem of the Kayapó is both a metaphor (for the sky and the descent of humans), and a metonym (the feathers symbolize birds, and their association with Kayapó cosmology). It is not a naturalistic representation of the sky, a bird, or even corn. The figures in the Morcego composition should not be automatically considered as merely naturalistic representations, documentations, of people with headdresses.23 It is possible, even probable, that the same use of metaphor or metonym was behind the subject matter of the Morcego composition.

The following sections will introduce basic masking forms that are found throughout Northeast and Central Brazil. They resemble the anthropomorphs characteristic of Angelim and Serra Branca Style rock art. The subsequent interpretations will not presume that the rock art is a prehistoric documentation of similar masking ceremonies (people in masks). Rather, living examples of when and why certain personages (spirits, deities, ancestors) are made present through masking will be introduced and compared with the formal qualities of the figures in the rock art. This will be the basis for proposing that perhaps the rock art functioned in a way similar to the masks—by making certain personages present—without attempting to identify a specific personage, ceremony, or even a responsible ethnic group.



3. Levi-Strauss, Raw and the Cooked, 167.

4. The first people to adorn themselves in this way were the Mebengokre heroes Kukrytwir and Kukrytkakō. They were the ones responsible for killing the giant harpy eagle (ąkti), whose feathers scattered and became all birds. Kukrytwir and Kukrytkakō, covered with feathers from the battle, became the first Kayapó leaders, and were responsible for initiating all important institutions (Banner, "Mitos dos ķndios kayapó," 53; and Verswijver, Kaiapó, Amazonia, 52-53, 57). Note on spelling: When quoting Indian names or terms, the spelling will follow the original authors' (e.g., Kaiapó, in Verswijver's title), but will otherwise conform to current spellings (e.g., Kayapó) as used in the most recent sources (primarily, Carneiro da Cunha, História dos Ķndios no Brasil, 2nd ed., 1998).

5. Verswijver, Kaiapó, Amazonia, 57-58.

6. Generally, this harvest occurs from the end of the wet season through the beginning of the dry season. The first harvest occurs around January (Verswijver, Mekranoti, 130), but corn continues to grow until the dry season, around April or May (Nimuendaju, Eastern Timbira, 62, 84).

7. This is called atoroti ngreką ("the shell of the eggs of the tinamou"), ngreką ōk ("painting with eggshell"), or ąkngre ōk ("painting with bird's eggs") (Verswijver, Kaiapó, Amazonia, 59).

8. Verswijver, Kaiapó, Amazonia, 75-78, and Mekranoti, 130-131.

9. Verswijver, Kaiapó, Amazonia, 75-78, and Mekranoti, 130-131; Völker and Dyckerhoff, Federarbeiten der Indianer, 227; and, Berta Ribeiro, Dicionįrio artesanato, 120. One ąkkąpa-ri in the Museu do Ķndio technical reserve (object no. 312*artindia) features a six-sided diadem of colored cotton thread (fig. 145). This most closely resembles the painted figures at Morcego. Unfortunately, there is no information on the manufacture or use of this piece included in the museum's database (donated in 1994).

10. The following summary of the use and meaning of the ąkkąpa-ri is paraphrased from Verswijver, Kaiapó, Amazonia, 22-23, 33, 75-78, and Mekranoti, 130-132.

11. In the corn ceremonies that Verswijver witnessed, the Mebengokre had forty distinct versions of the ąkkąpa-ri. The Mebengokre keep thirty-five species of birds as "pets" (basically as "feather factories"), with parrots, parakeets, eagles, toucans, and macaws, being the most important. While the men are primarily the ones who make and wear featherwork, women are the only ones who have the rights to keep the birds (in fact, all "pets").

12. Verswijver, Kaiapó, Amazonia, 33. See also Terence Turner's discussion of similar information in "The Social Skin," 123.

13. See pp. 216-217 in Chapter 4 (Indigenous Responses to Rock Art).

14. Verswijver does not make it explicit, but it is perhaps significant that the pa (north and south) and the ipōk-ri (center) are frequently painted black (biological being, inner self, dead) covered with red (sensory contact with the outside world), and outlined along the edges with white (terminal state, complete transcendence). The kąjkwa krax and kąjkwa nhōt (east and west) are usually solid red.

15. Verswijver relates that they consider themselves "the feather people" although the name they give themselves, Mebengokre, translates as "the people of the watering place" (Verswijver, Kaiapó, Amazonia, 11-12). "Kayapó" is the name used in the early reports, and probably means "resembling apes" (most likely a perjorative term from non-Kayapó). Historically, there were three main groups: the Irć'a mrayre (Irć'ćmranh-re in Verswijver; "those who tread on the plains"), the Goroti Kumrenhtx ("the people of the really big group"), and the Porekru (Porekry in Verswijver; "the people of the small bamboo"). As Verswijver put it, "those groups which decided to live in friendship with the Whites have since disappeared from the face of the earth. Before 1930, two of the three Porekry sub-groups died out, and all of the big Irć'ćmranh-re group was doomed to the same fate." The Goroti Kumrenhtx is the most populous group surviving (80% of all living Kayapó), and includes the Mebengokre, Kuben Kran Kein, Gorotire, and Txukahamće. The sole surviving group of the Porekry are the Purukarot ("the people of the sweet potatoes in the field"), referred to as the Xikrin in most ethnographies (Ibid.).

16. Turner, "The Social Skin," 130-131.

17. A single Txukahamće example is in the technical reserve of the Museu do Ķndio, Rio de Janeiro (object no. 319*artindia). It was donated to the museum in July 1994. No additional literature is available on this item, nor its use among, or manufacture by the Txukahamće. It is very similar to the ąkkąpa-ri of their neighbors the Mebengokre, including the characteristic shape of the beeswax kutop, and therefore could have been acquired from them.

18. Braun, Arts of the Amazon, fig. 85; and, Vidal, "Pintura corporal e arte," 166; respectively.

19. It is likely that the Suya (Jź, from the northern limit of the Xingu culture area, Mato Grosso) also have a similar headdress. The cover of Athony Seeger's 1981 text, Nature and Society in Central Brazil, shows a photgraph of (apparently) a corpse prepared for burial (fig. 148). It has what appears to be a Suya variant of the kutop with a stick protruding from the top (the photo does not show a diadem). Unfortunately, this is the only photograph included in the entire book, and no credit or information is provided for it.

20. Buriti palm (Mauritia vinifera and flexuosa).

21. Vidal, "Pintura corporal e arte," 166 and fig. 52.

22. Verswijver, Kaiapó, Amazonia, 11-12.

23. Or as Pessis put it, "decorated religious vestments" (Pessis and Guidon, "Registros Rupestres," 24).

Additional Excerpts:

Sample Illustrations

Table of Contents

Excerpt from the Introduction

Excerpt from Chapter 1

Excerpt from Chapter 2

Excerpt from Chapter 3

Excerpt from Chapter 4

Excerpt from Conclusions

Excerpt from the Appendix

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