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Kayapo people

Kayapó chiefs Raoni Metuktire, Kaye, Kadjor, and Panara, Brazil
Total population
8,638 (2010)[1]
Regions with significant populations
 Brazil (Mato Grosso, Pará)[1]

The Kayapo (Portuguese: Caiapó ) people are indigenous peoples in Brazil, from the plain islands of the Mato Grosso and Pará in Brazil, south of the Amazon Basin and along Rio Xingu and its tributaries.[1] Kayapo call themselves "Mebengokre", which means "people of the wellspring". Kayapo people also call outsiders "Poanjos".


  • Location 1
  • Name 2
  • Language 3
  • Land control and environmental issues 4
  • Botany and agriculture 5
  • References 6


The Kayapo tribe lives alongside the Xingu River in the eastern part of the Amazon Rainforest, near the Amazon basin, in several scattered villages ranging in population from one hundred to one thousand people.[2] Their land consists of tropical rainforest savannah (grassland) and is arguably the largest tropical protected area in the world, covering 11,346,326 million hectares of Neotropical forests and scrubland containing many endangered species.[3] They have small hills scattered around their land and the area is criss-crossed by river valleys. The larger rivers feed into numerous pools and creeks, most of which don’t have official names.

In 2010, there was an estimated 8,638 Kayapo people,[1] which is an increase from 7,096 in 2003.[4] Subgroups of the Kayapo include the Xikrin, Gorotire, Mekranoti and Metyktire.[5] Their villages typically consist of a dozen huts. A centrally located hut serves as a meeting place for village men to discuss community issues.[6]


The term Kayapó, also spelled Caiapó or Kaiapó, comes from neighboring peoples and means "those who look like monkeys". This name is probably based on a Kayapó men's ritual involving monkey masks. The autonym for one village is Mebêngôkre, which means "the men from the water hole." Other names for them include Gorotire, Kararaô, Kuben-Kran-Krên, Kôkraimôrô, Mekrãgnoti, Metyktire, and Xikrin.[7]


They speak the Kayapo language, which belongs to the Jê language family. They also speak Portuguese.

Land control and environmental issues

Kayapó headdress, or ákkápa-ri, ca. 1910, National Museum of the American Indian

The Kayapo have incorporated a great deal of traditional myth, ritual and cosmology [8] into their practices honouring the importance of the earth's relationship with the people. Threats to the forest home of the Kayapo have been an area of extreme concern in the last 30 years, beginning with mining and logging enterprises which threatened to destroy the rainforest, and thus the Kayapos' way of life. In the village of Gorotire, the Kayapo made a deal with prospectors that mining could take place as long as they received a percentage of the mining proceeds and had their territory demarcated.[9] The gold mining operation was initially seen as a positive development, which brought money into the local economy. With money filtering into the economy, better housing, improved education and a resulting level of health were achieved. However, the initial benefits of mining also resulted in high levels of pollution in the area which seeped into water ways and nearby river banks [9] and decimated local fish populations with high quantities of mercury.[10] In addition to striking environmental threats, social habits began to change with the introduction of outside influences in the area. Men began to spend more time in town drinking, and engaging in "conspicuous consumption and womanising." [9] This increased interaction with outside groups elevated the levels of disease, which posed an imminent threat to the people because of their relative seclusion and limited access to medical care. In addition, the diminishing resource base caused conflicts between the Kayapo and neighbouring villages which often resulted in explosive and long standing disputes.[10] The Kayapo people used forceful tactics to banish loggers and miners in some areas, as well as to establish themselves as an economic force.Developers ranging from gold miners to soy farmers and cattle ranchers were often killed.[2]

In 1987, new land issues arose when the government proposed a series of hydroelectric dams to be built in the Xingu River area, namely the [13] The Kayapo attended the meeting to protest the hydroelectric dam development whilst in traditional costume and wielding machetes. Perhaps "the most dramatic single image to emerge from this tumultuous gathering was that of Tuíra, a female indigenous leader, angrily waving a machete in the face of engineer José Antônio Muniz Lópes (later president of Eletronorte, the state power company in charge of the dam), which had worldwide repercussions and probably influenced further postponement of the project” [11]

An important media element of the presentations was the appearance of the rock star Sting during the demonstration. Sting would continue to support the Kayapo in their efforts to protect their land, and in 1989 he would found the Rainforest Foundation Fund. Three years later, the first privately funded demarcation of the Brazilian indigenous reserve was made possible by the RFF.[9] In 2008, they were again threatened by secretive government plans to build a series of hydroelectric dams on their land. The Belo Monte Dam resurfaced, and would be built on the Xingu River, the homeland to many Kayapo people. The Construction plans continue to be fought by the Kayapo people.[14] Government corruption continues to weaken the resistance efforts of the indigenous and opposition forces within the government.[15] Kayapo leaders protesting the creation of the dam are constantly threatened, and some have been killed by developers and land prospectors.[11] Because of the nature of the circumstances, these crimes are rarely punished.

The forest is the home of the Kayapo and they rely on its bounty for their food and medicinal needs. Rivers are essential to their way of life and gold mining in Brazil is polluting the rivers, while the proposed Belo Monte Dam project would use up vast amounts of resources essential to the survival and livelihood of the Kayapo and would severely impact fishing conditions.[11] Between 18,000-25,000 (indirectly associated) jobs will be created by the construction of the dam.[11] These numbers will have a vast and far reaching implication on population growth in the area which has the very real potential to put even more pressure on the fragile forest infrastructure and ever decreasing natural resource base, escalating concerns of flooding and deforestation in particular.

Botany and agriculture

External video
Kayapó Headdress: a glimpse of life in the Amazon rainforest, Smarthistory at Khan Academy, (5:15), November 25, 2014

The resource patterns of the Kayapo are non-destructive to the resource base but require a very large area of land [3] The Kayapo people use shifting cultivation, a type of farming where land is cultivated for a few years, after which the people move to a new area. New farmland is cleared and the old farm is allowed to lie fallow and replenish itself.[16] The particular type of shifting agriculture employed most frequently by the Kayapo is the slash and burn technique. This process allows forested areas to be cut down and burned in order for cultivation of the lands to take place. These “new fields” “peak in production of principal domesticated crops in two or three years but continue to reproduce for many years; e.g., sweet potatoes for four to five years, yams and taro for five to six years, manioc for four to six years, and papaya for five or more years”.[3] Old fields are important for their concentration of medicinal plants.[3] With the spread of indigenous groups, trail-side plantings and “forest fields” were also used for cultivating crops.[3] Trails systems were extensive in the area and were used for transporting and growing crops along their margins. The field system was done by utilizing either naturally occurring or man made clearings in the forest for crop cultivation which required little maintenance afterward.[13] The Kayapo also cultivated “war gardens” which were hidden plots used as a resource in times of food scarcity.[13]

The Kayapo use approximately 250 different food plants and 650 different medicinal plants that they find around their village.[17]

They have trade agreements with The Body Shop.[18]


  1. ^ a b c d "Introduction: Kayapo". Povos Indígenas no Brasil. Retrieved January 16, 2012. 
  2. ^ a b Dowie, Mark. Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples. The MIT Press. 2009. Chapter 15. 978-0-262-01261-4.
  3. ^ a b c d e Posey, Darrel A., Indigenous Management of Tropical Forest Ecosystems: The Case of the Kayapo Indians of the Brazilian Amazon. Dove, Michael R., & Carpenter, C., Environmental Anthropology: A Historical Reader. Blackwell Publishing. 2008. Part 1.1. 978-1-4051-1125-6.
  4. ^ "Bruce Parry's Amazon - About The Journey - The Kayapo". BBC UK. Retrieved January 16, 2012. 
  5. ^ "Gorotire". Countries and Their Cultures. Retrieved January 16, 2012. 
  6. ^ Popovic, Mislav. "Kayapo". Traditions And Customs. Retrieved January 16, 2012. 
  7. ^ "Name: Kayapo". Povos Indígenas no Brasil. Retrieved January 16, 2012. 
  8. ^ a b Conway, Jill K., Keniston, K., & Marx, L., “Earth, Air, Fire, Water: Humanistic Studies of the Environment” The University of Massachusetts Press, 1999, p. 157.
  9. ^ a b c d Rabben, L., Unnatural Selection: The Yanomami, the Kayapo, and the Onslaught of Civilisation. University of Washington Press. 1998. Chapter 3. 0-295-97745-0.
  10. ^ a b Zanotti, L., & Chernela, J., November 2008. "Conflicting Cultures of Nature: Ecotourism, Education and the Kayapo of the Brazilian Amazon" Tourism Geographies. Vol. 10, No. 4, 495-521.
  11. ^ a b c d e Hall, A., & Bradford S., 2012."Development, Dams and Dilma: the Saga of Belo Monte" Critical Sociology. 38(6) 851-862.DOI: 10.1177/0896920512440712
  12. ^ Clendenning, Alan (May 21, 2008). "Amazon Indians Attack Official Over Dam Project".  
  13. ^ a b c d Posey, Darrel A., Environmental and Social Implications of Pre- and Postcontact Situations on Brazilian Indians: The Kayapo and a New Amazonian Synthesis. Roosevelt, A., Amazonian Indians: From Prehistory to the Present. The University of Arizona Press. 1994. Chapter 12. 0-8165-1436-4.
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ Wilson, Edward O., ed. (1988). Biodiversity, Part 3. National Academies Press. p. 140.  
  17. ^ McConnell, Douglas John (2003). The forest farms of Kandy: and other gardens of complete design. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 108.  
  18. ^ "Kayapo: The Body Shop states its case". Retrieved January 16, 2012. 
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