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Kayapó Headdress: a glimpse of life in the Amazon rainforest

Headdress, 20th century, feathers (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus and Psarocolius decumanus) and plant materials, approximately 1 m x 60 cm, Kayapó (Cayapo) people, Para, Brazil (The British Museum)

Speakers: Dr. Jago Cooper (Curator, Head of the Americas,  The British Museum) and Dr. Steven Zucker

Special thanks to Dr. Jago Cooper, Matthew Cock, Kate Jarvis and The British Museum


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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    Dr. Zucker pointed out that the yellow of the feathers is so brilliant that it looks fake! Is it possible that decades from now this headdress will look faded and not as brilliant as it does today? Or is there something about the yellow in the feathers that will last and last over time?
    (5 votes)
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  • hopper cool style avatar for user ☣Ƹ̵̡Ӝ̵̨̄Ʒ☢ Ŧeaçheя  Simρsoɳ ☢Ƹ̵̡Ӝ̵̨̄Ʒ☣
    Wow to look at one of those maps, you might get the idea that the river system could play the roll of a highway system in other countries, at least from the movement of freight perspective. Can it really work like that, or only during certain seasons or something like that? Thanks! T.S.
    (4 votes)
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    • female robot ada style avatar for user Vicki Bamman
      Actually, the idea of rivers serving the same role as highways has been used by many writers. Yes, over time the course of rivers changes, but over time so does the route followed by highways. Consider, for instance, that of Route 66. When first made it ran through town; later there was a loop around town called "bypass 66"; later still the bypass route became the main route and the route through town became "business 66"; and now many towns that were served by Route 66 are now near (and sometimes not very near) the interstate highways that replaced it, such as I-55 through Illinois.

      Before railroads and cars (and highways), few towns were established away from a source of fresh water, often rivers, and these would have provided a route for trade. River systems have used for transport of goods and persons throughout the world for most of human existence, and many towns grew up beside rivers. Look at maps of anywhere in the world. Many, even most, large towns and cities are on or near a river. Think of Egypt, Mesopotamia, London and Paris, Frankfurt, Rome, Buenos Aires. And besides modern cities, you can also look at trade networks in the Amazon basin and in Africa and Australia. Many of them followed rivers. There are exceptions, of course, but generally speaking, it really can work like that.
      Sometimes the rivers are only navigable part of the year, but people who relied on river for transport (or still rely, such as the barges on the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri rivers) would know the seasons when they could use the river. The same was (and is) true for those who rely on ocean transport. Some times of the year are safer than others.
      (4 votes)
  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user rick lee
    Why are the colors these people use so brilliant? Their use of color is just wonderful! good luck and good learning
    (2 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user esputt93
    *** These people ARE being displaced.
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

(piano music) - [Voiceover] I'm in the British Museum with Jago Cooper, and we're looking at this gorgeous, brilliant yellow headdress. - [Voiceover] So yeah, this is a Kayapo headdress. It's actually quite big. It's probably almost a meter in height and maybe 60cm in width. - [Voiceover] The interior space is larger than a human head. - [Voiceover] It is, but surprisingly this was actually worn by children. So, this is a headdress that is used as a rite of passage ceremony. There would have been a string across the middle, and it would be wrapped around the child's head. - [Voiceover] It's in such good condition. - [Voiceover] This object came in in 1990. So it's actually quite a recent acquisition. - [Voiceover] So this is not an ancient object. This is a 20th century object. - [Voiceover] Exactly right. It came in in 1990, after a lot of tension on the Kayapo about a dam building project in the region that brought the world's attention to this very, very remote place. - [Voiceover] And this is because these people were being displaced by a dam. - [Voiceover] There was a plan to build a dam in the region off the water tributes of the Xingu, and so these people became the focus of the world's attention. - [Voiceover] And the Xingu is a tributary of the Amazon River. - [Voiceover] Right. So we're basically in the south central portion of the Amazon, between the upper and lower Amazon, and the Xingu is a big river which runs from the south into the Amazon, and the Kayapo live on the tributaries and on the banks of the Xingu. This is a river and landscape in deep tropical forests. However, as expansion, and drive of industrialized life has encroached on the Amazon, this is one of those tribes who's been impacted upon. - [Voiceover] So what we're seeing is an object that is from the 20th century, from an industrial era but from a people that have one foot in ancient culture and are also very cognizant of the way their world is changing. - [Voiceover] Absolutely. What this object represents is a way of life that has existed for thousands of years, and the continuation of those practices. But it comes from a time period of great change. - [Voiceover] These yellow feathers are gorgeous. Are they dyed? Or are these natural colors? - [Voiceover] These are all natural colors. So you do get some feathers which are dyed by peoples in different parts of the world, but in the Amazon, because you get such wonderful birds, and such beautiful, brilliant colors, there's no need to dye them. So those red and blue feathers at the top are from a Macaw. And the yellow feathers are from a Psarocolius Decumanus. It's the scientific name for these species of birds. - [Voiceover] I don't have those in my backyard. - [Voiceover] No, I don't think many people do. It's incredible also thinking about the number of birds which are often used to create one of these. - [Voiceover] When feathers are really precious things, sometimes the birds are actually cultivated. They're not hunted in the wild always. Do we know what the case is for this? - [Voiceover] I don't know whether these were domesticated birds. But I think what's interesting about that question is that it provides a different framework for understanding what is a domesticated animal. Because are these living in cages? No. But are they brought in and sort of slightly domesticated by being fed and brought into the region and looked after? And not hunted? So it's about looking at the cultural practices which look after the flora and fauna around the community. That the animals and birds that live in the community. And that ties in with this theme of environmental management. - [Voiceover] It's really interesting, because from my western perspective, I immediately think of either something being, basically, caged or hunted. So there's this really much more respectful middle ground. - [Voiceover] And this is fundamental to this whole culture. They feel they've managed this landscape successfully for thousands of years. And therefore they don't want change, and the fact that they're there and living such good lives is proof of that. - [Voiceover] So how was this used? What does this mean? - [Voiceover] So these objects are not normally worn everyday. This particular featherwork and other types of headdress are used for special occasions, and therefore the symbology that the symbols are held within this object have particular meaning. So we know that these objects are used for rites of passage, often in a naming ceremony, when the child would be given names, often at quite a young age. And the child would be given this headdress to wear. - [Voiceover] This is before adolescence. - [Voiceover] Yes, before adolescence. Every time that you look at an object you look through your own cultural references. These people look at a bird. When they see this, they see the birds. They see the life of that bird and the myths surrounding that bird and that is what they see. They see their own cultural references, which are very focused in the forest. - [Voiceover] And so the feathers of a particular bird are not simply being used for their color, but they're also being used for what the bird itself signifies. - [Voiceover] Yes. And also the object, how it's created, who's made this object ... Is it made by the family, or by a priest? That is the meaning of the object, so when the person looks at it ... - [Voiceover] So let's take a really close look at it. The feathers are closely overlapped so there's this real dense quality to that color. It's so saturated. And the quills are then bound together, first with red thread, and then blue, and then they disappear under this really complicated series of flat reeds. - [Voiceover] Everything is made from natural plant materials and animals. So this is a tradition of techniques that could have gone back for thousands of years. There's no sort of European introduced technology going on here. It's showing how these technologies are passed down through the generations. And so it's combining the feathers with plant materials and naturally produced fibers that bind it all together. - [Voiceover] Here we're seeing it laid flat. But I'm trying to imagine what it would be like if it were suspended by a string from a child's head who's moving around. The feather would be catching the wind. It's flat and it would function a little like a sail. And so this is all in motion. - [Voiceover] Absolutely. You can see the lights reflecting off it there. And that gives every object a different quality. (piano music)