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Mundurukú Headdress: a glimpse of life in the Amazon rainforest

A conversation between Dr. Jago Cooper (Curator, Head of the Americas, The British Museum) and Dr. Steven Zucker in front of: Headdress (coifa), before 1869, Arara, Mutum and Macaw(?) feathers, cord, 40 x 24 cm, Mundurukú people, Para, Brazil (The British Museum)

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


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  • male robot hal style avatar for user Alex McDaniel
    At , why is it that so many different cultures use bird feathers for rituals and dress?
    (5 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user BrianWillott
    When they say "macaw or vulture", is that because they don't know where those feathers are from or does it mean that the feathers of those two birds were both used? A macaw and a vulture are pretty different.
    (3 votes)
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    • leaf orange style avatar for user Jake Suzuki
      They aren't sure which bird the long red feathers came from, it could've been a macaw or a vulture, as there are some very colourful vultures in the world.
      They would have to take the headdress apart and clocely study the feather to conclusively identify the species of bird, and its not really worth the possible damage to the headdress.
      So they split the difference and say it could be either type of bird.
      As far as a concrete answer to your questions: as far as I can tell, one type of feather was used, and they aren't sure which species it came from, since there are several possible choices.
      (2 votes)
  • old spice man blue style avatar for user Roy Bell
    So many of the Amazon cultures use feathered headresses. Were they developed independently, or was there cultural transfer, or did everything come from a common historical source?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Gabriela702
    When they say "macaw or vulture", is that because they don't know where those feathers are from or does it mean that the feathers of those two birds were both used? A macaw and a vulture are pretty different.
    (0 votes)
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Video transcript

(bright piano music) - [Steven] I'm in the British Museum with Jago Cooper and we're looking at this amazing headdress. At first glance, it looks like it's constructed entirely out of feathers. - [Jago] Yeah, that's right, and we're down in the King Edward's basement, deep in the bowels of the British Museum. And we're looking here at a Mundurukú headdress, which does indeed seem to be made entirely of feathers. - [Steven] Who are the Mundurukú? - [Jago] The Mundurukú are an indigenous community, which live on the Rio Tapajós right in the heart of the Amazon between the upper and lower Amazons. Looking at a map of the Amazon, we're on the south side of the Rio Amazon, and the Rio Tapajós is one of the tributaries leading into it. - [Steven] We're seeing this headdress in this basement strongroom, but it's meant to be seen in a very different environment. - [Jago] So we have to always understand the connection between the object and the place of origin. And this is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, with some of the most wonderful birds and animals living in it, and this is a reflection of that. - [Steven] And I'm seeing at least three different kinds of feathers. I'm assuming they're from three different kinds of birds. - [Jago] We know some of the species of birds. This is a Arara bird, a Mutum bird, and perhaps Macaw feathers or from a vulture. - [Steven] The Arara are the yellow feathers that are around the back. - [Jago] Yeah, the Mutum are these black feathers. And then we have these lovely red or orange tail feathers which come down are likely to be Macaw or a vulture. - [Steven] Whoever constructed this, is using the feathers in a way that is taking into account the quality of that feather. You've got those long tail feathers, functioning almost like long braids of hair. And the short feathers really functioning as tufts, and the Ararat delineating the turn of the back of the head. - [Jago] Absolutely not only are they selecting these feathers for their aesthetic colors, what they look like. I think there's also another interesting layer which is that the birds themselves have particular characteristics. Particularly myths surrounding them that perhaps go back for hundreds of years. So what this means to people is not just what it looks like, but what it means about the animals, the landscape, the environment from which they come. - [Steven] So the behaviors of the birds. The calls of the birds are being referenced in the use of these feathers. - [Jago] Imagine that you live in the rainforest, and that you're entirely reliant on the environment around you. Then you're entire way of life creates a knowledge base, it's like education. If you think about the education of Khan Academy, education of the environment in the forest systems. Within each feather, within each animal, within each part of that forest is a whole education system that is passed down through the generations. - [Steven] So this headdress is about a hundred years old. Is it fair to say that it's continuing a tradition that is older? - [Jago] Absolutely this is definitely continuing traditions which have gone on for a long time. So what's important is that these don't preserve in the Amazon. - [Steven] Well because these are organic materials that's an incredibly humid environment. Things survive when they're in dry environments. - [Jago] When you live in the tropics, you're whole way of life is about expediency. Things just go, you know you change your house roof, every few years, everything happens on a seasonal basis. The whole timelines of the environment are different. And so the idea of The British Museum, to be the exemplar of antiquity and permeance of culture through time. It's almost at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Both are absolutely crucial, to understanding material culture and the massive diversity around the world. - [Steven] And if there is longevity, it's longevity of tradition rather than of the object itself. - [Jago] Absolutely, it's longevity of tradition and knowledge, and it's interesting to think about how knowledge is passed down through generations. Through social practice, through people doing things in front of each other and learning through time. - [Steven] So how was this used? - [Jago] This is definitely a headdress which is used at particular ritual occasions. It's incredibly dramatic often associated with a scepter which you'd hold in your hand. So this not an everyday item. It's there to display power and authority within the community and within potentially a dance or a ceremony which is being carried out. - [Steven] Although this object is over a hundred years old, it's in such incredible condition, and I'm assuming that the Mundurukú don't have modern glues. How is this held together? - [Jago] 'Cause it has this exterior of fragility of these delicate feathers. But if you look just beneath the surface, you can see that there's a very closely knit web of string made from local plant materials, and that binds it all together. And each of these feathers is stuck within that lattice. - [Steven] Imagining somebody wearing this, these feathers moving and there's an iridescence to the darker feathers. - [Jago] Materials don't have have just one quality. So you can imagine the light shining off the feathers. It also shines off the water of the river. It shines off of the trees, and so this starts to connect up themes of the environment which bind together and give them object meaning. - [Steven] I can't help but think that wearing feathers, conveys some of the power and the special qualities of a bird to the human who wears it. Do we have any sense of what the symbolism is? - [Jago] This idea of taking on the qualities of animals, is something which is very common throughout the whole of the Americas. You can't talk about this particular object, 'cause I don't know the connotations within the Mundurukú. But yes the idea that humans can take on the power of animals is definitely a common theme among many cultures of the Amazon, and it's intriguing because it often gives the idea of the qualities they're looking for. So sight, the idea that a bird can go up above the Amazon, kind of be able to see great distances. Also it ties in which about time, about how different temporalities of life within the forest into weave, and how humans are part of that great system of life. - [Steven] Dissolving the distinction between animal and human. - [Jago] Between human and nature, this idea that the forest is this sort of dark place which is an inhuman place. This is the classic example of why all of that understanding of human environment interrelationships is connected within Amazon society. (bright piano music)