Tucum palm tree growing deep in the Amazon jungle.
THREE HUNDRED YEARS AGO, there may have been more tattooed tribes living in the dense jungles and swamps of South America than anywhere else on earth. Some groups tattooed for medicinal purposes or to ward away evil spirits; others etched designs into their bodies to show success in battle or to venerate or imitate the mythic cultural heroes of the past. Still more attempted to transform themselves into predatory animals or gain spiritual guardians with their ritual markings, while others believed that their ancestral marks transformed “girls” into “women” and “boys” into “men.”
Today, however, there are less than ten tribes that continue to wear or tattoo in South America including the Matis, Matses, Karajá, Ikpeng, and Kayabi (amongst other as-of-yet “uncontacted” groups presumed to tattoo) who live in remote and inaccessible parts of the Amazonian hinterlands. Most of these groups live by hunting, fishing, and gathering much like Christopher Columbus would have found the inhabitants of the New World over 500 years ago.
Silvana’s facial tattoos were made by the last Kayabi tattoo master who was recently murdered. Her name is tattooed in small letters on her forearm. Her Kayabi name
glyph is tattooed on her leg.
Yet over the last century, unsolicited contact with “white” outsiders (blancos) has brought deforestation, mining, rubber tapping, oil exploration, missionization, and violence to indigenous lands and their peoples fueling conquest, disease, cultural devastation, and the loss of tattooing tradition itself. More specifically, European-introduced diseases, in which the local people have no natural immunity, have radically altered the demographic landscape of Amazonia. For decades, epidemics like Hepatitis C, smallpox, and measles have claimed the lives of village elders, shamans, and tattoo masters alike, each of which are the gatekeepers of cultural traditions like tattooing and the knowledge associated with them. As one noted Brazilian ethnographer recently put it: “Outsiders change everything, and once you make contact [with Indians], you begin the process of destroying their universe.”
Thus, FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Índio), the Brazilian agency that deals with indigenous peoples, has for decades carved out numerous reserves in the Amazon to curb such “contact” in an attempt to preserve what is left of the indigenous peoples who live there. However, many human rights advocates argue that there are not enough of these reserves for indigenous people who dwell outside of the Amazon forest. For example, tens of thousands of “forgotten Indians” like the Guarani live in a state of despair in ghetto-like Indian reserves created on the outskirts of Brazilian towns like Dourados in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. There is no land for them to hunt or farm and these peoples are largely cut off from society and the Brazilian economy. Some Indians survive on a $40 government hand-out each month, while others find menial jobs like cutting sugar cane around $8 a day during a four-month season or they turn to pushing drugs. But Indians living in more “generous” reserves back in the rainforest, like the Kayabi who inhabit the Parque Indígena do Xingu in the State of Mato Grosso, find life much easier than their urban counterparts. They are more likely to be killed by a jaguar or alligator rather than suffer death by suicide, a heart attack, or worse back in the Guarani reserve near Dourados. In the first three months of 2007, for example, two indigenous youths were decapitated, a chief shot to death, and numerous people were assaulted by blancos near the Dourados reserve.
A lone Kayabi fisherman (far right) casts his line into the Xingu River at dawn. His fishing platform is a submerged dugout canoe.
Aerial view of the Xingu River (background) and Reserve.
The wife of tribal elder Javari is one of only a handful of elder women in Capivara village who wears the facial tattoos of her ancestors. She was tattooed in the 1950s back in the traditional homeland of the Kayabi, the Rio dos Peixes.
PARQUE INDÍGENA DO XINGU AND THE KAYABI MIGRATION
The Xingu River is the fourth largest tributary of the Amazon River and its many arms fan out across the heart of Mato Grosso state in western Brazil. During the rainy season (December to May), the Xingu valley looks and feels like a hot and humid rainforest. But during the dry season (May to November) when I visited, the region resembles a scrubby-savannah environment and the rivers seldom reach four feet in depth. Sand-beaches and sand-bars emerge in the river and on its banks, morning mists obscure the jungle beyond the river’s edge.
Despite several centuries of contact with Europeans, the region surrounding the Xingu has been home to over a dozen groups of Amerindians spread out over an enormous expanse of woodlands, scrub, swamps, and alligator and piranha-infested rivers. In 1961, much of the region was designated as the Parque Indígena do Xingu, an indigenous reserve comprising some 6.9 million acres of land that today houses some 5,500 inhabitants, including 1,000 Kayabi, from 17 different tribes. (By comparison, over 11,000 Indians including the Guarani live in a much smaller 8,600 acre reserve further south on the outskirts of Dourados.)
Another elder Kayabi woman with faint facial tattoos. The traditional facial tattoos of women are
Collectively, all of the people who live in the Xingu Reserve, which is the size of Israel, are known as Xinguanos. To safeguard them from epidemics and social disorganization brought by “contact” with outsiders, the reserve is closed to any outside development, such as ranching, farming, mining, or tourism. Missionaries have also been prohibited. As a result, the park has had a history of being relatively well protected from interests that freely operate in other frontier areas of Brazil, like Dourados, allowing the different tribes that reside here to maintain their traditional way of life. This includes holding their ceremonies, speaking their languages, and maintaining their cultural values.
From the standpoint of tattoo (art) history, however, the Xingu Indigenous Park is perhaps one of only two areas in South America (the other is near where the borders of Colombia, Peru, and Brazil meet) where you can find at least two indigenous groups that continue to tattoo today: the Ikpeng and the Kayabi.
However, not all of the groups that live in the Xingu Reserve traditionally lived here. The Kayabi began moving to the territory from Pará state and the Rio dos Peixes region of western Mato Grosso as early as the late 1950s to evade persecution from rubber tappers, loggers, farmers, miners and other Euro-Brazilians who forced them from their lands, raped their women, or murdered them. Today, approximately 200 Kayabi still live in their traditional homelands outside of the Xingu Reserve, but they are slowly becoming integrated into blanco culture in a mix of poverty and hate. They endure there because this is where most of their ancestors are buried and they insist that they must remain behind to protect the spirits of their ancestors from “vanishing” from this world.
Jemy Kaiabi and an Apiaká warrior drawn by Hercules Florence, 1828. The Apiaká were traditional enemies of the Kayabi, but today they intermarry. In the past, Apiaká men were tattooed by women who used thorns from the tucum palm. The pattern consisted of three lines extending from each ear, one to a little below the nose, one to a corner of the mouth, and one to the chin. At the age of 14, the tattooing was completed with a rectangle around the mouth, a symbol that the wearer could eat human flesh. The designs tattooed on the body are said to have illustrated their war and hunting deeds, but I believe they were name glyphs like the ones placed on this warrior’s thighs.
Before the Kayabi migrations, all of the groups in the Xingu were more or less at war with one another. But following the active suppression of warfare and headhunting in the area in the years following World War II, intertribal ties increased and now they remain stronger than ever. Of course, all of the Xinguanos rapidly lost their anger against their former enemies because they knew that the reserve was the only place in the world where they were going to survive, grow their families, and keep their culture more or less intact. The formation of the reserve has had a significant role in keeping the peace among the various indigenous groups living in the Xingu valley, and in fact many groups now intermarry with several of their former enemies.
Jemy, village elder Javari, and chief Jywapãn of Capivara village.
69-year-old Javari was partially tattooed on his face back in the traditional homeland of the Kayabi, the Rio dos Peixes region, in the mid 50s. “My tattoos are not complete because I couldn’t stand the pain. That’s one of the reasons the youth today are not getting tattooed because it is too painful,” he says. “In my days as a youngster, everyone had tattoos. But then for many years we didn’t have a tattooist.” Javari is brandishing a heavy war club made of bacayuva wood which was used in traditional warfare to crush the skulls of enemies. Today, it serves as a symbol of authority.
THE KAYABI AND TRADITIONAL WARFARE
The Kayabi were probably first contacted by the French naturalist Francis de Castelnau during his expedition to Brazil in the 1840s. From that point forward, they were characterized as very “warlike” and “indomitable” Indians who as an isolated tribe were willing to kill intruders to defend their lands, their people, and to avenge the murder or abduction of their family members.
A,B) Apiaká facial tattoos, ca. 1900. According to several Kayabi elders, the Kayabi copied the facial tattoo of the Apiaká, very close relatives to the Kayabi, but also great enemies. “The Kayabi killed an Apiaká who had a tattoo. Thus they learned the tattooing from them; they did the tattooing. The Kayabi had many names for tattoos. And this was how they learned it; tattooing is not Kayabi it is Apiaká.”
“It was like that: our ancestors fought with the Apiaká, but they shouldn’t have because they are related, our people. The Apiaká say the same of us Kayabi.”
C) Hercules Florence drew a young Apiaká man in the 1820’s with a tattoo of the figure of a jaguar on his right arm, and a man on his left.
D) Hercules Florence drawing, ca. 1820.
E) According to Florence, tattoos included parallel right angles on the chest and abdomen, and crude representations of animals, fish, men and women on their arms and legs. I think some of these “tattooed” designs may have been confused with semi-permanent genipapo body paint.
Right, the shaman Tuiarajup. He uses a jaguar bone whistle to communicate with the spirit world; it never leaves his neck. The jaguar is considered to be one of the most powerful animals living in the Xingu. It is associated with the sun, and Xingu chiefs and shamans often wear jaguar-skin headbands, armbands, or belts to associate themselves with this powerful predator.
Traditionally, their most feared enemies were two tribes that also practiced tattooing and to some degree ritualistic cannibalism: the Mundurucú and Apiaká. Although all of these groups were fearsome headhunters, the Mundurucú, who were called “father knife” and “head-cutters” by early Neo-Brazilians, were famous throughout the Amazon for the stuffed trophy heads they created from their enemies. On the other hand, the Apiaká, who are very close linguistic and cultural relatives of the Kayabi, were easily distinguished by the black rectangular tattoo placed around men’s mouths after they had earned the right to eat human flesh – a practice that was supposed to instill in them a spirit of courage! More specifically, the Apiaká quartered the bodies of their enemies killed in battle, irrespective of sex, and roasted them. The prisoners that were led to the village were eaten with elaborate ceremony by all of the people of the village. If enemy children were captured during a raid, they were brought up together with the tribe’s own children and tattooed in the Apiaká style. However, at the age of twelve or fourteen, the young captives were sacrificed ceremonially within the circle of the gathered tribe. The children’s foster fathers broke their skulls by striking them from behind with a heavy war club. The bodies were then roasted and eaten during an all-night feast. Captured enemy women suffered the same fate after cohabitating with their Apiaká husbands for some four or five years.
After a Kayabi warrior had killed his enemy, he usually brought back the victim’s head to the village. It was suspended from a pole by cotton string and as the victor danced into the village and sang songs of victory he was also ornamented with body paint to symbolize his enemy: white paint represented an Apiaká foe; red and black paint represented enemies from other tribes. Afterwards, the head was impaled on a stake and placed in the ground for all to see. Later, the trophy head was boiled in a pot and the meat was consumed by Kayabi warriors and elders of the tribe to give them spiritual strength.
Tuiarajup leading a Jawosi dance in the community hut. Today, these all-night occasions, which can last up to several weeks, are celebrated to mark the beginning of another male initiation cycle.
Kayabi warriors who had taken human lives were believed to enter into an intimate relationship with their victims. A powerful Kayabi shaman (pajé) named Tuiarajup told me: “you definitely take an enemy’s soul when you kill him. Also, the blood of the dead man begins filling your stomach which necessitates a special diet and ritual seclusion to avert spiritual ‘poisoning’ and physical transformation.” But before the warrior went into seclusion, he was entitled to have the name of his victim tattooed upon his body: “This tattoo symbol represents the new soul that he has gained as well as its spiritual power,” Tuiarajup said.
Respected village elder Tiwit leading a Jawosi dance. He carries his war equipment and sings songs that recount the deeds of his Kayabi ancestors on the battlefield.
Sometimes the name appeared as a tattooed glyph upon the head of the victim; in other cases, these names appeared on another body part. Either way, the symbol was mentally recorded by the Kayabi warrior – unless it was present on the trophy head that was brought back to the village – and repeated to the village’s tattoo master who knew every name associated with the tattooed glyphs of his people’s enemies. Of course, if a Kayabi warrior killed an enemy woman during a raid, he could bring her head back to the village as well as her name and pass it on to his wife, sister, or daughter.
Early 20th century tattoo drawing depicting traditional Kayabi name glyphs on forearms obtained through the dreams of old shamans. These tattoos were also applied to the legs and chest.
THE JAWOSI AND KAYABI INITIATION
After a kill, and amidst throngs of whooping and frenzied male admirers, a victorious Kayabi warrior would move closer to the community hut in the center of the village. By the time he reached this location, preparations for the most important of Kayabi rituals was well underway; the Jawosi war ritual was about to begin.
The Kayabi told me that in order to understand the Jawosi ritual, I not only needed to understand life, but I also needed to contemplate death and to think about how to get over periods of sadness experienced by the personal loss of a close relative. This, I said, would not be too difficult for me, since I lost my mother last year to a long “battle” with cancer and experienced the death of my best friend.
Today, the Jawosi is celebrated to: (1) end periods of mourning; (2) to celebrate the arrival of visitors or of hunters back to the village or; (3) to mark the beginning of male initiation. Yet when warfare and headhunting were still practiced several decades ago, elements (1) and (3) were combined together to celebrate the return of victorious Kayabi headhunters to the village.
Most of the songs that were sung during the Jawosi focus on the heroic deeds of valiant warriors and their encounters with indigenous enemies, as well as with “whites,” and were often generated by the singers’ own experiences in war or travel to the battlefield. In the village of Capivara where I lived with two-hundred Kayabi, these songs or “war stories” continue to be sung having been passed down through the generations. Even though there are no more wars or enemy heads, the Kayabi have returned to the ritual with a few substitutions (e.g., monkey skulls have replaced human skulls) in the context of a cultural renaissance, because they are afraid of losing touch with their ancestral traditions like other Amazonian peoples.
Profile view of Silvana’s facial tattoos.
As noted, many years ago the Jawosi was held to not only celebrate the death of an enemy, but to also prepare a new generation of Kayabi initiates to become men. Before the boys could complete this important rite of passage, however, they had to undergo a lengthy period of seclusion in their father’s hut. Otherwise, they were not allowed to become warriors, receive tattoos, or marry.
Prior to their seclusion, weeks of communal dancing in the community hut at the village center were observed, and all of the Kayabi living in surrounding villages came to pay their respects and to participate. Every song that was sung by elder men during the Jawosi dances directed the initiates on how to live, and how to face life’s challenges by confronting death through recounting war stories and being face to face with the enemy. These songs did this by specifically referencing the mythic deeds of the ancestors, of culture heroes, of slain enemies and relatives, and even evil spirits who lurked in the jungle. Oftentimes these songs resembled speeches and were studded with much metaphorical language. For example, “arrows” stood for relatives; sounds of fish = the sounds of the enemy; chopping down trees = killing an enemy; losing an arrow or axe blade = losing a relative in battle; making the kawi (manioc beer) beverage = boiling an enemy’s head to extract its teeth for a necklace (note: these were given to the pajé or village shaman who wore them for spiritual power).
Before this Kayabi initiate received the frog tattoo from Kurapi on his arm, the shaman Tuiarajup contacted his spirit helpers called ma’it. “With their help and a bit of tobacco smoke, I have to ward off all of the evil spirits in the vicinity so that they do no harm. These evil spirits live at the horizon, in the mountains, and in all of those areas where white men have destroyed the environment, killed animals, or have done harm to people. This is where evil spirits are lurking,” he said.
More or less, Jawosi songs focused on changing peoples’ perspectives on death, about showing how the deaths of others (enemies and even family members) have the potential to bring new life by creating a new generation of Kayabi “men” through initiation. But the ritual was also about human fertility as well. Just as the Jawosi was beginning, an enemy skull had been boiled and its flesh removed. The skull was then brought out to the initiates so that they could touch the head or crush the skull with a war club. Once the initiates did this, they had to go into seclusion in their father’s home because they had “changed blood;” a process that could endanger them but that could also render them more fertile.
During seclusion, the male elders of the family taught the initiates not only how to become warriors, hunters, husbands, and fathers, but also how to become leaders, public speakers, and knowledgeable adults. They were commanded to listen to everything their male relatives taught them, and for this reason their ears were pierced with the thorns of the tucum palm so that they would “listen well.” It is said that if the boy lost one of these thorns during his seclusion, that ear would be chopped off as punishment!
While in seclusion, the initiates also observed various taboos and food restrictions which reduced the “poisoning” effects of contact with the enemy’s blood that “had filled them.” In turn, after all of the ritual precepts and obligations had been met, and only after another enemy head was brought back into the village to complete the ritual period of seclusion, the initiates would then emerge and be given new names that were tattooed on their bodies to mark them as fully fledged members of Kayabi society. In some sense, this baptism in enemy blood, and the tattooing which followed, seems to have been the necessary precondition for which each initiate had to experience in order to attain adulthood.
Kurapi is an aspiring Kayabi tattooist, and his bold facial markings called jurunyta were made by the last tattoo master who was a relative. Although Kurapi has mastered many Kayabi designs, name glyph tattoos are divined by shaman like Tuiarajup. His helper spirits provide him with the name and design of a new initiate’s tattoo, and “this name and its associated design must be respected; otherwise it will bring grave danger or even death to the wearer,” he said.
Page excerpted from Jemy’s tattoo book depicting Kurapi’s facial design.
The Kayabi change their names many times during their lives. This practice coincides not only with particularly significant periods in life (e.g., birth, puberty, parenthood, or after killing an enemy) when they take on new identities and responsibilities, but also with the accumulation of “knowledge” over time which makes them “more complete” individuals.
Once a Kayabi individual reaches adulthood, that person is acknowledged as having passed through several significant rites of passage and is believed to have the capacity to finally “understand” (-kwaap) the world more fully. In turn, it is believed that the specific individual has learned to interact with “others” of various sorts: other ethnicities when traveling abroad, other spirits (sometimes ancestral), and even other families into which one marries. Through these interactions with “others,” personal knowledge of them grows to the point where the person begins to assume some of their attributes, such as their ways of speaking, emotional states, or even their behaviors. In such cases, they are usually given the name of an ancestor, an animal, or spirit being they resemble in thought, action, or appearance.
Another page from Jemy’s tattoo book showing an Apiaká woman’s thigh tattoo called Kwasiaruu that was taken by a Kayabi warrior who killed her. The book contains over one-hundred tattoo designs, and approximately fifty for the face alone.
Kayabi shamans, however, always have more names than laypersons because of their special relationship with their spiritual guides called ma’it. Ma’it live underwater, up in the sky, deep in the forest, or at the horizon, and provide shamans with “complete knowledge” (ikwaapat) of the whole cosmos, and the spiritual beings and gods that inhabit it. After many dream meetings with the shaman, these spirits often exchange their names with him to increase his physical, spiritual, or even curative powers. These names were usually tattooed as name glyphs on the forearms of the shaman, and the power embodied in them was oftentimes called upon when a shaman traveled to the spirit world to retrieve the lost souls of his sick patients from evil spirits. Although the powerful Kayabi shaman Tuiarajup does not have any tattoos (his deceased father was heavily tattooed), he proudly displayed to me the numerous scars on his body from “battles” with spirit beings during his ecstatic travels.
Of course, Kayabi shamans traditionally provided new parents with the names for their newborns, or even the new names associated with boys and girls who have completed their initiations; because only shamans have the power to contact deceased ancestors or other supernatural beings like ma’it that are the repository for such names.
Tuiarajup told me “in my spiritual dreams, each spirit provides me with a different name symbol or glyph which will become the tattoo we place on the body. Each symbol has a spirit attached to it, and sometimes the spirit of the name even appears before me. You know, these spirits also have tattoos on their bodies, and even if you die and are not able to be tattooed, the spirit will give you all of the tattoos you deserve depending on how you live your life.”
The names corresponding to the tattoo were sometimes descriptive: they were related to the shape of the design, to the placement on the body, and to the size of the mark. For example, several elder Kayabi men have tattoos on parts of their bodies that correspond to their adult names. One elder whose name was “Monkey Leg” had tattoos placed on his leg. One chief named “Chest” had two bars tattooed on his chest, and another elder named “Arm” also had two bars tattooed on his upper arm. Of course, I was told that one very old Kayabi man in another village had two barely visible bars tattooed across his chest, and these were given to him after he killed an Ikpeng enemy long ago and took his name.
Jemy’s tattoo book has been bound and distributed to all of the Kayabi in his village so that they can share, learn, and keep it in their memories. Note the double bar glyph tattooed on the old man’s lower forearm.
After the Kayabi moved to the Xingu Reserve in the early 1960s, Tiwit was the only Kayabi man who could identify the ipau-ip tree which is used to make tattoo pigment. When I first met Tiwit, I couldn’t see his facial tattooing because it was hidden under a layer of genipapo facial paint. Upon closer inspection, the once bold lines of his cheeks and lips have faded with age.
Still more tattoos could provide their wearers with specific powers attributed to the spirits that were embodied in them. For example, a frog placed on the shoulder or arm was related to a group of spirit masters in the lineage of the frog that are protective in nature. Moreover, great Kayabi warriors wore jaguar tattoos on their foreheads or had two jaguars tattooed upside down beneath their eyes called towaja’wat so that they could hang from trees or jump on their “human” prey without injury. To be tattooed in such a way not only gave you great status amongst your peers, but it was also believed that your behavior would change after receiving the tattoo because you became more “jaguar-like.”
Conversely, other types of tattoos were given to young men “to teach them a lesson.” My good friend and aspiring tattooist Kurapi received his facial tattoo from a relative who was the last great Kayabi tattoo master. The Kayabi word kurap means “to insult,” and Kurapi told me that “as a little boy, I always complained to my parents about work, about food, about everything. I was a prankster and a pain in the ass to my family. My cousin, the tattoo master Yxyt who was murdered by Brazilians four years ago, consulted with my parents and the local shaman to have my name changed to Kurapi after my initiation, and to have my face tattooed. Yxyt and my father wanted me to feel pain so that I would stop complaining - so that I would understand how to become a man, and stop taking all the things in my life for granted. Sure enough, and after my tattoo, I never complained again because I became more knowledgeable about becoming an adult and how to become a father and a husband. I have to tell you that I learned many things from my elders during my seclusion, and now all of my male relatives are my role models. Now that I am tattooed, I have gained the respect of the community.”
Kurapi is not only Jemy’s tattooed cousin; he’s another aspiring Kayabi tattoo master. He said, “I want to bring back the tattooing tradition we’re losing and to help my people. The youth are losing their culture and especially their tattoos. I have to become a tattoo master because it is the only way to bring tradition back to our people.”
Here he prepares some tattooing tools with cotton thread and tucum thorns.
THE ART OF KAYABI TATTOO
As noted, there were many types of tattoos associated with personal names which were either: selected by the shaman and passed down through the family line; or they were taken from a deceased enemy. However, both Kayabi men and women have always worn different styles of facial tattooing which served as a tribal insignia; one that made them recognizable to their enemies. Of course, if a young boy, girl, or an adult woman was captured during a raid on an enemy village, these individuals were typically tattooed in the Kayabi style and integrated into the community. However, as the tattoo historian and tattooist Jemy Kaiabi told me, “girls who were abducted, raised and tattooed as Kayabi, and then married to Kayabi men almost always caused problems for their husbands. Eventually, they had to be killed only after a few years of living in the village.”
Aspiring tattoo artists, who were traditionally male, usually apprenticed under a tattoo master for months and even years learning the requisite skills and raw materials needed to prepare the tattooing needles and pigments derived from various trees growing in the jungle. Tattoos (-jupot) were applied with the long thorns of the tucum palm. Two such thorns were wound together with a piece of homespun native cotton thread. The depth of the thorn pricking was controlled with another piece of cotton thread wound near the bottom of the thorn. The small reservoir that was created between the tips of the two needles held the tattoo pigment, which was a resinous material obtained from the bark of the ipau-ip tree mixed with charcoal and water. Because the ipau-ip tree is rare in some regions and difficult to identify, the sap from the rubber tree was often used as a substitute: although it only worked if mixed with the correct amount of water. When completed, the tattoo pigment acquires a sticky consistency.
Jemy is always practicing his tattooing skills on willing community members. Here he is stenciling facial designs on a family member.
The pigment is placed in a coconut bowl and the area to be tattooed is cleaned with a small bundle of cotton and water. Next, the tucum thorn tool is dipped into the resinous mass and pricked into the skin using the thumb and index finger. Each tattooed line receives at least two or three layers of pigment, and then the thorn is used as a kind of paintbrush to push-in more ink. Kurapi told me that the long lines that were tattooed across his cheeks took four hours each; each line receiving two layers of ink and thousands of bloody pricks!
Some of the Kayabi I spoke with also used the term jemoun to refer to their tattoos. However, this term specifically refers to the semi-permanent body paint they use during everyday and ceremonial occasions. In fact, many indigenous groups living in the South America continue to use this blue-black substance as body paint, and in the past as tattooing pigment. More specifically, jemoun means “to paint black with genipapo,” and juices of the green, immature fruits of the genipapo tree were used at least one thousand years ago by the Pre-Columbian Chimú people of Peru as tattoo pigment. Caches of their mummies have been found with each individual clutching the fruit in the palm of their hand; a tradition that is practiced today by some indigenous groups in Guatemala who believe that holding the fruit in their hand will provide them with protection from disease and misfortune. The Apiaká and Mundurucú, who were traditional enemies of the Kayabi, also utilized genipapo as body paint, but also as tattooing pigment. The Mundurucú also painted their trophy heads captured in war with genipapo because it was believed to protect the victor from the sometimes malevolent spirit of the deceased.
Above, early 20th century drawing depicting traditional Kayabi tattoo styles for women.
A tattooed Kayabi woman.
Of course, almost every literary account I have read describing Kayabi tattooing practices (English, Portuguese, and Spanish) stated that genipapo was the source of their tattooing pigment, as it was amongst the Kayabi’s enemies. Certainly, I was astonished when I discovered that the Kayabi’s tattoo pigment actually came from resin extracted from the bark of another species of tree!
Now, I can totally understand the confusion that early explorers and ethnographers faced when they attempted to describe tattooing practices in the Xingu River basin; semi-permanent genipapo is virtually indistinguishable from the tattoo resin of the ipau-ip tree. In fact, during my recent visit to the Xingu reserve, I learned that only one elderly man named Tiwit – who was born and tattooed in the traditional Kayabi homeland of the Rio dos Peixes region – could identify the ipau-ip tree when his people migrated to the Xingu in the early 1960s. The reason for this is that the tree is extremely rare in the Xingu, and by the time of the Kayabi migrations, most men and women had not received tattoos in nearly twenty years.
However, approximately ten years after the Kayabi arrived in the Xingu, interest in tattooing appeared again and this resurgence was due in large part to the efforts of one Kayabi man named Yxyt who was to become the last great Kayabi tattoo master.
Rysema is Jemy’s sister and she received her facial tattoos from the last Kayabi tattoo master several years ago. One of her weekly chores is to prepare manioc cakes on a huge frying pan. The Kayabi subsist primarily on manioc and fish. Manioc is typically eaten as dry flatbread with turtle meat or eggs, monkey, and especially fish. Fish are the only protein source readily available throughout the year.
THE LAST KAYABI TATTOO MASTER
According to Jemy Kaiabi, who is Yxyt’s nephew, the tattoo master was deeply fascinated by the tattooing traditions of his people at an early age. His father was a great warrior and he learned many of the traditional tattooing designs from him. Combining this knowledge with interviews of Kayabi elders who lived in several villages, Yxyt compiled a vast “directory” of names and designs which he kept locked away in his memory. As Jemy told me, “he saw that our customs were disappearing before us when most Kayabi didn’t seem to care. He was a visionary, and a role model. He then began to give traditional facial tattoos to some of the girls and boys in the Xingu. And about seven years ago, he tattooed Kurapi and some of the girls here in Capivara village – these were his last works of art. No one had been tattooed in the Kayabi style since the early 1950s, and this was a great achievement!”
Kurapi tattooing a new initiate under the watchful eyes of Tiwit and the shaman Tuiarajup. Because the Kayabi and a handful of other Amazonian groups continue to practice tattooing, South America has the longest living history of indigenous tattooing practices in the world dating back some 7,000 years. Previously, Japan had the oldest continuous history of tattoo culture, but in 1998 the last indigenous Ainu women died and so too did a tattooing tradition that some scholars believed was 10,000 years old.
But all of a sudden this tattoo renaissance came crashing to a standstill with the death of the master in 2003. “Yxyt was not an old person, he was forty years old, a young man when he was murdered,” Jemy said. “When he went back to our homeland in the Rio dos Peixes to urge our people to return to our traditional practices and to fight the rubber tappers and farmers who were taking our ancestral lands, he disappeared after visiting a blanco bar one night. The white people killed him, and his body was never found. He didn’t have enough time to pass on to his apprentices all of his secrets, so a lot of information was buried with him. For example, we don’t use the traditional name glyphs anymore because the tattoo masters who know them are all dead. And with more contact with the Portuguese language, we have begun to tattoo our names in letters.”
The author posing with Tiwit and his wife who were his house-hosts in Capivara village. The cutia-teeth ear spools Lars is wearing are not only worn as adornment by the Kayabi, they are also supposed to make you “hear better” after you have been initiated. Tiwit’s wife is a traditional healer.
“Of course, most of the young people here in the village are not concerned about the loss of the tattoo master. But I am, because we need to replace him; otherwise our tattooing tradition will probably die. That is why I started cataloging the history of our tattooing practices and each of the tattoos’ meanings after the Master died. I also learned how to prepare the ink from the Master’s description on a piece of paper, and from the help of Tiwit. From a practical standpoint, no one showed me how to do it. I had to practice to get it right.”
Jemy continued, “I am one of four school teachers in my village, and I want everyone to have a general knowledge of the history of my people, including tattoo history. Everyone in the world knows the Kayabi tattooed. If we stopped and someone came up to me and said ‘you are not tattooed, so how can you be Kayabi?’ Then, I would have to say that we lost one of the most important aspects of our culture and identity. But we cannot afford to let that happen. So I keep working to learn as much as I can, including how to tattoo.”
Traditionally, the Kayabi used a cutia or agouti-tooth scratcher called a paratsi to release “bad blood” during ritual purification ceremonies. They also used these tools during initiation rituals or before tattooing rituals to impart strength and endurance. Before I could be tattooed, I was cut with this tool which Kurapi holds in his hand. Amongst other Xinguano groups like the Mehinaku, boys who were trained to become bow-masters – or specially trained warriors – had such wounds rubbed with hot chili water.
THE FUTURE OF THE KAYABI TATTOO
If Jemy or his tattooing cousin Kurapi have anything to say about it, the future of Kayabi tattooing is no longer in doubt. Jemy told me, “I believe there is something about tattooing that lives deep inside our historical consciousness as a people. It is an important cultural element because it forms part of the roots of our people, so it must be continued.”
As Jemy prepared to tattoo me, he told me: “We have never tattooed an enemy before, and we consider all white people to be our enemies. They have taken our lands, raped our women, and abducted our children. But I know you wouldn’t do those things, and since you have lived with us and learned our customs, then I can tattoo you.”
Close-up of Jemy pricking-in the author’s tattoo. Note the cutia cuts on my leg.
“For example, when a young person completed their initiation in the past, they always received a name and with it a new soul. This soul became permanently attached to the individual when he or she was tattooed with their new name glyph. Today, I believe that not all of the young people receive their soul because they are not tattooed. Therefore, I am worried that their souls will become confused, and if they are left untreated this soul-loss can cause death, sickness, or even trouble for the community. So if we don’t tattoo anymore, we will be out of our tradition and that is unacceptable. That is why I am conducting a deep study to gather the glyph meanings from existing elders and to start tattooing them again.”
“Of course, we will be ‘true’ Kayabis again once we get our tattoo masters. And I know that me and Kurapi will become masters. Even though I haven’t yet mastered all of the knowledge it takes to become one, I am getting close. So I think that everything will take care of itself as long as we continue to practice and learn everything we can from our elders and put that knowledge to good use.”