March 1, 2024 | Kaddy Gibson

The Kayapo People, Guardians Of The Amazon

Meet The Guardians Of The Amazon

With their colorful headdresses and black body paint, the Kayapo are hard to miss in a crowd. But it’s their fight to protect the Amazon Rainforest that thrust this tribe into the global spotlight.

kayapo people

Where Do They Live?

The Kayapo call the shores of the Xingu River their home. 

This is the most eastern part of the Amazon Rainforest, and their territory encompasses about 28 million acres of land

There are approximately 9,000 Kayapo living in Brazil today.

Chief Tuire KayapoRiposte Magazine

Their Name

The term "Kayapo" is thought to have originated in the early 19th century. 

They were given that name by neighboring tribes, and it means "people who look like monkeys". This is probably a reference to the monkey masks that Kayapo men wear during certain rituals. 

The Kayapo call themselves "Mebêngôkre", meaning "people from the water hole".

Kayapó women in traditional make up and clothesEdgar Kanaykõ Xakriaba, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Kayapo Body Paint

One of the most striking aspects of Kayapo culture is their body paint. The Kayapo cover their whole bodies with black paint. 

They believe that the black color represents the spiritual veil between nature and society

By wearing black paint, the Kayapo believe they can communicate better with the divine Spirit that is all around them.

Kayapo at Altamira ProtestInternational Rivers, Flickr

Kayapo Body Paint (cont’d)

The Kayapo also sometimes wear red paint on their faces. This symbolizes vitality and the energy of life. 

Kayapo may also put red paint on their legs, so that it rubs off on the brush when they’re exploring the forest and helps them find their way home.

Kayapo ChildUniversal History Archive, Getty Images

Kayapo Lip Disks

Historically, Kayapo men have worn a large disk that’s inserted into a piercing in their lower lip. 

This marks their transition into manhood and skills in singing and oration. 

The lip disk is a fading tradition, and most young Kayapo men choose not to wear one.

Raoni Metuktire, lip diskEric Valenne geostory, Shutterstock

Kayapo Headdresses

Kayapo men wear vibrant headdresses that are made of yellow feathers. The feathers represent the sun and the Kayapo’s connection to the universe. 

Kayapo men also wear rope in their hair, which is signifies the first Kayapo person climbing down onto the earth from the sky. 

Kayapo women don’t usually wear headdresses but cut a V shape into their hair instead.

KaiaposValter Campanato, CC BY 3.0 BR, Wikimedia Commons

What Do They Wear?

Traditionally, the Kayapo have worn very little clothing in their daily life. It was customary for them to wear a sheath to cover their lower body. 

Kayapo children wore colorful cloth bands that were tied across their waist or over their shoulder.

Kayapo leadersInternational Rivers, Flickr

What Do They Wear? (cont’d)

Colorful armbands and beaded necklaces were also worn by Kayapo children and women. 

Shells and parrot feathers also made good ornaments, with matching parrot feathers being used to show family ties. 

Nowadays, it is not uncommon to see Kayapo in Western-style clothing, like shorts and t-shirts.

Kayapo mother and childOcupacao Munduruku, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons


In 1987, the Kayapo found themselves at odds with the Brazilian government. 

The government wanted to build hydroelectric dams along the Xingu river, but this plan would destroy the homes of 20,000 Indigenous people, including the Kayapo tribe.

Kayapo people 1987Instituto Socio-Ambiental, Wikimedia Commons

Paulinho Has A Plan

Knowing they had to gain the world’s attention, a Kayapo leader named Paulinho Paiakan organized a demonstration called the Altamira Gathering, at the proposed site for the first dam. 

The Kayapo weren’t alone; other Indigenous groups and their Brazilian supporters also showed up for the gathering.

Paulinho PaiakanANTONIO SCORZA, Getty Images

The Altamira Gathering

The Altamira Gathering lasted for five days, and the Kayapo were able to discuss ways to protect the environment and Indigenous peoples with other tribes. 

The Kayapo also knew the government was hiding information about just how much the new dams would affect Indigenous and rural Brazilians living along the Xingu River. They demanded the government share this information.

Kayapo peopleScott Wallace, Getty Images

Dressed To Impress

The Kayapo showed up to the gathering brandishing machetes and dressed in their traditional clothes, with bright headdresses, and red and black war paint. 

But it was Paulinho Paiakan’s sister, Chief Tuíre who took the fearsome performance up a notch.

Tuíre KayapoApib Comunicação, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Chief Tuíre Kayapo

Chief Tuíre marched right up to one of the dam’s engineers, José Antônio Muniz Lópes, and put her machete close enough to shave his beard. 

It’s said that she called him a liar and denounced the need for electricity, as it was the free-flowing rivers and unpolluted jungles that the Kayapo depended on, not man-made dams.

Chief Tuire Kayapo at the Altamira GatheringBomb Magazine

Gaining The World’s Attention

The Kayapo showcased their traditional dances and battle speeches, hoping this would captivate the media who had showed up to cover the demonstration. 

They were right, but they also had a famous supporter among their ranks: rock star Sting.

StingRita Molnár, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

Sting Joins The Fight

When Sting saw the gathering on TV, he flew down to support the Kayapo. He gave a press conference in support of the protest against the dams. 

He continued to support the cause after the gathering and founded the Rainforest Foundation Fund in 1989.

Kayapo and Sting at a press conferenceRick Maiman, Getty Images

The Belo Monte Dam

The Altamira Gathering was a success, and with two weeks, the World Bank rescinded the loan for the Brazilian dam project. 

But this victory was short-lived. 

Years later, in 2008, the government accepted plans for the Belo Monte Dam. Construction on the dam started in 2011 and finished in 2019.

Belo Monte DamVice-Presidência da República, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Their Villages

The Kayapo live in villages with anywhere from 100 to 600 residents

Their villages are usually made up of several huts that surround a communal hut in the centre of the village. 

The men gather at the central hut to mediate problems in the community and make important decisions about community life.

Kayapo warriorsLou Gold, Flickr

Their Villages (cont’d)

The huts that form the circle are where Kayapo women carry out daily activities, like cooking and taking care of the children. 

Farther away from the huts is where the Kayapo build their gardens and farms.

Kayapo Woman And kidsMinistério da Cidadania, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Kayapo Marriage

The Kayapo practice polygamy, with men having up to three wives

Teenage girls will often choose a husband that has been suggested by their parents. The marriage is official only after a child has been born.

Kayapo mother and childXaverian Missionaries USA, Flickr

Division Of Labour

Men make most of the important decisions in Kayapo villages. They are also responsible for fishing and hunting. 

Women tend to the children and the Kayapo’s gardens and farms.

kayapoMídia NINJA, Flickr

Kayapo Education

Most Kayapo learn traditional skills from their parents and people in the community. 

Boys are taught how to hunt, fish, and make canoes, while girls learn about beading, farming, and body painting.

kayapoApib Comunicação, CC BY-SA 2.0 , Wikimedia Commons

Kayapo Education (cont’d)

For the most part, the Kayapo have avoided the missionaries in the Xingu River area, and have been suspicious of their offers to teach the children a more Western-style education. 

There is, however, a school in the Xingu Indigenous Park where children from different tribes can learn to read and write in Portuguese.

Xingu Indigenous ParkARCHIVED Department of Energy and Climate Change, Flickr

Kayapo Storytelling

Storytelling is an important part of Kayapo culture. 

They use stories to share their history with younger generations, and often incorporate dancing and singing.

Kayapo women with a babyScott Wallace, Getty Images

They Learned From Bugs

The Kayapo believe that their ancestors learned how to communicate from insects. 

To honor that teaching, they use body paint decorations that feature or are inspired by bugs in the Amazon.

Kayapo peopleInstituto Socio-Ambiental, Wikimedia Commons

Their Language

The Kayapo language is part of the Jê language family, found among the Indigenous tribes of Brazil. 

Because their villages are spread out over such a large region, there are many different dialects of the Kayapo language

Some Kayapo who live near outsiders speak Portuguese.

Cacique Caiapo Akiaboro, caiapo peopleRenato Araújo, CC BY 3.0 BR, Wikimedia Commons

Their Language (cont’d)

The Kayapo place a lot of value on the art of speaking eloquently. 

They have been known to compare themselves to other tribes for their oratory skills, and themselves "Kaben mei", meaning "people who speak beautifully".

kayapo peopleAgência Senado, Flickr

Naming Ceremonies

Beauty is important to the Kayapo and having a beautiful name is considered a sign of good fortune and wealth. 

Because of this, the Kayapo place a lot of importance on naming ceremonies.

kayapo tribe peopleJean Marconi, Flickr

Naming Ceremonies (cont’d)

When a child is born, the whole community gathers to present food to the father and watch the child be named. 

Children go through another naming ceremony when they come of age, and often receive their new name from their grandparents.

A young boy from the Kayapo tribe hugs a young girl from the Krenak tribeCARL DE SOUZA, Getty Images

What Do They Eat?

Sweet potatoes, yams, and papaya are the Kayapo’s staple crops. 

The type of sweet potato that they grow has been called "caiapo", the Portuguese name for the tribe. It’s also been found to have health benefits in people with Type 2 Diabetes.

Brazilian Kayapo and Xerente peopleANTONIO SCORZA, Getty Images

What Do They Eat? (cont’d)

In addition to farming, the Kayapo fish and hunt wild animals like tapir, capuchin monkeys, and peccary. 

Women often go foraging for açaí berries, Brazil nuts, and the fruit of the cumaru tree, which is used in herbal medicines.

Kayapo peopleInternet Archive Book Images, Flickr

Kayapo Farming Practices

The Kayapo practice a form of slash and burn agriculture that maintains balance in the Amazon ecosystem. 

After cutting down a section of trees and burning the cleared area, the land is read to grow crops. The Kayapo can use the farmland for about six years.

Kayapo PeopleScott Wallace, Getty Images

Kayapo Farming Practices (cont’d)

Once the crops start declining in yield, the Kayapo know it’s time to move on. They leave the area to create new farmland elsewhere. 

The old land is left alone for years so that it can regrow. Old fields are also where many of the Kayapo’s medicinal plants grow.

GrainJonathan Petersson, Pexels

The Forest Fields

In addition to farms for specific communities, the Kayapo have also used communal "forest fields" to grow crops. 

These fields were built along trails in the Amazon Forest and were accessible to anyone passing by.

Kayapo forestIbama, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

The War Gardens

During times of war or food scarcity, the Kayapo also built "war gardens". The Kayapo would keep these small farms hidden so enemies couldn’t find them.

Kayapo Fire Warriors in BrazilUSAID U.S. Agency for International Development, Flickr

Threats To Their Way Of Life

For the past 30 years, the Kayapo have found their homeland threatened by mining and logging corporations

For some villages, the arrival of the miners was initially a good thing. They made lucrative deals with the miners and were able to improve housing and education in their villages. 

But all that glitters isn’t gold.

Kayapo Indigenous LandIbama, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Catch

While gold mining created a thriving economy for the Kayapo, it also had detrimental effects on the environment. 

Pollution contaminated the rivers, destroying the local fish population with mercury. The Kayapo also found themselves losing their traditional values.

leader of the Kayapo people ethnic group in traditional clothesSalty View, Shutterstock

The Catch (cont’d)

The influx of miners to the region changed some of the Kayapo’s social norms. 

Kayapo men were staying out late, seeking the comforts of drink and women instead of caring for their families. 

And the contact with outsiders threatened entire communities when the Kayapo found themselves exposed to deadly new diseases.

kayapo tribeApib Comunicação, Flickr

Fighting Back

When the Kayapo realized how much havoc the mining was creating, they tried to banish the miners rom their land. 

This resulted in many violent skirmishes, with cattle ranchers and loggers sometimes being caught in the crossfire.

kayapo tribeSenado Federal, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Fight Continues

The Kayapo are still fighting to protect their land against loggers and miners. Gold mining continues to pollute the riverways that the Kayapo fish in. 

The Belo Monte Dam, which finished construction in 2019, has also destroyed much of their traditional hunting grounds. The Kayapo are still working with environmental groups to gain legal rights over their land.

The Belo Monte DamInternational Rivers, Flickr

Final Thoughts

The Kayapo remain the most steadfast defenders of the Amazon Rainforest. 

Under the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, much of their traditional territory was opened up for mining and soy farming. These practices continue to wreak havoc on the fragile ecosystem in the Amazon, but the Kayapo will not give up the fight to protect their homeland. 

Joined by international environmental and human rights organizations, they keep pressure on the Brazilian government and provide hope that the destruction of these lands will once day cease.

Kayapo people at press conferenceSenado Federal, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons


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