The Kayapo Indians of Brazil. Indigenous Knowledge, Culture and the Environment

Forschungsarbeit, 2018

14 Seiten, Note: 13



Indigenous knowledge (IK) is a concept that attracts the researchers in the field of anthropology and development in order to critically study and critique our perception of it (Pramukh & Palkumar, 2006). IK influences how the communities interact with the natural ecosystems and hence shapes the outcomes of the activities of the individuals living in such regions. Societies usually apply the accumulated knowledge they gained over the years in order to use it in traditional health practices and most importantly to manage, modify and to protect their ecosystems from any external invasion or danger (Olufemi & Olubunmi, 2018).

This paper discusses the Kayapo Indians’ management of the tropical rainforest ecosystem through their indigenous knowledge. They are described in this paper as effective managers of the tropical rain forest as they use their IK to ensure the continuation of the plant species through transplantation as a means of propagation, as well as using their IK to resist the construction of the dams and other developmental initiatives by the Brazilian government and other private companies. Their resistance to such projects as the dams is based on the possession of the knowledge regarding the negative impacts of the expected floods of the forest ecosystem.

The Kayapo of Brazil are a Ge-speaking tribe of about 6000 individuals that lives along the Xingu River on both sides of the border of the Pará and Mato Grosso states (Plotkin, 2017, p. 956). By 1970s, The Kayapo found themselves surrounded by the Brazilian government, the wildlife traders and the gold miners. Thus they felt that their environment was endangered, and as a result they started protesting using what we could call very recognizable cultural resources and IK to claim land rights and recognition (Plotkin, 2017).

Keywords: Kayapo Indians, indigenous knowledge, environment, ecosystems.


Indigenous Knowledge

Indigenous knowledge (IK) refers to the distinct cumulative skills possessed by people living in particular geographic locations (Magni, 2016). Such knowledge is useful in enabling individuals to meet their basic needs from the natural environment. IK is passed down from generation to generation and is essential for the existence of the communities in their localities (Agrawal, 1995). Some of the differences between scientific and indigenous knowledge include the fact that the former is generated from research institutes, private businesses, and universities as well as through schooling systems (Agrawal, 2014). The latter, however, is deeply rooted in the traditions of communities and is therefore passed orally and is preserved primarily through the actions of the practitioners. It not only is a consolidated frame of expertise and practices but also of beliefs Agrawal (1995). IK effectiveness stems from the long-term observations and inspection on specific domestic and regional ecosystems (Wilson, 2018).

In the discussion regarding the impact of Kayapo’s culture on the environment, it is essential to point out the various kinds of Indigenous Knowledge possessed by this community. Communities around the globe maintain unique views of interaction with the environment but within these unique views Chilton & Bloodgood (2008) have identified two types of knowledge: explicit and tacit. Explicit IK is the kind that can be more easily captured, recorded and disseminated by outsiders without much need for a comprehensive understanding of all the factors that shape the community that produces it. Examples of explicit knowledge may include the interaction with and handling of wildlife (flora and fauna) such as plant propagation techniques involved in biodiversity management (Dudgeon & Berkes, 2003). On the other hand, tacit IK entails the action-oriented awareness that is gained through personal experience. Implicit skills are mostly obtained through intuition and may involve emotion, experiences, perception, and insight. Such forms of know-how may not be as easily recordable as they are subject to personal emotions and attitudes of researchers (Chilton & Bloodgood, 2008). In the case of the Kayapo, they appear to have mostly resorted to Tacit IK in order to protect their surroundings from an external danger and anger emotions were prominent whenever they expressed their feelings to the outsiders (Plotkin, 2017).

The economic activities of a specific society such as agriculture, agro-forestry, a gathering of wild food, and water management are of course closely intertwined with particular kinds of knowledge such as classification of soil and an understanding of flora and fauna. Various kinds of IK suit the groups and organizations living in different settings: IK is embedded in the way of life of the groups and in the way they ensure sustenance. Yet IK is also rooted in specific worldviews emanating from societies’ relationship with their natural environment (Seeger, 1982). Culture and indigenous knowledge are therefore interrelated as IK influences the cultural practices engaged in by the particular communities.

According to Plotkin (2017), conventional knowledge structures are crucial in framing the methods used in anthropology. Anthropologists can thus employ the understanding of the utilization of IK by the communities as a way of collecting the needed information they are seeking, while using IK to understand the impact of culture on the environment, it is necessary to study how such groups influence their milieu through their cultural practices. The use of the concept of Indigenous knowledge is thus crucial in exploring domestically informed perspectives of the impact of culture on the environment.

Purpose Statement

Culture and indigenous knowledge have a significant influence on the environment as they determine people’s actions that can be beneficial or detrimental to their surroundings. Specific knowledge may be utilized to engage in activities that sustain biodiversity, like the planting of diverse species of vegetation. Some cultural practices may, however, lead to the destruction of the environment like the extensive hunting of endangered wild animals for food. Such attitudes are founded on traditional belief systems that influence the understanding and interpretation of the biophysical environment. According to United Nations Department of Economic Development, an estimated 370 million indigenous people were representing about 5000 cultures as of 2009 (United Nations, 2009). Biodiversity often characterizes the areas inhabited by such communities. The native individuals have always recognized the importance of the interaction with their lands as a source of their livelihood. There is a social, spiritual, and economic connection between the communities and the environment. Despite the richness of heritage, the indigenous cultures and knowledge have been subject of debate especially regarding the impact on the environment. The discourses particularly concern the perceived superiority of the scientific versus native expertise in handling the environmental matters.

The encroachment of the lands of the Kayapo by the Brazilian government and private companies for agricultural, mining, and infrastructural development is pointed as the source of conflicts. The natives are keen to conserve their heritage and beliefs systems regarding their habitats while the Brazilian government is committed to the construction of dams for the generation of electricity (Oliver-Smith, 2014).

The Kayapo People

Kayapo Indians are one of the several native communities living in the Amazonian forest in Brazil. The Kayapo has been a subject of various studies with scholars showing interest not only on their culture but how the group utilizes specific types of knowledge such as the management and interaction with wildlife as well as the impact on biodiversity (Turner & Fajans-Turner, 2006). On the political level, the Kayapo Indians became internationally famous because of their struggle against the encroachment of allegedly developmental interventions that they perceived could lead to the loss of their homeland and natural resources (Plotkin, 2017).

The Kayapo are one of the main indigenous communities in the rain forest, they live along the Xingu River in scattered villages in the regions which they inhabit (Plotkin, 2017; Turner & Fajans-Turner, 2006). The Kayapo land is positioned in the Central Brazilian plateau, a territory that is connected to several river valleys at approximately 300 and 400 meters above sea level (Heckenberger & Neves, 2009). The Kayapo’s main economic activities consist of a combination of hunting and gathering and forest horticulture, although they are also extensively involved in fishing activities to supplement other sources of food, as do most of the native communities living in the Amazon basin (Taylor, 1988). Their socialization is based on relatively complex systems that apply to the whole group. Boys are required to leave their maternal homes and live in the houses of the women they marry while girls stay in the homes in which they are born until they die (Turner, 1995). The extended family is the basic social unit in the Kayapo community.

Indigenous Knowledge for Tropical Forest Management

Vast swaths of the Amazon rainforest have long been exposed to the action of indigenous human communities and undergone periods of use and isolation, and thus the Amazonian ecosystems are far from being entirely pristine or unaltered (Plotkin, 2017; Posey, 1985). For instance, the existence of old agricultural plots proves there is a long history of IK-based genetic engineering of plants. IK including traditions and beliefs play a vital role in these communities’ daily lives, from managing resources to security (Wilson, 2018). Resource management systems are vital for biodiversity as the communities engage in activities that influence the manipulation and modification of species. The case of Kayapo is utilized in this article to demonstrate how indigenous communities living in tropical forests apply traditional knowledge systems to exploit natural resources to meet their needs while supporting their lifestyle.

Kayapo Indigenous Knowledge in Tropical Forest Ecosystems Management

Posey (2003) describes the Kayapo as an effective managers of the tropical forest who use their IK to ensure the continuation of plant species. The Kayapo achieve the propagation of plant species by transplanting different vegetation species in their lands. The understanding of the Kayapo’s management of forest resources is further asserted in the works of Taylor (1988) who notes that they utilize their comprehension of floral and faunal heritage to enhance their interaction with the environment. For instance, they select, transplant and concentrate semi-domesticated indigenous plants by growing them in forest islands, forest openings, agricultural plots and tuber gardens and by creating forest patches (apetes) from open cerrando areas; through the application of crumbled termite and ant nests (Posey, 1985; Taylor, 1988). In describing the nature of skills of Kayapo, Posey opines:

The knowledge of the Kayapo Indians is an integrated system of beliefs and practices. In addition to the information shared generally, there is specialized expertise held by a few. Each village has its specialists in soils, plants, animals, crops, medicines, and rituals (2003, p. 5).

As such the use of IK by the Kayapo not only allows them to live a healthy life with adequate nutrition, but can also play a beneficial role in the management, manipulation, and modification of biodiversity in their lands. Their knowledge and activities are thus essential in the establishment of ecosystems that are more diverse, young and vigorous. The Kayapo’s knowledge of forest ecosystem management is not only relevant to the successful creation of forests from open areas but it is also a perfect example of the management and utilization of infertile lands (Plotkin, 2017).

The forest islands indicate the extent to which the Kayapo can utilize their knowledge to modify and alter the ecosystem to influence biodiversity. The effect of the Kayapo’s practices and knowledge on the environment is therefore noted in the habitats with increased diversity of plants and animals. The creation of apetes, one of such practices. begins with small mounds of vegetation on ant nests in the fields cleared by the Kayapo. Taylor (1988) describes this process as involving the selection of the slightly depressed surfaces that are likely to retain more moisture as compared to the other locations in the same ecosystem. Forest islands are essential elements in the existence of the Kayapo community as they constitute a source of medicine and food and they also act as places of rest during the hot times of the day. Furthermore, the specific plants making up the forest islands are also considered to be of high value to the community (Posey, 2003). For instance, the palm trees that are vital in the culture of the Kayapo due to the variety of their uses are prominent components of the forest islands. Moreover, the vines from which the drinkable water is produced are also planted in the apetes (Posey, 2003) . The architecture of an apete entails a zone that varies in light, shade, and humidity. Even though it can be observed that the forest islands appear natural, they are artificial and hence reflect the complex skills possessed by the Kayapo in the creation of such systems (Plotkin, 2017).


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The Kayapo Indians of Brazil. Indigenous Knowledge, Culture and the Environment
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven
Culture, Ecology and Development
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
Kayapo Indians, indigenous knowledge, environment, ecosystems
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Yousuf Daas (Autor:in), 2018, The Kayapo Indians of Brazil. Indigenous Knowledge, Culture and the Environment, München, GRIN Verlag,


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