The Mundurucú: Tattooed Warriors of the Amazon Jungle

Young Iban woman weaving a ceremonial headband to be worn by an elder Iban man. Note that she is using commercial, ready-dyed fabrics and wears no tattoo.
Young Iban woman weaving a ceremonial headband to be worn by an elder Iban man. Note that she is using commercial, ready-dyed fabrics and wears no tattoo.

The Mundurucú, once the mightiest headhunters in all of Amazonia, were perhaps the most heavily tattooed of all indigenous groups living in South America. Although they continue to live in the Brazilian jungle today, they no longer practice tattooing which became more or less extinct in the 1940s.

Traditionally, tattooing commenced at the age of six or seven and terminated some ten years later, after which time the completed markings signified full manhood for the boys and womanhood for the girls. Tattooing for both men and women consisted of fine, widely spaced parallel lines applied vertically on limbs and torso, each motif reminiscent of an abstract series of long bird plumes enveloping the body. Bands of lozenges crossed the upper part of the chest and parallel horizontal lines descended the torso towards the waist. Cross-hatchings were tattooed on other parts of the body and around each eye was tattooed a single-line ellipse; curved lines were drawn around the mouth. Lines converging towards the ears that spread across the cheeks gave the appearance of “bird wings” outstretched upon the face.

Mundurucú tattooists were male or female, and the tattooist almost always used tattooing combs made of palm thorns to insert the desired pigment. After the skin was punctured, the juice of the genipap fruit was rubbed into the wounds to make them indelible. Genipap was also used as a body paint to color and emphasize those areas enclosed by the tattoo lines.

Mundurucú warrior in ceremonial attire, ca. 1828. Illustration by Hercules Florence.
Mundurucú warrior in ceremonial attire, ca. 1828. Illustration by Hercules Florence.

Of Myths and Birds

One of the distinguishing features of Mundurucú culture is its “male-centeredness” and the particular emphasis placed on the separation of the sexes. For the most part, males shunned contact with women and lived apart from their wives, sisters, and mothers in the traditional men’s house called eksa. This structure was not just a residence and gathering place for men; it was where men ate, slept, and manufactured their hunting equipment. In addition, the structure housed three sacred flutes that were exclusively owned and played by men. These flutes called karökö were thought to embody ancestral and other spirits who protected, or exerted a benevolent influence over, the entire village.

In the mythological past, however, it was believed that women were once dominant over males and at one time they controlled the men’s house, the flutes, and the division of labor. This fact alone bespeaks of the latent fear among Mundurucú men that women can become dominant again, and today males continue to deny women access to any of the structures of power, especially the men’s house.

In the recent past, the men’s house was the repository for all trophy heads collected in war and was the site where tattooing was conducted for men. As such, the men’s house was the key symbol in which the creation of a male-centered Mundurucú universe was made possible, and as we will come to see this explicit creation was firmly embodied in the mythic, social, and biological ideals that contributed specifically to its formulation.

Mundurucú myths attribute the origins of tattooing to the creator god and culture hero Karusakaibo. Karusakaibo was a bearer of extraordinary supernatural power who was responsible for creating people and much of the animal world. He also endowed the Mundurucú with agricultural skills and other important manifestations of culture including headhunting and the men’s house.

Like other male culture heroes, Karusakaibo pursued many of the same worldly objectives as his male descendents. He was a great hunter, self-sufficient, and independent. He lived by himself in the forest shunning contact with women and in this way, he set a mythic ideal for all men to follow.

Mundurucú headhunters with elaborate facial and body tattooing, ca. 1817. Color lithographs by Johann Spix and Carl Martius.
Mundurucú headhunters with elaborate facial and body tattooing, ca. 1817. Color lithographs by Johann Spix and Carl Martius.

But Karusakaibo also employed a physical act of transformation when he set out to model his living representatives; he tattooed all Mundurucú in his likeness after they emerged from the underworld to inhabit the earth. Just as children are born from their mother, the Mundurucú emerged from the womb of the earth. But in this case emergence was only made possible after Karusakaibo had pierced the womb with his foot allowing his progeny to spring forth from the darkness.

In many of his other acts of creation, Karusakaibo employed fragments of birds (feathers, bones) to work his magic. At other times he transformed himself or other mythical heroes into various bird species to facilitate and accomplish particular tasks. Thus, we find in Mundurucú mythological thought a notion of spiritual beings whose form and behavior inextricably mix with prototypical human and avian attributes in what some anthropologists term “a common context of intercommunicability” where humans are both ex-animals and animals are ex-humans. In this way, particular avian species can be associated with the idea that the manifest bodily form of each species is an envelope (a “clothing”) that conceals an internal humanoid form that speaks of a state of being where self and avian other interpenetrate.

In Mundurucú ideology, for example, birds embody the same mythic ideals as the culture hero Karusakaibo. They live in a state of self-sufficiency through hunting and many species lead a solitary existence in the jungle. Birds lay eggs and this type of “external” reproductive cycle symbolized the ability to procreate without the act of sex. This perceived form of asexual reproduction is a powerful trait, because it is mythically linked to the origin myth where Karusakaibo creates (or gives rise to) the Mundurucú without any apparent sexual act of his own. These features, combined with the fact that birds are bipedal and the Mundurucú notion that a man’s penis is symbolic of a bird with a short beak, suggests that “maleness” is in fact symbolized by birds. Therefore, it was the prerogative of all men to live (and look) like a bird, since this was considered to be nothing less than a pure and mythically potent male pursuit.

Of Birds and Men

It should come as no surprise, then, that many authorities have argued that the Mundurucú were perhaps the most expert featherworkers in South America within the historic period. Obviously, the Mundurucú’s reverence and intimate knowledge of many avian species facilitated their craftsmanship in this art form.

Mundurucú headhunter with trophy head, ca. 1817. Illustration by Johann Spix and Carl Martius.
Mundurucú headhunter with trophy head, ca. 1817. Illustration by Johann Spix and Carl Martius.

At feasts, the Mundurucú used scepters, hats, caps, and several varieties of garlands made of feathers, as well as feather mantles which they drew over their shoulders, and aprons of emu feathers which they tied around their waist. Feathers, as outcroppings of the bodyand especially the head, where thought to possess divine potency. They conveyed their inherent power to the warrior who wore them particularly because the Mundurucú associated several species of birds with the eponymous spirits of their clans.

Similarly, among the Precolumbian headhunting Paracas and Chimú peoples of Peru, various species of birds were also utilized for their feathers to make garments and headdresses. Feathers were the “power centers” of the bird and were especially charged with supernatural energy. They were analogous to human hairs which, with their capacity for constant growth and renewal, were universally believed to be a point of concentration of the human spirit or soul. For the Paracas people, unbound hair symbolized a state of susceptibility to malevolent spiritual forces, since we know from archaeological evidence that they attempted to protect these delicate parts of the body by braiding or covering their head hairs with turbans or elaborate headpieces. Interestingly only trophy heads and shamans were depicted in Paracas art with unbound hair perhaps signifying a state of immunity from spirit attack or an oneness with the spirits.

In his review of feather ornaments and their use among several historic headhunting and scalping societies of South America, the ethnographer Rafael Karsten provides this perspective:

Feathers and plumes, according to the Indian idea, not only afford an efficacious protection against evil spirits, but are powerful means whereby men can conjure and exorcise them. For this reason feather ornaments are, above all, used on occasions when the Indians enter into relation with the spiritual world, and these occasions…are numerous enough. Again, the magical power ascribed to feathers depends on a very natural consideration: the feathers are the hair of the bird, and they have the same magical power as the human hair.

[T]he Indian belief endows even animals with a spirit of soul, which seems to be essentially the same kind as the human spirit. This theory is applied to birds also…but whatever the spirit may be which animates the bird, the efficacy ascribed to the feathers is a fact beyond dispute. Since the spirit of the bird is collected in its feathers, as the human spirit is concentrated in the hair of the head, it follows that feathers and plumes are particularly charged with supernatural power.

For the Mundurucú, however, the efficacy of feathers was most clearly brought out in relation to their role in consecrating the human trophy head captured in war. Feathers were considered to be the “crowning glory of a trophy head” and without them, the skull would not release its magical powers.

Mundurucú men’s tattooing, ca. 1820.<br />
 Drawings by Hercules Florence.
Mundurucú men’s tattooing, ca. 1820. Drawings by Hercules Florence.

The Mundurucú Headhunt and Trophy Heads

Military expeditions were launched in the dry season and usually ended with the coming of the rainy season. Each headhunting warrior was accompanied by his wife or sister who assisted him in carrying the necessary equipment including food, hammock, and weapons. Women also tended to the wounded and according to some reports were distinguished by their ability to “cleverly catch the arrows of the enemy in flight.” Attacks were waged at dawn and flaming arrows were sent aloft to set fire to the enemy’s huts. The incendiary panic that ensued, combined with the visage of waves of fully tattooed warriors brandishing their headhunting gear, no doubt played a major role in the psychological dimension of Mundurucú warfare. At feasts, the Mundurucú used scepters, hats, caps, and several varieties of garlands made of feathers, as well as feather mantles which they drew over their shoulders, and aprons of emu feathers which they tied around their waist. Feathers, as outcroppings of the body and especially the head, where thought to possess divine potency.

Enemy warriors who fell on the field of battle were decapitated if time permitted. Occasionally, the head of an enemy woman was taken, but usually they were taken prisoner instead. Children captured in war were adopted and fully incorporated into Mundurucú society. A clan name was bestowed upon the child and he or she received the elaborate facial and body tattooing that distinguished the Mundurucú from other tribes living in central Brazil.

Trophy heads seized by Mundurucú warriors were not shrunken like those of the Jívaro of Ecuador, rather they were desiccated, dressed (brain removed), and colored with genipap or urucú (red) vegetable dye. The wife or sister of the successful warrior sometimes assisted in the preliminary preparation of the heads, but not always.

Karsten describes the specifics of Mundurucú trophy preparation as follows:

The head of the slain was severed from the trunk with a knife made of broad bamboo; the brain, the muscles, the eyes, and the tongue were taken out; the  skull was repeatedly soaked in vegetable oil mixed with urucú [or genipap], and exposed for several days over the smoke of the fire or in the sun until it was quite dry. An artificial brain of dyed cotton was subsequently put in, the orbits of the eyes were filled with rosin, and the whole head was covered with a hood of feathers. Adorned in this manner the horrid trophy became the permanent companion of the victor, who carried it by a string at his cincture wherever he went.

Mundurucú women’s tattooing,<br />
 ca. 1870s.
Mundurucú women’s tattooing, ca. 1870s.

Unlike the tattooed Iban of Borneo who prized trophy heads for their power to fertilize the agricultural fields, the Mundurucú believed that the efficacy of the trophy head lay in its ability to please the “spirit mothers” of the game animals, thereby promoting the fertility of animals, increasing the yield of the hunt, and making game more tractable to the male hunter. According to the anthropologist Robert Murphy, “[e]ach species of game is said to have a spirit “mother” who exercises protection over the animals and insures their increase. There is also a spirit mother of the game and a principal intermediary between man and nature.” Therefore, it was customary for the headtaker to trek out into the forest with the hunting parties to insure a successful kill. Although the owner of the trophy would not hunt himself, his companions would feed off the charm of the head and in a short period of time dispatch all the game needed by the village.

Fully dressed Mundurucú trophy head in the collection of a<br />
 Brazilian museum.
Fully dressed Mundurucú trophy head in the collection of a Brazilian museum.”

Obviously, it was of paramount importance to empower the talismanic trophy as soon as possible. Thus, and shortly after the return of a successful war party, the trophy head was inaugurated into ceremonial use through a series of complex rituals that involved several Mundurucú villages. This process not only validated the prowess of the successful headhunter publicly, it also solidified bonds of association among scattered clansmen and women.

The taker of the trophy head was given an honored title and during an extended ritual period of nearly three years, he was considered to be in a sacralized state and could not engage in ordinary discourse. He was only approachable through considerable protocol.

The hallmark ceremony that consecrated the trophy was called “Decorating the Ears.” At its climax, feather pendants were prepared from five species of birds and were suspended from the ears of the trophy head. Each type of feather could only be attached by the clan who could claim that species of bird as an eponymous clan spirit. As a rule, the feather pendants could not be longer than the human hair that remained on the trophy head. And for this reason long-haired victims were especially prized. In this way, feathers and trophy hair were clearly seen as complimentary to one another; each conveyed spiritual strength to the individual who could manipulate and harness them for the well-being of the tribe.

The Power of Body Objects

Feathers, trophy heads, and tattoos conveyed to the Mundurucú warrior the spiritual strength of animals, slain enemies, and culture heroes to which every male individual was mythically enmeshed. The spoils of the chase were not only used as forms of personal decoration; they were also harnessed through magical means with that power being conferred to the community through the headhunter and his sacral trophy. Mundurucú body objects – tattoos, feathers, and trophies – were thus conduits through which meaning poured, because they projected themselves and their owners beyond the everyday limits of time and space, as well as the human, spiritual, and ancestral worlds of the Mundurucú of Amazonia.

Literature

Karsten, Rafael. (1926). Civilization of the South American Indians: With Special Reference to Magic and Religion. London: Kegan Paul.

Murphy, Robert. (1958). Mundurucú Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Spix, Johann Baptist von and Karl Friedrich Phil. von Martius. (1824). Travels in Brazil…1817-1820 (H.E. Lloyd, trans.), 2 vols. London.

Steinen, Karl von den. (1899). “Indianerskizzen von Hercules Florence.” Globus 75: 5-9, 30-35.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. (2004). “Exchanging Perspectives: The Transformation of Objects into Subjects in Amerindian Ontologies.” Common Knowledge 10(3): 463-484.