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Gê (also Jê), the name of linguistically and culturally related Amerindian peoples located in what is now central and southern Brazil. Gê is one of the principal language families of native lowland South America. Based on linguistic affiliation, approximately 40,000 peoples are divided into northern, central, and southern branches, which are the three branches of the Gê linguistic family. Varying degrees of mutual intelligibility exist among speakers of the languages of any given branch; there is, however, little or no mutual intelligibility between speakers of different branches. The Northern Gê consist of the Eastern Timbira (Apaniekra, Ramkokamekra, Krĩkatí, and Krahó), Western Timbira (Apinayé), Kayapó (Gorotire, Xikrin, Kokraimôro, Kubenkrankegn, Kubenkrangnoti, Mekrangnoti, Txukamhamãe), and Suyá groups. The Shavante and Sherente peoples make up the central branch, and the Shokleng and Kaingang groups form the southern branch. Linguists also consider the Gê languages to be related to a wider network of lowland Amerindian languages and families known as Macro-Gê, which includes, among others, Maxacalí, Botocudo, Karajá, Fulniô, and possibly even Tupí. Today, the Gê groups span a large area stretching from the states of Maranhão and Pará in the north to the southern state of Santa Catarina.

Although reports of what appear to be Gê-speaking peoples date from the mid-seventeenth century, and eighteenth-century colonial records that document aldeiamentos (settlements) of Gê-speaking groups, little was known of the Gê until the middle of the twentieth century. The linguistic and cultural similarities of the various geographically dispersed Gê peoples were only formally recognized in 1867, when Karl von Martius named the family in his preliminary classification of the peoples and languages of central Brazil. The first descriptive accounts of Gê peoples did not, however, appear until the 1940s, when Curt Nimuendajú published his ethnographic accounts of the Apinayé (1939), the Sherente (1942), and the Eastern Timbira (1946). During this same period the Salesian missionaries Antonio Colbacchini and Caesar Albisetti published their monograph of the neighboring Bororo (1942). Their descriptions detail many aspects of a people who, despite significant differences, share many similarities with the Gê. The relationship between the Gê and Bororo continues to baffle specialists to the present day.

Although the Gê and Bororo had previously been classified by Julian Steward (1946) as marginal peoples, a category characterized by rudimentary technology and simple patterns of social organization (defined, in fact, in terms of traits they were reported to lack), both Nimuendajú's accounts and that of the Salesians depict societies possessing simple technologies yet characterized by extremely complex social systems. These descriptions presented social theorists with an apparent anomaly: How did peoples with such rudimentary technologies have such complex patterns of social organization?

Discarding speculations that attempt to explain the paradox by suggesting that the Gê and Bororo are the degenerate remnants of some higher civilization or that the reported complex social divisions are simply native mystifications, a group of scholars led by David Maybury-Lewis set out to unravel the puzzles of central Brazilian social organization through further ethnographic study within a comparative framework. This ambitious effort, known as the Harvard Central Brazil Project, has revised anthropological thinking concerning the basis of social organization among Gê and Bororo societies. Because a hypothesis pertaining to any one of the groups can be tested in other closely related societies, Gê peoples continue to be particularly appealing for the study of comparative social behavior. Subsequent studies have broadened the comparative picture along various dimensions, including material and expressive culture, and have contributed to knowledge of the Gê.

In the 1990s many Gê peoples were actively involved in struggles to preserve their lands and cultural traditions. For example, the Kayapó actively fought against a series of proposed dams that, if completed, would have inundated lands they traditionally inhabited. The Shavante and others sought to achieve economic independence from FUNAI. All the Gê are bent on preserving their heritage, thereby continuing a theme that has distinguished them since colonial times.

See alsoIndigenous Peoples .


Irvine Davis, "Comparative Jê Phonology," Estudos Lingüisticos 1, no. 2 (1966): 10-24, and "Some Macro-Jê relationships," International Journal of American Linguistics 34 (1968): 42-47.

David Maybury-Lewis, Dialectical Societies: The Gê and Bororo of Central Brazil (1979), pp. ix-13.

                                          Laura Graham

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