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ETHNONYMS: Cuicuru, Cuicutl, Guicuru, Kuikuro


Identification. The Kuikuru, who comprise a single village, refer to themselves and other groups of the upper Xingu as "Ukuge" ("my people") and to all other Indians as "Ngikogo" ("Wild Indian"). "Kuikuru" is a phonetic variant of the autodenomination "Kufikugu," deriving from kufi, a kind of fish, plus the suffix -kugu, meaning "place," referring to a village site occupied by the Kuikuru a century ago.

Location. From about 1860 or 1870 on, the Kuikuru village was located at 12°34 S and 53°7 W between Brazil's Kuluene and Kuliseu rivers. Around 1962 the village was moved north to be included within the Xingu National Park. Its present location is the old village site of a now-extinct Carib-speaking group (the Ipatse or Itsufa), at 12°23 S and 53°12 W. The Kuikuru habitat is dry tropical forest, with extensive areas of human-made savanna nearby. Precipitationroughly 190 centimetersoccurs mainly during the rainy season. The dry season, April to September, includes three completely rainless months.

Demography. In 1892, when first visited by Europeans, the Kuikuru village had 202 inhabitants. In 1954 there were 145 persons in the village. In 1975 the population was down to 120, but some 50 Kuikuru were then living among the Yawalapití. The emigres moved back into the main village in 1976, bringing the population up to some 175.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Kuikuru speak a Carib language. Only a minor dialectal difference exists between Kuikuru and the language of the neighboring Kalapalo and Nafukuá.

History and Cultural Relations

The Kuikuru became a separate village following a split in a parent community. The leader of the dissident Kuikuru faction brought his group to the shores of Lake Lamakuka, where they settled, occupying four successive sites over the next hundred years. Around 1962 they left this locale and moved north, setting up a new village on the east bank of the Rio Arjafuku, an eastern tributary of the Kuliseu. Around 1973 they moved again, to a site about 3 kilometers southeast of this earlier one, near a small lake. While the Kuikuru were residing in their two most recent locations, some 50 of their number left the village over allegations of witchcraft and went to live in the Yawalapití village near the Leonardo Villas Boas Indian Post; the two groups reunited in the main village in 1976.

Near the Kuikuru in the upper Xingu Basin are villages representing four different language families: Carib (Kalapalo, Nafukuá, Matipú), Arawak (Waurá, Mehinaku, Yawalapití), Tupían (Kamayura, Auetí), and the isolated Trumai. These groups, the so-called Xinguanos, isolated for centuries from surrounding tribes, are all very similar culturally and engage in joint ceremonies and sporting events, trade with each other, and intermarry. There has been no warfare among these nine upper Xingu villages since they were discovered by Karl von den Steinen in 1884Hostilities have occasionally occurred, however, between Xinguano villages and surrounding groups of "Wild Indians" such as the Suyá, Shavante, Chukahamay (Mekranotí), and Txikão.


Until they moved to a new locale in the early 1960s, the Kuikuru had, for a century or so, occupied sites only a few hundred meters apart, near a medium-sized lake 13 kilometers west of the Rio Kuluene. Settlement close to a river or lake is considered essential in order to have access to water for cooking, bathing, fishing, and canoe travel. Kuikuru houses, which are built from an elliptical ground plan, look like large oval haystacks but have a solid pole framework with two center posts and a heavy ridgepole. Houses are thatched with sapé (Imperata ) grass, the roof and walls forming a continuous curve. Each house has two small doorways, one facing the plaza, the other on the opposite side, facing the forest. The village plan is circular, with usually nine to eleven houses arranged around a central plaza. Houses average about 20 meters long, 11 meters wide, and 7 meters high. In the center of the plaza there is a men's house and near it a harpy-eagle cage, where an eagle is kept for its feathers.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Kuikuru subsist largely by slash-and-burn cultivation, domesticated plants accounting for 85 to 90 percent of their diet. The principal crop is manioc, which provides 80 to 85 percent of their food. Some forty-six varieties of manioc are grown (all of them poisonous), but six of them provide more than 95 percent of the harvest. The next most important cultigen is maize. Only four or five men have maize fields, but the harvest is shared villagewide. Sweet potatoes are a minor crop. Peppers are grown for seasoning. Piquí trees (Caryocar brasiliense ) are planted in mature manioc plots and begin to yield several years after the plots are abandoned. Gathered in November and December, piquí fruit is seasonally important. Nonfood crops include gourds, urucú (Bixa orettana ), and tobacco. Gardens are cleared in tracts of primary forest surrounding the village and must be fenced against predation by agoutis, deer, and, especially, white-lipped peccaries. They average two-thirds of a hectare in size, yield over 8 metric tons of manioc tubers a year, and continue to be cultivated for three or four years. To remove the prussic acid from the tubers, the Kuikuru grate them and squeeze the pulp through a mat strainer into a large, flat-bottomed pot. The coarse flour remaining on top of the strainer is placed in the sun to dry, as is the fine flour (tapioca) that settles to the bottom of the pot after straining. A gruel is made from the coarse flour and beijú cakes from a combination of coarse and fine flour. Maize may be roasted on the cob or boiled and made into a gruel.

Hunting is negligible, providing less than 1 percent of subsistence. The only mammal eaten is one species of cebus monkey. A few people eat one or two species of birds. The gathering of fruit is not important except for piquí. Honey, a delicacy, is acquired by smoking the bees out of their hives or by felling the trees where they live. Fishing, the most important supplement to horticulture, provides 10 to 15 percent of subsistence. Almost 100 species of fish are caught. Fishhooks are common today but were lacking aboriginally. Fishing is done mostly with the bow and arrow and secondarily with fish traps of four different kinds. The highest yields are obtained through the use of the timbó vine, sections of which are pounded in the water. A fish-poisoning expedition, carried out in a lagoon or the shallow arm of a river when the water is low and the current slow, may yield about one-half metric ton of fish.

Industrial Arts. The Kuikuru are skilled in making a variety of artifacts such as bows and arrows, hammocks, stools, bark canoes, fish traps, feather headdresses, composite combs. They use pottery extensively for food preparation and cooking, but do not make it themselves.

Trade. Craft specialization, which exists to some degree among the nine villages of the upper Xingu, serves to promote intervillage trade. The most important trade item bartered by the Kuikuru is pottery, which they get directly or indirectly from the Waurá, the only people who make it. Along with the neighboring Kalapalo, the Kuikuru specialize in making shell necklaces and waistbands, which they use themselves and trade to the other upper Xingu villages for their specialties. From the Kamayura, the Kuikuru get fine bows made from pau d'arco wood, which does not grow in Kuikuru territory. A standardized set of trade equivalences exists in the upper Xingu: 1 bow = 1 pot = 1 hammock = 1 stool = 1 shell necklace, and so on. Intervillage ceremonies are occasions for trade. Considerable exchange takes place within the Kuikuru village itself, some of it carried out by a formai trading game that proceeds from house to house.

Division of Labor. There is a well-defined division of labor by gender. In manioc cultivation, men clear the plots, plant the cuttings, fence the gardens, and weed. Women harvest the tubers, bring them home, and do the long and tedious work of processing and then cooking them. In crafts, men make most of the tools, weapons, ornaments, and utensils, including baskets. Women make hammocks and mat strainers. No full-time specialties exist, but a number of crafts are part-time specialties. These include the making of canoes, stools, sacred flutes, combs, and certain feather headdresses.

Land Tenure. The land surrounding the Kuikuru village is owned communally. In the case of garden plots, however, a system of usufruct prevails. Plots become the possession of the man who cleared and planted them and remain his as long as they continue to yield. Once a garden plot is abandoned, though, the land reverts to communal ownership. Piquí trees are an exception. They remain the property of the man who planted them or of his heirs, even after they have gradually become part of the forest. Areas improved by individual effort, such as places in rivers or lakes where weirs and fish traps are set, are privately owned.


Kin Groups and Descent. The basic kin unit is the nuclear family, but it is often augmented by the addition of other kin, such as a widowed parent. Two or more married brothers, or a man and his wife and their married son, may sometimes reside in the same house, giving rise to an extended family. Descent is entirely bilateral. Even claims to the headmanship can be asserted equally through one's father or one's mother.

Kinship Terminology. Kuikuru kinship terms are basically Iroquoian, except that brother and sister terms have been extended to include not only parallel cousins but cross cousins as well, making the nomenclature Hawaiian for Ego's generation. Vestigial cross-cousin terms exist, though, indicating that at one time the terminology was consistently Iroquoian.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In 1954 marriages among the Kuikuru were 70 percent village-endogamous. Exogamous marriages were contracted mostly with other Carib-speaking Indians, especially the Kalapalo, and secondarily with the Arawak-speaking Yawalapití. Most marriages are monogamous but polygyny is permitted. Three of some forty married men in 1954 had more than one wife, two men having two wives each and the third having three. In courtship the groom must persuade the girl's parents as well as the girl herself to consent to the union. A suitor places a large load of firewood outside his would-be mother-in-law's doorway, and if she takes it in and uses it, his suit is considered accepted. The marriage ceremony consists primarily of the payment of a bride-price to the girl's parents. Should a groom lack the bride-price (usually shell necklaces and waistbands) he must perform bride-service instead. Postmarital residence is matri-patrilocal, the matri-phase usually lasting one to three months. Since the village is largely endogamous, shifts in residence at marriage generally involve, at most, a change of house. Marriages are fairly brittle and divorce is easy: a spouse merely has to move out of the house, or even just to the opposite end of the house, to accomplish it.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is the basic domestic unit, and there are usually three to five of them in a communal house. Each nuclear family has its own hearth near one of the center posts, and the family's hammocks radiate out from this post to various wall posts. A wife strings her hammock beneath her husband's so she can tend the night fire more readily. Coresidents of a communal house frequently cooperate in subsistence and food processing, even if they are not closely related.

Inheritance . At the death of the owner, no material property passes from one generation to the next. Some of it is buried with the deceased, and the rest is broken and thrown away. Thus, a woman's pots may be broken and dropped into the river, the idea being to keep surviving kin from seeing them again and being reminded of the death of a loved one. An exception to the rule against inheritance of material property is provided by fruit trees. Any piquí trees a man planted pass to his sons at his death. Each Kuikuru ceremony has an owner, and at his death, ownership of that ceremony is transferred to his heir, who may be a daughter.

Socialization. Children are treated indulgently and raised permissively. They are virtually never beaten or even spanked, physical punishment being seriously frowned upon. When a child has a tantrum a parent will often walk away, leaving persons in the rest of the village to laugh at the angry child, which usually puts an end to the outburst. By the age of 6, a girl is learning adult domestic chores, including manioc processing, and by 8, she may already be adept at spinning cotton. Boys are not expected to learn adult skills so young. During puberty seclusion, both sexes spend from several months to a year or even two living within a specially partitioned section of the house. At this time they are expected to learn or perfect various adult arts and crafts.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Although today the Kuikuru are egalitarian, there are traces of an earlier system of social ranking among them. Thus, to become village chief or a trading-game captain, a man must be anetï, that is, a member of a bilateral "lineage" to which former chiefs belonged. The chief today does little in the way of mobilizing labor. Most activities requiring the cooperation of persons beyond the nuclear family are planned through informal discussion, the organizer of a work party repaying with food and drink those who helped him.

Political Organization. Chieftainship is presently not a strong institution among the Kuikuru. In 1953-1954 the incumbent headman was a quiet individual who played a very small role in village affairs. Another, more vigorous individual, though not an anetï, took over the de facto role of chief. In 1975 there were three Kuikuru chiefs. The oldest served mostly in a ceremonial capacity, for example, when the village engaged in intervillage ceremonies. The next oldest exercised more authority in economic matters, such as the distribution of goods and the mobilization of labor for fish poisoning. The third aneti chose to play no leadership role at all. The Kuikuru tell of past chiefs, like Afukaká, who, because of the strength of his personality, exercised considerably more control of village life than did later chiefs. A recognized chiefly function is to exhort teenage boys and young men to rise early, bathe in the nearby lake, and live up to tribal norms.

Social Control. Scarcely any formal means of social control exists in the Kuikuru village. The chief plays no role in maintaining order or in punishing offenders if norms are violated. However, the Kuikuru are strongly socialized from childhood to be amiable and to refrain from expressing anger. Indeed, fights among men in the village are unknown. A dislike of being thought stingy, quarrelsome, or aggressive keeps village life running smoothly. Allegations of witchcraft within the village are not uncommon, and fear of being thought a witch serves as a strong deterrent against antisocial behavior. This fear, moreover, is well grounded, since at least four village members have been executed as witches over a period of twenty-five years. If a death is suspected as being the result of witchcraft, the father, brother, or son of the victim asks the shaman to ascertain the witch's identity; the deceased's relatives may take it upon themselves to kill the alleged sorcerer. Beyond this, there is no recourse against any offense committed within the village except "bad-mouthing" the guilty party to others.

Conflict. Ever since the upper Xingu Basin was discovered in 1884, the Kuikuru and their immediate neighbors have been at peace with one another. The one incident of violence involving the Kuikuru was their murder, around 1935, of five visiting Yarumá from a now-extinct village of Carib-speaking Indians located east of the Rio Kuluene. Several groups outside the upper Xingu Basin, recognized by the Kuikuru as Ngikogo, have attacked Xinguano villages at various times. These hostile tribes include the Shavante to the east, the Suya to the northeast, the Chukahamay (Mekranotí) to the north, and the Txikão to the west. There is archaeological evidence in the form of defensive trenches to indicate that, centuries ago, warfare was prevalent in the upper Xingu. However, no oral tradition of this survives.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Gods cannot be said to exist in Kuikuru religion, but Sun is a culture hero of considerable importance. Sun, the older twin brother of Moon, created all the "Wild Indians" and also taught the Kuikuru many of their arts and crafts as well as several of their customs. But Sun no longer intervenes in human affairs. The Kuikuru believe in a large number of spirits (etseke ), most of whom are associated with a variety of animals and a few trees. As a rule, spirits are ill disposed toward people and therefore dangerous. Anyone except a shaman who comes face to face with a spirit is liable to sicken and die. Harm comes not only from the malevolence of the evil spirits but also from witches, who are deemed to be actual individuals living in the village.

Religious Practitioners. The shaman is the only supernatural practitioner. His main function is to diagnose and treat illness, including soul loss and ailments brought on by witchcraft. A shaman is aided in his practice by spirit helpers, whom he contacts by smoking tobacco and through the use of religious paraphernalia, especially a gourd rattle. A shaman may also be asked to locate lost or stolen objects and to determine the identity of a thief or a witch. He is paid for his services, but not in foodhe engages in normal subsistence activities, like other men.

Ceremonies. The Kuikuru have some seventeen ceremonies, all of them named after a particular spirit. Yet a ceremony is never performed to attract or placate its spirit. Indeed, the Kuikuru prefer not to have a spirit attend his ceremony, lest people see him and die as a result. Each ceremony is organized by a ceremonial team consisting of the owner, who must give permission to have his ceremony performed and then provide food and drink during it; petitioners, who formally request the owner to allow it to be held and then help arrange the performance; and musicians, who play the instruments and sing the songs associated with the ceremony. The most important ceremony in which the Kuikuru take part is Kuarup, the Feast of the Dead, which takes place during the dry season, rotating among the nine villages of the upper Xingu. Each year, the eight other upper-Xingu villages gather at the host village to help commemorate persons of the chiefly line from that village who have died since the ceremony was last held there. This ceremony, which takes place in the evening, is followed the next morning by intertribal wrestling, during which an upper Xingu champion usually emerges.

Medicine. The Kuikuru regard most illness as supernaturally caused. Witchcraft is blamed for many ailments, from toothaches to fatal illnesses. An invisible magical dart blown into the victim is the sorcerer's principal weapon. For serious ailments, the shaman is called upon for diagnosis and treatment. Lesser complaints are treated by the ill person or a close relative, using mainly medicinal plants gathered from the forest.

Death and Afterlife. The death of a person occasions a villagewide funerary rite. Sewn into its hammock, the corpse is carried around inside its house and then taken outside and buried in a grave dug in the plaza. Most people are buried, flexed and wrapped in their hammock, in a cylindrical grave. However, anetï, persons of a chiefly line, have a more elaborate grave. Two cylindrical holes are dug 3 or 4 meters apart and then connected by a tunnel. A post is set into the bottom of each hole and the hammock containing the anetï's corpse is then strung through the tunnel and tied at each end to the posts. After this, the holes are filled in and the grave is temporarily marked with a low log fence of hourglass shape.

The village of the dead is said to be in the sky, directly overhead, and the journey to it involves hazards and obstacles that the soul must avoid or surmount if it is to reach its destination. Should the soul slip and fall while crossing a slippery log bridge, for example, it would go up in a puff of smoke and disappear forever. Once in the village of the dead, a recently arrived soul is nurtured and brought back to health. It then continues to live there, enjoying a life not unlike that on earth, but easier and more pleasant. Kuikuru souls in the village of the dead are occasionally attacked by the souls of the dead birds, however, which live in their own village nearby. If killed in such a raid, a Kuikuru soul ceases to exist.


Carneiro, Robert L. (1977). "Recent Observations on Shamanism and Witchcraft among the Kuikuru Indians of Central Brazil." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 293:215-229.

Carneiro, Robert L. (1983). "The Cultivation of Manioc among the Kuikuru of the Upper Xingù." In Adaptive Responses of Native Amazonians, edited by R. B. Harnes and W. T. Vickers, 65-111. New York: Academic Press.