Thursday 16 July 2009

Becoming a person

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Everyone is shaped by their community and its culture, through their upbringing and in the special events which mark the different stages of their lives. For Amazonians, as for other people, these stages include birth, coming of age, marriage and parentage, death and the afterlife. The community as a whole contributes to how each individual becomes a person within a world shared with plants, animals and spirits. To become a man or a woman, a child has to go through difficult, often painful, tests in order to prepare them for the responsibilities of adult life. A group of boys or girls go through this initiation together, in a public religious ceremony at which spirits may appear in the form of masked dancers.

The feather lip ornament (or labret) illustrated here is part of the special costume worn by a man of the Urubu Ka'apor people of the Maracaçumé River in about 1963, during a name-giving ceremony, for boys of the community who were coming of age. It represents an imaginary bird, but its feathers are taken from actual birds of the forest (such as the scarlet macaw, the honey-creeper, spangled cotinga and long-tailed tyrant). The ornament illustrates how Amazonians see their culture developing from the forest plants and animals which provide their livelihood and inspire their world-view, and the way their culture shapes their view of the natural world.

Main illustration: Feather lip ornament, from Urubu Kaapor, Maracaçumé River, collected by Boris Malkin, 1963 (Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi, Belém, Brazil, inv. no. 10597)

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