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The Timbira


"Timbira" is a broad denomination for a number of closely related languages and cultures - the Krahô, Krikati, Gavião-Parkateye, Pukobye, Canela-Ramkokamekra, among others. These belong to the eastern Timbira division, while one single group, the Apinayé, is classified as western Timbira due to major linguistic and cultural differences. The Timbira are noticed for the first time east of the Parnaíba river (in fact, the easternmost location for any Jê group) during the 18th century, when they were probably still part of a single group. Since then, a series of fissions and migrations towards the west and north gave birth to the many Timbira groups of the present, some of which had reached the Araguaia basin by the 19th century. The Apinayé migration is probably the earliest, and should have happened before the major eastern Timbira split.

All Timbira villages rely on slash-and-burn agriculture and are built as a circle of houses around a central plaza - though, unlike the Kayapó or central Jê, there are no "men's houses" in the center of the village among the Timbira. Each house shelters an extended matrilocal family, which works as a single and independent economic unit. Men move to the houses of their wives when they marry, a common pattern among the Jê. There are no institutions regulating marriage, kinship terminology belonging to the Crow-Omaha type: all father's brothers are called fathers (txu), and all mother's sisters are called mothers (txe), but the father's sister and the mother's brother receive different names (keti and tui). These are the main sponsors of a child during his initiation to adult life and a wider network of social relations. The keti and tui act like adoptive parents, separating the child from the restricted blood relationships of the immediate family and introducing him to the social and ceremonial world of the central plaza. In fact, the relationship between a maternal uncle (keti) and his nephew (tamtxua) is one of the most important among the Timbira.

Plan of a Krahô village. The houses (brown) are disposed
in a circle and are linked through paths (darker green)
to the central clean plaza (green). Modified from satellite image (©NASA).

The opposition between the circle of the houses and the plaza parallels the division between the blood ties and the social or ceremonial ties, but also between women (restricted to the house they were born in) and men (whose place par excellence is in the central plaza). The passage from one to the other is, in the case of a boy, sponsored by his keti (who, despite being a blood relative, lives in a different house) through the transmission of a fundamental good in all Jê societies: the name. Through the name, a person is assigned to one of the ritual moieties of the village, and thus the boy inherits his keti moiety. The moieties among the Timbira do not regulate marriage, unlike in the Dravidian systems of the Central and Southern Jê. They have rather a ritual and classificatory function: ritual precedence is given to each of the moieties during its particular season. Among the Canela, the Kamakra moiety is associated with the dry season, while the Atukmakra moiety is associated with the wet season. This is the same opposition as found among the Apinayé moieties Kolti and Kolre. All of the universe is divided in these categories through dual oppositions: east and west, forest and prairy, sun and moon. The many (female based) autonomous households are thus integrated through men's societies that deny consanguineal relations and emphasize affinal relations through rituals in the plaza.

Though most of the people in a Timbira village are "commoners", some people have the privilege of receiving a "great name" that assigns them to a special class (called hamren or megakrãko "wet heads" among the Canela). As among the Kayapó, the parents who want their child to receive a great name must sponsor the naming ritual by feeding the participants. People who received great names are also assigned to special ritual roles (chief or singer for instance) and, after death, are buried in the central plaza under burial mounds, unlike the commoners who are buried under their house floor. This highlights the ritual-oriented character of Timbira societies, who preserve the important roles through placement in the plaza, the ritual core of the village.

Carneiro da Cunha, M. (1978) Os mortos e os outros: uma análise do sistema funerário e da noção de pessoa entre os índios Krahó. São Paulo: HUCITEC.
______. (1986) "Lógica do mito e da ação: o movimento messiânico Canela de 1963". In Antropologia do Brasil: mito, história, etnicidade. São Paulo: USP.
DaMatta, R. (1976) Um mundo dividido: estrutura social dos índios Apinayé. Petrópolis: Vozes.

See more references at the Bibliografia Macro-Jê Online.

Jonas Gregorio de Souza,
Aug 25, 2009, 10:14 AM