Vanishing Worlds – Still Vanishing

raoni cropped - Steven
Photograph by Cristina Mittermeier

One of the tribes featured in our exhibit on Amazonian rainforest people is that of the Kayapó people. We also have on display a series of large photographs taken very recently by Cristina Mittermeier. These photographs show daily life among the Kayapó. The title panel of this section of the exhibit carries the title of “Guardians of the Forest,” and displays a portrait of the tribe’s leader, Raoni, a man famous enough to have an institute named after him.

Recently, Raoni’s image also appeared on the BBC world news website.  He was shown together with Sting, who was there to lend his support to the tribe’s long-standing opposition to the construction of a dam on their lands. Initial reports of the Kayapó’s success in opposing the construction of the dam appear to have been premature, with recent reports surfacing in Western media that the project was slated to go ahead anyway. Even though intense media scrutiny has caused this mega-project to have been put on hold, it remains to be seen if it will be permanently shelved. If implemented, it would impact huge swaths of Kayapó lands, including their burial lands and their traditional hunting and fishing grounds. In other words, their world would literally vanish in a matter of years as the waters rose and covered their land.

As always, there is another side to the story. Brazil, a huge country with a growing population, faces ever increasing demands for energy. Its efforts to become energy independent, by developing its own sources of energy, have received attention from many a country abroad. The potential for hydro-electric power is immense in Brazil, as shown in the case of the Itaipu dam. However, it is also subject to interference by Mother Nature, as a recent power outage in Brazil, leaving 60 million people in the dark, clearly showed.

Shrunken Head on display at HMNS

Much further to the West, the story of the Shuar people (formerly known as the Jivaro), continues to generate headlines as well. Living in Ecuador, the Shuar are one of a very small number of Amazon tribes who once practiced the custom of shrinking human heads. The Shuar are also part of our current Amazon exhibit, as are two shrunken heads, possibly their handiwork. A recent National Geographic broadcast, part of what is dubbed Expedition week, focused on what could be the only known documentary film ever made on this process. The procedure is shown as taking place in a village, rather than in the field, which has made some surmise that perhaps we might be dealing with a “re-enactment” of this event.  I found it amazing to realize that the footage was considered rare, and unique, given that it was only made in the 1960s.

These two recent episodes of Amazon cultures making the headlines remind us that their world, just like ours, is always in transition. While we can deplore the disappearance of civilization and our lack of understanding of their past, those of us who work in museums can help document and thus preserve customs which are vanishing in front of our eyes. It may very well be that our treatment of the Kayapó in the exhibit will be overtaken by events and that our next write up or exhibit on these people will have to use the past tense when referring to them. Similarly, when we realize that the label “1960’s – era” may imply rare and gone, it emphasizes the need to document what we see today. Museums need not only collect “really ancient stuff”; they should also do so with much more recent materials, indeed materials that may still be abundant today. Collecting such recent items has the additional benefit of being able to collect data on who made the items, when and where they were used, etc. One can only hope that later generations will appreciate our efforts in preserving a trace of cultures now long gone.

It appears that vanishing worlds continue to vanish in front of our own eyes.

Don’t miss the chance to see our exhibit Spirits and Headhunters: Vanishing Worlds of the Amazon while it is on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. With over 100 objects of rare artwork and body costumes used in daily life and rituals and ceremonies, these beautiful pieces show the unique lifestyles of disappearing Amazonian tribes.