The drawn designs in this display were made by Kayapó girls from the village of Gorotire, Pará State, Brazil, between 1989 and 1991. They were originally made as part of a project to create content for a schoolbook to be distributed to schools in Belém, the capital city of Pará. This educational outcome was one of the goals of a notable anthropological project of the 1980s called the Kayapó Project, led by the ethnobiologist Darrell Posey.
The body art designs project in Gorotire village was carried out by the Kayapó Project’s research assistant Sandra Machado, who later sent them to Posey in Oxford. Some of the drawings bear the name of the Kayapó child who drew them, and on their reverse is the remains of the glue used to display them in the school. In 1992 the schoolbook was produced by Machado, titled Grafismo Indígena e Pintura Corporal Kayapó (Indigenous design and body painting of the Kayapó).
Kayapó girls learn body painting techniques from an early age, training on dolls made from babassu nut, as if they were babies. Soon after birth, a baby receives its first body painting in preparation for a bathing ceremony; it is only after this ceremony that the baby is considered gente (a person), and its arrival is celebrated throughout the village.
Body paints are made from plants, sometimes mixed with other ingredients such as charcoal. A popular red body paint for the face for instance is made from the achiote (bixa orellana) shrub, whose seeds are ground to make the paste. For black colouring, the liquid in the genipa americana fruit is often used since when it oxidises it stains the upper layers of the skin dark, lasting a couple of weeks.
These intricate patterns are considered the most beautiful and made with great care. They are called men ôk kumrent (true painting of the people) because in these laborious patterns there is no reference to animals. Mothers continue to paint their children with this pattern until they are about seven years of age when they pass to another stage. After this new stage the pattern would only be applied to initiated adults – those who have gone through the naming ritual – or on very special occasions, such as special parties or when returning from battles. These same patterns are used as part of the funeral ceremony, on the body and/or face of the initiated.
Even though Sandra Machado did not specify what kind of painting the girls should draw, they all chose to make a variety of these men ôk kumrent patterns. One reason for this may be because this is the style most commonly practiced by girls on their "babassu babies".
Darrell Posey (1947–2001) was an American anthropologist and biologist who studied the traditional knowledge of indigenous people in Brazil and other countries, calling his cross-disciplinary approach ‘ethnobiology’. Posey combined this research with activism for indigenous intellectual property rights and threats from commercial exploitation. After 1992 Posey moved to Oxford where he became a Fellow of Linacre College and where he continued his research. His archive was transferred by his estate to the Pitt Rivers Museum on his death in 2001.
The Kayapó Project was started by Posey in 1982 as a multidisciplinary research project to document the extensive biological knowledge of the Kayapó people. Posey and others spent months in the field with Kayapó specialists, and by 1986 up to 30 academics were involved. The project held conferences at which both academic and local indigenous project participants disseminated their collaborative findings, and in 1988 Posey organized the first International Congress of Ethnobiology, in Belém.
The Darrell Posey archive is one of the foremost ethnobiological archives in the world, and the Pitt Rivers Museum is currently working with some of Posey’s ex-collaborators in Brazil to make the archive more accessible, both for researchers and for the Kayapó community.