I saw a show, last night, that reminded me why I would make a very poor cultural anthropologist. It was about the Zo’é people, also known as the Poturu, a tribe of about 160 in Brazil, near the headwaters of some Amazon River tributaries. They were unknown in the West until 1987.
What distinguished the Zo’é is the poturu (hence their other name) or embe’po, a “lip plug” made of bone or wood and inserted through the lower lip. The plugs are first inserted in childhood and gradually enlarged until adulthood; though the final size is up to the individual, most adults wear a poturu about 7 inches (18 cm) long and 1 inch (2.5 cm) wide. Not surprisingly, the plug causes serious difficulty in speaking, particularly with labial sounds, such as b, f, m, and p. From the footage I saw, it also caused frequent difficulty in eating or drinking, especially as beverages are often drunk from large bowls.
A less distinctive feature of the Zo’é culture is that men, women, and children wear no clothes, with the exception of ceremonial grass skirts worn by the men as part of a ritual to drive out sickness and baby slings worn by some of the women. The men do appear to wear some sort of sling about the genitals, wrapped rather tightly – ouch – and made of some sort of cloth. Its purpose is clearly not to conceal, however; it seems to be more for prevention of injury.
Polygamy and polyandry are standard among the Zo’é; spousal jealousy is almost unheard of. The women most discussed in the show seemed to have at least a few husbands, each; fewer of the men had multiple wives, from what I could tell. Most marriages were arrangements, basically for food and other necessities, and often arranged between and individual and the senior spouse of his or her intended.
Now, I have been to some interesting places and seen some interesting things. I have seen ritual animal slaughters and been served tripe as a main course, with skinned and boiled goat penis as a featured side dish (both I and my host declined that one, by the way; somebody in his family took care of it). I know cultural norms regarding clothing and marriage vary widely. So, I’ve been around. But I can’t really understand or appreciate much a tradition that involves making it hard to speak, eat, or drink properly. I would make a lousy anthropologist.
One other interesting custom was this: when attempting to drive sickness out of the group, the men drink vast quantities of casaba beer and intentionally vomit. The vomitting is supposed to purge any illness from the body (though the ones doing the purging are not the ones who are ill). This ritual of deliberate binge drinking and vomitting struck me as odd for a couple of minutes, until I remembered it’s done every Friday and Saturday (and lots of other times) on campuses around America. 😉
Very interesting show; I hope it comes on again, as I was exhausted and only got to watch a little over half of it.