Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/October 1893/The Lip and Ear Ornaments of the Botocudus




THE Botocudus are a rapidly disappearing tribe of Brazilian Indians. They inhabit the country along the upper portion of the Rio Doce, about three hundred miles northeast of Rio de Janeiro, and the region lying along the borders of the States of Bahia, Espirito Santo, and Minas Geraes, especially between the Rio Doce and Rio Pardo, and along the Sierra dos Aymorés. Although they are now in contact with civilization and fast yielding to and dying out before its gentle influences, it is not many years since they and the various branches of their great family occupied a large portion of southern Brazil, and were justly looked upon as the most ferocious of all the wild tribes of that country. But few travelers have seen anything of them, and these have observed only the straggling outskirts as it were of their tribe. Even to this day the latest and best maps of Brazil have written broadly across the vast region referred to, "But little known, and inhabited by Indians." In these dense and almost impenetrable forests they spend their lives, seldom or never visiting either the campos of the interior or the coast.

To judge of the stage of civilization of these Indians it is worth while knowing that they can not count, and that their reckoning is done by using the fingers and toes, and that even this does not go beyond twenty. The children are dirt-eaters, and are sold for slaves, often for the merest trifles. Formerly these people wore no clothing at all; nowadays they are coming more and more to use it. Their straight, deep black hair, high cheekbones, flat noses, complexion, and stature are all suggestive of the Mongolian race types.

It is not my purpose, however, to say much of the Botocudus except with reference to their custom of wearing the large and broad lip and ear ornaments shown in the accompanying illustrations. Fig. 1.—Botocudu Woman. The flesh band of the lip has been broken and the ends tied together with a piece of bark, that the lip ornament may be used. An opening has been made in the ear lobe, but it is not of the customary size. Several travelers in Brazil have given figures of Indians using such ornaments, notably Spix and Von Martins, Maximilien Wied-Neuwied, Hartt, Jean de Lery, Bigg-Wither, and Von Tschudi. It may be said of the illustrations given by those writers, however, that they, without exception, fail to give the characteristic features and expressions of the Botocudus, or, for that matter, of any Indians. Those used in the present article, on the other hand, have been carefully drawn from photographs made a few years ago by M. Marc Ferrez, photographer to the Imperial Geological Survey of Brazil, and may be relied upon for their accuracy. The Fig. 2.—Botocudu Woman, with both lip and ear ornaments of average size. subjects chosen for the photographs were selected with a view to securing the best types that could be had, but it should be remembered that the Botocudus of to-day are rapidly approaching extinction, and that their customs are probably modified to a considerable extent since the visit of Spix and Von Martins, which was made in 1817 to 1820.[1]

The custom of wearing the lip and ear ornaments is a very ancient one among the Botocudus, for the earliest travelers found it in vogue when the continent was discovered. Hans Stade, who lived among the Aymorés of southern Brazil in 1549, says of one of the chiefs "Then he arose, and strutted before me with proud conceit, and he had a large round green stone sticking through the lips of his mouth as their custom is."[2]

The opening in the lower lip is made when the person is quite young by piercing it with a long, slender thorn that grows on a kind of palm tree; this is enlarged with the point of a deer's horn and a stick or small stone is inserted and the wound is greased with some kind of salve. These openings are gradually enlarged by forcing bigger and bigger plugs into them until the desired size is reached. It was formerly the custom when the young men Fig. 3.—Botocudu Man. The ear ornament has been removed and the distended lobe is allowed to hang free. were old enough to bear arms that the openings were enlarged and the green stone labrets inserted.[3]

Jean de Lery says that sometimes when these stones are out, just for the fun of it, they stick their tongues through the holes in their lips, to make people believe they have two mouths. He adds, "I leave you to judge whether they look handsome when they are doing this."[4]

The lip ornament is of two very different forms, only one of which—the broad and stopper-shaped one—is illustrated in the accompanying cuts; the other is long and rudely T-shaped. The shank or long cylinder is pushed through the opening from inside the lip and the cross-piece at the top prevents its falling out. The openings for ornaments of this kind are not nearly so large as those required by the stopper-shaped ones. Several writers tell of the use of stones for labrets. Jean de Lery[5] speaks of polished bone as white as ivory used by the big boys, and replaced when they are grown by green stones. I have seen many of them made of clay and burned like pottery, while the ornaments in most common use nowadays are made of wood.

There is a fair collection of Brazilian Indian lip and ear ornaments in the Museu Nacional at Rio de Janeiro. Many of the examples in the collection are beautifully finished specimens of jade, beryl, serpentine, and quartz, while others are but rudely shaped ones of burned clay and wood.

However strange and in a certain sense fascinating such customs may be, these ornaments, when seen in the ghastly wounds of the dusky, stolid faces of savages, are inexpressibly hideous. They are rendered still more so by the fact that the South American Indians, so far at least as my observations go, lose their front teeth early, and especially the lower ones, and the pulling down of the lower lip almost invariably exposes the toothless gums or the broken, decaying, discolored, and filthy teeth. Hunger is the curse of savage life, and the savage is therefore always on the alert for something to eat. For this reason the discharge of saliva is much more marked with a savage than with a civilized man. The effect of this free discharge of saliva on the personal appearance Fig. 4.—Botocudu Woman. The ear ornament has been lost and the distended lobe is looped above the ear. of a man or woman, whose lower lip is all the time drawn so low that it can not be retained, may be imagined more readily than described.

The stopper-shaped lip ornaments are now made of some light kind of wood. They are usually about three quarters of an inch thick and two inches in diameter, though sometimes they are much larger. Prince Maximilian measured one four inches across. Around the outside of the plug a little groove is cut, and when it is inserted the flesh band of the lip fits in this groove and thus holds the plug in place. With age the flesh bands relax considerably, and the plugs of old persons are for this reason generally larger than those of younger ones. When the ornament is removed the lip dangles in a most ungraceful manner. In the accidents of savage life these openings in the lips are often broken, but this does not prevent the wearing of the customary ornament, for the broken ends of the band are united by a string made of a bit of bark, and the plug thus held in place. One of the accompanying illustrations (Fig. 1) was made to show this method of sticking to the fashion.

The ear ornaments of the Botocudus are not essentially different from those used in the lips (see Fig. 2). The plugs are of the Fig. 5.—Young Botocudu Woman, Age about Seventeen. The ornaments worn in the ears are the modern pendants. same materials, size, and appearance; they differ only in that they are worn in the openings made in the lobes of the ears instead of in the lower lip. The bands of the ears, when the plugs are not in place, dangle upon the shoulders when left to themselves (Fig. 3), but they are generally thrown over the top of the ear. This custom of looping up the ear lobes is shown in Fig. 4.

Many persons who have seen these pictures have thought such a fashion too inconvenient to last long. But the inconvenience of a fashion seems to have but little or nothing to do with either its origin or its perpetuity. Our own fashions are often complained of as tyrannical, unreasonable, unbecoming, inartistic, useless, whimsical, and everything else that is not downright wicked. But all people have fashions of one sort or another, and we can only congratulate ourselves that, however bad some of our fashions may be, they might have been worse than they are.

Among the reasons published by Count Paul von Hönsbröch, of Germany, for renouncing his allegiance to the order of the Jesuits, are the rigor and monotony of the discipline enforced by its rules. From the first day of his novitiate the young Jesuit, it might be said, is run into a mold from which he is ultimately to emerge a mere passive instrument of the mission work of the order. The mesmerized or hypnotized patient, according to the count, is not a more perfect tool in the hands of the manipulator than is the well trained Jesuit in those of the general of the order. He lives, moves, and has his being simply at the behest of his superior, and responds to the demands from those above him with a fidelity and an efficiency attainable under no other system. A similar confession is made by Count Campello, of Rome, in his statement of reasons for having ceased to serve as canon of St. Peter's. The daily monotonous exercises of the Basilica, repeated morning and evening without break from year to year, were paralyzing his mental and bodily powers and destroying all initiative. These facts point to a fatal influence of monotony which deserves to be studied; for under the increasing specialization of learning and occupation, life is tending daily to become more monotonous and more destitute of true inspiration.
  1. Rum has much to do with the wiping out of the native Indians of Brazil. The whites, especially the original settlers of the country, treated them without pity, enslaving them and killing them upon the slightest provocation or with no provocation whatever.
  2. The Captivity of Hans Stade, of Hesse. The Hakluyt Society, No li p 72.
  3. Hans Stade, p. 139.
  4. Histoire d'vn Voyage faict en la Terre dv Bresil, par Jean de Lery. Geneva, 1583, p. 104.
  5. Op. cit., p. 104.