Importance of Natural Resources

Mundurukú Headdress: a glimpse of life in the Amazon rainforest


(bright piano music) – [Steven] I’m in the British Museum with Jago Cooper and we’re looking at this amazing headdress. At first glance, it looks like it’s constructed entirely out of feathers. – [Jago] Yeah, that’s right, and we’re down in the
King Edward’s basement, deep in the bowels of the British Museum. And we’re looking here
at a Mundurukú headdress, which does indeed seem to be
made entirely of feathers. – [Steven] Who are the Mundurukú? – [Jago] The Mundurukú are
an indigenous community, which live on the Rio
Tapajós right in the heart of the Amazon between the
upper and lower Amazons. Looking at a map of the Amazon, we’re on the south side of the Rio Amazon, and the Rio Tapajós is one of the tributaries leading into it. – [Steven] We’re seeing this headdress in this basement strongroom, but it’s meant to be seen in
a very different environment. – [Jago] So we have to always
understand the connection between the object and
the place of origin. And this is one of the most
biodiverse places on the planet, with some of the most wonderful birds and animals living in it, and
this is a reflection of that. – [Steven] And I’m seeing at least three different kinds of feathers. I’m assuming they’re from
three different kinds of birds. – [Jago] We know some
of the species of birds. This is a Arara bird, a Mutum bird, and perhaps Macaw feathers
or from a vulture. – [Steven] The Arara
are the yellow feathers that are around the back. – [Jago] Yeah, the Mutum
are these black feathers. And then we have these lovely
red or orange tail feathers which come down are likely
to be Macaw or a vulture. – [Steven] Whoever constructed this, is using the feathers
in a way that is taking into account the quality of that feather. You’ve got those long tail feathers, functioning almost like
long braids of hair. And the short feathers
really functioning as tufts, and the Ararat delineating the
turn of the back of the head. – [Jago] Absolutely not
only are they selecting these feathers for their aesthetic colors, what they look like. I think there’s also another
interesting layer which is that the birds themselves have
particular characteristics. Particularly myths surrounding them that perhaps go back
for hundreds of years. So what this means to people is not just what it looks like, but what it means about the animals, the landscape, the environment
from which they come. – [Steven] So the behaviors of the birds. The calls of the birds
are being referenced in the use of these feathers. – [Jago] Imagine that you
live in the rainforest, and that you’re entirely reliant on the environment around you. Then you’re entire way of
life creates a knowledge base, it’s like education. If you think about the
education of Khan Academy, education of the environment
in the forest systems. Within each feather, within each animal, within each part of that forest
is a whole education system that is passed down
through the generations. – [Steven] So this headdress
is about a hundred years old. Is it fair to say that it’s continuing a tradition that is older? – [Jago] Absolutely this is
definitely continuing traditions which have gone on for a long time. So what’s important is
that these don’t preserve in the Amazon. – [Steven] Well because
these are organic materials that’s an incredibly humid environment. Things survive when they’re
in dry environments. – [Jago] When you live in the tropics, you’re whole way of life
is about expediency. Things just go, you know
you change your house roof, every few years, everything
happens on a seasonal basis. The whole timelines of the
environment are different. And so the idea of The British Museum, to be the exemplar of
antiquity and permeance of culture through time. It’s almost at the opposite
ends of the spectrum. Both are absolutely crucial, to understanding material culture and the massive diversity
around the world. – [Steven] And if there is longevity, it’s longevity of tradition rather than of the object itself. – [Jago] Absolutely, it’s
longevity of tradition and knowledge, and it’s
interesting to think about how knowledge is passed
down through generations. Through social practice,
through people doing things in front of each other
and learning through time. – [Steven] So how was this used? – [Jago] This is definitely
a headdress which is used at particular ritual occasions. It’s incredibly dramatic often associated with a scepter which
you’d hold in your hand. So this not an everyday item. It’s there to display power and authority within the community and
within potentially a dance or a ceremony which is being carried out. – [Steven] Although this object
is over a hundred years old, it’s in such incredible condition, and I’m assuming that the
Mundurukú don’t have modern glues. How is this held together? – [Jago] ‘Cause it has this exterior of fragility of these delicate feathers. But if you look just beneath the surface, you can see that there’s
a very closely knit web of string made from local plant materials, and that binds it all together. And each of these feathers
is stuck within that lattice. – [Steven] Imagining
somebody wearing this, these feathers moving and there’s an iridescence to the darker feathers. – [Jago] Materials don’t
have have just one quality. So you can imagine the light
shining off the feathers. It also shines off the water of the river. It shines off of the trees, and so this starts to connect up themes of the environment which bind together and give them object meaning. – [Steven] I can’t help but
think that wearing feathers, conveys some of the power
and the special qualities of a bird to the human who wears it. Do we have any sense of
what the symbolism is? – [Jago] This idea of taking
on the qualities of animals, is something which is very common throughout the whole of the Americas. You can’t talk about
this particular object, ’cause I don’t know the
connotations within the Mundurukú. But yes the idea that
humans can take on the power of animals is definitely a common theme among many cultures of the Amazon, and it’s intriguing because
it often gives the idea of the qualities they’re looking for. So sight, the idea that a bird can go up above the Amazon, kind of be
able to see great distances. Also it ties in which about time, about how different temporalities of life within the forest into weave, and how humans are part of
that great system of life. – [Steven] Dissolving the distinction between animal and human. – [Jago] Between human and nature, this idea that the forest
is this sort of dark place which is an inhuman place. This is the classic example of
why all of that understanding of human environment interrelationships is connected within Amazon society. (bright piano music)


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