The jungle orchestra provided a rousing soundtrack as I steered my dugout canoe from the geographic certainty of Brazil’s Urubu River into the randomness of the flooded rainforest: the syncopated rhythm as each gasp for breath was louder than the paddle splash that preceded it; the atonal yet beguiling melodies of myriad creatures in a hidden wind section; and the distant thunder striving to be a worthy soloist. As these sounds lulled me into a trance the impressionist blur of endless green was punctuated by a vivid image: a young Sataré Mawé tribesman hopping from foot to foot and waving a hand covered in a straw-woven glove from which ants trailed down his arm while his tribe marked the beat with hand drums and chanting. If only I could point my canoe in the right direction, I might encounter a ritual perpetuating beliefs that knit together the very fabric of Sataré Mawé society.
Despite the impatience of my guide, I had stood transfixed in the Museu do Homen do Norte (‘Museum of the Northern Man’) in Manaus before the exhibit on the Sataré Mawé, whose name translates literally from the Tupi language as ‘fire-lizard’ and ‘intelligent and curious parrot’. The Sataré Mawé, who are present in various municipalities within the Brazilian state of Amazonas, were already well-known in the colonial period for their domestication and cultivation of guarana, an Amazonian plant still used in Brazil to boost energy, enhance cognitive functions and induce weight loss.
However, what really grabbed my attention was the Tucandeira Waty’Amá (‘Bullet Ant Adulthood’) ritual, a trial of strength and resistance to pain that the young Sataré Mawé male must pass before being accepted into the adult world and taking his place as a warrior, hunter and father within the tribe. This is no mean feat. Once the boy’s hand has been encased in the saaripé (a glove woven from straw and adorned with feathers) packed with tucandeira (‘bullet ants’), he must endure 15 minutes of agony as the tucandeira relentlessly sting his captive flesh while dancing and singing without any show of pain. If this were not enough, the boy must repeat the ritual until the tribe is satisfied that he has shown sufficient courage and strength to merit his place in the adult world.
Although there is no prescribed age for the rite of passage, it generally happens at a stage when European children are still more focused on playground games than preparing for the burdens of adulthood. And young tribeswomen are not spared from the painful transition to adulthood either. The Festa da Moça Nova ritual practised by the Tikuna people, who straddle the borders between Brazil, Colombia and Peru, is a case in point. The girl must pass through various ritual acts during three days of solitary confinement followed by three days of partying. The most dramatic is when village elders yank out her hair to the sound of singing, drums and the girl’s own weeping. Pain is a great leveller, affecting all regardless of status or gender. Knowledge that this act serves to renew and transform her into a woman perhaps provides the girl with some comfort.
In a world that is increasingly uniform, as the relentless forces of globalisation iron out legal, political, commercial, moral, linguistic and cultural ‘irregularities’, indigenous rituals may appear ever more curious and anachronistic to western eyes. However, we should not forget that we have our own ‘rites of passage’ – such as taking a driving test, getting drunk for the first time, losing one’s virginity or voting for the first time – that are staging posts in our own transition from the adolescent to the adult world. Some of these would doubtless seem equally strange to the Sataré Mawé eye.
A comparison of how different communities mark the transition throws up the thorny question of how a state of adulthood should be defined and determined. Should it be dependant on the cultural and social needs of individual communities or should it be regarded as a universal value overriding indigenous traditions to be imposed uniformly by national and supranational governments? Either way, it is striking to imagine youths in remote tribes undergoing rituals like the Tucandeira Waty’Amá or the Festa da Moça Nova whilst their western counterparts calculate square roots in a classroom or post childhood gossip to social media. Perhaps we should be grateful that some bastions of diversity continue to resist the forces of globalisation. For they make our planet a more colourful and thought-provoking place in which to live and remind us of simple truths easily forgotten amidst the frantic noise of western life, like our interdependence with nature and the value in promoting core values that enhance social cohesion.