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Department of Anthropology

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Canela woman (William H. Crocker Collection)

Photographs from the
William H. Crocker Collection



Among the Canela of Brazil, adorning the body enhances appearance, signals changes in social identity, and expresses culturally prescribed values

Canela men's and women's bodies receive different cosmetic treatment, corresponding to perceived differences between the two sexes. Socially responsible men should be receptive to orders from elders and chiefs, but first their ears must be opened, physically and symbolically.

A boy's ears are opened when he is between ten and fifteen years old, but always before the completion of the pepyê festival. The ear- opening rite takes place in the shade outside the boy's mother's house, where the boy's "advising uncle" has also assembled the boy's mother and an ear-piercing specialist.


Boy being painted with urucu (William H. Crocker Collection)

Canela man with large ear disks (William H. Crocker Collection)

The boy kneels on a woven mat while one of his relatives cuts the hair around his ears and ties the rest into a ponytail. A female relative applies a mask-like layer of urucu (a red pigment) to the boy's mouth. Then she takes a seat behind the boy, holding his shoulders, while the specialist kneels in front of him.

Canela boy getting haircut (William H. Crocker Collection)     Canela boy getting haircut (William H. Crocker Collection)     Canela boy getting haircut (William H. Crocker Collection)
Canela boy's ears being marked with urucu (William H. Crocker Collection)


The ear piercer marks the points of entry on the earlobes with a dot of urucu, then sits back to give the boy's advising uncle a chance to approve the locations. He then holds the bottom edge of the earlobe very firmly and thrusts a hardwood awl through the center of the lobe. The youth should not wince or display any signs of pain.

After piercing the earlobes, the specialist slips small wooden pins covered with urucu into them and covers the entire area of the earlobes with more urucu. Finally he gives the lad instructions on how to take care of the wounds. After the ordeal, the youth is interned in his mother's house in a corner set off for him by woven mat partitions. He undergoes dietary restrictions that are similar to (but less severe than) those practiced during a postpartum couvade.

Piercer lining up awl (William H. Crocker Collection)  Boy's ear being pierced (William H. Crocker Collection)

Piercer inserting carved pin (William H. Crocker Collection)  Boy with ear pin inserted (William H. Crocker Collection)
Canela ear disk

Canela ear disk
Cat. 404792





In his mother's house, the youth carves the earlobe hole pins needed for the coming two weeks, each one slightly wider in diameter than the last one, and the specialist comes to dress the wounds each day. The uncle also visits the lad to make sure he understands what to do and to ensure adherence to the restrictions.  The uncle uses this time to tell his nephew stories of their ancestors and to inculcate traditional values.

The uncle pays all the expenses, which include the awl, urucu, and proper wood for the pins. He also must provide the white cloth the lad puts over his head and ears just after they are pierced. The young man wears this protective cover all the time during his internment and the following week. Depending on the time of year, the uncle might also supply rice, the special food that is consistent with the required food and sex restrictions. The uncle also gives the specialist a small present (not a payment) and furnishes his nephew with a suitable gift by which to remember the occasion.



Canela ear disk
Cat. 404793


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