The people of Zo’é are isolated sets of people who live in the Amazon rainforests of north Brazil. They only came into sustained contact with outsiders in 1987 when missionaries of the New Tribes Mission built a base on their land.
Their land has been officially recognized by the government, which controls access to it to minimize the transmission of potentially fatal diseases such as flu and measles. The Zo’é live in large rectangular thatched houses which are open on all sides.
In this forest, several families live together, sleeping in hammocks slung from the rafters and cooking over open fires along the sides. The Zo’é prize Brazil nuts, and often site their communities in groves of Brazil nut trees.
As well as providing a rich source of food, the nutshells are fashioned into bracelets, and the shell fiber is used to make hammocks.
Zo’é communities are surrounded by large gardens where manioc and other tubers, peppers, bananas, and many other fruits and vegetables are grown.
Cotton is cultivated and used to make body ornaments and hammocks, to bind arrowheads, and to weave slings for carrying babies. The Zo’é are polygamous, and both men and women may have more than one partner. It is fairly common for a woman with several daughters to marry several men, some of whom may later marry one of her daughters.
Everyone is equal in Zo’é society. There are no leaders, though the opinions of particularly articulate men, known as ‘yü’, carry more weight than others in questions of marriage, opening up old gardens or establishing new communities.
The men are extremely skilled hunters. Hunting is usually done individually, but at certain times of the year – ‘fat monkey time’ or ‘king vulture time’ – collective hunts are organized.
When large bands of peccaries mass together Zo’é men hunt together, running furiously after the peccaries firing arrows, while the women catch the startled babies, which are taken back home and raised as pets or ‘raimbé’.
The Zo’é also fish using harpoons and timbó – a fish poison made from crushed vines. From a young age, all Zo’é wear the ‘m’berpót’ – the long wooden plug inserted into the lower lip.
The Zo’é tell how an ancestor called Sihié’abyr showed them how to use the lip plug. One of the most important ceremonies, and a rite of passage for children, is the piercing of the lower lip. A sharp bone from a spider monkey’s leg is used, and a tiny ‘m’berpót’ is inserted, usually when girls are about seven and boys about nine years old.
As they grow older, larger plugs are inserted. Women wear elaborate headdresses made from the soft white breast feathers of the king vulture and paint their bodies with urucum – a vibrant red paste made from crushing annatto seeds.
Rituals mark many aspects of Zo’é life such as birth and death, girls’ first menstruation, and the first tapir hunted by adolescent boys. Seh’py is perhaps the greatest collective ceremony, which can be performed to mark any important event.
It is named after the naturally fermented drink served during the ritual, which is made from any tuber in season at the time.
The men dress in long fiber skirts called ‘sy’pi’. Men and women dance together all night in a series of unique dances accompanied by singing. At dawn, the men finish the drink and expel it by vomiting together.
The Zo’é have lived quietly in the thick forest between the Erepecuru and Cuminapanema rivers since time immemorial. In the 1940s and 50s men hunting jaguars and other wild cats for their skins first disturbed the peace of the forest.
Then gold panners and Brazil nut collectors started to venture in. The Zo’é live deep in the Amazon rainforest and build houses in the middle of their gardens, where they cultivate many vegetables and fruits such as manioc and banana.
According to the missionaries, the first definitive contact with the Zo’é was on 5 November 1987. For some days before, groups of Zo’é had been secretly observing the missionaries at their base.
Years later a Zo’é hunter recalled how amused they were at the missionaries’ hunting techniques, noting how they did not move swiftly through the forest and how one carried a peccary on his back with ‘its head lolling around and its jaws making a clacking sound’. Finally, some Zo’é came into the mission base camp and exchanged broken arrowheads for goods from the missionaries.
Gradually more Zo’é arrived and built homes near the base, attracted by the availability of useful tools such as machetes, knives, pans, and fishing tackle. Tragedy soon struck.
The Zo’é started to fall ill from diseases to which they had no immunity. With so many Zo’é in one spot, flu and malaria spread rapidly. As the situation deteriorated the missionaries contacted the government Indian affairs department, FUNAI, which sent in medical teams.
The epidemics devastated the tribe – about one-quarter of the Zo’é’s original population died between 1982 and 1988. Reacting to the catastrophe, FUNAI expelled the missionaries in 1991 and started a process of trying to persuade the Zo’é to return to their old villages. FUNAI has now built a state-of-the-art base complete with mini-hospital to treat any Zo’é who fall sick, to avoid the need to transfer them to the nearest city for treatment.
Any outsider visiting the Zo’é is thoroughly screened before they can enter the territory. As a result, the population has stabilized and is gradually increasing. Today there are about 250 Zo’é.