Beauty and the beast (The 2011 R. R. Marett Memorial Lecture)

Terence Turner


This paper describes the notion of “beauty” as a socially constructed value among the Kayapo of the Brazilian Amazon and how this value reflects relations within society and between humans and animals. Kayapo society is divided into two status groups, people who have received beautiful names from certain kin during elaborate village rituals, and those who have not. The ritual bestowal of such names counteracts fissive tendencies produced through the developmental cycle of Kayapo households. “Beautiful people” tend to have wider kin networks with access to greater resources and leadership roles than do ordinary “commoners.” These distinctions are correlated with categories of animals and forms of behavior, and reveal parallels to the socialization and death of the person. However, certain contradictions in Kayapo society are epitomized in the figure of the jaguar, an animal that embodies beauty and power as well as fierceness and bestiality. Similarly, leaders mobilize resources for the well-being of the entire community, but they are also at risk of reverting to bestial behavior and running amok. Anthropological theories of animism and perspectivism would do well to consider the more nuanced Kayapo concepts of the complex interconnections between animals and humans, the natural and the social.


beauty, leadership, human/animal relations, ritual, socialization, death

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau7.2.008