Amazon Featherwork

Amazon Featherwork

The Amazon Basin, in geographic terms, includes the highlands of Brazil and Guiana, the Andes foothills, and the Amazon rainforest. It encompasses 2,500,000 square miles in eight separate nations and contains the largest river system on Earth, as well as the world's richest biological territory. This region also encapsulates over 120 autonomous tribal groups whose people have developed an extensive understanding of their natural environment. They have an innate knowledge of the region's seasons, the workings of the river system, and animal and plant taxonomy.

Map of Amazon Region
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Cat detail from tunic Featherwork is a highly complex and expressive art form shared by the indigenous groups of the Amazon River Basin. Feathered items are generally worn as articles of personal adornment or in ritual activities. In addition to serving aesthetic purposes, feathered items may indicate the wearer's clan, his or her position in society, even age and sex. Furthermore, certain pieces can transmit cultural ideals and mythological beliefs and legends.

The use of certain feathers often represents the relationship between cultural characteristics and the environment. Because of the dense ecological system and the constant raining and flooding in the Amazon region, the soil on the forest floor is very poor in nutrients. Trees are forced to grow to enormous heights in order to fight for sunlight, creating a hierarchy of strata: the canopy, the middle growth, and the ground level. It is this separation that produces a distinction among species of birds. Their "position" in the Amazon's natural hierarchy is reflected symbolically in native featherwork.

Birds from the higher end of the canopy have greater prestige than birds associated with lower strata. Men and their hunting activities are associated with birds of the higher regions, whereas women's gardening and gathering activities are associated with birds of the lower regions. Feathers from middle-region birds such as egrets, macaws, and toucans are often used on male apparel. The most sought-after feathers for male pieces are from harpy eagles, the birds of prey that live in the uppermost stratum of the rainforest. Feathers are rarely used to decorate women's clothing, but when they are present it is the curassow that is predominately associated with female attire because of their close association with the rainforest floor.

This online exhibit presents examples of Amazon featherwork from the Museum's ethnographic collections. Many of these items were on display in the Museum's main exhibit hall during summer and fall 2003.

References and Related Links

Braun, Barbara. Arts of the Amazon. Thames and Hudson, London: 1995.

Mekler, Adam. Invisible People: Arts of the Amazon. Fresno Art Museum, Fresno, California: 1992.

Reina, Ruben E. and Kenneth M. Kensinger (eds.) The Gift of the Birds: Featherwork of Native South American Peoples. University Museum Monograph 75. The University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia: 1991.

Shuar Jivaro Featherwork at the Logan Museum

Amazon Featherwork at the American Museum of Natural History

Amazon Birds at Jungle Photos

Amazon Featherwork exhibit prepared by Helen Davis, April 2003

Garments [links below open in new windows]
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Body Ornaments [links below open in new windows]
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