Radial headdress

The lowland Amazon rainforest is home to many species of plants, birds and animals. They all play a significant role in the cosmologies and myths of the indigenous peoples living there.

Radial feather headdress, Guyana Radial feather headdress, Guyana

The forest canopy is the home of the celestial birds. They are believed to be the messengers of the benevolent Sun and inhabit the Sky World above the Earth World, in which we live. In many creation myths, the Sun and the Moon were the first to exist (Furst 1991:93)

People living in the Amazon value feathers more than gold. Feathers are traded between different tribal groups. For ornaments, feathers are carefully selected for their colour and associated meaning. Feathers connect the wearer’s inner self with some of society’s most important values.

Ornamental feather work is layered so that the more important plumage, such as that from the Scarlet Macaw, is at the top with the least important, such as the curassow, near the base. The harpy-eagle is a highly prized bird that lives in the highest canopy.  Men often emulate it in ceremonies as warriors and hunters (Braun 1995:61).

For social events men pay more attention to their appearance than women.  Wearing of feather work is accompanied by face and body painting. This can convey information about a person’s status within society.

This particular feather headdress, shaped like the coronet of the Sun, was made in the 19th century by the Macusia hunting and farming people who continue to live north of the Rupununi river in Guyana.

They employ a special technique to change the colour of a bird’s natural plumage. This was recorded in 1921. Natural green feathers were plucked from a bird.  The place from which they were taken was rubbed with the deep red pulp of the urucú shrub Bixa orellana (known as faroah and achiote). The bird was also made to drink water containing a small amount of urucú.  After some months new, yellow, feathers grew in place of the green ones (Roth 1924:126).

Macaws, are very social animals and are easily tamed. They are kept for their feathers. They and other parrot species are protected under CITES legislation because numbers have declined, due to trafficking and deforestation. However, ornate items of feather work are still made today and sold to tourists.