Known for their distinctive long lip plugs, the Zo’é tribe of the Amazon rainforest did not even come into prolonged contact with the rest of the world until 1987, when a mission group set up a base on their land. The people are hunters who also cultivate gardens of manioc and other fruits and vegetables. Once they encountered outsiders, they came under threat from fatal diseases such as flu and measles, as well as from encroachment on their land, which Brazil has ratified as belonging to them.
A Zo’é family relaxes in a hammock they made from Brazil nut fibers.
The lip plugs worn by the Zo’é are inserted in ceremonies when the children are seven (for the girls) or nine (for the boys). A small plug called a ‘m’berpót’ is inserted into the lower lip first and then larger ones as the youngsters grow. According to Survival International (SI): “The sharp bone from a spider monkey’s leg is used.” The lower lip plugs are rare among tribes and make the Zo’é instantly recognizable. The Zo’é people rank everyone as equal in their society, which is polygamous, with both the women and men taking many wives and husbands.
The tribespeople rely heavily on the Brazil nut, using fiber from the shells to make hammocks and the shells themselves to make jewelry. Of course, they also eat the nuts, which are nutritious and rich in fat.
Like many tribal peoples of South America, the Zo’é use anatto paste to paint their bodies and faces.
The Brazilian government department that oversees tribal lands, FUNAI, has been blamed for keeping the tribe isolated, but the policy of not allowing outsiders in has saved lives. The Zo’é, however, want to learn about the outside world and in February 2011 placed their wishes before the government. According to SI: “These [wishes] include an education project, training of Zo’é as health workers, and a land protection programme in which the Indians themselves can actively participate.”
The pressure on their land comes from nut gatherers, gold miners and missionaries as well as other outsiders. If you want to help the Zo’é, you can write to the Brazilian Minister of Justice or donate to Survival International’s campaign to save indigenous tribes, including the Zo’é.