Object: Necklace

E/1955/2/3
Necklace
Witoto
South America: Colombia or Peru
ca. 1954
Materials: Insect legs, thread

This necklace is made from the the upper legs of a beetle native to Central and South America and can be found from Mexico to Brazil and Argentina. This beetle, the giant metallic ceiba borer (Euchroma gigantea), is a member of the Buprestidae family, which are also known as “jewel beetles.” This type of beetle has been used by native groups in Central and South America for natural jewelry and food. The species can be eaten in both the larval and adult stages – Tzeltal-Mayans in southern Mexico (Chiapas) roast the adults when available, and the Tukanoans (northwestern Amazon) eat the larvae. These beetles vary in color throughout their lives. When they first emerge from their pupa they are covered in a bright yellow-green colored waxy “bloom.” This bloom is secreted by the adult after transforming from the pupa and prior to emerging from its larval host. After the beetle emerges and becomes active, the bloom is quickly rubbed off and the beetle takes on the shiny, iridescent purple-green color. In its larval form the giant metallic ceiba borer typically inhabit soft wood of trees in the Bombacaceae family, such as the giant ceiba or kapok tree (Ceiba petandra). The adult beetles are usually seen walking or flying around the trunks of the trees.

The Witoto tribe of South America lives along the Caquetá (also known as the Japurá) and Putumayo (also known as the Içá) rivers, in the Amazon region of Colombia and Peru. The Witoto tribe consists of more than 100 subgroups, many based on the names of villages, and are closely related to their traditional enemies the Bora tribe. The Witoto are primarily hunters and farmers, their staple crop being manioc. In addition, they also grow plantains, bananas, yams, papayas, sweet potatoes, mangoes, palms, peanuts, cacao, sugarcane, maize, tobacco, and coca.  In order to ensure that their fields remain fertile in the notoriously thin soil of the Amazon, the Witoto follow a strict schedule of crop rotation and allow their plots of land to go fallow for at least ten years before they are replanted. Traditionally, Witoto men wore a breechclout of bark cloth, and women only body paint. On ritual or ceremonial occasions individuals would wear necklaces and ornaments determined by their status within the tribe.  When first contacted by European explorers the population of the Witoto tribe was around 50,000. After years of forced labor, the introduction of new types of diseases and tribal migrations it is now believed there are between 7,000 and 10,000 Witoto left in the Amazon. A video discussing the Witoto way of life can be found at Britannica.com. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

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