South America

IES: Brazil




CANELA(Western Brazil)


IndexAmericasSouth AmericaBrazil → Canela (Eastern Timbira)





Crocker and Crocker (1994:p33-4, 156-7)[1] stated that girls begin sexual relations between ten and thirteen before menarche.

Boys and girls are segregated at ages 6 to 7. At ages 6 to 14, a girl “is appointed to be a girl associate of a male society for one or a number of successive years. At one or more ceremonial points in the festival, beginning in her early teens, she has sexual relations with the society’s members, teaching her that one of her roles in mature Canela life is to keep nonrelated males sexually satisfied”. At age 11-13, “[a] girl’s genitals [are] formally inspected by a disciplinary aunt to see if she had lost her virginity. If she had, the name of the male was demanded (Girls are no longer inspected)”. After she has graduated as a girl associate, she is secluded under [postpubertal] food and sex restriction. At age 13 to 16, she presents food to her mother-in-law provided by her lover in return for sex with him. The period 13-18 is considered a time for sexual liaisons and few social responsibilities. The average age of first conception is 15¾. Formerly, girls were engaged to be married when they were 4 or 5 to young men 12 to 15 years older. Now, courtship takes place, and marriage is equated with defloration. “Girls almost always have intercourse before they menstruate, so their experience reinforces the Canela theory that sexual intercourse is the cause of menstruation. Ideally a girl has first intercourse with a young man in his late teens or 20s who has no children of his own” (p104-5).

As for boys, at ages 12-14, “[s]ome older woman who likes an unrelated boy takes him into the woods to give him his first experience in sexual intercourse. Formerly, the woman was in her 40s or 50s; now, she is more likely to be in her 20s. The boy’s aunt goes to the woman to collect a small payment for his loss of virginity [cf. p110-1]. After defloration, his disciplining uncle orders him into seclusion, with sex and food taboos, while “the socializing attitudes of his uncles [change] abruptly from supportive to confrontational”. At ages 12-17, he should, to gain strengths and become a person of character, refrain from much sex, or if so, only with older women.


“First sex occurs between the ages 10 and 13; between the ages of 13 and 18 girls are generally married but childless”[2].


“Sexual relations begin for girls between the ages of 10 and 13, and for boys between 12 and 14, that is, usually as young as possible. A lad is initiated into sexual relations by an experienced woman in her late teens; formerly, he was then ordered by his “grandfathers” to have sex only with older women in their forties and fifties for several years. When a young male takes a girl’s virginity (kormã ?kuuni, “still whole”), he has the choice of staying “married” to her (mëhikhwa, “they lie down”) or of withdrawing from the relationship, after which his kin must pay a significant fine (kute-kukhën ya?pan-tsà-?nã, “his-having-broken-in payment”)”[3].


Nimuendajú (1946:p120-1)[4]:


“Like their Apinayé cousins,[5] the RmkÇ´kamekra firmly assert that menstruation is impossible prior to sexual congress. Such a theory is after a fashion intelligible for the Apinayé, whose girls with possibly a few exceptions are actually deflowered before their first menses, but for the RmkÇ´kamekra it is utterly inconceivable: first, because I personally know a number of girls who were surely of age yet were rated and married as virgins; secondly, as explained above, marriage three generations ago was quite generally not entered before this age and in a condition of chastity. This is confirmed by Ribeiro: “Destinam-se entre elles o consorcio das mulheres logo que pouco mais ou menos tenham 14 ou 15 annos.” Moreover, says Pohl, writing of the Põrekamekra, “dass hier das Beispiel eines gefallenen Mädchens eine unerhörte Sache sey.”[6] The statement by Pohl, cited by about frequently married eight-year-old girls, refers not to the Timbira, but to the Southern Kayapó. How the native theory of defloration as prerequisite to menstruation could persist is a complete enigma; and its occurrence in identical form among Eastern and Western Timbira proves that the idea is not an innovation. I myself took cognizance of its existence relatively late. An accurate determination of the facts encounters difficulty, not because of Indian prudery, but because the natives could never grasp that I was interested solely in the objective facts: they always supposed that I was taking a personal interest in the girl I asked about. That I was inquiring about two or three girls was also intelligible, though my simultaneously concerning myself with all of them seemed a bit odd. I left the puzzle unsolved”.



Crocker (1990)[7] deals extensively with sex play in childhood. A full excerpt from the online edition [codes extirpated]:





In a society where frequent extramarital sexual relations were the custom, and where the purpose of certain festival acts was to help young women become accustomed to multiple sexual relations with men, sex training of the very young and of adolescents must be especially interesting and unusually important to them.


Penis Play


Mothers occasionally twist or tweak the penises of their young baby boys. This is done, like the use of a breast, to distract a baby from whatever he might be doing that adults feel is inappropriate, untraditional, or dangerous. It is done to give a baby an alternative pleasure, or interest by indirectly diverting its attention away from what is not desirable.



More often than mothers, however, the infant's other wife category persons are the most active in teasing or playing with his penis. In my sister's house, one childless young woman in her early thirties, who had been married for a while to one of the baby's older brothers in his twenties, spent a lot of time teasing the baby about his penis. (Since she had been a wife to his older brother, she was a classificatory or "other" wife to him.) Several years later when the baby was 4 or 5 years old, she threatened several times with a knife to cut off his penis. This was done in a spirit of fun, nevertheless he was scared, and sometimes cried. Then she rushed in to reassure him, becoming very supportive.



Research assistants said that sometimes much older brothers pull a baby's penis, and that women may also do this to a tiny nephew. In the latter case, this practice is consistent with the extensive joking relationship that traditionally exists between aunts and nephews. Nothing similar was recorded for a baby girl.



Under no circumstances are any attempts ever made to pull back the baby's foreskin, which should remain intact until the time of his first sexual experience.




In babies and young children masturbation is strictly disapproved of and not allowed. If a little boy of 1 or 2 years develops the habit of playing with his penis, his mother gently corrects him. If much older, his mother and sisters are embarrassed and ashamed to approach such matters. Thus, for a little boy of 5 or 6, a grandmother or aunt who has been summoned for the purpose tells him to stop the activity. Parents traditionally do not like to talk about the sexual matters of their children, although they would talk to their children in the absence of aunts, uncles, and grandparents. One unmarried female research assistant [In.4.e] reported that she had had to correct her young son in this way. The Canela can be expected to be flexible about almost any matter.



One reason given for such directness with both girls and boys is that either could lose their virginity payment, the significance of which is serious for girls  but slight for boys. Apparently, some foreskins have to be torn somewhat to be retracted, they say. Sufficient stretching could occur through masturbation so that no tearing occurs during first intercourse.



Just like the girl, the boy is said to lose his payment for the loss of his virginity, if his foreskin can be retracted easily and does not tear when he has his first sexual relations with an older woman. Although this is the traditional position on male virginity, one male research assistant [In.4.e] said his foreskin did not tear upon retraction in intercourse with a classificatory wife at the age of puberty, though no masturbation preceded.



Whether this physical concept of virginity can apply to men of the world in general is an interesting ethnological question. An obstetrician in Washington, D.C., told me that this variation—a tight or loose foreskin—exists among human babies. More research is needed among tribes in which males are naked from birth through puberty, tribes in which no traditional alteration is performed, such as circumcision or subincision, or could have occurred through masturbation. However, it may be too late in the history of the world to find such comparative ethnological evidence.



Canela do not pull back the prepuce and expose the glans in order to clean or inspect it. This is not done generally, although some may do this in a hidden manner under stream waters, they say. A woman or man feels embarrassed to see a glans penis exposed, including men seeing those of other men, except for a man with a sexually contacted classificatory spouse or his wife.



Although both sexes used to go naked in their homelands most of the time, some circumstances were considered embarrassing regarding body exposure: the exposure of the glans penis for men, and the visibility of the inner genitalia for women.



Opposite-Sex Siblings' Sex Play


Canela socialization is mild in disciplining children; but opposite-sex sibling sex play is one of the two occurrences about which they are quite non-permissive, although never cruel or abusive.



In the context of socialization, I asked research assistants what could be the worst possible occurrence imaginable (short of death or dismemberment) that could occur if a parent were returning home and heard a great commotion in her or his house from a distance. What would the parent fear? The answer eventually after much discussion, was either that two young sons had been fighting or that a young daughter and son had committed some form of incest, the latter being the worse by far of the two possibilities. Actually, incest (Glossary) between young cross-sex siblings was so unthinkable that it was not the first mentioned offense. Incest was not thought of as a possibility, but when I suggested it, the reaction of research assistants was one of extreme dismay.



A mother uses distraction to discourage the usual infractions of tradition, or just frowning disapproval when the misdeed involves a 2 to 4 year old. She would, however, be very severe and scold a daughter of this age who was playing with her little brother's penis or a boy who was exploring his little sister's genitalia, they said. At the ages of six to eight or older, however, such occurrences could precipitate the calling of aunts and uncles to administer more severe punishments.



It is considered worse for girls to be caught in opposite-sex sex play than for boys. It is very important for a girl not to lose her virginity so that she can receive her virginity-payment (ganho) promptly from her first lover (by definition her first husband).



Adolescent Or Adult Incest


With adolescents or adults, cross-sex sibling incest is punished, according to tradition, by a shortened life, or even by early death for uterine siblings. Another result of uterine sibling incest was that both participants soon become crazy.



The Canela have a story about sibling incest that occurred in 1937, after the time of Nimuendajù in 1936 but before the first residence of Indian service personnel near a Canela village in 1938. In this case, it is believed that the full siblings went crazy after having had sexual relations with each other. The woman died very soon after. The man survived but became so physically dangerous that they had to imprison him in what was called a "pig pen" (a small stockade). They constructed a cage a little larger than his standing body of strong poles made of saplings stripped of bark, put in the ground as posts, and tied together securely. Confined and continuously watched in this stockade, the man soon died. This occurred in one of the two old village sites that are close together on the Raposa stream just below the actual village site where Nimuendaju (1946:33) joined two parts of the tribe during his last visit with them in 1936.



This story is not a myth in the classical sense, although it may become one. In the late 1950s the Canela informants knew the names, time, and place of these events. They showed me the site of the stockade in 1960.


Sexual Education of Males


Young boys first hear about sexual relations in stories told by adults. Adolescents or grown people do not modify their stories involving sexual relations just because of the presence of young children or pre-adolescents. Sometimes when my research assistant group was talking about sexual relations, small boys sat near us listening with interest. None of my research assistants seemed at all concerned about their presence.



Another way that young boys learn of sexual relations is by hearing the sounds of sexual intercourse coming from platform beds in the rafters. A young wife, or a young woman who has lost her virginity but not retained a husband, is often sexually active at night in her high platform bed. Sexual relations are approved of by the family as long as they cannot be seen—even though everything can be heard. Thus, a little boy can add these sounds to the stories he has heard and understand something about what is going on.



If a young boy has a classificatory spouse of the right age (adolescence to 20s or even 30s), the joking relationship described earlier, which involved her threatening his penis with a knife, might take place. In this context, particularly with their verbal exchanges rather than just the threats, he is likely to learn extensively about sexual relations.



A young boy also learns about sex from overhearing the ordinary joking between aunts and nephews and uncles and nieces. In my sister's house, when a certain uncle of one of my adolescent nieces came in, they invariably had a sex joking exchange. One time he said she had a large vagina, like a mortar made from a tree trunk, into which it would please her to have a large wooden pestle grinding. She responded that his penis was twisted at a strange angle and had a black head. This descriptive joking went on between the two relatives, amusing everyone for about 15 minutes.



Inferences from Nimuendajù suggest that parents and siblings of such role performers were embarrassed to hear such verbal exchanges. However, my observations were that such one-link-away kin merely sat or stood by quietly, paying little attention, but nevertheless listening and appearing to be unamused but certainly not embarrassed.



The situation in which many boys learned most extensively about sexual relations was when they spied on couples having sex in the woods. Young boys of 6 to 9 years were often used as messengers between lovers. One research assistant told me he first saw sexual relations taking place when he was such a messenger boy. Since he knew where the tryst was going to take place, he went there, hid, and watched. Considering the freedom allowed boys between the ages of 6 and 12, I have no doubt this kind of sexual learning often took place.



Research assistants reported that homosexual acts did not occur between pre-adolescent boys wandering alone through the cerrado. If discovered, this offense would have been cause for being struck by an uncle. Boys were warned thoroughly about such matters, and of the likelihood of losing their first sex payment if their foreskin became loose.



Turning to associated adult practices, only three men were thought of as being homosexuals during my period with the Canela. Two were in their 60s in the 1970s, and one was also identified for me in Nimuendaju's (1946) volume. Both wore wrap-around skirts like women, though the lower edge of the skirt was a little higher than the knees, instead of well below the knees as women wear them. One of them had effeminate mannerisms but the other one did not. Neither raced with logs when younger but tilled the soil and helped their female kin keep house. The more effeminate one was ridiculed occasionally, but not to his face, so research assistants said. He was married, but his wife required him to leave, even though they had children. I never heard the less apparent homosexual being ridiculed, even though his wearing a short wrap-around skirt made it clear to everybody that he did not intend to carry out certain male roles. He lived with his female kin. Both of these men belonged to the age-set of the Pró-khãmmã of the 1960s and 1970s. However, they seldom sat with the Pró-khãmmã in the plaza in the late afternoon, nor were they active talkers in the council of elders.



Research assistants said neither man was an active homosexual, but that the more effeminate one occasionally allowed Canela men to have anal intercourse with him when he was younger. No tradition existed among the Canela for homosexuals or transvestites to follow. The Canela have no berdache tradition, as do some North American Indians, and they have no myths or stories about homosexual practices. It is an important comment on Canela social relations that the individuality of these two men was respected, and that they did not receive extensive criticism. They were allowed to remain as they were.



One man of the age-set of the new Pró-khãmmã (Glossary) of the 1980s had obvious effeminate characteristics. At the time of my arrival in 1957, he was a late teenager just leaving his childless first marriage, with his family paying the girl's kin heavily. Then, he went to live at the Ponto Indian service post (Plate 11a) and made dresses there on the new sewing machine, following the instructions of the Indian agent's wife. In 1963 and 1964, he lived away from the Canela community entirely, spending many months as a cook's assistant in hotels, first in Fortaleza and then in Sao Luis.



When he returned to the tribe in 1966, he owned and played one of the first radios. Later, between 1967 and 1969, he married again and had a first child in 1972. Research assistants commented that nobody was very sure that the child was actually his son. The child was more likely the product of several contributing-fathers, they thought, although as the social husband he might have contributed some small amount of semen, but they doubted this, considering him impotent. Nevertheless, this younger homosexual—if he was one—was not conspicuously oriented in this behavior in the late 1970s. He remained a married man, had several children, and did not wear a wrap-around skirt. Homosexuality was more disapproved of by the late 1970s than the late 1950s because of acculturation, a fact that may account for his marrying and not wearing a skirt.



An adolescent male has his first sexual experience  at about age 13 with a woman considerably older than himself who wants to initiate her young classificatory spouse, or who might simply like the young fellow.



Older research assistants said that the earlier age for initiating a young man into sexual relations was for the old "wife" to be 45 or 55, but that could not happen these days. Now, the woman would be in her late teens or 20s. Afterward, an aunt of the boy approaches the woman to receive a small payment from her.



One research assistant claimed that a woman's vagina is very hot, and therefore not good for the penis of an adolescent boy. He also said that if a woman took a boy who was too young, he might be so shocked by the experience he would become ill.



A belief supported by all research assistants was that the penis and testicles grew after his first sexual relations, and that these organs matured because of occasional sexual relations. Also, the first nocturnal emission occurred as a result of sexual relations.


Sexual Education Of Females


Little girls learn about sexual matters by hearing detailed sex jokes, probably not from older "husbands" but rather from uncles. Of course, they also hear sounds coming from platform beds in the rafters (Plate 9b) occupied by an older sister or another female relative.



By the time she is 6 years old, a little girl is closely segregated from boys and has to stay near her female relatives, especially her mother, doing small tasks. The feared potential danger is that a gang of little boys might catch and experiment sexually with her, it was said.



In the late 1950s, a girl started wearing wrap-around cloth by 11 or 12, but by the late 1970s, she began at 7 or 8.



An uncle who is not carrying out a disciplinary role might joke with a niece extensively. One such uncle in his early 30s threw his 10-year-old niece on the ground in the boulevard, in front of all their relatives, and pretended to be having sexual relations with her, thrusting between her legs, to the merriment of everybody, but to the inexperienced girl's embarrassment. There is safety in the kinship relationship, in the protection of clothing, and in the presence of onlookers.



By the age of 10 or 11, a girl received inspections of her genitals from an aunt, or the person who had made it her responsibility to carry out the role of her disciplinary aunt. If it were found that she had lost her virginity without gaining a husband at an age ranging from 10 through 14, her aunt or uncle required her to reveal the name of the man (or men) who had taken it. If she refused to tell, her uncle might have slapped her. This is one of the very few extreme situations in which an aunt or an uncle might have resorted to physical punishment, a practice that was not continued into the 1970s.



Before serving as a girl associate or participating in the various semipublic extramarital situations, a girl learns to be sexually generous through individual experiences. The man who takes her virginity is her husband by definition, if he has fathered no children in an already existing marriage. He remains her husband unless his kin pays for him to leave her.



For several months after her marriage, the young girl is allowed to be exclusively with her husband. Then men, her "other husbands" [III.E.3.a.(6).(a)], begin to seek her out to ask for what they believe is their right, namely, to have sexual relations with her. If she refuses too often, so that female and male groups begin to talk about her lack of cooperation, the refused men organize themselves to teach her to be generous (hà?kayren).



Usually, these men gain the cooperation of a female companion of the "stingy" girl. If the companion agrees that the girl has been stingy, the companion takes her stingy friend out to the woods or into the cerrado to collect fruits, having first told the men where to find them. The men may leave the companion to herself or enjoy her sexually, but a half dozen "other husbands" will force intercourse on the stingy girl, if necessary, holding her down and having intercourse with her in turn. The lesson for the stingy girl is that she must be generous in individual relationships with men. When men desire her, she must give her assets or suffer such group encounters again.



My research assistant groups reported on different occasions that if the "stingy" girl were hurt (bleeding or a bone broken) in such an encounter, her kin could not collect a payment  as a result of an interfamilial judicial hearing. Her uncles would be too ashamed of her to bring her case to a hearing. Her mother and her female kin would also be ashamed of her but would give her sympathy.



Comparing such group encounters with the Murphys' gang rape among the Mundurucú, research assistants of both sexes say that the Canela "stingy girl" group encounters mature an early adolescent girl into traditional sexual generosity, while the Mundurucú gang rape serves to maintain male supremacy over mature women. "The loose woman who seduces men takes the initiative from them," and if she persists, gang rape by 20 Mundurucú men or more, not by four or five rejected Canela lovers, follows as her punishment for stepping beyond the limits of male control (Murphy and Murphy, 1974:107). Older Canela women participate and take the initiative in sexual trysts as fully as men. Three women giving a male work force "relaxation" in the early afternoon do it out of generosity and to cooperate with the chief, not to enable men to maintain their supremacy.



This kind of training for generous sexual behavior still existed in the late 1970s. It is relatively easy for traditional occurrences that are as inconspicuous and private as this "lesson in generosity" to continue into modern times, because it is not a socially visible activity carried out in the plaza, by a farm hut, or near some other public place. The traditional sexual practices being lost are those that are socially conspicuous, like the Ayrën ceremony, where the sexes sit on either side of a fence and choose lovers sitting on the other side (Figure 47). The purpose of this ceremony was fairly obvious to an Indian service agent in the 1940s, exerting his "right" to roam around freely. Similarly, the festivities during the Wild Boar day can be hampered by the presence of backlanders or Indian service agents wandering through the village. A group of young men teaching a girl to be generous is carried out only where it can be seen by Canela individuals. Thus, it can be expected to remain part of the practices by which girls are made to understand what is expected of them as mature women.



By 12 or 14, if not earlier, a girl becomes a girl associate (Glossary) to a men's society, during which time of service she becomes accustomed to group sexual relations with men, depending on the character of the society into which she is inducted.



A female is not considered a fully responsible adult until she has borne a child. Ideally, childbirth occurs after her belt painting by her mother-in-law and after she has passed some time in the free më nkrekre-re stage [II.D.2.g]. Thus, before becoming pregnant, she should have been "made tame" (kapônu-re) in a group ambush session, if necessary, and she should have become experienced in sequential group sex through the fun of being a girl associate of a men's group. Through these group experiences she is well prepared for the free existence of the nkrekre-re woman who spends much of her time mixing with men and having free sexual relationships with them even though both may be married.


[end of excerpt]


Additional references:


§         Crocker, W. H. (1982) Canela Initiation Festivals: 'Helping Hands' through Life, in Turner, V. (Ed.) Celebration: Studies in Festivity and Ritual. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, p147-58

§         Fielder, Ch.&King, Ch. (2004) Sexual Paradox: Complementarity, Reproductive Conflict, and Human Emergence [Academic Version,]




Janssen, D. F., Growing Up Sexually. VolumeI. World Reference Atlas. 0.2 ed. 2004. Berlin: Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology

Last revised: Sept 2004


[1] Crocker, W. H. & Crocker, J. (1994) Canela. Forth Worth [etc.]: HarcourtBraceCollege Publishers

[2] Greene, M. E. & Crocker, W. H. (1994) Some Demographic Aspects of the Canela Indians of Brazil, South American Indian Studies 4:47-62

[3] Crocker, W. H. (1984) Canela Marriage: Factors in Change, in Kensinger. K. M. (Ed.) Marriage Practices in Lowland South America. Illinois Studies in Anthropology, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, p14:63-98

[4] Nimuendajú, C. translated and edited by Robert H. Lowie (1946) The Eastern Timbira, University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, Volume 41. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press

[5] Nimuendajú, The Apinayé, 75 [orig. footnote]

[6] Ribeiro, Memoria, § 18. Pohl, Reise, 2:195 [orig. footnote]

[7] Crocker, W. H. (1990) The Canela (Eastern Timbira), I: An Ethnographic Introduction. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, No. 33 []