Indian-Style House Construction – Alto Xingu

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Aldeia Kamaiura; village of traditional Oca houses.The Indians of the Alto Xingu live in wood and thatch houses called ocas. Each oca houses a family of up to thirty people. The dimensions vary, but a typical oca measures about sixteen metres by twelve, and is around six metres high.

It takes a team of five men five months to complete a house, and each house lasts about ten years, after which it is replaced completely. Conditions in the Xingu are such that it is not worth while repairing; by the time the thatch has deteriorated, the structure has also begun to fail.

The first structural elements to go up are the central posts, which are from six to nine metres long, and number from three to five. These form a row down the centre of the house and carry the weight of the ridge of the roof. They are set into the ground about a metre, and will also serve the very important purpose of being a support for the hammocks in which the Indians sleep. Across the tops of these posts lies a beam of similar proportions, which requires great physical strength and engineering ability to raise and secure in place.

Around these posts at a distance of roughly six metres are arrayed the stakes which form the structure of the walls, and secure the other ends of the hammocks. These are spaced about a metre apart, and typically there will be about twenty  at each end. Again, these are sunk about a metre into the ground.

Aldeia Yawalapiti; structural framework of an Oca house.Once the standing posts have been positioned and are secured upright in the ground by compacting the soil around them, the framework of the house can be assembled. Long, slender trunks of young trees which have grown under the canopy and are straight and virtually free of lateral branches are carefully bent to form four or more horizontal elliptical hoops. The first rings the house at the level of the top of the wall posts, with the others spaced to shape the graceful curve of the roof. Each hoop takes several weeks of constant adjustment until it takes on the desired shape.

Next, more flexible poles are lashed to the hoops, with their lower ends also buried in the earth. These are the uprights of the walls, which slope inwards from the base, curving over to make the rafters of the dome-shaped roof. When the house is complete, there is no apparent separation between the roof and the walls on the outside. Onto these rafters are bound the horizontal bearers over which the thatch is carefully folded.

Once this structure is complete the house is ready to receive its thatch. Usually, this is of sapé, a kind of grass which grows in abundance in many areas of the Xingu, but if this is not available a species of palm can be used. The thatch is thick, and requires huge amounts of  sapé to be harvested, graded and carefully dried. Each bunch of sapé is carefully folded over the bearers and tucked in behind the course below.

The very top of the roof receives an extra structure on one side, made by continuing some of the rafters in a straight line when the main framework curves over to the horizontal. This allows for ventilation, making the whole structure fresh and airy.

There are just two openings in the structure, midway along each long side. These are the front and back doors. Nowadays these are usually made of prepared timber and hung on metal hinges, but occasionally you can still see the more traditional type of removable thatched screens.

Aldeia Yawalapiti; inside of an Oca house.The end product is a very handsome and graceful building, often of cathedral-like proportions. The inside is usually free from any partitioning, except when a teenage family member is going through a period of seclusion, when temporary screens are erected. The family’s hammocks are strung radially at the ends from the centre posts to the walls, and the main fire is usually close to the centre of the house. If the weather is particularly cold, smaller fires are built in the sleeping areas.

There are no windows, so the interior is gloomy to the Western eye. Indians, whose sight is not dulled by constant exposure to artificial light, are more accustomed to seeing in the dark and have no difficulty in completing their everyday activities, even in dull weather.

These houses are ideal for the climatic conditions in the Xingu, being warm during the cold of the night yet cool during the heat of the day. Air circulates freely through the thatch and out through the gaps in the roof, taking any smoke with it. Having the fires burning in the open house allows the smoke to permeate the thatch, helping to reduce the damage done by insects and animals from the surrounding forest.

When a family home is nearing the end of its life cycle, the owner has to assemble a team of five men who are prepared to give up five months to help with the construction. The work is hard and requires the builders to travel far and wide to assemble the necessary materials, dragging large quantities of carefully-selected wood back to the village, where each piece has to undergo further preparation before the house can be completed.

Aldeia Barranco Queimado; detail of lashing used in house construction.Traditionally, the houses use no nails or other fixings. The parts are simply lashed together using the bark of the Imbira tree, which is very strong, flexible and durable. Nowadays, if there is not enough Imbira available locally, the owner may purchase wire in the town for the purpose. This is not popular with the builders because it cuts into their hands.

Occasionally a fire destroys a house unexpectedly, and the family may have to build a temporary house where they can live in cramped conditions until the new house is ready, which can take up to two years.

A year and a half ago, the village of Yawalapiti suffered a catastrophe when a wild fire, fanned by unusually strong winds, burned nine houses to the ground. It has been very difficult for the village to carry on with everyday life while striving to reconstruct the houses, but now three houses are under construction, three are planned for next year and there will be three the year after. This is absorbing much of the time of the adult male population, and is draining the village of resources, but they are determined to continue, and the houses will all be of traditional design and construction.

We have seen traditional houses under construction in many of the villages we have visited. The only brick and tile buildings are occasional schools and medical posts. The Indians recognise that the oca is the most appropriate and comfortable form of construction for the local conditions.

The Indians are, however, finding it increasingly difficult to assemble the materials needed for their houses. In the past, villages would move every twenty years or so, but today most villages are more or less fixed because of the need for modern infrastructure, including wells – necessary because of the increasing amount of pollution in the rivers from activities  on the farms outside of the reserve – and schools. This means that natural resources are becoming scarce within easy distance of the villages, requiring extra effort to haul them beck to the village.

Many nights I have lain in my hammock, cool and comfortable, thinking about the hot, stuffy and dusty conditions we suffered in Canarana. Maybe construction methods are yet another thing we can learn from the Indians!

© Patrick Cunningham

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1 Response to “Indian-Style House Construction – Alto Xingu”

  1. 1 The Taquara Celebration | The Heart of Brazil Expedition Trackback on 24 September 2014 at 9:30 am

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