Peoples of the Rainforest

 

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The Peoples of Amazonia

Over one hundred twenty distinct linguistic groups of people inhabit the Amazon basin, first arriving over 10,000 years ago. Many, if not most, have had contact with Westerners for at least 500 years, and a majority of them have become integrated into contemporary Amazonian society. In addition to indigenous peoples, there are the mestizos, those of mixed native and European heritage, as well as those of direct European ancestry. A local name given to those that live along the rivers is ribereños. What follows is a brief description of some of the peoples of the Amazon.

The Yaguas live along the Napo and Putumayo Rivers, north of the Amazon River. Their traditional housing consists of communal oval dwellings that provide shelter for between 5-10 families. The simple accommodations inside the hut consist of hammocks, log stools, mosquito netting if available, and mats that separate family compartments. Housing located along the river is built on stilts and are square structures.

Marriages take place between people outside of the clan, and they live in a patrilocal society so the married couple will reside in the village of the husband. Villages are set up approximately 6-7 miles (10 - 12 km) from one another. The villages have defined hunting territories, but the borders are not strictly enforced, and encroaching into another’s hunting perimeter is often times an excuse to visit with neighbors.

Social standing within the village is based on sex and age. Generally there is a lack of competitiveness for any kind of status within the group. There is no real job specialization as the only two titles held in a Yagua village are to the chief and the shaman or medicine man. The chief will make no important decisions without consulting with a council. The only other job specification might be held by a woman in the village who specializes in pottery.

Division of labor is also based on sex and age. Children begin learning adult responsibilities between the ages of 6-8. The men in the group are responsible for clearing agricultural fields, carrying heavy loads, and they tend to play with the children a lot. For the Yagua men their principle task is hunting. The women plant the fields, harvest vegetables every day, prepare the food, make clothes and care for the children. Today the Yagua wear manufactured clothing they get from Iquitos or trading with visitors. The women also spin and weave fibers. Any festivities, drinking, dancing as well as house building are done together.

For entertainment, musical instruments are made. Instruments include the panpipes, flutes, drums and a whistle with a fruit shell amplifier. Games include spinning tops, slings and wrestling.

The Yagua’s agricultural practice is the slash and burn method. Their staple crop is manioc, they also plant maize, yams, bananas, sweet potato, palm, sugar cane, pumpkin, pineapple and papaya. In addition to grown food crops, the Yagua sustain their diets with fishing, gathering and hunting. In hunting the men use traps, poison tipped spears, or blow guns, depending on what prey they are hunting. For instance smaller game like the Peccary would be killed using a blow gun. As modernization comes to the Yaguas, guns replace the blow gun as the hunting weapon of choice.

Three groups of people that live south of Iquitos in the Ucayali River area are collectively known as the "Chamas". The Chamas include the Shetebos, Shipibos, and the Cunibos people. There are about 20,000 Chamas, and although one is not likely to encounter one of these people in the Amazon as they are quite shy, their artwork and crafts can often be found in Iquitos and Lima.

The Shipibo women wear blouses and skirts that are hand woven and colorfully dyed. Their hair is worn long with bangs. The men typically wear western clothes. These people speak a language known as Panoan, which is in the process of becoming a written language. The Shipibo people, in contrast to the Yagua, live in a matrilocal society, where the groom will move in with the bride’s family.

The Shipibo’s diet consists of banana, fish, yucca, poultry and rice. The men of the village are responsible for the hunting, farming, and fishing, some of the young men today go into town to look for work. The women’s duties include housework, cooking and cleaning. Their religion includes the worship of monkeys and leopards, giving rise to an offensive nickname used by outsiders, the "Monkey People". The Shipibos have traditionally tended to shy away from strangers. Perhaps this will enable them to prolong their traditional ways a bit longer as technology of the 21st century continues to encroach on all indigenous peoples.

The term ribereños refers to the vast majority of peoples living in Amazonia along the great river. The ribereños are not indigenous, although they have called this area home for a very long time. Most are of European and Indian descent, having come to the rainforest when the rubber plantations drew people into the area. The ribereños or mestizos, unlike the indigenous people, have integrated some of the technology of the outside world into their own traditional ways. While the mestizos have incorporated some of the amenities of modern western society they have not stopped living closely linked to the forest. They still build their own canoes, fish, and grow gardens, moving their garden sites often to allow the soil to recover. Their dwellings are built from the wood and plants of the forest.

The biggest threat to the ribereños today is overpopulation due to a higher number of children surviving disease and harsh living conditions, and a growing number of people coming into the rainforest to live along the rivers in order to escape poor urban areas. The forest and the river are suffering the impacts of overpopulation in this area.

Life is changing for the ribereños as electricity is slowly being provided to more and more people in these areas. The main purpose of the electricity is to supply refrigeration to prevent food from spoiling, however with electricity will also come radio and TV and inevitable life style changes.

Education is theoretically available for children in grades 1-5, however the children must live close enough to get to the school and they must have some meager supplies just to attend, such as clothes and some supplies, not so easy to get in an economy where most families survive by subsistence farming, fishing, gathering and some hunting. If the children wish to attend school beyond the fifth grade they have to find a way to get to a larger town or city. In recognition of the need to improve education the ACEER Foundation has environmental education as one of its major missions.

 


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