views updated


ETHNONYMS: Amaguaca, Amajuaca, Amawaka (probably corruptions of amin waki, meaning "capybara children"), Hepetineri, Ipetinere, Maspo, Sayaco


Identification. People known as "Amahuaca" today appear to include individuals from formerly localized groups of Indowo, Rondowo, Isãwo, Shãwo, Maxinawa, Cutinawa, Punchawo, Kapî Hîchi, Nashishnawo, and Shimanawa. Traditionally, they had no name for themselves as a people other than hondi kuí (real people) or yora (human beings).

Location. They are sparsely settled on the Inuya and Sepahua rivers and on headwater streams of the Javari, Juruá, Purus, and Piedras rivers in a deeply dissected limestone plateau on the border of Peru and Brazil. Annual rainfalls of 177 to 203 centimeters between October and April support unbroken tropical forest with abundant game.

Demography. Until the end of the nineteenth century the Amahuaca were very numerous (perhaps as many as 9,000), but their number has been reduced to less than 500 in Peru and not more than 250 in the Brazilian states of Amazonas and Acre.

Linguistic Affiliation. The language of the Amahuaca is Panoan. It is most similar to that of the neighboring Yaminahua, has slight regional variations, and is believed to have separated from Conibo about 1,000 years ago.

History and Cultural Relations

Amahuaca formerly occupied a vast area east of the Ucayali River from the Tapiche River south to the Urubamba. Repeatedly raided by Panoan Conibo, Shetebo, and Shipibo, as well as Arawakan Piro in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, the Amahuaca withdrew eastward to the higher land. In the 1890s prospectors entered that area with thousands of Piro and Campa helpers, seeking workers to collect rubber. When the Amahuaca resisted, many were killed and many others died of introduced diseases. Survivors fled further east down the Purus River but soon returned to headwater streams to escape advancing Brazilians. In the 1940s a few joined logging crews on the upper Ucayali River, where they formed a village on Chumichinia Island. Between 1953 and 1968 a Protestant missionary attracted some seventeen families to Varadero, the site of an old rubber camp later occupied by a Peruvian army garrison. About the same time Dominican missionaries also attracted some families to the lower Sepahua River.

The description that follows is of the traditional upland culture. Amahuaca culture is most similar to that of the Yaminahua, Shimanahua, Matses, Matis, and Marubo. It is also more similar to that of the Cashinahua than to that of the riverine Conibo-Shipibo. As part of recent changes, Amahuaca in the riverine communities, especially those on Chumichinia, have borrowed ceramic and basketry design, cloth mosquito nets, strongly alcoholic manioc beer, and some oral lore from nearby Conibo and Campa. Houses, some of which have closed walls, tend to be arranged along the water's edge. People sleep under box-shaped nets on the raised floors instead of in hammocks. Secondary forest that may be inundated annually is cleared for maize and bananas near the dwellings, whereas manioc may be planted in a separate area that does not flood. These crops and numerous fruit and vegetable crops that the Amahuaca have adopted from Peruvians and missionaries are weeded. Dugout canoes are widely used, and fish, by far the most abundant source of protein at Chumichinia, are caught with harpoon arrows, spears, poison, and hooks, as well as with bows and ordinary arrows, which are no longer carried all the time for defense. A few men have taken Conibo or Campa wives and cooperate with their wives' groups in poisoning fish. Some men work in a system of debt peonage, receiving metal tools, utensils, weapons, fuel, clothes and cloth, soap, outboard motors, and processed food on credit from their patron. To pay off their debt they cut cedar and mahogany logs on eastern tributaries of the Ucayali during the dry season and float them as rafts down to the Ucayali when rains swell the rivers. Riverine Amahuaca occasionally supply cured pelts, young game mammals, birds, surplus fish, bananas, maize, and tobacco to river merchants, missionaries, and lumber patrones for cash to purchase manufactured goods. Traditional ornaments and art have been abandoned, and all the Amahuaca wear commercial clothes. Children, especially boys, attend school for a few years and bilingualism is common. Although one man is favored by a lumber patrón as mediator-leader, all the men make policy decisions jointly. Harvest ceremonies have lapsed and the hallucinogen ayahuasca is rarely used. Instead relatives frequently gather during slack periods to drink manioc beer. Some Christian concepts and practices have been adopted, including simple burial.


Hamlets of fifteen to twenty closely related people are located on high ridges near permanent streams, separated from other settlements by several hours' walk. Each nuclear family occupies a separate house in the midst of a garden plot adjacent to gardens of other families. Houses are open rectangular shelters with pent roofs thatched to a few feet from the ground with yarina (Phytelephas sp.) palm leaves. Settlements are moved every year to ensure productivity. adequate game, and security from enemies.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Each hamlet is a self-sufficient horticultural community with only slightly less dependence on hunting. New hilltop plots are cleared each year in primary forest. Maize, the principle staple, is soaked and planted in holes dug with a broken bow stave. When the new plants appear, cuttings of sweet manioc are interplanted with palm-wood spades, and, just before the rains begin, banana shoots are sunk in deep holes. Minor crops include sweet potatoes, peanuts, yams, pijuayo (peach palms), and papaya in addition to cotton, tobacco, achiote and huito for pigments, gourds, barbasco for fish poison, arrow cane, ayahuasca, and several medicinal herbs. Little weeding is done. Palm hearts, nuts, seeds, small fruits, and fungi are gathered from the numerous trees of the forest. Maize is stored on the cob in granaries built on the same pattern as dwellings but with raised floors of split palm. The toasted kernels are ground to a fine flour in a palm-log trough mortar with a rocker pestle carved from a flat buttress root. The flour is eaten dry or boiled to make a thick soup, often with masticated flour added to sweeten it. Sweet bananas are eaten raw as they ripen, but plantain varieties are roasted or boiled. Manioc tubers are boiled as a vegetable and sometimes mashed to make a slightly fermented soup.

All game animals, including fish, are caught with palm-wood bows and cane arrows tipped with barbed or unbarbed bamboo blades or pijuayo points. The most abundant game are several species of monkeys, peccaries, deer, and tapir and several types of large rodents, anteaters, armadillos, turtles and their eggs, and large non-carrioneating birds. Hunters track game with dogs and sometimes use cane or palm-leaf blinds. Meat and fish are roasted and smoked on babracots. To gather honey, fruits, nuts and other materials from trees, Amahuaca use climbing rings of lianas around their ankles.

Industrial Arts. Steel axes and knives have replaced the traditional T-shaped axes and wooden sword clubs, but clam shells, bamboo, and rodent teeth are still used as cutting tools. With tumplines on their foreheads, women carry heavy loads in deep rectangular twilled baskets made of single-pinnate palm leaves. Oblong covered baskets made of split cane are used for storing men's craft materials. Clay from river banks is used to make undecorated vessels in various sizes and shapes. Coarse cotton skirts, hammocks, baby slings, and ditty bags are woven on backstrap looms. Wrist-and headbands, on the other hand, are woven of fine thread on bent-withe (Ucayali) looms. Men use benches made of two split balsa logs, whereas women sit on yarina palm-leaf mats. Rafts of balsa logs are sometimes used to descend rivers because canoes are virtually unusable on the Inuya headwaters. However, dugout cedarlog canoes are regularly used on the Purus, Sepahua, and Ucayali.

Trade. Game is shared and surplus craft items are sometimes traded within a hamlet. Among people from separate groups, bows and arrows, skirts, food, and tobacco leaves may be exchanged to establish and reinforce friendly relations. No currency is used.

Division of Labor. With few exceptions, the work of men and women is strictly divided and complementary: men hunt and fish; cut and clear gardens; plant manioc, bananas, and tobacco; construct houses; and make telescope storage baskets, wooden tools, utensils, weapons, and benches. Women plant, harvest, and transport most of the crops; cut and fetch firewood; draw water; grind maize; butcher game; cook; and care for children. They also spin; weave; make pots, mats, and most of the baskets; and drill seeds for beads. Both men and women gather products from the forest. There are no specialists.

Land Tenure. The senior male of a local group is said to own the land, which is defended against incursions by outsiders with palm-spine caltrops. Garden plots are individually owned, but only while in cultivation. Fruit-bearing trees, however, continue to be owned by those who planted them. Any member of a settlement may hunt in any part of the surrounding region.


Kin Groups and Descent. Several patrilaterally related nuclear families make up a hamlet. In the recent past several such extended families lived near one another as a named localized aggregate, or clan. Kinship is cognatic except for the mainly patrilineal clan affiliation. Formerly, succession to leadership also tended to be patrilineal.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms for primary and secondary relatives are bifurcate-merging. For more distant relatives usage varies widely; individuals may use the bifurcate-merging, generation, or cross-cousin (so-called Dravidian) pattern of the four-section system found among some other Panoan peoples. Some terms are used reciprocally by kin in alternate generations.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Infant betrothal, marriage of bilateral cross cousins living in separate hamlets, and exchange of siblings are customary although not always practiced. After a variable period of uxorilocal residence with bride-service and marriage gifts of valuable tools, the groom takes his bride back to a house he has built in his father's community. Men sometimes take an immature girl as wife, but marriage is not consummated before her menarche. If the father of the desired woman refuses to give his daughter, he may be killed and the couple elope. Polygyny, especially sororal, is not uncommon, and both levirate and sororate are encouraged. Amahuaca limit family size with contraceptives, abortion, infanticide, and fosterage. Older siblings and orphans are often adopted or fostered by relatives, but foster children are sometimes treated as slaves.

Domestic Unit. The basic unit of residence, production, and consumption is the nuclear family. Co-wives usually occupy separate houses.

Inheritance. With the exception of a few irreplaceable metal tools and weapons, scarcely any property is inherited.

Socialization. Small children are allowed extreme freedom in play, even with machetes and fire. Discipline is limited to neglect, ridicule, threats, brusquely pushing one who is a nuisance, and brushing with a needlelike plant, immediately followed by cuddling and comforting. Much is learned by watching adults and listening to men repeat myths and legends, but puberty signals a period of formal instruction in hunting skills for boys and household duties for girls. Before being considered adult, a boy is encouraged to dream of being instructed by the spirit of an animal alter ego. He must also build a house, clear a garden plot, and succeed in hunting.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Same-sex cross cousins in separate hamlets are special friends, and peaceful relations among hamlets are reinforced by visits, during which food and labor are exchanged. On such visits news of relatives is recounted in simultaneous monologues, and prospective marriages are discussed.

Political Organization. Each settlement is autonomous. The moral leadership of a senior male is acknowledged. Formerly, a headman ordered and supervised joint work on gardens, taught cultural norms, prevented internal hostility, and authorized avenging raids. Peaceful contact with outsiders is restricted almost entirely to people who speak the same language, called nokîngaiwo (our kind). Culturally related friendly peoples with whom the Amahuaca have little or no contact are called yora or hondiwo (people, humankind), whereas strangers and unrelated peoples are potential enemies (nawa, or naa).

Social Control. Amahuaca show no hostility within the community and treat nonconformity only with gossip. Dreams, chants, and ayahuasca séances are used to deal with persons believed to be causing harm. Adultery and failure to work are cause for wife beating or divorce.

Conflict. Suspected adultery by an outsider is sometimes avenged by murder, which may lead to bloody reprisal. Some men claim that adultery and other insults are punished by slashing the offender on the nape of the neck with a claw-shaped bamboo knife. The Amahuaca distrust and fear outsiders, especially Yaminahua, Cashinahua, and Culina. In response to rumors of intended violence, men may visit the supposed enemies, with bows and arrows in hand as always, and kill them by ambush or other means. In hand-to-hand combat men use knuckle-dusters made of the vegetable ivory of yarina palm nuts and long, narrow, finely pointed, wooden swords.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Amahuaca believe that Indian peoples were first nonhuman animals and that they themselves originated from a xopaan, the gourdlike fruit of a begonia. Their principal culture hero, Rantanga, is equated with the sun and regarded as the source of fire, cultivated plants, and stone axes, as well as the creator of animals. Themes of Amahuaca myths include floods, earthquake, holocaust, an arrow-cane ladder to the sky, ancestral twins, the sun and moon as incestuous siblings, and female frog spirits with vagina dentata. Eclipses warn of the imminent arrival of cannibalistic spirits. A deformed baby is thought to be sired by an incubus spirit. The universe is inhabited by a host of spirits (yoshin ) that are feared but can be manipulated. The most dangerous animal spirits are those of predators. Celestial bodies, including aurora borealis, are spirits of people who once lived on earth. Angry spirits of the dead ancestors can kill the living with epidemic diseases.

Ceremonies. At about the age of 3 years a youngster's ears and nasal septum are pierced for ornaments. Adolescent boys are expected to participate in an ordeal of wasp stings. Harvests of the main crops are marked by festivals to which relatives from a neighboring hamlet are invited. After many days and nights of singing and dancing to ripen a crop, a large quantity of soup is jointly prepared by men of the host group and served to all. To communicate with tutelary jaguar spirits or friendly ancestors, adult men drink a decoction of ayahuasca and chant throughout the night. Datura is smoked with tobacco for the same purpose.

Arts. Various geometric designs are painted in red and black on the body, on bamboo arrow blades, and on headbands and are incised on wooden clubs and occasionally on ceremonial bowls. The only musical instruments are small three-hole bamboo "flutes" (recorders) and tiny musical bows.

Medicine. A healer (hawaai ) drinks ayahuasca and blows smoke into a patient's nostrils. By swallowing powdered tobacco and ayahuasca, he can send his jaguar alter ego to retrieve a lost soul. A childless woman who does not menstruate may eat sour seeds of a certain fruit or be beaten lightly with a paddle club to induce menstruation and pregnancy. To help infants grow fast, become strong, and learn to walk, mothers rub juice of genipa fruit or leaves from sturdy plants on their skin. Soup is blown or vomited onto the bodies of youngsters during harvest ceremonies to make them strong. Nasal and head congestion are treated with tobacco blown through a short, bone snuff tube, one end of which is inserted in one's mouth and the other in the nose. A virulent toxin secreted through the skin of a small frog called kambó is rubbed into open wounds to bring visions, purge the body, and increase hunting skill. Infusions of aromatic plants are rubbed on the skin to increase hunting success by camouflaging body odor. Individuals use chants and many kinds of fruits, seeds, leaves, and roots to treat their own illnesses, as well as to make them irresistible to a desired mate or repel an unwanted spouse. Scratching the caudal scales of a boa constrictor is thought to lessen the pain of stings by large black ants in the gardens.

Death and Afterlife. The body of a deceased person is buried temporarily in the house floor and then cremated after relatives arrive from other communities. The ashes are reburied and charcoal from the funeral pyre is thrown into the river. Fragments of charred bones and teeth are ground, mixed with soup, and consumed by the closest relative. To remove all reminders of the deceased and discourage the spirit from lingering, personal possessions are burned or broken, including garden crops and the house built by the deceased. Spirits of dead relatives are thought to fly to a place in the sky near the sun, where hunting is easy and they visit with others who have preceded them.


Carneiro, Robert L. (1964). "Shifting Cultivation among the Amahuaca of Eastern Peru." In Beiträge zur Völkerkunde Südamerikas, edited by Hans Becher. Vol. 1, 9-18. Völkerkundliche Abhandlungen. Hannover: Kommisionsverlag Münstermann-Druck.

Dole, Gertrude E. (1974). "The Marriages of Pacho: A Woman's Life among the Amahuaca." In Many Sisters: Women in Cross-Cultural Perspective, edited by Carolyn J. Matthiasson, 3-35. New York: Free Press.

Dole, Gertrude E. (1979). "Pattern and Variation in Amahuaca Kin Terminology." Working Papers on South American Indians (Bennington, Vt.), no. 1:13-36.

Woodside, Joseph Holt (1981). Developmental Sequences in Amahuaca Society. Ann Arbor, Mich., and London: University Microfilms International.