views updated


LOCATION: Peru (Amazon river basin area)
POPULATION: 500 (estimate)
RELIGION: Indigenous religion based on spirits, with possible Christian influences


The Amahuacas are an Amerindian tribe who live in the Peruvian part of the great Amazon River basin area, which extends through Brazil to parts of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Peru. The Amazon River and its mighty tributaries (17 of which are over 1,600 km or 1,000 mi long) drain about 40% of South America, including the largest area of tropical rain forest in the world. The largest community of Amahuacas lives in the surroundings of Puerto Varadero, a community located in the tropical jungle next to the Peruvian-Brazilian border.

The first expedition of Spanish conquerors into this region was led by Vicente Yánez Pinzón, who discovered the mouth of the Amazon and ascended it for about 80 km (50 mi) in ad 1500. This was a section of the river subsequently referred to as the R'o Marañón. Subsequently, the Spanish explorer and conqueror Francisco de Orellana embarked on the first descent of the river from the Andes to the Atlantic Ocean in 1541.

Battles with Amerindian tribes occurred from the 16th century onwards and have continued in one form or another even until today: a variety of scattered tribes, including the Amahuacas, continue to try to defend their land rights and their way of life.

The comparative remoteness of many areas allowed for the establishment of small settlements, missions, and trading posts, as well as some river ports established early on (such as Pucallpa on the Ucayali river, one of the longest tributaries of the Amazon), but prevented the total conquest of this vast area. Even 30 or 40 years ago, large areas of the eastern lowlands and jungles of Peru, known as the montaña, where the Amahuacas and other groups live, were largely unexplored. Even before the arrival of the Spaniards, the many tribes scattered in this part of the Peruvian Amazon basin area and along the Ucayali River were engaged in a complex relationship with each other, which included trade on the one hand and raids on the other.

During the 19th and 20th centuries the Amahuacas, among other Amerindian peoples, suffered the consequences of the exploitation and commercialization of rubber in the Amazon. Even though the so-called rubber boom helped to enhance regional development, it also had a huge impact on the environment and on the life of this community as a result of the appropriation of indigenous territories and the exploitation of their work force. Today, the Amahuacas, as well as other Amerindian people, are an endangered tribe menaced by different threats, such as ecological devastation, diseases, extraction of oil, and illegal loggers.


The Amahuacas of eastern Peru are part of a group of tribes classified together as Panoans and located generally in the Ucayali Valley. Some of the stronger and more aggressive tribes, such as the Chama Indians, lived along the shores of the Ucayali River itself. They went on raids and took slaves from neighboring tribes who also spoke the same or closely related languages.

These continual raids compelled the Amahuacas to seek a less exposed position. They feared some of their more powerful neighbors because if they were captured during raids they would be taken to work as slaves for them. Together with some other tribes, they kept to the headwaters of some of the tributaries. In the case of the Amahuacas, they settled mainly along the headwaters of the Ucayali, the Juruá, and the Puruá rivers.

This is a hot, humid region that has an immensely rich plant and animal life. Jungle life usually conjures up images of unpleasant mosquitoes and dangerous snakes, but in the Amazon basin area only about 1 in 25 varieties of snakes is poisonous. A great variety of tall trees form a thick canopy so high up they seem to reach for the sky, in all shades of green, with the occasional brilliant burst of flowers. Manatees and turtles swim in the rivers, along with hundreds of species of fish. Fireflies light up the darkness in flashes of gold or green or red. Flocks of parakeets splash their color against the sky, and hundreds of different butterflies add bright touches of turquoise, yellow, orange, red, and black in gorgeous patterns. In the evening the cicadas beat their wings in noisy concert before the hush that precedes nightfall, when the nocturnal animals begin their secretive forays.


The Amahuacas speak a language that forms part of what is known as Panoan, which is spoken in Peru. The Amahuaca belongs to the Panoan language family and it is spoken in the southern part of the Peruvian Amazon Basin as well as in the border areas with Brazil by several dozen tribes, such as the Chamas, Remos, Cashibos, Nianaguas, Ruanaguas, and others. The language is also known as Amawaka, Amaguaco, Amehuaque, Ipitineri, and Sayaco. It is believed that because of the Spanish influence, the Amahuaca language have used Latin as its base. According to different sources, it is estimated that around 500 people of different tribes are fluent in the Amahuaca language. Children, especially boys, attend school for a few years and bilingualism is common. The language features suffixes "-gua" and "-hua," both of which mean "people."


The Amahuacas, along with many Amerindian tribes of the area, have creation stories of how the world came to be how and how they as a people came to be. In many stories, animals play a prominent part. Long centuries of observation led to an appreciation of the skills and strengths of many different animals, which play roles that are sometimes of symbolic importance in the stories. There are extended family formations where the affiliation to a particular animal (sometimes called a totem) is not only a symbol of identity but also a focal point for the contemplation of that particular animal's strengths and qualities.

Early explorers, adventurers, and traders differed greatly in their capacity to appreciate the various Amerindian cultures. The Amahuacas and others were sporadically visited by Christian missionaries from the 17th century onwards, but many missions failed over the centuries. However, this type of contact with White people, even if it did not succeed in Christianizing many groups in this area, did influence some of their myths, legends, and stories. The individual variations of each group have meant that Christian concepts have been incorporated in widely different ways, even by groups living in the same vicinity.


The Amahuacas believe that every living thing has a spirit, be it a rock, a tree, a bird, a jaguar, a body of water, or a person. There is a widespread belief among people of the Amazon that there are also some evil river spirits, although in some interpretations they are thought to correspond more closely to ghosts. The Amahuacas have shamans who are seen as mediators between this world and the spirit world.

Amahuacas share a belief, widespread among the Amerindian tribes of the Amazon basin, that illness is not a natural event. Rather, it is often attributed to the harmful influence of either another person or a being from the spirit world. It is thought that illness is caused by an actual attack by one of these agents, and it is believed that a thorn or a similar sharp object that is harmful enters the person and causes the illness. It is therefore important for the shaman to manufacture his own magic thorns or similar sharp objects, which he can then direct at the offending person or entity. Shamans are seen not only as protectors for the group, both from evil spirits and from illness, but also as people who can cause harm if the occasion calls for this type of action. The Amahuaca who is preparing himself to be a shaman has to imbibe a special drug, called cayapí, and then he has to isolate himself in the forest and receive his magic thorns from a magician there.

Catholic missions have not been successful among many tribes in this area, including the Amahuacas. The Amahuacas were not only hostile to some of the raiding tribes, especially the Piros, the Cashibos, and the Shipibos, who at various times enslaved them, but also to White people. It was reported in the 19th century that slaves were in some cases kept to work for the capturing tribe and in other cases were sold to White people.

Nevertheless, one of the Amahuaca beliefs (about what happens to human souls after death) is superficially similar to Catholic belief, and it may be that even the few attempts to Christianize the Amahuacas on the part of missionaries left faint traces. The Amahuacas believe that a soul after death usually goes to a heaven or paradise, but some go to a type of underworld. This may be an adaptation of the Christian concepts of heaven and hell. However, where the Amahuaca beliefs differ is in the vision of what heaven offers. The soul continues to live in some respects as it did when on earth. If it is in heaven, it can get married and it consumes food. If it goes to a lower or netherworld, it lives with a spirit called Tjaxo.


The Amahuacas are very isolated from mainstream Peruvian culture and do not participate in the holidays, whether religious or secular, of the majority of Peru's inhabitants.


When an Amahuaca baby is going to be born, the mother retires to a secluded place and is usually assisted by a few other women during childbirth. After the baby is born, the afterbirth and the umbilical cord are buried in the earth.

Some tribes along the Ucayali River have special rites when a girl reaches puberty. The Chama customs include an elaborate festival where a group of teenage girls, having reached puberty, are gathered together during the full moon at night, while the adults of the tribe celebrate the girls' fertility by dancing and singing all night. Some other tribes isolate the girls for a few days to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. Among the Amahuacas, no special ceremonies are reported.

There have been cases where a girl is betrothed or promised in marriage while she is still a child. In the majority of cases, if a girl wishes to marry, the girl's father has to give his permission. In some cases a man has several wives.

There is great variation in burial ceremonies, and some of these have changed over time. At different times, all of these have been practiced in the Ucayali River region: cremation, burial in a funerary urn, burial in a canoe, burial underneath the floor of the house, and burial in the earth outside of the house.

Travelers to the Ucayali reported that the Amahuacas at one time cremated the body of the dead person and then consumed the ashes. This was done by mixing the ashes with masato and drinking them. In more recent history, the Amahuacas continued to cremate the body but no longer consumed the ashes. Infants are buried in urns. The personal effects of the deceased are burned, and sometimes the house is either burned or abandoned. The small fields where the dead person grew his or her crops are then passed on to relatives.


Greetings respect social norms, which include the positions occupied by the various members of the family and the extended family. However, Amahuaca settlements are small, with an average of five houses inhabited by 15 people. Each of these settlements are separated by several hours walking distance. Economically and politically, each village is completely autonomous. There are no shamans or headmen, and no kin groups larger than the extended family.

It would be difficult to approach an Amahuaca casually, since this tribe has long been suspicious of strangers, quite often for very good reason. The rubber boom that swept the region in the 19th century decimated at least 90% of the Amerindian population: the Indians died from diseases to which they had never been exposed before, from brutal working conditions when they were forced to work as slaves, from starvation, and from armed conflict.

Girls and boys are allowed to have sexual relations once they have reached puberty.


For those unused to living in the tropical lowlands, life in the Ucayali river region can be very hard. It is remarkable that the Amahuacas and others adapted and survived, perhaps for hundreds if not thousands of years, in what is perceived by many as a hostile environment, where nature is fierce rather than benign. Some jungle ants not only sting but also bite; there are also scorpions and spiders, some of which are poisonous, as well as several poisonous snakes. In some rivers, the boa constrictor and the cayman pose dangers. Jaguars are hunted but also greatly feared.

The Amahuacas use a number of medicinal plants, including the leaves of a plant known as Dracontium longpipes that is used for snake bites, and also seek help in case of illness from their shamans. Many of the medicinal herbs of this area are not generally known to outsiders.

The Amahuacas lead a simple, sustainable lifestyle, but the strategies for survival require a considerable number of skills. Amahuacas use balsa rafts for fishing and for transporting goods. For hunting expeditions along the river, standard dugout canoes are used. These activities of hunting and fishing provide the most important sources of protein for the Amahuacas' diet. Fish are caught with harpoon, arrows, spears, poison, bows, and arrows.

The pattern of agriculture in this area includes the slash-and-burn method, which means that when the land is exhausted after a few years, it becomes necessary to move on to another part of the forest to grow crops, often in clearings on the shores of a river. This requires a type of house that is light and methods through which a house can be quickly rebuilt elsewhere. Amahuacas also grow maize and bananas, and it is believed that this agricultural tradition was assimilated from Peruvians and missionaries.

The Amahuacas build rectangular huts with sticks and cane. Often the chonta palm is used for thatching roofs. Many accommodations are located close to water, and Amahuacas prefer to sleep in box-shaped nets instead of traditional hammocks. Some 19th-century travelers thought that the Amahuacas and some other tribes probably moved about a great deal, because they reported that they saw them living in boats. It is now appreciated that proper care and conservation, in an environmental sense, of this large rainforest area with its many rivers and tributaries does, in fact, require small settlements scattered over a large area and mobility to allow the land to lie fallow for a time while other small areas are cultivated. This conservation strategy, which evolved over thousands of years, is now in danger of being overturned by colonists from outside the area, landowners hungry for more land, prospectors, and others.


The role of women is important among the Amahuacas in the sense that their society is matrilineal. When a couple gets married, they go to live with the bride's family. The extended family unit can consist of a man with several wives, but it is usual for the man to work with and for his wife's father. The Amahuacas do not live close together in large villages, but rather in extended family households over a scattered area. A household can consist of the head of the household as leader of the unit, his wife, his married daughters, and his unmarried sons.

The women do much of the productive and often heavy work, including farming and transporting goods, as well as cooking and preparing drinks, such as masato. They also make pottery and weave. Most Amerindians in this area grow cotton for weaving, and urucú or genipa for body paint.

The Amahuacas keep guinea pigs as pets.


Amahuaca women wear a cotton skirt. Clothing for important or ceremonial occasions may include, for the man, a garment known as the cushma. These garments sometimes have painted panels. The designs are often geometric and the colors include black and red. They are woven of bark or cotton.

Amahuacas tattoo the face in a permanent form of ornamentation, which is usually carried out in childhood. The tattoo is made by using a thorn and soot from the copal tree. They also blacken their teeth. The dark color is obtained by chewing a species of pepper. Although little clothing is worn, a great variety of ornaments are used, including beaded necklaces, head-bands, arm bands, anklets, bracelets, and rings.


Amahuacas are a sedentary tribe that complements its diet with hunting and gathering of fruits and vegetables. A wide range of food is available in this region, including wild fruits and berries, wild honey, fish (including catfish), and game, such as water hogs, deer, tapir, peccaries, monkeys, agutis, some water snakes and caymans, and some species of water fowl, as well as parrots. The Amahuacas are skilled hunters and use bows and arrows. The arrows have four different types of tips. They also grow and use certain types of poison for fish. Food is sometimes cooked over open fires. The Amahuacas grow corn and cassava or manioc, and they use stone grinders to prepare some of the food. They also make their own clay cooking pots and a few wooden utensils, as well as sieves and graters.


The education of boys includes the teaching of all the necessary survival skills, especially hunting and fishing, as well as house-building and boat-building and the making of weapons, such as bows and arrows. Girls are taught cooking, farming, pottery, and weaving skills.

The Amahuacas do not use a written language. They transmit their sense of identity and their explanations about the world orally, through chants and stories. Officially, therefore, they are considered illiterate.


Music and dance form an important part of life for most Amerindian tribes of the Ucayali region. Musical instruments include gourds, rattles, flutes, and drums. These are played on ceremonial occasions.

The Amahuacas pass on to their children the sense of who they are, how they came to be, how the world came to be, and so on through stories that are transmitted orally.


Collecting wild plants and berries is an activity that men, women, and children can perform. Hunting and fishing is a man's job among the Amahuacas. Women often till the soil and transport goods, as well as look after young children, cook, weave, and make pottery and ornaments.


It has been noted by a variety of travelers that games are often very individual affairs among the Amerindian tribes of the Ucayali. There are miniature bows and arrows and dolls made for young children, as well as other miniature toys. These toys are played with individually, and these efforts do not develop into team games or sports. Children also play with corn-leaf balls, but team-based ball games are not played. Sometimes children enjoy wrestling. There are no adult sports.


Most Indian groups of the Ucayali, including the Amahuacas, enjoy occasions for feasting. Typically, a successful hunt can provide an occasion, or the arrival of visitors from tribes the Amahuacas consider friendly, or a special ceremonial event. Drinking bouts are quite frequent. Fermented drinks are made from corn, sugarcane, and other plants.


Pleasingly shaped and simple pottery in everyday use is made by Amahuaca women. They also weave cotton for simple garments, and these are sometimes decorated with panels in various colors. Dyes are prepared from genipa and urucú.

The Amahuacas sleep in hammocks in their huts, and weaving a strong yet resilient hammock out of fique or hemp requires real skill. Baskets and various types of bags for carrying are also woven. Some pipes are made for smoking tobacco, which is not in general use. Among the Amahuacas it is often the shaman who uses tobacco ceremonially in various rituals to protect a person or a group from illness or enemies.

Ornaments and jewelry are made, including earrings and beaded necklaces.


The Amahuacas have resisted incursions for a very long time, but there has been a significant change that could shatter the Amerindian communities of eastern Peru. A U.S. oil company signed a contract early in 1996 with the Peruvian state oil company. It is thought that this is the most biologically diverse region on the planet. There are about 19 Amerindian tribes in this area, including Amahuaca settlements between the upper Piedras River and the Cujar River, which is a tributary of the Purœs river. There are also some tribes that have possibly never been contacted before.

Oil prospecting requires detonating underground explosives at particular set intervals and analyzing the shock waves to assess oil deposits. Wildlife will be severely disturbed in the area, which will threaten the food supply of the Amerindian communities. It will also be difficult, if not impossible, to maintain the roving, seminomadic pattern that is an essential part of the way of life for Amahuacas and others. The Amahuacas range over long distances and their lifestyle, which plays a part in the conservation of the important resource that is the Amazon basin, may not survive this type of onslaught.


Amahuacas have a high index of masculinity, which means that there are considerably more men than women in their tribes. Their social structure is based on patrilocal extended families and a hierarchical division of labor in which men are primary providers, and leaders are paradigmatic providers. The senior male of a local group owns the land, which is defended against incursions by outsiders.

With few exceptions, the work of men and women is strictly divided and complementary. While 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. Amahuaca women also spin, weave, make pots, mats, and most of the baskets, and drill seeds for beads.

Until recently, Amahuacas were removed from modern society and were said to participate in infanticide and cannibalism. Rules structuring marriage suggest strong endogamy among Amahuacas. Young men are usually forced to marry their cousin: the daughter of their uncle on their mother's side or the daughter of their aunt on their father's side. When a young couple gets married they usually live on the husband's family land, unless the father of the bride needs help cultivating his crops.


Carneiro, Robert L. "Hunting and Hunting Magic among the Amahuaca of the Peruvian Montaña" Ethnology, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Oct. 1970): 331–341.

Dole, Gertrude E. "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, 1974.

Jaulin, Robert, ed. El Etnocidio a través de las Américas. Mexico: Siglo XXI Editores S. A., 1976.

Steward, Julian Haynes, ed. A Handbook of South American Indians. New York: Cooper Square, 1963.

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

—revised by C. Vergara