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ALTERNATE NAMES: Campa (derogatory)
LOCATION: Peru; Brazil
LANGUAGE: Asháninka; Spanish
RELIGION: Native mythical beliefs


Even though the Spanish conquerors were efficient and successful in subjugating a large portion of the Inca Highlands of Peru, they did not have the same luck in the eastern rainforests. According to many accounts, the Spanish invaders were expulsed and killed by the Amazon people. The majority of these ferocious warriors call themselves Asháninka.

The Asháninka are an ethnic group of the Peruvian Amazon rain forest. They are also known in Peru and abroad by the name "Campa," which they consider derogatory because it derives from the Quechua thampa, which means ragged and dirty. Asháninka means "our fellows" or "our kinfolk." In 1595 an expedition led by Juan Vélez took along two Jesuit priests, Juan Font and Nicolás Mastrillo, in the first attempt by the Europeans to colonize the area.

For over three centuries, the Asháninka attempted to maintain their independence, efforts that were curtailed by Franciscan and Dominican missionaries who established settlements in the jungle. In 1742 this first period of colonization came to a sudden end with a general Indian rebellion led by the legendary Juan Santos Atahualpa. The uprising lasted until 1752 and succeeded in expelling all missionaries and colonists from the area. Historical chronicles suggest that after the revolt no Catholic missionary or soldier dared enter the jungle. The Asháninka and their neighbors controlled the area for over a century.

By the mid-19th century two simultaneous economic situations brought the missionaries back: the encroachment of agriculture from the Andes and the rubber-tapping industry from the Amazon. In 1847 a military garrison was set up, and from there recolonization by Franciscans and European, Chinese, and Japanese settlers began. Some 2 million hectares (5 million acres) of Asháninka territory, along with the main rivers, were granted to the British-owned Peruvian Corporation 44 years later. The Asháninka were then used as labor, and the appalling working conditions together with virus epidemics took a heavy toll on the communities. In the lower part of the territory, the rubber boom brought slavery, a trend that continued even after the rubber economy collapsed in 1915.

During the last decades of the 20th century, the Asháninka territory has been the site of conflicts between the Peruvian Army and rebel groups. Some Asháninka had a messianic leader, Guillermo Lobatón, whom they regarded as the Son of the Sun. He became the leader of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left, or MIR, inspired by the teachings of Fidel Castro. In 1965, many died in fighting between the military and the MIR. Only 14 years later, the Tupac Amarœ Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) killed the Asháninka leader of the Pichi river, claiming he had helped the police take their own leader. Since the beginning of the 1980s, the Shining Path has entered their territory. Since then, guerrilla and army actions often result in Asháninka deaths.


The Asháninka, one of the largest ethnic groups of the Americas (their population numbers around 45,000 people), inhabit mainly the Central Forest in the Amazonian part of the eastern Andean foothills in Peru, but their communities stretch across the easternmost Peruvian Amazon and even as far as the State of Acre in Brazil. They inhabit an area of more than 103,600 sq km (40,000 sq mi). Their traditional heartland is the Gran Pajonal, a remote plateau of rolling terrain dissected by the gorges of rivers. On the slopes there are pajonales (grasslands), created in part by a long history of Asháninka clearing and burning.

Difficult access to the region allowed the inhabitants to remain isolated from outside influences until relatively recently. The area is strategically important, being directly east of the Peruvian capital, Lima, and linked to it by roads that cross the Andes. The degree of integration with their neighbors varies according to the geographic situation. Close to the frontiers, the Asháninka are more integrated with the settler society, living side by side with them. But, in remote areas, they are often the only inhabitants of large territories.

Asháninka people are highly dependent on agriculture to survive. After cleaning their lands through a process consisting of burning the soil, this Amerindian tribe grows yucca, corn, banana, rice, coffee, cacao, and sugar cane among other goods. Asháninka people complete their diet through the gathering of fruits and vegetables in the jungle. The major source of protein comes from hunting and fishing


The Asháninka language belongs to the pre-Andean Arawak linguistic family, which is the largest language family in South America and includes several dialects. In the Central Peruvian forest there are some variations: in the south of their territory they speak Asháninka, while in the north Ashéninka is spoken. Asháninka, like all pre-Columbian Arawak languages, is of a highly verbal nature. When examining oral narratives it has been found that the ratio of verbs to nouns is about four to one. As to gender, it is straightforward for humans, but when it comes to animals, gender depends on whether they were male or female when they were human, before they were transformed into animals, all in reference to legends.

In some regions, both Spanish and Asháninka are offi-cial languages. However, most of the aborigine population is monolinguistic until they go to school, where they learn Spanish. Children are given a provisional name when they start walking. Their official name is decided when they are seven years old.

Asháninka literacy rates range from 10% to 30%.


Among the Asháninka, history and nature are explained through myths and heroes. A great cliff in the Tambo river, for example, used to be a Spanish ship that Avireri, a powerful hero, transformed into a rock, its sailors becoming red ants. Other dangerous insects, like wasps, are also transformations of bad men. The moon itself used to be a man who ate other men, and as a punishment he was exiled to the sky. From there, he continues eating Asháninka souls, which explains the phases of the moon. As to the origins of their neighbors, it is said that Avireri, the great mythological transformer, turned a murderous hawk and his wife into huge rocks, and they can be seen in the Ene river. Their feathers became canoes and each carried Piros, Matsiguenkas, Shipibos, and all the other Indian groups that live down the river.

A technological genius named Inka, according to another Asháninka myth, was swept away by a great flood of the river Tambo and carried to Lima where the White people, the Wiracocha, captured him and are still forcing him to produce Western goods that really belong to them. Only the return of Inka will bring justice to the land.


The Asháninka cosmology is mainly mythical. There is not a figure of a creator but a hero, Avireri, who transformed humans into animals, plants, mountains, and rivers. Their universe is inhabited by the living forms that can be seen and also by a host of invisible beings. Their spiritual universe is dualistic. Good spirits or amatsénka, "our fellow spirits," reside on the mountain ridges in their territory, along the rim of the known world, and on other levels in the universe. Among them are the Sun (Pavá) and the Moon (Kashirí). There are male and female spirits, and they reproduce, albeit not through sex as their genitalia are diminutive and they are devoid of the passion of lust. The good spirits can assume the guise of several animals that have a power denied to humans, like a bird that can fly.

There are also evil spirits or kamári, a term used to refer to that which is repugnant, malevolent, or reprehensible. Some animals, like the deer, are demons and cannot be eaten. Nature is populated by bad spirits, like the Katsivoreri of Mironti, who can kill if encountered. Death is feared because the soul can return to earth as a bad spirit. The Asháninka also traditionally believed in the existence of child wizards who had to be killed or buried alive, or even left to die of hunger. They personify the very real dangers of the jungle.

The Asháninka have shamans or sheripiári who are intermediaries between the people and supernatural beings. Sha-mans use tobacco and some hallucinogens to enter trances that will allow them to communicate with the supernatural. Illness is cured with the help of steam baths, magical herbs, and sessions with the healer, who tries to send the disease back to the one who originated it. In the case of the plague and the flu, it is believed that they were brought by White human beings, blond with blue eyes, a mythical explanation that bears some resemblance to historical facts.

Throughout their history, the Asháninka have had an apocalyptic vision of the world. They believe that this world is plagued by evil forces, and people will be destroyed. Then there will be a new world with new people without sickness or death.


The Festival of the Moon is a celebration of the god Kash'ri who, according to the legend, is the father of the Sun. Kash'ri appeared to a young girl and introduced her and her people to manioc (cassava). He taught them how to grow it and prepare it, putting an end to years of a diet of earth. He made the young girl his wife, and in giving birth to the Sun she was burned to death. Kash'ri began taking his nephews to the forest, where he slaughtered and ate them. When his brother-in-law threatened to kill him, he escaped by rising into the sky. Kash'ri continues eating human souls and that explains why the moon gets fatter every month.

As some of the formal education available to the Asháninka is provided by Christian missionaries and, in any event, because Peru is a fervently Catholic country, some Indians gradually lose their traditions in the process of acculturation and begin to celebrate national holidays.


The magical world of the Asháninka includes a number of rites aimed at protecting the people. Prospective parents, for example, follow a diet during the pregnancy. They refrain from eating turtle meat, for fear that this would make their child slow-moving and slow-witted. Asháninka children are born in the house, and the umbilical cord is cauterized with burning coal. The mother has to remain indoors for a week. The child is only named when it learns to walk, and at the age of seven he or she gets a new name.

When girls reach adolescence, they spend up to six months in isolation. During that time they spin thread. Afterwards they are welcomed back to daily life with a celebration that has been described as orgiastic. Although after death a human soul can join the good spirits if the person was sufficiently good in his or her lifetime, the Asháninka consider it far more likely that the soul will become an evil ghost. In that case, it will revisit the settlement and attack those living there. That was the reason why, traditionally, the Asháninka would often abandon a settlement after someone died. If the deceased was believed to be a witch, the corpse was sometimes cremated so that the soul would be destroyed by the flames and would be prevented from joining the demons that taught it witchcraft.


The Aráwakan tribes were perceived by explorers as being hostile among themselves and towards the Whites. But, inside the villages there is a real sense of community: many economic activities are carried out collectively, such as hunting and fishing, and the take is divided equally among the dwellers. There is also enough evidence of intertribal trade to suggest that it has always existed. Exchanging goods must have involved some degree of amicability and a recognition of the skills of others.

The Asháninka have been described as morose but open to and capable of change. Some Whites distinguish between "civilized campas" and "savages," and of the latter say they are rough and practice cannibalism on victims of war to assimilate their virile qualities. Nowadays, it is said that most Asháninka are friendly and carry out trade or work as day laborers in order to get metal tools.


Traditionally, a native community would house between 300 and 400 people. There is a communal home surrounded by private dwellings of nuclear families that are related to the other families. They also erect observation platforms. There is a constant fire burning inside the houses and woven or bark mats for sleeping. The houses have two walls made of tree trunks, palm leaf roofs, and floors raised 20 cm (8 in) from the ground, built with pona palm trunks. But, the Asháninka territory has been the scene of conflicts between the Peruvian Army and guerrillas, as well as of the illegal trade in coca. Nowadays, under the raised floor, the Asháninka build trenches where they keep provisions, anticipating attacks. The situation has affected the Asháninka living conditions badly. Many are now refugees, having been forced to abandon their homes and land to save their lives. Historically, the Asháninka would only leave their homes for three reasons: soil exhaustion, a death in the family, or pressure by colonizers.

In 1991 the world witnessed a degree of malnutrition among Asháninka refugees never before seen in the American continent. Epidemics, such as cholera and measles, are another cause of premature death, and gastric, respiratory, and skin diseases are a common denominator among communities. The violence in the region has also affected the mental health of the population. Transport to many of the remaining Asháninka communities is costly. Vast regions are only accessible by light airplane as the roads cannot be used. The traditional means of transportation in the rivers is pointed balsa rafts held together with chonta nails and crossbeams.

Hunting, gathering, and some limited cultivation are the main ways of obtaining basic staples. Official statistics in the late 1980s suggest that 70% of Asháninka children suffer from malnutrition, and over 95% of Asháninka adults are illiterate.


There are few restrictions on marriage among the Asháninka, apart from the immediate family. It is possible to marry a cousin but not an uncle or aunt. To prevent pregnancy, some women eat chantini roots. Polygyny is practiced, and women were once traded for goods from other tribes. According to early accounts, many Asháninka were not married, and widows and widowers did not get married again.

As social conditions have worsened, the typical way of life of the Asháninka has become almost impossible for many communities. The traditional family and community life that was closely linked with nature has had to be abandoned, as most men have had to devote themselves to defense duties. Nevertheless, in the midst of this crisis, women have taken up the role of community organizers. They have formed mother's clubs and crafts committees both to generate income and to feed their families and refugees. In many cases, women have replaced men on the communal farms, and it is they who cultivate the land.


The Asháninka wear chusmas, a traditional garment made of a long piece of fabric with an opening in the middle for the head: from front to back for men, and from side to side for women. It is joined on the sides with vertical lines for men and horizontal lines for women. The chusmas are made of dyed wild cotton and are ornamented with feathers and beads. This traditional dress is a handmade robe fabricated from cotton, which is collected, spun, dyed, and woven by the women on looms. The shoulders of these traditional clothes are ornamented with seeds. Because of the laborious work that each piece requires, it can take up to three months to complete one finished robe.

Certain plants are sometimes used to perfume the fabrics. The Asháninka wore chusmas before they came in contact with White people, only then they were reserved for special occasions. On regular days, they would go virtually in the nude, though women often would wear an apron suspended from a string, covering their genitals. Accessories include nasal pendants and pins made of silver, pins for the lower lip, necklaces, feather headdresses, and arm and leg bands. They also groom their hair with a composite comb, paint their bodies with genipa, and blacken their teeth with Piperaeae.


The list of Asháninka crops is long, and ingredients for meals are certainly varied. Crops include yucca, the staple regional vegetable, as well as yams, peanuts, sweet potatoes, bananas, pineapples, tuber beans, macaba, pumpkins, and peppers. Some communities have added potatoes, maize, and lima beans. To grind the food, they use a wooden plate and a stone. Women are in charge of the garden, and men hunt. The Asháninka also keep and eat chickens and their eggs, and they hunt tapirs, boars, and monkeys. To supplement their diet, they collect honey, a root called mabe, ants, and several palm fruits. They also fish. The meat is cooked over the fire using sticks, in the shape of a pyramid or a rectangle, to hold it. The smoke from the fire helps preserve the meat for a few days. The Asháninka season their dishes with salt and pepper. Out of necessity, the Asháninka have begun to produce cash crops, such as coffee.


Education has been badly affected by the social unrest in the area. Since 1990, according to the Satipo Educational Services Unit, 71 rural schools have been closed and the same number of teachers are counted as "disappeared," as it is not known if they are dead, have joined the rebels, or are in hiding. Though many schools have been destroyed, some make do with improvised chairs and tables made of tree trunks, and blackboards donated by aid organizations.


Music and songs are part of Asháninka ceremonies and rituals. Their voices, imitations of jungle animal sounds, and stamping of the feet are accompanied by various instruments that they make using available materials and decorate with indigenous paints in their particular style. Early accounts of what had been found among the Asháninka include lists of their numerous instruments: two-headed monkey-skin drums, five to eight-tube panpipes, bone flageolets, six-hole longitudinal flutes, two-hole transverse flutes, and musical bows.


Most Asháninka still live by fishing, hunting, and cultivating small plots of land. Early observers characterized the Asháninka as hunters rather than agriculturists because most males spent much of their working time hunting. Though meat is indeed the main source of protein and the frequent movement of the early settlements was related to the depletion of local game supplies, most of a family's food comes from cultivated plants. Through the slash-and-burn method they grow yucca, plantain, peanuts, sweet potatoes, and sugarcane. Colonization brought extensive coffee, cacao, rice, and coca plantations to some areas. They also grow medicinal herbs and barbasco, which is used for fishing. When possible, the Asháninka cultivate plots of land along the riverbanks, but in violent circumstances they move to the hilltops. Selling their produce provides some income. Asháninka communities are self-suffi-cient, and most economic activities are carried out collectively. The product is divided among the families. There is also a long tradition of trade between tribes.


The Asháninka, since before the arrival of the Europeans, made some objects that seem to indicate the practice of some kind of sport or games, such as humming tops, bull-roarers, and maize-leaf balls. In tune with their status as warriors, they also practiced wrestling. In modern times, those who live side-by-side with settlers take part in the spectator sport culture. Soccer is Peru's favorite sport, and it is played even in the most remote regions.


Contact with Western civilization has brought to some communities new forms of recreation. Radio and television have joined more traditional forms of entertainment, such as storytelling, singing, and dancing. Actually, a number of Asháninka did more than watch: in Werner Herzog's film Fitzcarraldo (1982), the majority of extras were Asháninka men. In remote areas, where life continues to be quite similar to the past, the division between work or ceremonies and recreational time is not as sharp: there is a lot of work to do, but because many activities are carried out collectively, they also offer a chance for social intercourse.


The Asháninka traditionally are a seminomadic tribe, and as such their material culture is minimal. But, the few objects they possess are manufactured with great skill and are artistically decorated. One of their most characteristic designs is that of a heavy line outlined by one or two fine lines. Similar designs, consisting of complex angular, geometric patterns drawn in rectangular panels, adorn most objects, from pots and beadwork to musical instruments and clothes. The Asháninka make the fabric for their typical costume, the chusma. They use wild cotton and two different kinds of frames to weave: one for small bands, and a vertical loom for large pieces of cloth. With gynerium stalks, the Asháninka make twined telescope baskets. They also make sieves and mats. Some containers are made of calabashes. Their plates are made of clay and have red designs.


The Asháninka traditional way of life is a casualty of the war between the national army and guerrilla groups. The mountain area of the Asháninka's forest territory was the birthplace of the rebel Shining Path. The Asháninka and other Indian peoples of the region have tried to remain outside of the conflict between the national army and the guerrillas but have often been its victims.

During the 1980s and 1990s the internal conflict in Peru led by the Maoist group Shining Path provoked massive displacement and death among its inhabitants. These years were especially hard for the Asháninka since the Shining Path gave just two options to the Asháninka population: to join their struggle against the national government or become a slave. In this precarious scenario the indigenous population was unable to fish and hunt due to the threat posed by armed groups in the forest. As corollary, many Asháninka were reduced to the status of refugees in their own land, and those who have been able to remain in their villages have seen their social structure severely affected by political violence.

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 10,000 Asháninka were displaced, 6,000 Asháninka died, and 5,000 Asháninka were taken captive by the Shining Path during this time, and 30 to 40 Asháninka communities disappeared. Furthermore, the coca that has been grown in the area for centuries and used since ancestral times for its medicinal qualities has been turned into cocaine in the hands of the Whites, a dangerous and profitable drug that attracts outsiders interested in the illegal trade. Asháninka peoples, together with other indigenous tribes from the region, have formed pressure groups and with the help of international organizations demand justice and defend their human rights. There is still a long way to go before they can also secure Indian rights and be free to conduct their own way of life. In the mid-2000s, the Asháninka gained legal title to a portion of their ancestral lands.


The phases of Asháninka women's reproductive life cycle are based on ritual and myth, with great significance placed on the transition from childhood to young adulthood. The Asháninka mark this transition with a series of initiation rites that recognize not only physical changes in the woman, but also the expectation that she will now assume a new set of roles and responsibilities within the community. The average age of marriage for women is between 15 and 19, but it is not uncommon for girls as young as 12 to be married shortly following their first menstrual cycle.

The most pressing health problems for women are early marriage and pregnancy, sexual violence (including marital rape), high number of children, and internal pains and hemorrhaging. Among the Asháninka, women's sexuality is understood in terms of men's needs and expectations. Women "please" men and provide them with children, with the fear that if they fail to do so, they will be abandoned. Women put their desired number of children at four or five, but given difficulties associated with contraception and men's desire for large families, the average number of children per woman is seven or eight.

Violence against women is both physical and psychological, a byproduct of the power imbalance in married couples. Men decide how many children women will have and often coerce women into sexual relations or accuse them of infidelity if they resist sexual advances. Women internalize this behavior as legitimate given their subordinated roles in the social structure of the communities.


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—revised by V. Salles-Reese, C. Vergara