© Jim Belote and Linda S. Belote 1999
A Shuar man in the Oriente
Shuar in canoe on Yacuambi River, 1963

Beginning about one hundred years ago, the Saraguros began to enter the tropical forest lowlands of the Yacuambi River valley (in what is now the province of Zamora-Chinchipe) fifty and more kilometers to the east of the town of Saraguro (see Map 3:f). Exactly how and why the Saraguros began to enter this area is not well known. At the time a few other highland Ecuadorians (and perhaps, Colombians) were beginning to enter the area in search of "chinchona" (quinine bark, which comes from trees native to the high forests, and had international importance as an important remedy for malaria). Other Ecuadorians were working their way down a páramo tributary of the Río Yacuambi (the Río Shingata) in a search for gold. Perhaps Saraguros were among them, working as hired helpers or as independent operators. At any rate, it was discovered that if some of the forest were cleared (and this is said to have happened in the Tignas area [Map 3:f]) it could be turned into excellent pasturage. With that discovery (if not before) Saraguros began to enter the Yacuambi Valley in large numbers, claiming land and clearing it for pasture (Belote 1984/1998).

The Yacuambi Valley was not an empty frontier when the Saraguros and others from the highlands began to enter it a century ago. It was a part of the traditional territory of the people known as the Shuar (and called then by the Saraguros and other Ecuadorians, the Jívaro). The Shuar had a (deserved) reputation as fierce warriors and defenders of their land, and as a people who hunted heads of human enemies--and then shrank them. In fact, three-hundred years previously, the Shuar revolted against the Spaniards who had invaded their territory in a mad hunt for gold. Towns and small cities had been established by the Spaniards in Shuar territory. Andean people, and even slaves from Africa, were set to work in mining operations. But when the Spaniards tried to subjugate the Shuar and put them to work, they would no longer tolerate the invasion of their lands. Thus the revolt. The Shuar revolt was so successful that most of the Spanish settlements were destroyed, and most of the Spaniards and their non-Shuar laborers were either killed or driven out of Shuar territory (Harner 1984/1994, Conde 1981).

For nearly three hundred years most Shuar territory (and certainly the area around the Yacuambi valley) remained almost totally isolated from the adjacent Ecuadorian highlands. Trails which had been established fell out of use, were overgrown, and disappeared. The steep, wet terrain, and its dense cover of almost impenetrable cloud forest in the higher elevations, apparently precluded even casual contact between the highlands and the tropical forest below. Only with the search for chinchona and the renewed hunt for gold one-hundred years ago was this cloud forest barrier breached again in the Yacuambi valley area.

When the Saraguros first entered the Yacuambi valley they encoundered little resistance from the Shuar. In the first place, the Shuar of the area appeared to tolerate the arrival of newcomers because trade would be facilitated--they could now more directly obtain iron and steel tools and weapons. In the second place, most Saraguro (and other) colonists first settled in areas that had been hunting, rather than residential, territories of the Shuar. The Shuar did attempt to control the Saraguro frontier by insisting that Saraguros settle together, in one area, rather than scattered about over the entire valley. In this way, only a small hunting territory would be disturbed (Belote 1984/1998).

As time went by and more settlers entered the Yacuambi valley, Shuar control over it was gradually reduced, without much, if any, armed conflict occurring. Shuar control was further reduced with the establishment of a Franciscan mission in what became the town of San José de Yacuambi (also known as "28 de Mayo"). A support base for the mission was established by the Franciscans in the town of Saraguro. The Franciscans recruited Saraguros to help construct, maintain and supply the mission (Conde 1981). This further encouraged Saraguro entry.

As the Franciscans gained power in the area they successfully forced many Shuar children to leave their families and attend a Franciscan boarding school in Yacuambi for up to six years. Rather than revolt as they had in the past, Yacuambi Shuar unable to tolerate this abuse tended to retreat to more remote areas in the Yacuambi valley, or even out of the valley, which had not yet been incorporated into the Franciscan and highlander dominated sphere of influence and control (Belote 1984/1998).

In the first part of this century, when the Saraguros were establishing their presence in the Yacuambi valley, the Shuar were slash-and-burn horticulturalists whose chief crop was manioc grown in gardens carefully tended by women. Manioc was not only eaten but also processed into a fermented alcoholic drink ("jamanchi") consumed in large quantities, especially by men. The Shuar raised few animals, and thus depended on hunting (using blowguns with poison darts for birds and small mammals, lances and firearms for larger animals) and fishing (using fish poison) as major sources of protein. In areas where competition for land use increased with the arrival of more colonists from the highlands (hunting and fishing being most effected), some Shuar moved to more remote areas while others sought other adaptations such as becoming cattle-raisers themselves.

Traditionally the Shuar lived in isolated houses (sometimes two or three were near each other), along or near rivers navigable by dugout canoe (in most Shuar territory rivers are fast moving, shallow, and have rocky bottoms; canoes are thus propelled by polling rather than with paddles). Shuar homes (or "Jivarías", as they were called then by outsiders) were single room structures (divided into men's and women's spaces), elliptical in outline, with thatched roofs and chonta-pole walls. Each generally contained a nuclear family, or a limited extension thereof. Some Shuar men had more than one wife. After a number of years, houses would be moved to new locations, usually to be closer to fish and game resources which had declined in the previous area of settlement.

Generally there were no formal political structures among the Shuar; each household was relatively independent. However, powerful individuals were available to take temporary leadership positions, most especially as war leaders, or leaders of revenge raids, or as experts in various forms of shamanic practice. By the 1960s, however, with increasing pressure on their territory on the part of colonists, the Shuar, with the help of Salesian (Catholic) missions to the north of the Yacuambi area, began to organize to better defend their interests. A result was the creation of the Shuar Federation, the first powerful indigenous organization in Ecuador (Harner 1984/1994, Salazar 1981), and a model followed by other native groups in the country, including the Saraguros.

The Shuar were not only known as warriors and head-shrinkers, but also for the large proportion of adult males who were shamans. Shamanic practices were used to cure "natural" human ailments, to cause enemies to suffer ailments or accidents, and to provide remedy to problems caused by enemy shamanic practice. Hallucinogens of various kinds were used by Shuar shamans and others. According to Harner (1984/1994) hallucinogens were sometimes given to hunting dogs and misbehaving children so that they could better perceive the "real world" and therefore understand better how to operate in "this world."

The following is a paraphrased (and translated) account of the Yacuambi River Shuar by a Saraguro friend, Antonio Guamán (now deceased) given to me in the late 1960s when he was about 45 years old. Antonio spent much of his life in the Oriente, successfully claiming and working land in many locations from the Yacuambi river region, to the Chicaña valley, to the valley of the Río Nangaritza.

My grandfather took Mariano, a Jívaro [in the 1960s Saraguros referred to the Shuar as "Jívaros"] from Yacuambi, to live in Tuncarta for a while. Once we took Mariano to the coast, near Machala. He was not dressed as a Jívaro, but more or less as a "blanco" ["white"]. One day he got in a canoe and started down the river. The local people saw him going away down stream and laughed, saying that he would not know what to do and would get carried away by the current. Shortly, however, he started to pole back upstream and was going faster than anybody had ever seen one person go. They were all surprised. They did not know he was a Jívaro. Jívaros are real good with canoes.

Although Mariano had lived in the outside for a while he was still a real Jívaro. He really enjoyed killing people. He took many heads. He was very smart about fighting. One time another group of Jívaros agreed to meet him at a beach below Yacuambi. But he suspected that they were just setting a trap for him so he went early with his men and went to a place below the agreed-upon spot. When the other Jívaros came they were ambushed and all killed.

The last killing in the Yacuambi area was about fifteen years ago [the early 1950s]. The killing I told you about happened when I was a child living in the area. The Jívaros never killed any whites or Saraguros in the Yacuambi area although they were angry at times, claiming that the land was theirs.

They never really lived in the areas that the Saraguros occupied [in the early years] until after the Saraguros began to come. But they did hunt in the area and were resentful that the Saraguros were clearing the land and ruining the hunting. Sometimes they stole things or hit people, but they never killed anyoine except other Jívaros. Actually most of them were friendly with the Saraguros. But they never married any of us. Mariano had two wives. Some Jívaros, men and women, had married whites.

Now they are more civilized than before. But there are still a few of the old ones in theYacuambi area who still cling to the old ways. One of Mariano's sons is called "doctor" [he was a well know shaman with a clientele from highland southern Ecuador] He thinks he knows how to cure, and many of the Jívaros, who are simple people, believe that he really can. In one of his cures he takes the juice of the boiled leaves of "natema" [Banisteriopsis sp.--also commonly known as "ayahuasca"] and this way claims to find out what is wrong and can cure it. He really can't, of course, but the people think he can.

The Jívaros live on hunting and fishing. Oh, they plant things, but they really like to hunt and fish. They killed off most of the fish with "barbasco" [a vine, which when mashed by pounding with rocks, yields a juice which is poisonous to fish]. They have also killed off most of the animals in the forest. They are good hunters and hunt all the time so now there is nothing much left but birds.

They don't make their own blow-guns. The blow-guns are made by other Jívaros in another place and sold to the Yacuambi Jívaros.

They really can walk quietly in the forest, even off the trail. One time I went with them. They went through the brush like dogs, quickly and without any noise. I walked very slowly and tried not to make any noise, but kept stepping on twigs and things. It was embarrasing. They asked my why I was making so much noise and said that I would scare all the animals.

They are very good hunters. They kill monkeys and eat them too. I ate some monkey once; it is not too bad. They eat worms. Those are not too bad either. They make "chicha" [a fermented drink] from manioc. They don't chew it here. I have heard about chewing the manioc--the old women do it. They mash it. I have had some. I wouldn't drink any if they had chewed it--that would not be any good. [A couple of years later Antonio took me to visit a Shuar household in the Chicaña valley. There we drank a tasty brew that had, in fact, been prepared by mastication.]

There used to be a lot of wild pigs in the area. They went around in large bands, up to two hundred of them in one band. They made a lot of noise. They clashed their teeth and made a lot of other noises. You could hear them a long way away. They were dangerous too. Once some Saraguros ran into a bunch and thought they would get some meat. They only had machetes. The pigs attacked them. They would swing their machetes one way and a pig would come from the other direction. The Saraguros were so excited they could not even talk. Finally the pigs went away. There was a lot of blood around but they did not get even one.

The Jívaros loved to get those pigs. Sometimes they would get as many as ten out of a band. Then they would eat as much as they could when they got home, then go to bed. In the middle of the night they would get up and have some more. They would go to bed again, and later in the night get up another time for another feast of pig meat. This might go on until they had finished all the meat.

I still have some Jívaro friends. They live down the river. I got the "barbasco" and "natema" from them. Sometimes they come here to visit and we get drunk on "guarapo" [fermented sugar cane juice]. They are good people. They always used to yell when they got to a house so the people would know they were coming [to visit, not to attack]. Maybe that's why we yell here in Yacuambi when we are walking down a trail by some houses. It's a custom here but not in the "sierra." I don't know ...


Belote, J., CHANGING ADAPTIVE STRATEGIES AMONG THE SARAGUROS OF SOUTHERN ECUADOR, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Illinois, 1984 (published in Spanish as LOS SARAGUROS DEL SUR DEL ECUADOR, Abya-Yala, Quito, 1998).

Conde, P. Tomás O.F.M., LOS YAGUARZONGOS: HISTORIA DE LOS SHUAR DE ZAMORA, Ediciones Mundo Shuar, 1981 (written in the 1930s).

Harner, Michael J., THE JÍVARO: PEOPLE OF THE SACRED WATERFALLS, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1984 (published in Spanish as SHUAR: PUEBLO DE LAS CASCADAS SAGRADAS, Abya-Yala, Quito, 1994).

Salazar, Ernesto, The Federación Shuar and the Colonization Frontier, pp. 589-613 in CULTURAL TRANSFORMATIONS AND ETHNICITY IN MODERN ECUADOR, Norman E. Whitten, ed., University of Illinois Press, 1981.

For more bibliographical references on the Shuar click here.


Page Coordinators: Jim Belote and Linda Belote

Page last modified November 8, 1999