Indigenous People Of The Amazon

When Columbus discovered America historians say that there were ten million Indians living in the Amazonia rainforest. Today there are less than 200,000 divided into 200 indigenous groups speaking 180 different languages. The rainforest remained almost untouched by western culture until the first half of the last century. That is when I moved my family to the Peruvian jungle in 1954 to live and work with the Aguaruna Indians. We raised our four children with a tribe of Jivaro Indians which at that time were as primitive as they had ever been in the thousands of years of their existence.

Jivaro Indians are divided into four tribes. Two tribes, the Waorani and Shuar, are in Ecuador and the Aguaruna and Huambisa inhabit the tropical forest of Peru. Those four tribes are the only cultures in the entire world who practiced the custom of shrinking human heads. My neighbors were headhunters.

I don't suppose there is another person living today, besides me, who has ever seen a shrunken head hanging from the thatched ceiling of an Indian home. That macabre practice was outlawed in the early part of the 20th century. The law did not forbid the tribe from taking heads. It was designed to stop the traffic in shrunken heads. Laws passed by the legislature in Peru or Ecuador did not apply to the Jivaro Indians and did not curb the demand.

In 1956 museums were paying upwards of $1000 in Lima for a legitimate shrunken head. The going price in my neighborhood was $100 - the value of a new shotgun. That was a fabulous sum for the Indians. A tsantsa was worth too much to keep it hanging from the ceiling in their house.

In the jungle there was no law against killing your enemies. There was no law against killing five missionaries on the banks of the Curaray River in Ecuador. And there was no law against our Indians killing my family on the banks of the Marañon River in Peru. Me and my family were intruders and my neighbors had every right to kill us for the slightest provocation. I lived every day with that realization.

Murder was the Indian's way of righting wrongs and dealing with their enemies in a culture where there were no laws, no courts, no judges, no police and no jails. Killing served a purpose in that indigenous culture. Most Aguaruna men had seven or eight wives and a family would soon have forty or fifty babies. They weren't going to raise all those kids. The Aguaruna fathers chose which children would live much like a farmer culls his chickens and keeps only the best of his brood. In the years I lived with the Aguaruna I never saw a blind, a deaf, a dumb, a crippled or a retarded Aguaruna. Why? Because babies who were born with disabilities or abnormalities were murdered. The mother never took those children home from the birthing site.

I never met a Waorani Indian or anyone from most of the other 200 tribes in the Amazon. But I lived with the Aguaruna tribe and learned how they lived untouched by civilization and uncontrolled by civil law. If you met an Aguaruna Indian today he would be insulted if you told him his grandfather was a headhunter and a polygamist who had killed several of his own children. I know differently. I have been in the homes of several grandfathers like I have described. I could call some of them by name.

The entire population of the Amazon basin today has been expanded into three groups: Indigenous, Mestizo and Developers. In future articles I want you to see how the Peruvian indigenous Indians are faring today and how they are coping with encroaching civilization. The jungle I visited recently is far different from the jungle I lived in nearly sixty years ago.

Harry Flinner is a retired missionary of the Church of the Nazarene who spent several years living and working with the Aguaruna tribe of Jivaro Indians in the Peruvian Amazon. He established his mission on the Marañon River in the early 1950s when the Amazon rainforest was virtually untouched by civilization.
Harry Flinner is a graduate of Asbury University, The Alliance Graduate School of Missions and BIOLA School of Missionary Medicine. He has done graduate work in Linguistics and Anthropology at the University of Oklahoma and the University of Kentucky.

My website is not political. I have no cause to defend.
I simply want to inform and stimulate interest in Amazonia