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The Huaorani of Ecuador Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 26th, 2019


The Huaorani or Waorani is a group of indigenous Amerindians living in the Amazon rainforest and specifically in Ecuador. This community has very unique characteristics from other South American tribes. Besides speaking a totally different language, these people have isolated themselves from other communities by living in the Amazon forest.

The number of Huaoranis who speak the language fluently does not exceed 4,000 (Ziegler-Otero, 2007, p.33).They are not even familiar with the normal culture of Ecuador due to this seclusion. Their ancestral land is between Napo and Curaray rivers, a land that has been associated by logging and oil trapping (Lu, 2010).

When some forest areas are cleared, the community will still look for other areas to embrace their lifestyle. The Huaorani community has strongly protected its culture from settlers and other indigenous tribes. This community comprises of four groups namely the Onamenane, the Tagaeri, the Huinatare and the Taromenane.

Initially, Huaorani people were hunters and gathers who resided in the Amazon forest hunting wild animals as a form of subsistence. The practice however, changed gradually due to technological influence and interaction. Currently, these people live in the Amazon forest as their permanent settlement.

They are sort of semi-nomadic horticulturalist community though they could be almost mistaken for foragers since they hunt animals and gather fruits and berries. However, they plant food crops wherever they go and do not employ modern agricultural techniques as they live far from the land.

With the recent intrusions, the impact of the primary mode of subsistence on Huaorani way of life may be so strong that the community finds it difficult to adjust culturally according to the changes being encountered. Therefore, this paper is focused on investigating the impact of semi-nomadic horticultural practices on key aspects of culture including kinship, social organization, gender relation and beliefs as well as values.


One of the things Huaorani people consider most important is family life. A family will comprise of several groups of kin and ultimately grows when other people join the family. Anyone wishing to join a group is allowed but must build their own houses as they cannot live with the original land owners in the same house. These new comers either could be refugees from other villages or just members from other Huaorani communities joined by marriage.

A Huaorani kinship consists of a father, mother, children, spouses and grandchildren (Rival, 2002). In such an organization, there is a wide variety of help for the day to day chores that is defined according to the ability and position of the family member. The sharing of daily chores has resulted in families having many children. The more children they have in a family, the more help they get for daily responsibilities.

However, Huaorani is an individualistic community and each member of a group has some sense of autonomy. Every family member has a role to play in helping the family and laziness is not encouraged in fulfilling family chores. Even the children know what they should do or where they should help.

Semi-nomadic horticultural practices have influenced the view of Huaorani kinship in a very different way. Relationships are always envisaged from ego’s viewpoint by reversing of nonreciprocal kin terms.

As Rival (2002) observed, when a mature Huaorani is asked “Is A your child” the answer will be “I am the mother of A”, and not “A is my child”. In addition, this kinship system encourages diverse interpretations such that cross-cousin marriages are usually practiced (this practice is also observed in other nomadic Latin communities).

Even the people value such marriages more than those from distance villages that have no relation to the former. The people do not consider any kin relation between members of different groups. However, they consider kinship relation with those living in the same village despite lack of blood connection.

Rival (2002) affirms that cognates and consanguine are defined in terms of spatial proximity rather than genealogical proximity (p.115). Indeed, someone as close as a real sister is omitted if living in other village and has not been in contact for a long period of time. Usually, links between nonresident kin are reestablished to contract marriage alliance (Riva, 2002, p.116).Therefore, it can be concluded that the potential kin are simultaneously the potential marriage affine.

Social organization

Nanicabo or extended family unit is the fundamental unit in the Huaorani social organization of production and is impacted greatly by semi-nomadic horticultural practice (Ziegler-Otero, 2007, p.38). Food, which is acquired by any member of the family, must be distributed to all members of the Nanicabo before any is availed to members of other families.

Hunting groups basically start in a single family, though others often join the party as it departs, predominantly in the more geographic dense villages particularly around schools. Within the Nanicabo duties are jointly performed and all goods including food are shared. Labor is divided according to gender where men are responsible for hunting and women take responsibility of gathering, gardening, cooking and child care.

Regarding to decision making and social organization, the culture of Huaorani can be considered as highly individualistic and independent. Earlier before the missionaries came the community lived in small autonomous kin groups which made collective contribution to their economic activities.

Within these kin groups there were no formal councils and headmen. Their hunting and gathering was a collective responsibility that demanded little directives or authorization. Even within Nanicabo and households, there was no overall power of persuasion beyond the individual. There were limited opportunities between the various groups to engage in shared decision making as well as conflict resolution due to hostility or warfare (Lu, 2010).

Up to date, the individualistic pattern lingers among the sedentary communities which lack elaborate processes of making decisions. The social organization of the community is leaderless and decentralized, having few social obligations and limits on individual autonomy. Devoid of institutions to confer authority or impose social control, there are no ways of containing conflicts or solving disputes. In case of a conflict or someone feels offended the only options are for the parties to separate or let the grudge go.

Moreover, this lack of institutions to impose social control reflects lack of political structure to discourage individuals to exploit short-term advantages whenever a source opportunity arises. Therefore, decision making occurs at the Nanicabo or individual level, with little or no coordination at bigger scales and few contrivances to settle conflicts.

The reason could be that the people had been made self-reliant by the practices of hunting and gathering which required individual contribution to solve the problems associated. Within the community, the only social organization existing in a larger scale is the consequence of school influence, and is tolerable though not treated seriously by the people. Such influence could be considered as a key driver for social change but has evidently indicated little effect on the community’s social organization.

Semi-nomadic horticultural practice has made the Huaorani people to have abundant resources. They are isolated and free to do anything they want. Most important is that the land is free and thus no land ownership. The people can gather or hunt anywhere and can build dwellings wherever they want. Nevertheless, social boundaries exist between various Huaorani groups. Initially, the community kinship groups lived together in small populations where they did everything together.

This created a very strong culture of sharing among the kinship groups. But, with the growing population a small number of people share the day to day responsibilities throughout the community. There is still that spirit of sharing among those living in proximity.

Among the various groups within the Huaorani community, there is little sharing and the groups tend to live separate ways. With such scarce sharing the groups have tended to avoid offending one another deliberately. Thus, the few hostilities witnessed have not been as fierce as expected for the groups (Lu, 2010, p.14).

It can be argued that the avoidance of such hostility is triggered by the perception of threatening their livelihoods which is dependent on the harmony the people live in their isolated life. Nonetheless, there exist social boundaries between different groups and are certainly suspicious of attack. As a result, the groups tend to live far from each other. There is no doubt that each group attempts to protect their own territories by acquiring new lands deep in the forest rather than through force.

For instance, the naming of streams after different people is an indication of social boundary (Lu, 2001). If a person discovered a new resource such as a waterway when walking deep through the forest, this finding will be taken to the group. The word would spread and the resource will eventually be named after the discoverer, and should be claimed by the village that he hails from. The village will let outsiders know about the finding and cannot partake of the resource.

Reflecting on another side of the Huaorani community, it is true that they completely change during ceremonies. There is no sign of hostility and the people become warm and inviting. The drinking parties create friendship even beyond the social boundaries. In case one of the groups is in conflict with another, the festival is considered as the time to restore harmony. Therefore, the hostility will cease between the groups and both can merry together.

Union between couple also occurs during these festivals. The community considers marriage to be sacred and the couple is expected to observe upright morals throughout. In that manner, the social organization of the community relate to the aspects that are centered on the semi-nomadic way of life.

Gender relations

The semi-nomadic horticultural practices by the Huaorani community resulted in the definition of major tasks for women and men. As a result, there is no assessment of greater worth or value on individual sex. The community has no strict sex roles but generally speaking Huaorani men provide their families with meat, cut down big trees for new farming lands and engage in warfare. Mostly, men hunt with spears and sometimes with blowguns which are made collectively by men and women.

Men usually make the blow gun while women make the darts. Women perform most of the agricultural activities such as planting, weeding and harvesting as well as preparing meals and taking care of the young ones. Although this happens rarely women may also engage in hunting and men may perform other agricultural task than just cutting trees. Indeed, they do different things so as to equal out the roles. Huaorani lives matrilogically, meaning that the couple lives with their parents (Lu, 2001).

Nonetheless, both women and men attend ceremonies especially the famous dancing marriage ceremonies. Most of these ceremonies are impacted by the knowledge of the people about the nature. For example, the ceremony of human birds is associated with the knowledge about birds’ way of life and migration when the food is gone. In fact, the life of birds is symbolic to such festivals which sometimes also lead to marriage.

Men and women decorate with body paints, jewelry, feathers and other ornaments (Lu, 2001). While the men become aggressive during the ceremonies, women are expected to hang out with each other. In some ceremonies, both women and men may dance together or sing the same songs yet they must avoid each other. Sometimes, couples, brothers, sisters and cousins do not talk or look each other. This means that the social roles and presentation must reflect the gender variation defined in semi-nomadic horticultural practices.

Beliefs and values

The semi-nomadic, horticultural mode of subsistence of the Huaorani community has led to a belief system that affirms the whole world to have once been a forest. Thus, the people consider the forests as their real dwelling place while the rest of the world is very unsafe to them.

Therefore, this society lives in isolation within the forest setting. According to their beliefs, living in the forest offers protection from attacks from other communities such as witchcraft. Like most of the hunters and gatherers, the rivers and forests form an integral aspect in the lives of the Huaorani people.

According to cultural anthropologists like Lu (2001) who have studied the community asserts that plants and animals consistent with the belief system of the society have both spiritual and physical existence. Raymond (2006) note that the Huaorani people have a respect for animals despite them being hunters because they believe that people return to earth in form of animals after death and in particular as termites.

The people hunt wild animals for food security but still carry the belief that the spirits of the killed animals can harm the people and must be placated. During their hunting scenes, they regard snake and jaguars in a special way. The reason is that they consider snakes to have the optimal evil power while the jaguar has the most magnificent plunderer.

Through extensive gathering, the Huaorani people possess astounding knowledge regarding the medicinal and botanical value of plant with the forest. Thus, they take plants to be part of their lives and indicate their characteristics.

As noted before the practice of staying completely isolated in the forest has made Huaorani people to believe that the forest is the sole protector from predators and animals. Accompanied by strong influence of nature, the people consider some animals and plants to be sacred. There are certain plants and animals that are not hunted due to their sacred positions in the minds of the people (Raymond, 2006).

For instance, the warbler which is a small bird known to migrate to the Amazon forest is considered as to bring blessing to the people. The jaguar and eagle are also considered sacred animals because it is believed that people came about after the two animals mated. Indeed, the hunting and gathering form of subsisted has oriented much of the community beliefs to plants and animals.


The impact of semi-nomadic horticultural practice on the culture of Huaorani is evidently very strong and may require an immeasurable effort by the people in order to accommodate the changes expected. Their kinship point of view is dictated by their nomadic life such that their practices on some aspects such as marriage would seem absurd in other cultural settings. Their social organization is centered on the forest life of hunting and gathering to the point of deriving a social interaction that is only fit for the isolated life of the forest.

The gender relation of the Huaorani is defined by the roles and responsibilities of both women and men as pertaining to semi-nomadic horticultural life. The beliefs and values of the people have entirely been characterized by animals and plants that have been learnt through the forest life. While any intrusion may compel the people to change their culture, it will evidently be difficult for the Huaorani people.


Lu, F. (2010). Patterns of indigenous resilience in the Amazon: a case study of Huaorani hunting in Ecuador. Journal of Ecological Anthropology, Vol.14 (1), p.5-21.

Lu, F. E. (2001).The common property regime of the Huaorani Indians of Ecuador: Implications and challenges to conservation. Human Ecology, Vol. 29 (4), p. 425-447.

Raymond, B. H. (2006). Subsistence modes of the Huaorani. American Indian Culture Research Journal, Vol.112 (8), p. 86-92.

Rival, L. M. (2002). Trekking through history: the Huaorani of Amazonian Ecuador. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Ziegler-Otero, L. (2007). Resistance in an Amazonian community: Huaorani organizing against the global economy. Oxford, UK: Berghahn Books.

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