5 ancient tribes of the Amazon with unique and unexplored cultures

It’s sad that when you think of Amazon, you think of the little brown parcels left in your lobby.

Not the world’s most biodiverse ecosystem; home to 10% of the world’s species population, 400 billion trees (four times the number of stars in our galaxy), and over 400 different tribes.

The fact that such a rich and varied landscape, nicknamed ‘Lungs of the Earth’ for producing 20% of the world’s oxygen, is under such threat from deforestation remains a devastating fact.

However, deforestation is not the only impact facing the estimated 400 remaining Amazonian tribes.

Recent surges in illegal gold mining have also led to the expulsion of many of these tribes. 

Additionally, the estimated 100 isolated groups who have no contact with the outside world are becoming ever more at risk as their home and habitat is destroyed. 

An increase in tribe-centric tourism and ‘human safaris’ venture ever closer – bringing with them the risk of exposure to diseases to which these people have no natural immunity.

The beauty of many of these no-contact tribes is that much of their culture remains a mystery. 

And this is as it should be.

But what of the tribes who we do know about?

What more can we learn about the ancient practices and cultures of these ancient communities?

1) Pirahã

As of today, the Pirahã tribe consists of around 400 individuals who reside mainly along the Maici River and are the sole survivors of the Mura people.

They do not refer to themselves as Pirahã but instead as ‘Híaitíihi’, which translates to something similar to ‘the straight ones’, and outsiders as ‘Xaói’, which means bent.

Outsider languages are also referred to as ‘crooked head’ – deeming all other forms of dialogue playfully inferior.

The knowledge we have regarding the Pirahã is down to Daniel Everett, who went as a missionary to live with the tribe in the 1970s in an attempt to convert them to Christianity.

However, he left having rejected his own faith and consequently lost his own family, but learned much about their culture and language.

This language is based on only 8 consonants and 3 vowels combined with whistling and humming to build a far more complex language.  

Whilst still a hunter-gatherer tribe, the Pirahã have rejected missionary and governmental intervention and maintain their own way of farming.

They subside largely off meat caught daily and having ignored methods of smoking or salting meat to preserve it for longer.

One of the most predominant values of Pirahã culture is that of no coercion; telling other people what to do, even children, is not permitted.

Although the Pirahã reject much of the outside world, they do tend to wear clothes purchased from traders. 

The men are often clad in t-shirts and shorts, the women in hand-sewn cotton dresses.

2) Kayapo/Caiapó

Inhabiting vast areas of land along the Xingu River, the Kayapo are also sometimes nicknamed the ‘Xingu’ tribe and number around 8,000 people across 46 villages.

‘Kayapo’ itself means “those who look like monkeys”, likely based on tribe rituals whereby the men wear monkey masks.

The Kayapo are known for their intricate body painting, believing that their ancestors learned their social skills from the insect world.

Thus, they paint themselves to represent these creatures and communicate better with these omnipresent Spirits.

The men often cover themselves in black paint to better blend into the forest when hunting.

Women typically also shave their hair into a distinctive V shape.

Older generations wear disks in their lower lips or lip plates, although this is a tradition which is less common amongst younger Kayapo men. 

The usage of lip plates remains unclear but is thought to have signified wealth or social importance.

3) Wayampi/Wayãpi/Waiapi

With a population of around 1,000, many of the Wayampi people have made contact with the outside world first in 1973.

Yet, there remain two tribes who live in complete isolation and reject even other Wayampi tribes in the area.

They practice a largely hunter-gatherer lifestyle and are known for their home brewed cassava beer, ‘caxiri’.

They believe their existence to be owed to a melody played by a divine creator named Jane Jara, who played a song upon a flute which led to the creation of the Wayampi people.

Those who have breached contact with the outside world fight fiercely to protect their homeland after recent proposals that they be moved to allow for mining within their legal territory.

The conflict with the outside world began in 1973 when the Brazilian government started a highway building project; abandoned 3 years later. 

Despite never reaching completion, the roadwork still did immense damage to this ancient tribe as outsiders brought with them diseases such as measles to which the tribe had no natural immunity.

4) Yanomami/Yanomama/Yąnomamö

The largest Indigenous territory in Brazil is that of the Yanomami.

Today, around 32,000 individuals across 200 – 250 villages spread across the forest closest to the Orinoco River basin, on the border of Venezuela.

‘Yanos’ or ‘shabonos’ are the names of the large, circular and communal houses with an open center in which the Yanomami people sleep, housing up to 400 people. 

These buildings are also used for other activities such as feasts and games.

Equality is one of the strongest beliefs and principles of the Yanomami people. 

Each community is independent and they do not recognize any form of ‘chief’ or governing individual.

Instead, tribal decisions are made through debates and consensus which involve the entire tribe.

Additionally, as is common in many Amazonian tribes, the men hunt whilst the women farm. 

They grow around 60 different variations of crops, which accounts for 80% of their food. 

The remaining percentage is hunted game, although it is also a common practice that men do not eat what they kill but instead share it out with family and friends – receiving meat from another hunter in return

Their prey are often targeted with spears and arrows laced with ‘curare’, a poisonous plant extract.

The Yanomami people believe that every rock, every tree, every creature has a spirit, known as a ‘xapiripë’.

These spirits do not always have the best intentions and can be malicious and cause curses and illnesses.

This is where the role of the shaman comes in, who works to control the spirits by inhaling hallucinogenic substances called ‘yakoana’ or ‘ebene’ and interacting with the spirits in their visions.

5) Ticuna/Tikuna/Maguta

With an estimated total population of 65,000, the Ticuna are spread across the 50 – 150 communities across Brazil, Colombia and Peru.

The separate clans are typically named after certain birds, mammals, plants and insects. 

They cultivate primarily native species such as yam and sugarcane, with each family possessing a swidden (a rice-paddy type area for crop growth).

Working collectively, the Ticuna come together to work their agricultural tasks when needed. 

This unity is termed the ‘ajuri

During an ajuri, the owner of a swidden using the help of his neighbors will provide participants with ‘pajuaru’; a fermented drink made from cassava.

The Ticuna are perhaps most known for their ceremonial masks, headdresses and ornaments,  made from bark-cloth and colored used vegetable dyes.

Although shamanism is increasingly less prevalent throughout the tribes, these masks are worn by shamans who communicate with spirits through hallucinogenic induced ceremonies.

These spiritual beliefs surround Ta’e, the creator god, recognized by the Ticuna people as the entity who gifts them with their souls, alongside Yo’i and Ip as mythical heroes who work to protect the world from demons.

Additionally, the Pelazón ritual remains present in many Ticuna communities. 

Following this tradition, a young girl who experiences her first menstrual cycle will isolate herself from everyone bar her mother or aunts. 

She will then focus on learning about future responsibilities and follow a rigid diet to protect herself from spirits of the jungle who will try to contact her during this period.

The girl will remain in isolation from anywhere between 1 – 6 months, until the family has gathered enough meat and masata (a fermented drink made from cassava) to provide guests attending the Pelazón ceremony.

The ceremony concludes with the hair being cut off and her then being bathed and cleansed.

Picture of Liv Walde

Liv Walde

London-based writer with big thoughts, big dreams, and a passion for helping others.

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