Just as the Amazon is a vast and vibrant region, so too are its indigenous cultures.
In the current age of rapid change, the tribes of the Amazon have been forced to relocate from their ancient homes and habitats.
Many groups descended from prehistoric populations still exist in remote areas in Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia where they conduct traditional practices that echo back through time.
Those who choose to live close to people often maintain a deep connection with their land as well as an awareness of how it has shaped them.
How the indigenous cultures were formed
The people who inhabited the Amazon before Europeans invaded were, until relatively recently, living in harmony with their environment.
Around 20,000 years ago, the first humans arrived in what is now Brazil.
Around 9500 BC, agricultural societies with domesticated plants and animals began to develop.
The Amazon area was inhabited by nomadic indigenous peoples prior to the arrival of European colonizers.
Over the next several centuries, waves of settlers arrived in the area and developed advanced societies that eventually came into conflict with one another.
As a result, many cultural groups were formed as a result of a unique mixture between these Europeans and native communities.
The cultures that today form the basis of modern society are still very much influenced by their ancient roots.
Many aspects have been preserved over time, adding to the richness and diversity that is ever present in this region.
The history of the Amazon river basin provides insight into how human beings adapted to new conditions and thrived.
For example, the indigenous cultures that live along the river throughout what is now Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia had little or no knowledge of writing, metal-working or even building permanent shelters.
Yet still their societies strived for thousands of years and were recorded in the archaeological records.
In other words, their lifestyles were sustainable over long periods and did not deplete natural resources in any significant way.
The different tribes
The indigenous peoples of the Amazon have been classified into small groups that are named after a common ancestor.
The most prominent of these groups are the Jês, Tukano and Panoan – who now make up the bulk of the population in Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia.
The Chavante, Guayupe and Maku were from parts of Brazil where there is still some contact with natives today; while the Waicuri and Coribe made up populations further north.
In terms of their origins, they all came from an ancient people known as Ayoreo who mostly inhabited areas further inland in Brazil.
There are also smaller groups of people who inhabit more isolated areas.
These include the uncontacted Awa and Mayoruna, as well as the Nukak and Ashaninka.
The Marubo, Xingu and Panará are the other populations to be found in Brazil, while there are those who inhabit Peru’s Alto Purús National Park and Junín’s Yasuní National Park.
The Yora inhabit the area of northern Peru between the Amazonas Department and Loreto Region.
Those living in Ecuador include groups such as the Huaorani, Quichua, Secoya and Shuar – with a few scattered communities in some parts of Brazil.
The ways in which an indigenous Amazonian culture views its lands are often reflected in their myths.
The following are the most common mythic or legendary tales:
- The flora and fauna of the Amazon have long been important to its people
- The animals are often thought to reflect a magical transformation in animal or human form
- Reincarnation, metamorphosis, shape-shifting and spirit possession
Amazonian myths also talk about how animals communicate with humans.
Specifically, they mention how animals can warn them about something going on around them that may cause harm.
Those who live close to each other will have a preference for certain plants, animals, rocks and minerals.
They will also share similar stories and legends concerning these elements and explain why they exist in the region that they do.
For example, The Waorani of Ecuador and the Ashaninka of Peru both share a myth about how the Amazon became green.
This myth says that when a woman who had run away from her husband was punished by her father-in-law, she escaped into the forest in shame.
While in the forest, she discovered a plant that had never been seen before.
She picked this plant and accidentally swallowed one of its seeds as she ran away.
The unfortunate woman became pregnant and gave birth to Curupira – who grew to adulthood within 24 hours.
Curupira is a wild and mischievous creature, who always seems to be wandering around at night.
The stories and legends of the Amazon
Many of the indigenous cultures of the Amazon have unique beliefs and customs that reflect their connection to this land.
The wide range of peoples in the Amazon share an unbroken oral tradition that spans many thousands of years.
Their stories and legends teach their people important lessons, tell of their history and preserve cultural traditions that are often centuries old.
These stories and legends often describe:
- How their people first came to the Amazon, sometimes from very far away
- Show how various natural features were formed
- Recount why certain animals have specific characteristics
- Recount what happens at different times of the year
While all these myths contain some “truth” about the past, some are clearly just tales handed down by word-of-mouth through the generations.
The presence of such stories in their culture is a reflection on the importance indigenous peoples place on learning from those who came before them.
In cultures around the world, this oral tradition has been deemed as valuable as written history.
It is often considered even more important since it allows a culture to pass on its own understanding of the world and the future.
Religions and cultures of the Amazon
While each tribe practices the same religion or culture, they may have different beliefs or traditions that reflect their unique history.
Many of the people who live in the Amazon have their own philosophical belief system that forms their concept of reality.
In these cultures, a multitude of deities can be found.
They are often called by different names depending on the region of the world in which they are from.
But whatever name is used, these deities can be found in a variety of ways: as mythological beings, natural phenomena, objects or places.
Usually they serve as intermediaries between the people and other ‘higher’ forces that are not visible to them (the gods) but might be well known to them (the universe).
The gods are believed to be responsible for making the earth and everything on it.
Many tribes have found ways to integrate modern technology and understanding with their traditional customs and beliefs.
These allow them to explore new cultural influences while still preserving their traditional practices.
Amazonian cultures today
While some tribes and indigenous cultures of the Amazon are still in existence, many are now extinct.
The Panoan Indians, for example, were believed to have been completely wiped out due to diseases like smallpox, measles and influenza.
The Yanomami are regarded as one of the most studied native groups in South America and their numbers continue to decline due to their involvement in illegal gold mining.
The Amazon was once home to more than a million people.
Today, there are only two million.
Most of these live in Brazil, which is believed to have the largest concentration of indigenous communities in the world.
But, this number has been decreasing rapidly due to land-use conflicts, forced contact and political pressure from both inside and outside the region.
Save the Amazon rainforest
The Amazon is also being threatened by deforestation on a massive scale.
The current rate of deforestation is more than 140 square kilometers per day.
This has been described as the greatest environmental disaster in the world today.
Rainforest destruction is causing the loss of many animal species, including those that are protected under international treaties such as CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and CMS (Convention of Migratory Species).
It is also causing irreparable damage to local economies, which are based on this natural environment for subsistence or commercial purposes.
Many indigenous communities – especially those who live near the forest edge – have a deep-rooted connection to their land and its trees.
To be forced to leave the only place they have ever known is a terrifying prospect.
But, many have no choice when the forest is cleared to make way for cattle ranches or to grow agricultural crops like soya and palm oil.
They can also be forced out by mining companies or by large swathes of land that are leased for hydroelectric dams in Brazil or oil drilling in Venezuela.
Some indigenous tribes are now making efforts to protect their land through sustainable projects, such as agroforestry, community-managed forestry and non-timber forest products development.
They are also working with other community-based organizations to advocate for their rights and protect the nature that they depend on.
The survival of their culture and customs is dependent on the conservation of this forest.
Their connections to the Amazon will be forever broken if it is destroyed.