Written by Roger Harris
The Amazon’s cultural diversity is as precious as its biodiversity. The indigenous peoples and languages are perhaps even more at risk of extinction than the plants and animals. Today, nevertheless, the peoples of the Amazon represent a wide range of beliefs and customs compared with developed countries. Acculturated people are often Christian, but many tribal people are animists who believe that all living things possess a spirit. Shamans help govern the interaction between the real and imaginary worlds, and are said to be able to see the invisible magic darts that cause pain, curses and illness. This skill is enhanced by the use of plant-derived hallucinogens (properly called entheogens).
The indigenous people have a wide range of myths and legends to explain their place in the universe. The creation myths of different tribes usually reflect some part of the natural environment. Indeed, reliance on the ‘natural order’ provides indigenous people with the context for their day-to-day survival. Whether hunting, fishing or cultivating the land, the people depend on traditional beliefs to understand the rhythms of nature. Hence technologies imported by Western aid organisations rarely succeed; the mechanised, scientific ‘one size fits all’ approach is alien to the holistic agricultural tradition.
Although tribes vary in the details of their lifestyles, the indigenous people of the Amazon invariably rely on the forest and rivers for sustenance. Tribes closer to settled regions have more contact with outsiders and have adopted many aspects of outside society. But many other tribes or individuals within tribes retain their traditional way of life. Most tribes practise some form of ‘slash-and-burn’ cultivation, and grow manioc, bananas and papaya. They use the forest to gather fruit and medicinal herbs. The men hunt animals and fish, while women are responsible for raising children, cooking and tending plots. They also make items for daily use, such as baskets and pots. You can still see evidence of their skills at basketry and pottery among the handicrafts for sale at most native villages and in souvenir stores in larger towns. Among unassimilated tribes, families live communally, in large shared dwellings. The practice of an individual family house, which you see in most places today, is imported from Western culture.
Significant Amazon tribes today include the Yanomami of Brazil and Venezuela, numbering about 20,000; the Achuar/Shuar of Peru and Ecuador, with a population of 30,000; the Tikuna, numbering about 25,000 in the area where the frontiers of Brazil, Peru and Colombia meet; and several others numbering more than 10,000 each.