Yesterday I blogged about a people known as the Yanomamo and today I want to blog about a people who live in the deep Amazon Rainforest known as the Jivaro. The Yanomamo are a violent people who esteem war but the Jivaro are even more violent. It is estimated that among the Jivaro 60% of their men die in battles even though modern changes are leading to some other ways for them to settle their differences.
The Jivaro are most well known for their head shrinking abilities which they have apparently been doing since the dawn of time. In the time of the Inca Empire the Jivaro refused to submit to Inca rule and during the Spanish conquest they refused to submit as well as they finally revolted violently and fought every attempt thereafter preventing the Spanish from ever fully subjecting them. These are a fierce people and violence seems to be a norm among them.
Back in 1599 the Jivaro killed 25,000 white settlers in raids they waged against two settlements. The cause? The Spanish decided to tax the Jivaro on their gold trade! This inflamed the Jivaro who are a proud independent people who submit to no one. Warriorship is highly esteemed among the Jivaro as it is among the Yanomamo still today. A man is not simply a man but a warrior and males take great pride in their skills and conquests as warriors.
The Jivaro are fierce and during the time of their revolt against the Spanish tax on their gold trade they captured a visiting Spanish Governor whom they knew to have unscrupulous practices and a greed for gold that astounded the Jivaro. So they captured him and poured molten gold down his throat until his bowels broke open! They then killed the remaining Spanish settlers including women and children except for the younger women which they took as captives for use as mates. This is but one example of how fierce the Jivaro can be but there are many more tales along this line to be told.
The Jivaro live in several communities and each community is independent just like those of the Yanomamo. And like the Yanomamo also each village wars against the other at times, in fact, often. During times of peace in Jivaro culture there is no chieftain but when war erupts the people of the village choose a chieftain to lead them in war. They choose older men with experience in killing many other men. These “war chieftains” also must be men who have captured many heads of the enemy. Not only is war made upon neighboring tribes but the Jivaro also sometimes make war within their tribes along family lines. War seems to be their way of settling most differences even within families.
A “shrunken head” from the Jivaro Headhunters
When the Jivaro make war upon neighboring village only complete extermination of the enemy will suffice. Men, women, and children along with young and old are killed to prevent them from taking revenge. However, the Jivaro have at times taken the enemy women and children captive and forced them to become part of the victors community. If a woman from the enemy tribe fights back or resists she will be killed as if she were a man.
The Jivaro take the heads of their enemies even though sometimes they are not dead yet! Head collection by the warriors is highly prized! One Jivaro will hold the enemy to the ground while another takes off the enemy’s head with a stone ax or whatever might be available at the time.
The Jivaro have a rather interesting concept of death as they attribute each death to some supernatural cause. They do not accept the concept of natural death as we do. When a tribal member dies it unleashes a violent cycle of retaliation in which someone (anyone usually) is held accountable for the tribal members death! This is part of their religious faith that teaches the soul of the deceased requires his relatives avenge his death. Witchcraft and sorcery are often identified as the cause of death be the tribal members death by murder or natural causes. Often the Shamans in the tribe are accused of using their powers against the deceased and others so in Jivaro society it is rather dangerous to be a shaman!
If the family members of the deceased do not retaliate against the supposed “killer” the Jivaro believe the anger of the person’s spirit will turn against the living. If the alleged “killer” cannot be found then revenge is simply taken on one of his family members! Fathers pass on to their sons via oral traditions telling them of the wrongs of the past committed against their family and community.
Witchcraft is believed by the Jivaro to be the most frequent cause of illness and non-violent death. Each human has three souls according to the Jivaro. What is called the “Arutam” soul is gained via a vision quest at some sacred waterfall but attainment of this soul is not necessarily guaranteed in the vision quest. This soul is believed by the Jivaro to be vital to a man’s health and safety. It is believed this soul protects one from death by violence, poison, or even sorcery. This is the first soul one must attain or else the other two cannot be attained.
The second soul is the “Muisak.” This is the “avenging soul” which avenges the death of a person who has been killed in physical attacks or by sorcery. This soul, the Jivaro believe, seeks to kill the attacker or sorcerer but it doesn’t always find it target and as a result innocent family members are sometimes harmed. The Jivaro believe things such as being bitten by a deadly snake or drowning are the result of revenge of the Muisak spirit. It is also this spirit that in the Jivaro mind justifies taking human heads and head shrinking, known as “tsantsa.” The Jivaro believe that through head shrinking their enemies are prevented from making revenge attacks.
The third soul is known as the “Nekas Wakani.” This soul is less important to the Jivaro than the previous two. This is the soul that enters the body at birth and which leaves the body after death. After it leaves the body this souls is believed to dwell in the deceased’s home (ghost). Those who remain the living are then obligated to feed this spirit in a very proper way and if this is not done properly then the third soul becomes a demon and causes harm to the living!
Among the Jivaro there are two kinds of shamans. One is a curing shaman while the other is a bewitching shaman. Each is a “specialist” and each uses various hallucinogens to deal with the spirit world in their respective capacities. One of these is known as “Yage” which is one of the world’s most potent and Jivaro lore says it gives the shaman telepathy and visionary powers.
The “tsentsak” are spirit helpers and they are most important to the Jivaro. Only a shaman can access the spirit world. About 1 out of every 4 men in a village is not only a warrior but is also a shaman so there really is no shortage of shamans in Jivaro society. Women may also become shamans typically of the curing type. The Jirvaro believe men come from the Sun and the Moon while women come from the egg of the “Chingaso.” Man is therefore lazy as he makes women do most of the work.
The Jivaro have a division of labor along gender lines. They see everything in the world as either male or female. When using such things as cotton which the Jivaro believe is male the men do all of the spinning and weaving and clothes making using cotton. Fiber is also believed to be male so the men make all of the baskets even though the baskets are considered female. Since the male produced baskets are believed to be female it is the duty of the women to use them to tote around heavy loads.
When it comes to the Jivaro they are in essence “professional headhunters.” They live near the headwaters of the Maranon River in northern Peru and eastern Ecuador. When it comes to shrinking heads it is a matter of getting a head and cutting it vertically removing the skull and jaw bone. The remains are then boiled and mixed with hot gravel and sand. The head is “shrunk” to about this size of a large orange and it is sewn along the lips which are then turned black with charcoal.
Hunting is a primary Jivaro activity and many times the women will accompany the man on the hunt. Blow guns with poisoned darts are most commonly used. They normally hunt for monkeys and birds but hunting is NOT their primary source of food.
Like the Yanomamo, Jivaro culture is very different from the culture of the modern West. We may find many of the things they do and believe frightening but we must look at these people through their eyes not our own much of the time. As for their name “Jivaro” it is actually a corruption of their word “Shuar.” The Spanish called them the Jivaro meaning “uncivilized” and “savages.” Today in Mexico and Puerto Rico the name refers to one who is “rustic.”