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The People of the Aguaje Palm

Achuar indian, Ecuador, South America

Philippe Descola

"The fat parrot is crazy about the fruit of the aguaje, and pays no attention to his little woman; he's young, and a bit silly let's take his pretty wife and leave him the aguaje."

Sung during the Nampet fiesta by Mirijiar, from the Capahuari.

AT THE LOWER END OF THE GREAT PASTAZA, the river's wild current calms and the mountainous rain forest gives way gradually to the lowlands: great alluvial valleys where the rivers wind lazily through a labyrinth of islets covered with pebbles and black sand brightened occasionally by the presence of a caiman or a charapa turtle, and bordered by great expanses of marshland where the aguaje palm grows.

From this semi-aquatic, semi-vegetal landscape, the Achuar have taken their name: Achu Shuar, "the people of the aguaje palm." Related to the Shuar, whom they call the Muraya Shuar, or "hill people," and against whom they once fought constant wars, the Achuar were for a long time protected from outside influences, both because their territory was virtually inaccessible and because of their fame as warriors.

Even now, and in spite of small landing strips opened by missionaries and indigenous organizations, the Achuar prize their independence above all, and do not welcome intruders.

THE ORGANIZATION OF SPACE BY GENDER

young girl, Achuar indians, Ecuador, South America The large oval-shaped house standing in the middle of the garden is the focus of a social life that is clearly divided and codified: visitors are received by the owner of the house in the tankamash, the men's portion, for the aujamatin or ceremonial dialogues, and are offered chicha - a fermented manioc drink.

The ekent, on the other hand, is the women's domain where domestic tasks are undertaken and to which the outsider is forbidden entrance. This gender-based division of space extends to the outside.

Women preside over the garden, where they spend a large part of their day raising an amazing variety of plants; more than one hundred different species, from the omnipresent manioc in its many varieties, to medicinal and cosmetic plants, such as the annatto and the genipa, with which they daily paint elaborate designs on their faces.

The rain forest is the men's domain. Almost every day they go off alone to hunt with long, slender blowguns and darts tipped with curare. Less frequently, because ammunition is difficult to come by, they use shotguns.

HUMANIZING THE BIOSPHERE

The garden and the rain forest are spaces as important to social interaction as is the house because the Achuar believe that most plants and animals are persons, endowed, as are they themselves, with a soul, or wakan, by means of which they are able to affect human behaviour. Associating themselves with Nunkui, the mythical mother of the plants they raise, women treat their modest community of manioc as though its members were their children, communicating mentally with them through anent, secret chants of great poetic force by means of which they order the plants to grow, to resist disease, and to multiply. The presence of Nunkui in the garden is also a guarantee of success, of which each woman assures herself by asking for protection from other anent; this is all the more necessary given that the manioc is famed for its ability to suck human blood, no doubt by way of compensating for its destiny.

The animals hunted are also humanized: the men treat parrots, toucans, monkeys, and peccaries like brothers-in-law who have to be seduced with the anent and attracted through magic spells. The hunt also requires the consent of the "mothers of the animals," fearsome spirits who watch over the prey as a shepherdess over her flock, and accept the kill of those under their protection only if certain rules are respected, such as that only what is absolutely necessary for the family is hunted, and that the animals hunted are not teased, and that those orphaned are taken to the house and treated with affection. This "ecological" attitude prevents the indiscriminate destruction of the fauna just as the planting of small plots serves to preserve the rain forest which quickly recovers when a garden is abandoned.

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