The People of the Aguaje Palm
"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
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
THE ORGANIZATION OF SPACE BY GENDER
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.