I was on a cruise on the upper reaches of the Amazon River in the isolated Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, Peru, one of the wildest places on earth. The jungle was hot, lush and teeming with the kind of life that makes me rather nervous. On one shore-tour our indigenous guide grabbed a seven-foot anaconda from a creek and hoisted it up for photos. He also found tarantulas, poisonous frogs and two boa constrictors. I stuck very close to the group.
What I remember best, however, is the indigenous we encountered. It was fascinating, and depressing, to see how these people – the Cocama tribe in this area – live, isolated in the Amazon yet on the edge of a technological and very different world.
In our cruise ship’s library, and later at a museum in Iquitos, I learned about these indigenous people. I found the Cocama have been in the Amazon Basin for about 8,000 years. These indigenous did not keep written records or erect stone monuments, and the humid climate and acidic soil have destroyed almost all traces of their material culture. Over millennia, the indigenous people evolved and became exceedingly knowledgeable about the jungle, how to live off the abundant fish and game and how to make and use of the various natural potions and medicines.
With European arrival, everything changed. The first shock was the Spanish invasion when a large percentage of Natives died due to the conquest and infectious diseases. Another shock came with the rubber boom from 1880 to 1912, which was just like a gold rush. As demand for rubber skyrocketed, thousands of rubber tappers were drawn to the Amazon. While some made fortunes, indigenous groups were treated horrifically including enslavement, rape and murder. Many indigenous fled into the forest and some have avoided contact with the outside word since then.
In modern times, indigenous, and especially the uncontacted tribes, continue to face threats from oil and gas exploration, illegal logging, drug trafficking, mining and agricultural expansion.
Today, indigenous people represent about 38 percent of Peru’s population of 29,250,000. There are approximately 233,000 Amazonian indigenous with 16 language families, more than 65 ethnic groups and a relatively large number of uncontacted tribes. The Cocama number between 10,000 – 15,000.
During the cruise I didn’t see any other commercial boats but we frequently saw indigenou travelling in home-made dugout canoes. When we skiffed into smaller tributaries, we often met men and even young boys fishing with simple poles, spears and nets.
One day we stopped at a tiny isolated village where the children rushed down to meet our skiff. The village was the poorest I’ve ever seen, consisting of six ramshackle houses on stilts with thatched roofs. None had window coverings to prevent mosquitos. There was no electricity. This community is largely self-sufficient, relying on fishing and some farming.
On the last day of the cruise we visited San Miguel, a larger village of about 450 indigenous. The homes were basic and there were a few generators providing electricity. Chickens, ducks and dogs wandered about. The enterprising locals had set up a craft fair for us visitors where the colorful masks, carvings and jewelry provided insight into their culture. At the school, children greeted us with a song in Spanish. I learned that in the past two generations Spanish has become the first language for these indigenous people, although recently there has been a trend toward teaching Cocama as a second language.
After the cruise ended, I visited the Museum of Indigenous Amazonian Cultures in Iquitos. I learned the spiritual beliefs and culture of Amazonian indigenous are deeply rooted in the rain forest and rivers where they live and is reflected in their traditions, ceremonies and everyday lives. A tribe’s ornaments are designed for important events such as initiations, funerals, visits and shamanistic practices. Feathers and other art come to life in ceremonies. Patterns and motifs hold great symbolism.
Shamanism is reserved for the special few, who are chosen at an early age. While many Natives worship in a church and use modern pharmaceuticals, many are also guided by a shaman in practicing animism and seeking natural cures from the jungle.
I felt sad that Amazonian tribes are losing their culture to the relentless forces of progress. Surrounded by splendid displays of headdresses and ceremonial regalia, I could see that cultures and languages are treasure houses of knowledge and deserve protection.
If You Go