Hunting For Tradition: Life With The Shuar

A misty morning in the Amazon, image by Scott Haber

A misty morning in the Amazon, image by Scott Haber

AMAZON, Ecuador. --- Francisco is a handsome man. His build is slender, skin unblemished, with hair neatly combed to his left side. His unsuspecting blue jeans and “Venice Beach” t-shirt conceal the fact that he is the leader of his Shuar community, an indigenous people local to the Ecuadorian rainforest.

A trip with Francisco into the forest unveils a living library of knowledge. After hours winding down caramel colored rivers in a hollowed wooden canoe, he pulls over to a near invincible break in the forest. We enter into dense foliage, and I closely follow behind Francisco as he slices a trail with his machete. With remarkable grace he rummages through the jungle, wading through ankle deep streams, and weaving through dense forest. Along the way, Francisco stops at a tree the Shuar call Yungua. He examines it carefully then begins to feverishly hack at the base of the tree with his machete. Within minutes he succeeds in extracting the tree and begins to skin the bark, removing a fibrous, thin layer from the trees white, smooth skeleton. The bark, he would show me, is elastic enough to be adjusted, yet contains enough tensile strength to carry a heavy load. He rolls up the majority of the bark into a neat, thick wad, and tassels the remaining bit over his shoulder.

As we continue on through the forest Francisco is led by his senses. He follows the muddy, blemished footprints of Tapir and the fading echo of distant animals fooled by his incredibly precise mimicry. At once, he stops and motions me to keep my distance. He slides his shotgun off his shoulder and leaps into the forest. For a moment an eerie silence lurks. Then, BAM! A deafening BOOM startles the jungle, shocking the once quiet forest to life.

Minutes later, Francisco returns, with him a fatally wounded, full-sized boar. He spends the next 20 minutes rummaging for vegetation and tying leaves together to craft a neatly woven carrying sack. Threading the slack of the bark through loops on opposite ends of the meshwork a backpack is created. The boar is loaded into the void of the leaf sack, the bark straps are strung around his shoulders, and the boar is carried on his back, like a student would a backpack of books. Boar in tow, shotgun slung over his shoulder, and machete in hand, he leads me back through the unmarked forest, returning to the canoe some two hours later.

Fransisco, with the boar in his hand crafted backpack. Image by Scott Haber

Fransisco, with the boar in his hand crafted backpack. Image by Scott Haber

Firearms aren’t the traditional weapons used by the Shuar to hunt. While his wife, Nelly, smokes the meat, my eyes steal a glance at the large, skinny, well-varnished blowgun, which sits in the corner of the thatched hut. It is a 2.5-meter long pipe, with a narrow mouthpiece at one end, and a thin, concave opening at the other. Once the weapon of choice for the Shuar, the hunter would position his lips on the mouthpiece and with immense oral force propel a venomous dart high into the otherwise unreachable canopy, paralyzing unsuspecting monkeys and birds. Over our week’s stay with the community the blowgun would sit dormant in the corner of the hut. Francisco’s generation is long removed from days when the Shuar were venerated as the most fierce jungle warriors. Then, their ancestors practiced tstanta: a ritual which involves shrinking the skulls of their defeated opponents, as to crush the soul, that was believed to be contained within the cranium. Over his calabash of chicha, the alcoholic mix of yucca and river water, which is fermented by the Women chewing, spitting, and continually pulverizing the root, Francisco’s eyes meet mine. Momentarily, he puts down the beverage and tells me,” I like the shotgun better.” After a pause he adds, “But I realize the most important thing I can do is to live the way my grandparents did.”

A group of children, stirring a vat of chica. Image by Scott Haber.

A group of children, stirring a vat of chica. Image by Scott Haber.

Francisco’s community is small, composed of only about 10 families. The group is remarkably young, at the tender age of 27, Francisco serves at the groups’ authority figure. Running the length of their village spans a neat airstrip, which separates the thatched huts on either side. The airstrip is a lifeline for the remote community. It provides them with a direct link to the nearest city of Puyo. Each week a plane arrives bringing new wonders: old community members, with previously unattainable food and medicine, and enterprising missionaries, showering the community with gifts and bible verses.

Over my final days, Francisco’s younger cousin, Daniel, helps me to gather food. Though only 14 years of age, his confidence and maturity mask his adolescence. On a fishing trip we cross over numerous tributaries for the better part of the day, yet there is no worry of being lost. He navigates the rivers with ease. He knows these waters like they were marked streets. We move from beachfront to shoreline, casting out our hand-lines, and reeling in a fish called Mota, over burning palms. Once he feels a spot has been exhausted, we move onto the next. For me, each bend in the river is indistinguishable; to him they represent distinct streams of life, with new stories and food around each corner.

Returning home, our fish are cooked. Each part of the meat is consumed, from the wiry tail, to the bony premise of the jaw. In between fingerfulls of fleshy meat, I ask Daniel, “Does he wish to stay in the community, or go to the city of Puyo?” He looks away, for a moment it seems he is lost in thought, he finally responds with a trace of aloofness, “I want to study. Here is too boring.”

Daniel is a part of a generation, which has seen violent change. The children are being presented with options their ancestors never could have imagined. Many of the children were born with cellphones already in the pockets of adults - even though there is no service in the community. A basic solar powered electricity system has been installed and subsidized by the government as of 2015. Francisco tells me his children now ask for TV.

Over the years their numbers have dwindled, and tradition has strayed. Each year, more families leave the community attempting to make life work in the city by whatever means. With each trip of missionaries, and the gifts that accompany them, religious views of the community are transformed. Instead of talks of cosmology, passing mentions of God and Jesus are made. There are few rituals or shamans, and certainly no face-paint or loincloth. Their culture - and the unique way of life that comes with it - is slowly dying.

There’s a sense that Francisco and the rest of his community know this. Francisco, is no stranger to the city, though he tells me he could never live there, a week out of every month, he frequents Puyo for what he calls “work.” Letting out a loud sigh, he looks past me into the distant canopy, and shares the same sentiments he told me earlier in the trip, “The most important thing is to live in the same way that my grandparents did.”

The weekly plane delivery. Image by Scott Haber.

The weekly plane delivery. Image by Scott Haber.