After hacking off as many human heads as they could, the Shuar warriors of the upper Amazon retreated into the jungle to begin work on their prized trophies, transforming the heads into grapefruit-sized ‘tsantsa’. These fresh tsantsa were to be worn around the warriors’ necks at the coming celebratory feast.
The Shuar believed that humans had three souls, one of which – called the ‘muisak’ – is charged with avenging the victim’s death. The only way to pacify the enraged soul, they thought, was to shrink the deceased’s head, as this contained the victim’s soul.
The Shuar live in the rainforest of the upper Amazon, between the upper mountains of the Andes and the Amazonian lowlands, in Ecuador and Peru. The Muraiya (hill) Shuar, are people who live in the foothills of the Andes, and the Achuar (swamp-palm) Shuar live in the wetter lowlands. The Muraiya Shuar live largely on the upper Pastaza River. It was the Muraiya Shuar who became famous in the 19th century for their elaborate process of shrinking the heads of their Achuar enemies.
The Shuar shrank the heads of their enemies for thousands of years, and the regular raids on enemy tribes and the taking of human trophy heads was once the entire raison d’etre for the Shuar people’s existence.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Europeans and European Americans began trading goods such as shotguns with the Shuar, taking in return shrunken heads. This resulted in an increase in local warfare that contributed to the stereotype of the Shuar as being incredibly and continuously violent – and led to the degradation of their head-shrinking ritual into a simple curiousity.
I set out for the Pastaza River with a friend from Sydney, who has a similar passion for exploring wild rivers. The Pastaza is a tributary of the Amazon, which has carved the deepest, straightest valley in the Eastern Andes. It runs through Ecuador’s mountains, through Peru and on into Brazil.
We took a flight from Quito via Coca, a frontier river town, before landing at a dirt runway at the southern town of Kapawari, where we were met by the welcoming Achuar indians, who now live in harmony with their neighbours. For the next eight days, we hiked through the rainforest with expert nature guides and explored the Pastaza River. We caught piranha, drank chicha or nijiamanch (manioc beer) with the Achuar tribe and learned about shamanism.
The indians who drink ayahuasca – an hallucinogenic tea – claim to be able to communicate with their ancestors, along with animals like the jaguar or anaconda, and even trees. They say it gives them the ability to foresee the future, and they make decisions based on the visions they experience.
The indian tribes cultivate hallucinogenic plants, mainly the stramoniums chinki tukitai, yumi maikina and juunt maikiua. Stramoniums are a kind of poisonous plant that produces a strong narcotic. The species juunt maikiua produces several days of intense hallucinations, during which consumers claim to communicate with the arutam – ancestral spirits.
PADDLING WITH PIRANHA
We explored a tributary of the Pastaza named the Ishpingo River. For hours we meandered upstream, treated to rare sightings of elusive pink dolphins, sloth sand monkeys, including the saddle-backed tamarin and dusky titi. Elegant hanging nests made by yellow birds named oropendola occasionally adorned the river banks.
Every bend in the river beckoned exploration. We went swimming in the river, despite personal fears of black caiman and piranha. I’d never moved as quickly as I did when guide Felipe yelled “Caiman behind you!” – fortunately, he was joking. It’s actually quite safe to go swimming in the river when water levels are high, and it’s only when the water gets really low that the piranha get feisty.
I must make mention of the giant catfish that live in the river. They are enormous and one evening one of the Achuar caught one that was well over one-and-a-half metres long. They are strong fighting fish and very good eating. I ate some grilled at the Sunday market in Coca. The Achuar catch them with handlines from the bank, and with setlines.
The Amazon Basin contains the largest number of freshwater fish species in the world – an estimated 3000 in total. There are pirarucu or arapaima, tambaqui – a fruit eater – arawana, dourada catfish, tucunare and lungfish, to name but a few.
The giant catfish grow to 90kg and the arapaima or pirarucu grow to 4m and 200kg. It’s no wonder the handlines the Achuar Indians use are 100kg breaking strain, with 10/0 hooks.
FIGHTING FOR SURVIVAL
We visited the Achuar village and met with an elder and his family, who offered us a bowl of nijiamanch to drink. It offends them if guests do not at least have a taste. Nijiamanch is produced by the women of the village, who chew manioc roots, which they then spit into a bowl – the saliva aids fermentation. Strangely, some guests were reluctant to give it a try, but I enjoyed the flavour, as did some other adventurous visitors.
Nijiamanch provides almost all the calories and carbohydrates the Achuar need. They also fish and hunt, which provides protein, and they grow bananas, sweet potatoes, hot chillies, sugar cane and guava.
From 1968 to 1970, Catholic and evangelical missionaries established peaceful contact with the Achuar, converting them to Christianity. Their way of living has not been the same since, as the missionaries encouraged them to live in villages, in contrast to being spread out in the rainforest.
This brought some advantages, as, since 1991, most Achuar belong to a representative body known as the Interprovintial Federation of Ecuadorian Achuar Nation (FINAE), which is divided into eight associations. Each one has its own centre in a territory of 5000 square kilometres, holding a population of about 4500 Achuar. By having the village centres and people unified under one organisation, the Achuar can successfully campaign for their land rights to be recognised – an important matter, living in the face of oil exploration and colonisation as they do.
A DIFFERENT WORLD
As the sun rises and the dense fog clears on the banks of the Pastaza, we are treated to the curious sight of brilliantly coloured parrots and macaws licking the clay on the steep river banks. Some of the nuts which the parrots and macaws eat contain toxins, but there are certain minerals in the clay which neutralise them. Once parrots find out about a good clay lick, they come from far and wide to have a turn. Yellow-crowned Amazons, chestnut-fronted macaws, dusky-headed parakeets and orange-cheeked parrots arrive en-masse at this clay lick before us.
Pink dolphins are prolific here and we saw them hunting for fish. We could hear them spout, and occasionally glimpsed a pink-grey back slipping back into the river. With long beaks often lined with tiny hairs, disproportionately large flippers and highly flexible bodies, they have evolved specialised adaptations for living in the flooded rain forest.
Huge fallen trees line the sand bars in some parts – some with orchids still clinging to them – while butterflies flit about on the sand bars, landing now and then to lap up moisture.
I often thought of jaguar on the jungle trail at night, although you would be extremely lucky to see one. Most nights we went out looking for frogs and insects. The jungle comes alive at night with frogs, salamanders, wandering spiders, tailless whip scorpions and snakes, like the false coral and brown tree snake. We even saw a green viper swimming across the river, and poison arrow frogs.
Indians use the toxin of poison arrow frogs to coat their blowpipe darts. Even a small amount in the bloodstream is lethal, although only three species of this family of frogs are, in fact, poisonous.
Ecuador is also a hotspot for plants. There are more than 4000 plant species endemic to the country, with 197 of those common to the Pastaza Valley – which is also home to 240 species of birds and over 50 species of bat.
TEEMING WITH LIFE
Next we headed several hundred kilometres north to the Napo River, where at the Napo Wildlife Center, on Oxbox Lake, we watched snail-eating kites pulling water snails from their shells. After dinner, we went out in a canoe armed with a spotlight, which immediately highlighted dozens of pairs of caiman eyes. Switching it off, we witnessed a fairyland spectacle of fireflies come to life along the reedy shoreline.
A family of giant otters lives here, and jaguar have been seen several times. There are no motorised canoes used on Oxbow Lake and its creeks – less noise means more wildlife. The Napo Wildlife Center helps to protect 82 square miles of lowland rainforest within the Yasuni National Park, while the effects of deforestation, oil exploration and drilling, gold mining and the expansion of towns and cities plays an increasingly dire role outside of these protected pockets.
These days, the Shuar people lead a very different life to that of their head-shrinking ancestors. The missionaries taught the Shuar Spanish and made them give up warfare, the production of shrunken heads, and the puberty rites through which Shuar boys believed they acquired the spirits of their ancestors. But the Shuar did not give up polygamy or shamanism, and shamanism in these parts is still alive and well.
The ancient ways of the Shuar have been changed forever. A shaman said: “Headhunting was a brutal practice, but it was our culture. It gave reason to our existence and was a part of our worlds. Without the head-raiding parties, our lives have changed – we are not the same people as we were in our fathers’ time.”
But whether you’re into eco-tourism, anthropology or catching giant freshwater fish, the Upper Amazon is still a place like no other. A trip to this remarkable part of the globe might not necessarily be easy, but it will certainly be unforgettable.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
• If you want to explore this remarkable part of the world yourself, there are several high quality nature lodges on the Pastaza and Napo Rivers where you will be well looked after by excellent guides – try the Kapawi Lodge (www.kapawi.com) on the Pastaza River, or Yachana Lodge (www.yachana.com) or Napo Wildlife Center (www.napowildlifecenter.com) on the Napo River, for some truly amazing experiences.
• To get there, fly to Quito in Ecuador, then fly by light aircraft to Coca to reach the Napo River, or if you’re visiting Kapawi Lodge and the Pastaza River, fly to Kapawari.
• Pack light for a trip to this part of the world: take a day pack for jungle hikes and boating, plus sunglasses, light shirts, shorts, socks, walking shoes, sandals, swimmers, sunscreen, insect repellent, malaria medication, a water bottle and fishing gear. Binoculars are very handy, too.