Shuar, in the Shuar language, means “people.” The people who speak the Shuar language live in tropical rainforest between the upper mountains of the Andes, and the tropical rainforests and savannas of the Amazonian lowlands, in Ecuador extending to Peru. Shuar live in various places — thus, the muraiya (hill) shuar are people who live in the foothills of the Andes; the achu (swamp-palm) shuar (or Achuar) are people who live in the wetter lowlands east of the Andes (Ecuador and Peru).
Shuar refer to Spanish-speakers as apach, and to non-Spanish/non-Shuar speakers as inkis. Europeans and European Americans used to refer to Shuar as jívaros or jíbaros; this word probably derives from the 16th century Spanish spelling of “shuar” (see Gnerre 1973), but has taken other meanings including “savage”; outside of Ecuador, Jibaro has come to mean “rustic”. The Shuar are popularly depicted in a wide variety of travelogue and adventure literature because of Western fascination with their former practice of shrinking human heads (tsantsa).
Social organization and contacts with Europeans
From the time of first contact with Europeans in the 16th century, to the formation of the Shuar Federation in the 1950s and 1960s, Shuar were semi-nomadic and lived in separate households dispersed in the rainforest, linked by the loosest of kin and political ties, and lacking corporate kin-groups or centralized or institutionalized political leadership.
The center of Shuar life was a relatively autonomous household consisting of a husband, his wives (usually two), unmarried sons, and daughters. Upon marriage sons would leave their natal household, and sons-in-law would move in (see matrilocal residence). Men hunted and wove clothes; women gardened. Both men and women were involved in feuding warfare with other groups. In 1527, the Shuar defeated an incursion by the Inca armies of Huayna Capac.
When Shuar first made contact with Spaniards in the 16th century, they entered into peaceful trade relations. They violently resisted taxation, and drove Spaniards away in 1599.
Colonization and missionization in the 20th century have led Shuar to reorganize themselves into nucleated settlements called centros. Centros initially facilitated evangelization by Catholic missionaries but also became a means to defend Shuar land claims against those of non-indigenous settlers. In 1964 representatives of Shuar centros formed a political Federation to represent their interests to the state, non-governmental organizations, and transnational corporations.
Tsantsa, the shrunken heads
Tsantsa or shrunken head.
In the 19th century muraiya Shuar became famous among Europeans and Euro-Americans for their elaborate process of shrinking the heads of slain Achuar. Although non-Shuar characterized these shrunken heads (tsantsa) as trophies of warfare, Shuar insisted that they were not interested in the heads themselves and did not value them as trophies. Instead, they sought the muisak, or soul of the victim, which was contained in and by the shrunken head. Shuar men believed that control of the muisak would enable them to control their wives’ and daughters’ labor.
Since women cultivated manioc and made chicha (manioc beer), which together provided the bulk of calories and carbohydrates in the Shuar diet, women’s labor was crucial to Shuar biological and social life. In the late 19th century and early 20th century Europeans and Euro-Americans began trading manufactured goods, including shotguns, asking in return for shrunken heads. The result was an increase in local warfare, including head hunting, that has contributed to the perception of the Shuar as violent. In 1961 Edmundo Bielawski made the only footage showing what appears to be their head-shrinking process.
Many Shuar also serve in the Ecuadorian Army, and the Army has appropriated the perception of Shuar as “fierce warriors”, forming elite “Iwia” units of Shuar soldiers (although all commissioned officers are non-Shuar). These units distinguished themselves in the 1995 Cenepa War between Ecuador and Peru.
Introduction to the Jivaro Indian
Although there were many headhunting cultures throughout the world, only one group was known for ancient practice of shrinking human heads (tsantsa). They were called the Jivaro clan who lived deep in the Ecuadorian, and neighboring Peruvian Amazon. The Jivaros are one of the most primitive societies that have caught the attention of the Western world because of their unusual customs.
The Jivaroan tribes are comprised of four sub-tribes or dialect groups known to inhabit the tropical forest of the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon. The AShuar, Aguaruna, Huambisa, and the Shuar. Of these, the Shuar, are most commonly referred to when speaking of the Jivaro Indians. The Shuar have achieved their notoriety through their customary practice of head-shrinking.
The Jivaros are the only tribe known to have successfully revolted against the Spanish Empire and to have been able to thwart all subsequent attempts by the Spaniards to conquer them. They have withstood armies of gold-seeking Incas and defied the brovado of the early conquistadors. The Jivaro Indians are known to be an intensely warlike group, tremendously protective of their freedom and unwilling to subordinate themselves to other authorities.
The Jivaro Indians have a reputation for their fierceness which distinguishes them from their counterparts based on the savageness directed toward their enemies. Early Spanish chronicles relate that in the year 1599, the Jivaros banded together and killed 25,000 white people in raids on two settlements. In particular, the massacre of the Logrono stands out as particularly ruthless. The attack was instigated over the natives being taxed in their gold-trade. After uncovering the unscrupulous practices of the visiting governor, molten gold was later poured down his throat until his bowels burst. Following his execution, the remaining Spaniards were killed along with the older women and children. The younger useful women were taken as prisoners to join the clan. The settlement itself was raided and burned to the ground. From this point onward, the Jivaro Indians remained unconquered despite the fact that they inhabited one of the richest regions in South America for gold deposits. The Jivaro’s fierce fighting reputation and head-shrinking practice continued to discourage outsiders from entering their territories.
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