Cambeba people

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Total population
156 (2000)[1]
Regions with significant populations
Omagua language

The Cambeba people (also known as the Omagua, Umana, Cambeba, and Kambeba) are an indigenous people in Brazil's Amazon Basin, with territory extending into Peru. They speak the Omagua language. The Cambeba exist today in small numbers, but they were a populous, organized society in the late Pre-Columbian era. Their population suffered steep decline, mostly from infectious diseases, in the early years of the Columbian Exchange.


Pre-Columbian era[edit]

The Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana, the 16th-century explorer who was the first European to traverse the Amazon River, reported densely populated regions running hundreds of kilometers along the river. This description suggests population levels exceeding those of today. These populations left no lasting monuments, possibly because they used local wood as their construction material, as stone was not locally available. While it is possible Orellana may have exaggerated the level of development among the Amazonians, their semi-nomadic descendants are distinguished by having a hereditary, yet landless, aristocracy, a historical anomaly for a society without a sedentary, agrarian culture.

This suggests they once were more settled and agrarian but became nomadic after the demographic collapse of the 16th and 17th century, due to European-introduced diseases, while still maintaining certain traditions. Moreover, many indigenous people adapted to a more mobile lifestyle in order to escape colonialism. This might have made the benefits of terra preta, such as its self-renewing capacity, less attractive—farmers would not have been able to employ the renewed soil as they migrated for safety

Decline in the Columbian Exchange[edit]

Fabulous stories about the wealth of the Cambeba led to several early expeditions into their country, including those of Georg von Speyer in 1536, of Philipp von Hutten in 1541 and of Pedro de Ursua in 1560.[2] In 1645, Jesuits began work. In 1687, Father Fritz, apostle of the Omaguas, established some forty mission villages.

For 350 years after the European arrival by Vicente Yáñez Pinzón, the Portuguese portion of the basin remained a former planned agricultural landscape untended by those who survived the epidemics. There is ample evidence for complex large-scale, pre-Columbian social formations, including chiefdoms, in many areas of Amazonia (particularly the inter-fluvial regions) and even large towns and cities.[3] For instance the pre-Columbian culture on the island of Marajo may have developed Social stratification and supported a population of 100,000 people.[4] Amazonians may have used 'terra preta to make the land suitable for the large-scale agriculture needed to support large populations and complex social formations such as chiefdoms.[4]

Modern study[edit]

Stories of the sophisticated civilization of the Cambeba have long been viewed as doubtful given a lack of archaeological evidence. But, recent work has begun to reveal the continued presence of semi-domesticated orchards, as well as vast areas of land enriched with terra preta. Both of these discoveries, along with Cambeba ceramics discovered within the same archaeological levels, suggest that a large and organized civilization existed in the area.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kambeba :: Indigenous Peoples in Brazil :: ISA
  2. ^ Forero, Juan (September 6, 2010). "In Amazon, traces of an advanced civilization". Washington Post. Retrieved 8 September 2010. 
  3. ^ Mann, C. C., ed. (2005). 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. University of Texas. p. 296. ISBN 1-4000-3205-9. 
  4. ^ a b Mann, C, C., ed. (2005). 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. University of Texas. ISBN 1-4000-3205-9. 
  5. ^ Juan Forero, "Scientists find evidence discrediting theory Amazon was virtually unlivable", Washington Post, September 5, 2010