Achuar head ring, NMAI, ca. 1925
|Regions with significant populations|
|Ecuador: 15,000, Peru: 3,500|
|Shuar language, Achuar-Shiwiar language|
The Achuar are an Amazonian community of some 18,500 individuals along either side of the border in between Ecuador and Peru. As of the early 1970s, the Achuar were one of the last of the Jivaroan groups still generally unaffected by outside contact.
Achuar life centers on the domestic household, which consists of a basic family unit often including close relatives. Although the Achuar ideal is household autonomy and independence in terms of subsistence economy, there are usually about ten to fifteen households within the society dispersed throughout the area but still in a relatively close distance of each other. Each of these groupings tends to be uxorilocal. Marriages are typically polygynous, with partners somewhat related, or in some instances women are taken from nearby groups during raids. Co-wives are often sisters (see sororal polygyny).
The standard Achuar home is settled near a river or lake, but within a distance from major waterways because of mosquitoes and to protect the household against raids by canoe. It is shaped as a large oval, commonly without outer walls to allow ventilation, with a high roof with straight sides. The roof is often made out of palm tree fronds while two types of palm are used for house beams. Temporary walls are made out of large palms when danger seems close. A large yard and gardens then surround the home on the outside. The size of a house plays a pivotal part in the ego of an Achuar man. The bigger the house is to fit multiple wives and children the more likely that man will be considered a juunt, or "great man".
Conflicts within the Achuar society are minimal. The constant fight is between neighboring tribes and when tensions greatly increase, the Achuar find refuge in large protected houses that hold six to seven families.
Women and men hold separate daily tasks that are all beneficial for the survival of a family. The women gather and carry the game, sometimes with their children, while also preparing meals. They also have the opportunity to fish with baskets or with lines but overall their role pertains to domestic duties. Men, on the other hand, work in the forest and hunt. They are also involved in making the tools they use for hunting, like blowguns and traps, and use the technique of clearing for the expansion of their spouses’ gardens.
Gardens are maintained solely by women, at least three days a week. They comprise a large quantity and variety of plant species, but their value delves much deeper than just a source of food. Women can find sanctuary in their gardens and express their grief and suffering in private, as public emotion is spurned. Women also give birth to their children in there, demonstrating the importance of gardens in Achuar lives.
The Achuar follow an astronomical calendar of seasonal resources, like the fish season, which is divided into days, moons, and year.
Aside from the everyday routine, there still remains time for leisure. Thirty-five percent of the day is spent on subsistence production, leaving the rest of the day open. Men and young boys have more time for relaxation compared to women who still have house chores to complete. Before being married, young boys do nothing all day while adolescent girls work in the garden. During the rest of the day, married men drink manioc beer and talk amongst each other while also doing handiwork, for example woodwork.
Religion and cosmology
Shamanism is present in Achuar lifestyle and witchcraft is occasionally practiced by both ritual specialists and laypersons. An example of this is an institutionalized form of reciprocal violence that entitles a person to revert any harmful incidents or material another sent. Jivaroans, of which the Achuar are a sub-group, ascribe to a particular form of the pan-Amazonian animistic cosmological phenomenon known as 'Amazonian perspectivism,' in which many animals and plants are understood to possess human souls, although their bodily appearance is different. Animals with human souls are significant for the Achuar, as they represent a form of socialized nature. The only way for a hunter to be successful is to live in harmony with the game he hunts and with its guardian spirits, known as kuntiniu nukuri (literally: "game mothers"). The hunter's relationship with both the prey and their "game mothers" is personal and cultivated over a lifetime, and these relationships are characterized principally as affinal. He must follow these two rules: taking these animals with moderation and showing respect to the animals he kills. Both of these rules of hunting are codified in cautionary myths.
The Achuar believe that entities possessing human souls have the ability to communicate through language and signs. This is sometimes experienced during soul journeys, known as arutam encounters, which represent an extreme state of self-awareness and are induced by the consumption of hallucinogenic drink. Ayahuasca is a ritual sacrament in Achuar religion. Dreams are essential for the Achuar as they are not only revealing, but also can be foretelling. Prior to engaging in any form of predatory behavior, whether warfare, hunting, or some forms of fishing, men often insist upon having a dream.
Self-control is a fundamental aspect of Achuar beliefs, which is taught at a young age. Men exercise discipline to show will power and strength and the best place to display this is in their own home. Examples of self-control would be avoiding gluttony, being able to go without sleep, and not wasting anything. As well, another form of control would be over their expressions and attitudes, especially in front of visitors. Evading eye contact is key or else a sense of aggression might arise and mouths are covered when speaking. Saliva is the only product of the body that is publicly exposed. This is because female saliva is believed to be a source of fermentation of the manioc beer and male saliva is socially incorporated into the speech of a conversation.
Gardens are watched over by the spirit of gardens, Nunkui. Women sing anents, magical songs, as a medium to communicate with their plants, Nunkui, and other particular objects. The songs are extremely personal so they are either sung in the head or on an instrument, but always in secret. Each anent has basically the same melodic structure but different lyrics. Yet gardens can also be perilous at times, specifically manioc which is believed to have traits of vampirism. Children are the main targets of the manioc and thus are not allowed to enter a garden without supervision. Blood is precious in the eyes of the Achuar who believe there is a finite amount of blood in each person and when lost it can never be replaced, therefore quickening death.
The traditional form of burial for the Achuar is placing the deceased person in a hollowed-out log, resembling a canoe. During the funeral of a head of household, the canoe is buried in the middle of the house in remembrance of the continuing presence of the late figure. One spiritual belief of the Achuar regarding death, is the role of the remaining body parts of the dead body. These limbs acquire a life of their own and assume the bodies of certain animals.
Achuar were first written about by Western people in 1548; however, they avoided prolonged European contact until the 20th century. Christian missionaries did not gain a foothold in Achuar society until the 1940s and 1950s.
Non-Indigenous influence on Achuar people
Due to the development of the Amazon Rainforest the Achuar people’s numbers and livelihood has been declining. When oil was discovered in the Amazon in 1964 oil companies began to make claims on land for development and profit. Such claims, their development, and a history of violent attacks on oil investment installations throughout the Amazon have resulted in the Achuar being excluded from a portion of operational & drilling areas in the territory traditionally claimed by the Achuar. Non-Indigenous contact has also seen introduction of new diseases (including new STDs) and conflict related to pollution from oil spills, improper business practices, and violent interactions.
In multiple but not all cases, oil spills of various degrees have been inadequately remediated by simple burial. Major oil pipelines run above rivers that the Achuar depend on for bathing and drinking. When these oil pipelines break, pollution can and has occurred, thereby degrading the resource and limiting Achuar access to their historic fresh (but untreated) water sources. Violent conflicts with non-Indigenous people have arisen between oil company employees and the native Achuar. As in much of the Amazon Basin, indigenous sexual practices differ from those in non-Indigenous populations, and modern "safe sex" practices are very poorly disseminated thereby putting at risk their population and culture. As a consequence, some advocates claim that non-Indigenous contact contributes to a majority of indigenous deaths.
- "Location of the Achuar People." Los Achuar de la Amazonía Peruana. (retrieved 10 Oct 2011)
- "Achuar: Culture." BBC: Peruvian Jungle. (retrieved 4 July 2011)
- Descola 1994: 108
- Descola 1994: 9
- Descola 1994: 111
- see also the tab on Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro who has written extensively on the subject of Amazonian perspectivism
- For a synopsis of the relationships between body, soul, and Achuar self-identity and the role of arutam encounters see Taylor 1996.
- Amazon Defense Coalition. "Tribes in Peru-Colombia-Ecuador Border Fear Death by Oil"
- Descola, Phillipe. 1994. In the Society of Nature: A native ecology in Amazonia, translated from the French by Nora Scott. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 
- Descola, Philippe. 1996. The Spears of Twilight: Life and Death in the Amazon Jungle, translated from the French by Janet Lloyd. London: Harper Collins Publishers. 
- Taylor, Ann Christine. 1996. "The Soul's Body and Its States: An Amazonian Perspective on the Nature of Being Human." The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute", 2(2): 201-215.