Even now in 2015, I find my mind drifting back to the upper reaches of the Amazon and our week in 2012 with the Waorani in South-East Ecuador. Their customs may seem strange but have a logic all of their own. We had arrived at their village after descending through cloud in our light plane, were transported by canoe in the driving rain to a site beyond their village and settled into the small set of huts kept for visitors. The rain stopped and everything became vibrant. There was silence apart from the rush of the river, the calls of several birds and the happy noises from the camp kitchen. After dinner, we spent the first evening walking in the rainforest surrounding our camp. It was liberating to just trust and follow our guides, not thinking of what might be around us; boa constrictors, wild pigs, venomous siders, campaigning ants or the more exotic jaguars. There seemed no separation of the land and sky; we took comfort in being part of a happy band of five. The guides talked of their affinity with the plants around and how everything has a purpose.
I want to convey the extraordinary history and customs of the Waorani from what we saw in that week and what we have found in books and articles written by those with much more detailed and lengthy contact. I love the way Wade Davis in his book “One River” p268 introduces the Waorani ideas of the cosmos and the life beyond, much of which connects with the portrayal of Virgil and Dante in their poems:
“For the Waorani, the universe is a disc, an undulating surface surrounded by great waters and covered by a dome that lies just beyond the clouds. Below the earth is the underworld, a replica of this life, complete with trees, rivers and hills, but inhabited by babitade, mouthless creatures that cannot speak or eat. Above are the heavens, the destiny of the dead. Each Waorani has a body and two souls. At death the flesh rots or is transformed into jungle animals. The soul that lives in the heart becomes a jaguar, the one lodged in the brain ascends to the sky where it meets a sacred boa at the base of the clouds. If and only if the nostrils have been pierced and decorated by the finest of feathers can the soul enter heaven. if turned away, it falls back to earth and is consumed by worms. Once accepted into heaven, the Waorani live as they always did, hunting, fishing and spearing. The animals of heaven are themselves the souls of creatures that once inhabited the earth, and thus by killing in this life, a Waorani hunter ensures a good supply of feed in the life to come. It is to accompany deceased elders on this perilous journey that the Waorani occasionally buried children alive. Both in this life and the next, the Waorani perceive themselves as a people of the forest. In heaven as on earth, the rivers are the domain of the cowade, the outsiders, all of whom are cannibals. Traditionally, the Waorani lived on the ridge tops between the rivers, deliberately avoiding the valley floodplains…..
Linguistic evidence suggest that at the time of contact (with non-indigenous people like the Spanish invaders or later the American missionaries), the Waorani had been isolated in the the forest for generations. Once their language was understood, only TWO words had been borrowed from surrounding tribes. Trade with the cowade was non-existent. As late as 1957, the Waorani had yet to adopt metal tools….The tribe before contact never numbered more than five hundred….Among the current (1975) population, only 20 individuals could not trace their ancestry to some common source…
Over the last five generations, 54% of the Waorani men and 40% of the women died as a result of spearing raids.”
Perhaps this provides some understanding of how inseparable the Waorani are from their land (like the Australian aborigines) and how they must feel as the ogre of oil exploitation invades neighbouring territories.