March 5, 2024 | Allison Robertson

The Huaorani Tribe


The Huaorani Tribe

The Huaorani People are a fairly isolated indigenous group that has lived deep in the Amazon rainforest for centuries.

Commonly referred to as “Ecuador’s Last Savages”, they’re a fierce warrior tribe that is still fighting for isolation today.

From poisonous spears to powerful hallucinogens, find out why half this tribe has been able to remain uncontacted, even today—and why they want to. 

tribal split image

Who are they?

The Huaorani people—who are also known as Waorani, Waodani, and Auca—are an indigenous tribe from Ecuador who traditionally lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the heart of the Amazon.

Huaorani men and women in Orellana ProvinceKleverenrique, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

What are they known for?

They are known for their violence, against both their own people and outsiders. Auca translates to “savages”—making them known as the savages of the Amazon.

Portrait Photo of a Huaorani in a traditional outfit and painted faceTakiwasi, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

How big is their tribe?

It is difficult to say exactly how many people make up their tribe, but the number is estimated to be about 4,000.

But this number is divided.

Photo of authentic Huaorani tribe in traditional outfit in their own lifestyleYasuni Waorani, Flickr

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How is the tribe divided?

Currently the tribe is divided into two factions: those who have contact and integrate with the outside world and those who remain unseen in the jungle.

Most prefer to remain in the jungle, however forced colonization is a serious threat in recent decades.

Huaorani Indian in his native environment, Amazonas jungle.Carmen Burbano, Flickr

What language do they speak?

The Huaorani speak a language that is only known to them. It is referred to as the “Huaorani Language”. It is not known to be related to any other language in the world.

Recent studies have given this language a formal name of: Huao Terero.

Photo of two Huaorani children standing next to each otherAlexander Farley, Fl;ickr

Where do they live?

Their ancestral lands are located between the Curaray and Napo rivers, south of El Coca—where they lived for hundreds of years.

Today, their land is threatened by unlawful oil and logging practices.

Portrait Photo of Women of the Huaorani tribeBarefoot Expeditions, Flickr

How do they survive in the forest?

The Huaorani tribe prefer to live an isolated lifestyle in the forest. Traditionally, they were nomadic hunter-gatherers who traveled every so often to set up new camps.

Currently though, they mostly live in permanent forest settlements.

Huaorani indian on the river in amazon jungleZaruba Ondrej, Shutterstock

Who do they share the forest with?

The Huaorani tribe shares the Amazon with many other tribes, included some completely uncontacted tribes that even they have not communicated with.

They also share the forest now with oil and mining companies who have slowly been taking their land.

Huaorani indian in his native environment with a parrot in his handZaruba Ondrej, Shutterstock

What are their houses like?

Their huts are typically a triangular shape—about 5 meters high and 10 meters long—and made out of wooden supports and a roof made of woven palm leaves.

indigenous huaorani huts in ecuadorian yasuni national parkAmmit Jack, Shutterstock

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How do they store things?

All of their belongings, such as hunting tools, baskets, clothing, and cookware are strung up high on thick jungle ropes between the poles.

amazonian indigenous huaorani male spending time in his hammockAmmit Jack, Shutterstock

Where do they sleep?

The floor of the hut is simple ground cover, usually dirt and mud. So, the Huaorani people sleep in hammocks woven by the tribal women.

Huaorani indians living by the old traditions and habitsZaruba Ondrej, Shutterstock

Where do they eat?

The tribe members typically eat meals together, in groups, around a fire under a different hut.

Indigenous huaorani people gathered together for a mealJUGUERRA, Flickr

What do they eat?

The Huaorani don't consume dairy products, and thus meat is their primary source of protein. They also cultivate a few crops, and gather fruits and vegetation from the forest.

Indigenous Huaorani Indian in a tribal hut with two parrotsZaruba Ondrej, Shutterstock

What do they use from the forest?

The main source of their nutrition if foraged from existing plants in the forest.

There is one particular plant that provides a salty substance under the bark that they use for added taste and nourishment.

Portrait Photo of two Huaoranis women in traditional outfit and painted facesGeorge Cruz, Flickr

What do they drink?

Aside from gathering water from nearby streams, they also collect water from large vines by cutting them open and sipping the water out like a giant straw.

Tribe Internal

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How do they farm?

While the Huaorani prefer foraging and hunting, they do grow some crops such as manioc. Though they primarily eat meat, or plants growing among the jungle.

Huaorani indian in his native environment, amazonas jungleZaruba Ondrej, Shutterstock

What do they do before hunting?

The Shaman—the spiritual leader and healer of the tribe—will spend an entire day praying before the hunt to ensure its success.

Photo of four indigenous Huaoranis standing next to each other and smilingJose Agualongo, Flickr

How do they hunt?

They primarily use a tool called a “flecha”, which is essentially a blowgun.

The flecha are about 3-4 meters long. The arrows are dipped in poison which paralyzes the muscles of the animal and stops it from breathing.

Huaorani indian in his native environment, amazonas jungleZaruba Ondrej, Shutterstock

What do they make their tools from?

They fleche is made from bamboo, and the darts are made from wood and sharpened using piranha teeth.

Piranha are a valuable resource for many tribes in the area—especially their teeth.

tribal men

What animals do they hunt?

Traditionally, the creatures hunted were limited to monkeys, birds, and wild peccaries. Neither land-based predators nor birds of prey are hunted.

Huaorani indian hunting in his native environment, amazonas jungle.cristian saant, Flickr

What were their hunting taboos?

Traditional Huaorani people had an extensive number of hunting and eating taboos. For example, they refused to eat deer, on the grounds that deer eyes look similar to human eyes.

They also believe hunting has ethical consequences.

Male Huaorani indian in his native environment, amazonas jungleBarefoot Expeditions, Flickr

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What were the consequences of hunting?

The Huaorani believe they have to end the animals to live, but they believe unalive animal spirits live on and must be placated or else do harm in angry retribution.

Huaorani Indians, grown up and a child in their native environment, Amazonas jungleAmazonec Eco Lodge, Flickr

How do they make up for hunting?

To balance life within the forest, the Shaman performed another hunting ritual while preparing the poison for the blow darts.

Huaorani Indian hunting in his native environment, Amazonas jungleYasuni Waorani, Flickr

Why is the poison ritual important?

Hunting with these darts is then considered retrieving, as opposed to ending their life—which they consider similar to harvesting from the trees.

Huaorani man hunting monkey with a blow pipe in the Amazonian zone of Ecuadornic0704, Flickr

Do they make anything else?

The Huaorani people are very skilled crafters. They use a red juice from fruit as paint, and they make necklaces using seeds, wild boar teeth, and parrot feathers.

Huaorani Indian in his native environment nettingAmmit Jack, Shutterstock

What do they wear?

In early years, most of the Huaorani people did not wear any clothing at all.

Later, traditional Huaorani clothing called “Kome” was worn, which consisted of a string around the waist that men used to tie their foreskins.

Huaorani Indian children in his native environment, Amazonas jungleBarefoot Expeditions, Flickr

What do they wear in present day?

Currently, the Huaorani wear bits of modern clothing, or cloth wrapped around them. Many families were given clothing by missionaries who tried to make contact in the earlier years.

The younger generations who have gone outside the forest have been given clothing through other various outsiders, and through trade.

Huaorani children playing by the riverkirkmartinez, Flickr

How do they style their hair?

The typical Huaorani hairstyle is long hair in the back, with short bangs that go behind the ears.

Portrait Photo of Huaorani Indian woman in her native environment, Amazonas jungle.Carmen Burbano, Flickr

Do they wear jewelry?

Elders have pierced ears, with the earlobes hanging down like looped rings. These large pierced earlobes are a Huaorani trademark.

Huaorani make Indians in their native environment, Amazonas jungle.Jose Agualongo, Flickr

Do they still pierce themselves today?

Younger generations have stopped piercing, because it is painful—even brave warriors complained about the pain they had to go through in their childhood having their ears pierced like that.

Huaorani male Indians in their native environment, Amazonas jungleJose Agualongo, Flickr

How do they provide medical care?

The Huaorani depend on the forest for all of their needs, including medicinal. For example, there is a specific tree whose bark produces a white syrup substance that is used to cure upset stomachs.

They use various saps and materials to soothe aches and pains and illness of all types.

Huaorani Indian in his native environment, Amazonas jungle.Amazonec Eco Lodge, Flickr

What is their family structure like?

Family units consist of a man and his wife or wives, their unmarried sons, their married daughters and sons-in-law, and their grandchildren.

TribeFlickr

Do they live together?

All of them live together in a longhouse, which is separated by several kilometers from another longhouse in which close relatives lived.

EcuadorFlickr

What is marriage like?

Marriage is always endogamous—meaning they married only within their own tribe—and typically between cousins.

Marriages are arranged by the parents when the children are still young.

Portrait Photo of huaorani man and woman standing next to each other in a traditional outfit and painted faceskate fisher, Flickr

What are their gender roles like?

Men and women have slightly different roles regarding hunting and food-preparation, but they have an equal role in decision making.

Huaorani Indiana in their native environment, Amazonas jungleJVALLEJO2012, Flickr

Do children go to school?

Traditionally, Huaorani children attend school for six years, learning the ways of the tribe and the jungle, like how to make blowguns and spears.

Many children today remain self-sufficient hunter-gatherers.

Portrait Photo of Huaorani Indian child with painted face.Carmen Burbano, Flickr

At what age do the children become independent?

The Huaorani children become independent of their parents about the same age range that American children would enter second grade.

This is when they have finished their schooling, and start hunting and gathering their own food.

Huaorani Indian child in his native environment, Amazonas jungleAmazonec Eco Lodge, Flickr

Do they keep track of age?

Now-a-days, some of the younger generations do, but traditionally they did not keep track of their age. They knew how long they’ve been on Earth based on jungle growth around them.

Profile Photo of Huaorani Indian child in his native environment, Amazonas jungleAmazonec Eco Lodge, Flickr

What are their beliefs?

The Huaorani had a spiritual relationship with the rainforest, and actively practiced Shamanism. They used naturally occurring hallucinogens during their animistic rituals.

Male Huaorani Indian in his native environment, Amazonas jungle.Amazonec Eco Lodge, Flickr

What do their animistic rituals include?

It is believed that the Huaorani Shamans have a special relationship with jaguars, and with the help of powerful hallucinogens found in the rainforest, are able to turn into a jaguar and roam the forest, talking to other animals.

Group of Huaorani Indians in their native environment, Amazonas jungle.Rowan Millar, Flickr

What was the significance of the rainforest?

They believed in a symbolic relationship between their environment and themselves. The forest would always provide enough that they didn't have to grow food or keep animals.

They also have an intriguing belief about death.

Group of Huaorani Indians in their native environment, Amazonas jungle.Amazonec Eco Lodge, Flickr

What do they believe happens after death?

The Huaorani believe that when someone dies, the soul starts a journey towards heaven. During this journey, they will meet a large anaconda obstructing the way. Only brave souls can jump the snake and reach heaven.

Those who fail will return to Earth as a termite and live a miserable existence.

Two Huaorani Indians in their native environment, Amazonas jungle.Jose Agualongo, Flickr

When was outsider contact first made?

First contact with outsiders was in the late 1940s when an oil company started exploratory drilling on traditional Huaorani lands.

The outsiders were instantly met with hostility from the Huaorani tribe and retreated.

Huaorani Indian shows hunting skills to tourists  in his native environmentMountain Madness, Flickr

Who made second contact?

The second attempt at contact was in the mid-1950s when Christian linguist missionaries who were interested in the tribal conflict the Huaorani was experiencing with other tribes.

Huaorani Indian and a tourist in his native environment, Amazonas jungle.Amazonec Eco Lodge, Flick

Were they successful?

This attempt was not successful either—but not long later, a group of missionaries made physical contact in what is referred to as “Operation Auca”, which translates to “Operation Savage”.

Huaorani Indians and tourists in their native environment, Amazonas jungle.Amazonec Eco Lodge, Flickr

What was Operation Auca?

In 1956, five missionaries attempted contact once more during a trip they called Operation Auca. However, this time the Huaorani tribe followed through on their threats—and it did not end well.

Huaorani Indians and tourists in their native environment, Amazonas junglespokehead, Flickr

What did Operation Auca do?

The five missionaries started Operation Auca by flying over their settlements and dropping gifts (clothing, pots, knives). Once they thought they established a rapport, they set up camp close by and started on foot to make official contact.

Tourists at Huaorani Indian native environment, A Huaorani blowgunJulia Rubinic, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

What happened to the missionaries?

All five missionaries were attacked and speared by a group of Huaorani warriors. None of them made it out of the jungle alive.

After the Huaorani warriors ended their lives, they looted what they could carry and burned down their camp.

Tourists riding a boat in Huaorani Indian in native environment, Amazonas jungleMountain Madness, Flickr

What happened after?

This attack made international news—bringing even more attention to the newly discovered “savage” tribe.

This wasn’t the only attack though.

Huaorani female Indian and a tourist in native environment, Amazonas jungle.Yasuni Waorani, Flickr

Who else did they attack?

Since the Huaorani were fierce protectors of their territory, it is no surprise that the missionaries were not the first, or the only, to lose their lives after getting too close.

Male and Female Huaorani Indians in their native environment, Amazonas jungleAmazonec Eco Lodge, Flickr

Did they attack everyone?

The Huaorani warriors ended the lives of many oil company employees, rubber tappers, as well as any other outsider who got too close, regardless of their reason.

Huaorani Indian in his native environment, Amazonas jungle.Amazonec Eco Lodge, Flickr

Why did they hurt so many people?

At this time, the Huaorani believed all outsiders were cannibalistic predators, so anytime an outsider approached they reacted immediately, and with force.

Grown up and children Huaorani Indian in their native environment, Amazonas jungle.Amazonec Eco Lodge, Flickr

Did they ever trust anyone?

Yes, in fact this is when official outside contact was peacefully made.

A few short years after the missionary massacre, two female missionaries—one being the sister of a previously slain missionary—went back to Ecuador for another attempt at peaceful contact.

Huaorani Couple

What happened?

The missionaries were successful in making peaceful contact and set up camp close by to stick around for a while learning the culture.

Two Male Huaorani Indians in their native environment, Amazonas jungle.Jose Agualongo, Flickr

What was the result of their mission?

Upon joining their culture, the missionaries were able to convert many of the Huaoranis to Christianity, and eventually convincing them to move out of the forest and away from the impending oil drill.

Huaorani hunter using his blow pipe in his native environment, Amazonas jungle.nic0704, Flickr

Did they all go?

No, quite a few had left the villages, but a large population of the Huaorani tribe retreated further into the forest and still remain uncontacted today.

A Huaorani man holding a hunting spear in a tourist lodge in TigüinoNews Agency, Flickr

What is life like for the tribal members who left the forest?

The Huaorani people were relocated into poverty-level civilization where most of them struggled to merge into modern society.

Accounts from the relocated tribe members differ greatly.

Huaorani man with his blow pipe and Squirrel Monkeynic0704, Flickr

What do they believe?

Many of the relocated Huaorani people have considered this event as “ethnocide”—the deliberate destruction of their culture.

Tribal menIndigenous People

What do others believe?

Others have considered the relocation a safety relief from an impending genocide at the hands of oil companies.

Learning how to do a Blowgun with the Huaorani peopleJose Agualongo, Flickr

Where were they relocated to?

Many of the missionized Huaorani moved to frontier towns, particularly Coca. Their lifestyles and cultures were changed drastically, and many did not do well.

Penti, the chief of the Bameno Huaorani on the right and other Huaorani tribe memberKeith Morris, Flickr

What happened to them?

They were forced to abandon their language and learn Spanish. Many have turned to substance misuse. Most of the children have dropped out of school at a young age due to the language barrier.

Two Huaorani Indians sitting next to each other.Keith Morris, Flickr

Is anyone doing well?

Some of the Huaorani people have embraced their new life, even working with tour companies they trust.

This gives outsiders access to their traditional way of life—which still threatens the uncontacted tribe members.

A Huaorani (Waorani) nationality indigenous woman in typical clothing and face paintingireneuke, Shutterstock

What about the tribespeople who stayed behind?

The remaining Huaorani who stayed behind in the forest continue to live off the land in their traditional ways. There are two main subgroups, both with very little population.

Some have wondered how long their gene pool will last.

Two young girls form huaorani tribe in the amazon rainforestFotos593, Shutterstock

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4


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