May 16, 2024 | Allison Robertson

The Yagua Tribe

The Indigenous Amazon Tribe

Deep inside the dense Amazon Rainforest lives many indigenous tribes who, even today, live traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyles.

One of those tribes is the Yagua people—who are said to be the most characteristic tribe of the region, with their grass skirts, spears, and body painting. Let’s find out more.

Yagua tribe hut and people split image

Who are they?

The Yagua people are an indigenous group that live a traditional tribal lifestyle in the dense tropical rainforest.

Other names for them include: Llagua, Nijyamïï Nikyejaada, Yahua, Yava, and Yegua.

Yagua Indian Man (Chief)Calvin Lee, Flickr

What does their name mean?

“Yagua” in Spanish translates to “royal palm.” This term could have been given to the Yaguas by the Spanish explorers because much of their native clothing is made of palm fiber.

Yahua men in grass clothingWilliam Curtis Farabee, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Where do they live?

The Yagua live in Colombia and northeastern Peru. They live in about 30 communities scattered throughout the tropical Amazon rainforest.

Amazon rainforestJorge.kike.medina, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

How big is their tribe?

Currently, their total population is estimated to be around 6,000.

Yagua tribe childrenfernandoalonsostockfilms, Shutterstock

What language do they speak?

The Yagua language is classified as a Peba-Yaguan language. The only closely related languages that have been documented are Peba and Yameo—both of which are now extinct.

Yagua Tribe  in their local costumeNowaczyk, Shutterstock

What are their villages like?

Villages are comprised of anywhere from 2 to 30 families, and are quite distant from each other making it difficult to have consistent interaction with Yaguas outside their home village.

House of Yagua tribeNowaczyk, Shutterstock

What were their houses like?

Traditionally, the whole village lived together in a maloca—a large, beehive-shaped structure, covered in palm leaves.

Today, the maloca is used only for religious ceremonies, and only men are allowed to enter.

House of Yagua tribeNowaczyk, Shutterstock

What do they live in today?

Today, they still live in similar huts built from wood and palm leaves, just in smaller family units. They huts are built near small rivers and on high ground to avoid flooding. Some are built on stilts.

The huts are far away from each other, but linked through a network of jungle trails.

House of Yagua tribeNowaczyk, Shutterstock

What do they wear?

Traditional Yagua apparel includes grass-like skirts made from palm fiber and red cotton. Armbands and a small chest covering are also worn, and a headdress is worn by men.

Yagua tribe wearing his traditional head dressMark Green, Shutterstock

How do they make their clothing?

The palm fibers are often dyed a reddish-orange color, with that same annatto berry pigment that they use to paint their bodies.

Yagua tribe man in traditional clothesMark Green, Shutterstock

What is the legend of their attire?

Legend has it, the Yagua were the reason for the naming of the Amazon River. When the Spanish first came to the rainforest and distantly saw Yagua men with their blowguns and grass skirts, they mistook them for women and so the river was named after the Greek Myth of the Amazon women warriors.

A Yagua man and blowgunJialiangGao, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

What do they hunt?

The Yagua people rely on bush meat native to their lands, this includes sloths, monkeys, birds, and other small animals, and a variety of fish.

Amazon Indian tribe - Yaguachany crystal, Flickr

How do they hunt?

Traditionally, the Yagua people used handmade blowguns and spears. Some of the tribes still use these tools today, and others have acquired modern pieces through trade.

Yagua  tribe man in traditional clothesLeonora (Ellie) Enking, Flickr

Do they have pets?

Yes, the Yagua people often keep small sloths and small monkeys as pets. They carry them around on their shoulders and the children spend a lot of time playing and caring for them.

Yagua tribe girls and pet monkeyVW Pics, Getty Images

What do they grow?

The Yagua people traditionally grow a variety of non-bitter manioc, several varieties of plantain and banana, pineapples, sugarcane, sweet potatoes, maize, and a variety of jungle fruits.

An elder member of the Yagua tribe wearing his traditional head dressMark Green, Shutterstock

How do they grow their crops?

They practice slash and burn agriculture. A family works two or more fields in different stages of growth, securing a continuous food supply.

A field will typically yield for two years, and a family will clear a new one each year.

Yagua tribe familyNowaczyk, Shutterstock

What do they forage?

The Yagua people are hunter-gatherers, which means aside from hunting game and growing crops, they also forage the rainforest for things like honey and palm-beetle larvae for flavoring.

palm-beetle larvaeT.K. Naliaka, CC BY-SA 4.0 , Wikimedia Commons

How do they prepare their food?

The men are expected to provide the ingredients, and the women are expected to prepare the meals

Yagua tribe women in traditional clothesAnton_Ivanov, Shutterstock

What are the traditional roles for Yagua men?

Men are responsible for clearing the gardens, hunting, plaiting, carving, house construction, the fabrication of musical instruments, the preparation of curare, and ritual and medicinal activities.

Portrait of Yagua ManNowaczyk, Shutterstock

What are the traditional roles of Yagua women?

Women are responsible for foraging, planting, fabrication of palm-fiber yarn, hammocks, and pottery.

Both men and women are responsible for fishing.

Palm oil fruitjuerginho, Shutterstock

What are their beliefs?

The Yagua belief system has a Creator, along with demons and spirits, that are often linked to Amazon rainforest animals.

People  from Yagua tribe in their  local costumeNowaczyk, Shutterstock

Who is their most spiritual being?

The most important spiritual being is Mayantu. Celebrations in his honor last for several days and nights, and involve an indulgence of drinking and eating.

Photo of two Yaguas tribesmen playing instrumentsChris Allan, Shutterstock

What do the rituals entail?

One of the most intriguing parts of their rituals include young children being given a secret name that is only known to the men of the tribe.

Yagua tribe boyNowaczyk, Shutterstock

Do they believe in evil spirits?

Yes, evil spirits are said to roam the rainforest, and they are held responsible for the demise of any tribe member.

If the tribe member was an important person, their entire house and belongings are burned to stop the spread of the evil spirits.

People from Yagua tribe in their local costumeNowaczyk, Shutterstock

When do they get married?

Women are married when they have reached maturity—typically around the age of 14 or 15. Men can be that age, or older.

Yagua peopleVW Pics, Getty Images

How are marriages arranged?

Marriages are not arranged during childhood, like most indigenous tribes.

Instead, when a potential suitor for a woman is found—from outside their clan—the man goes to live at the home of his prospective wife for an entire year, working for them to prove his worth.

Yagua tribe menSylvain GRANDADAM, Getty Images

What happens after the year?

During the year the man is living with the woman and her family, she usually falls pregnant. At the end of the year, if all is well, the couple will return to the man’s family to live, and are officially considered “married.”

A large feast is had to celebrate the marriage and new family.

Tribal manVW Pics, Getty Images

What are the Yagua people known for?

Yagua people are known for their handicrafts, which are particularly made by the men. They craft items such as masks, wood carvings, jewelry, dolls, flutes, rattles, baskets, and miniature blowguns.

Indian village on Amazon riverSergey-73, Shutterstock

What do they do with the crafts?

The crafts are used among the village for fun, especially for the children. Some of the crafts, like the masks, are used in rituals and ceremonies, and others are used for trade.

Boy form Yagua tribe holds a maskVW Pics, Getty Images

What are the masks made from?

These masks are etched with tribal designs, and are then painted with dyes derived from fruit, vegetables, seeds, and flowers. They are often adorned with beads, shells and feathers.

Yagua indigenous communityMatthieuCattin, Shutterstock

What is the jewelry made from?

They make jewelry from natural items, such as fish or animal teeth, shells, and seeds. They will also decorate the pieces using natural dyes from florals found in the rainforest.

Yagua tribeSmithsonian Institution, Wikimedia Commons

How are the rattles made?

Rattles are mostly used in rituals by the Shamen, but can sometimes be given to children as toys. There are two ways to make them: with leaves from the Schacapa tree, bundled together to make a rattling sound, or with seeds that are collected, hallowed out and dried.

Yagua tribe kids with rattlersVW Pics, Getty Images

How are the dolls made?

Yagua dolls are created from the pounded bark of the Llanchamo tree, along with plant fibers, seeds, fish scales and gourds.

They’re hand painted and often dressed in traditional Yagua attire.

Yagua tribeVW Pics, Getty Images

What do they do for fun?

The Yagua people place an importance on dancing and singing. Not just used for ceremonies and rituals, but also for enjoyment.

They have various dances, and traditional songs only known to them.

Colombian indigenous people of the Yagua ethnic groupLUIS ROBAYO, Getty Images

Why do they stay in the rainforest?

Although modern living has become an option for the Yagua people, many of them remain deep in the rainforest because they have a connection to it.

Yaguas childSuedehead, Flickr

What is their connection?

They know the moods of the rainforest—the behaviors of living beings, the weather patterns, the growth patterns, and every nook and cranny of their homeland.

Yagua tribe peopleDavid Morimoto, Flickr

How does this help them?

The Yagua’s connection to the rainforest can be referred to as Jungle-taught wisdom, where they believe their traditional ways of living are better than modern “development” opportunities—even if it involves making tools by hand.

Yagua tribemanLouisa Salazar, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

What modern tools have they acquired?

Over the years, the Yagua people have slowly acquired more and more modern amenities. This includes various pots and pans, grills for firepits, hunting pieces, and some clothing.

Not all tribes are accepting of modern amenities, though.

Yagua indigenous community SculptureMatthieuCattin, Shutterstock

When was their tribe discovered?

European contact can be linked all the way back to the 1500s when Spanish Conquistadors introduced diseases to various indigenous tribes.

Then, in the late 1600s, a Jesuit mission was established to attempt to convert indigenous tribes to Catholicism.

Yagua tribeBritish Library, Picryl

How were they affected by the Rubber Boom?

The Rubber Boom of the late 19th century and early 20th century involved Europeans arriving in large numbers looking to make money off natural latex extracts.

Many Yaguas lost their lives in conflicts, and others fled deeper into the jungle.

rubber plantationTropenmuseum, CC BY-SA 3.0 , Wikimedia Commons

What is happening to them today?

Today, many Yagua people still remain isolated in the rainforest, living their traditional lifestyle. Others have chosen to adapt to modern society, allowing tourism into their world, and accepting modern gifts—though their traditions still hold strong.

Yagua tribe men in traditional clothesJosé Luis Gálvez, CC BY-SA 3.0 , Wikimedia Commons

Are they protected?

In recent years, numerous communities have come together to help protect all of the indigenous tribes of the Amazon.

In 2018, the Peruvian government declared the northern region of Loreto a protected area that is now known as the Yaguas National Park.

Yaguas National ParkAlejandro Bayer Tamayo, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Do they have a modern community as well?

The Yagua’s villages are somewhat close to Iquitos, a city in Peru. This allows them to travel to town and buy essentials with money they earn from selling handicrafts, or participate in trade.

This is also how they attract tourists.

IquitosPercy Meza, CC BY-SA 3.0 , Wikimedia Commons

Why do they want to attract tourists?

Some of the Yagua people who have adapted to modern society have started offering tourism experiences where they allow people to accompany them to their village and experience their traditional lifestyle.

This is an income opportunity, and also a way to educate the world about their indigenous tribe.

Woman from Yahuas tribe in her local costumeNowaczyk, Shutterstock

Final Thoughts

The Yagua people, who were once an uncontacted tribe living deep in the rainforest, are now known as one of the larger indigenous communities who, although have made contact with European society, still remain true to their traditional ways of life.

Yagua tribe Woman and GirlCalvin Lee, Flickr

Sources: 1, 2, 3


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