May 16, 2024 | Sammy Tran

Photos Of The Isolated Yanomami Tribe


The Yanomami

The largest, mostly isolated, tribe in South America is the Yanomami. They have hundreds of villages in the Amazon rainforest between Brazil and Venezuela.

Today, their population is roughly 45,000.Yanomami-Msn2

Their Beginnings

Around 15,000 years ago, the Yanomami likely arrived by crossing the Bering Straits and slowly migrating down to South America. It wasn't until the 1940s that outsiders came in contact with them.

Profile Photo of Yanomami man with traditional lookPalácio, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Contact With Outsiders

The Brazilian government became involved with the Yanomami tribe once they established what was called the Indian Protection Service. However, this seemed to do more harm than good.

Portrait Photo of Yanomami woman and her child facing the cameraCmacauley, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Exposure To Illnesses

Increased contact between The Yanomami and outsiders, including religious missionaries, exposed the tribe to foreign illnesses like the flu and measles—and many didn't survive. But that was only the beginning.

Portrait Photo of Yanomami Girl in hammock facing the cameraSam valadi, Flickr

They Were Not Immune To New Diseases

In the early 1970s, they faced in even more tragedy when the government made a road through the Amazon. The Opiktheri community were blindsided when bulldozers arrived. They received no warning.

Sadly, two villages weren't immune to the diseases this brought—and this took them both out.

Portrait Photo of Yanomami man with traditionally painted facePalácio do Planalto, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Colonization Continues

In addition to unleashing diseases, this road deeply affected the Yanomami people in other ways. It allowed colonists access to resources. Even today, this road is still utilized to access the Yanomami land, leading to deforestation.

But that wasn't the only nightmare they faced.

Profile Photo of Yanomami man with traditional face decorationCarsten ten Brink, Flickr

The Gold Rush

The 1980s was another distressing decade for the Yanomami. There was an invasion of 40,000 gold-miners. These miners had no care for the Indigenous people, decimating villages and even shooting them.

In seven years, 20 percent of the Yanomami lost their lives.

Portrait Photo of Yanomami children with traditional face decorationAmbar, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Pushing The Miners Out

In the background of all this terror, the CCPY—the Pro-Yanomami Commission—had been working on an international campaign to define an area for the Yanomami. 

This finally happened in 1992. They had the right to 37,320 square miles, and the vicious miners had to leave... but this still didn't protect the Yanomami people.

Portrait Photo of Yanomami man with Traditional face paintingFabio Rodrigues Pozzebom, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Convicted Of Genocide

Despite the new demarcation of land, the gold-miners returned—and wreaked havoc. In 1993, there was a horrific massacre. At the hands of gold miners, 16 people from the village of Haximú lost their lives.

Following this act of terror, the Brazilian court punished the guilty miners, convicting them of genocide.

Portrait Photo of Yanomami girl at Xidea, BrazilCmacauley, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

How They Live

The Yanomami dwellings are called shabonos or yanosThese are communal homes that are quite large and circular, and can even accommodate up to 400 people.

The open area in the center of the shabonos is a place to participate in games, feasts, and rituals.

Aerial view of a Yanomami shabonoKuliw, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Using The Hearth

Throughout the day, each family prepares their meals at their personal hearths. And when nighttime falls, they sleep in hammocks, which are strung up close to the hearth for warmth.

Landscape Photo of Yanomami shabonoGullane, The Last Forest (2021)

They Don't Have Chiefs

When it comes to decision making, the Yanomami use a consensus method. They have a strong belief in the equality of everyone in the tribe. There are no chiefs overseeing the communities, and every community has its own independence.

Everyone has a voice, and solutions are usually reached through serious debate.

Profile photo of Yanomami man with traditional face paint and head decorationGullane, The Last Forest (2021)

The Role Of Men

Men are responsible for hunting. They target animals like deer, monkey, tapir, and peccary. To aid their hunting, they poison their game with a plant extract called curare.

Profile Picture of Yanomami man huntingGullane, The Last Forest (2021)

The Role Of Men

Even though the Yanomami men hunt, the practice only brings in about 10% of the tribe's food. However, the skill of hunting, and the meat itself, is held in high regard.

Profile Picture of Yanomami man huntingGullane, The Last Forest (2021)

The Role Of Men

The man who takes down an animal will not eat the meat, choosing to give it back to the community. Hunters can only eat meat that has been shared with them by a different hunter.

Profile Picture of Yanomami man huntingGullane, The Last Forest (2021)

The Role Of Women

Women are responsible for around 80% of the community's food. They look after about 60 crops, but also forage for insect larvae, nuts, and shellfish.

The Yanomami highly value wild honey—and produce 15 varieties.

Portrait photo of Yanomami woman with traditionally painted faceGullane, The Last Forest (2021)

Working Together

Fishing is another beast altogether. Everyone in the community helps with this task: men, women and children. However, their fishing is much different than the Western hobby you might be thinking of.

Photo of Yanomami man and woman sitting next to each otherGullane, The Last Forest (2021)

Timbó Fishing

The Yamomami go timbó fishing. Timbó is a poison they get from vines. These vines are pounded and then placed in the water, stunning any nearby fish. Quite conveniently, the fish will come to the surface, making them easy to collect.

Photo of two Yanomami men standing to each other with turned backsGullane, The Last Forest (2021)

Raising Children

When it comes to familial duties, women are expected to have many children. Young girls become involved in domestic work early on and help their mothers.

Portrait photo of Yanomami Mom & BabySam valadi, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Basket Weaving

Yanomami women are also known for their beautiful woven baskets. These baskets are important for transporting food, crops, and plants. They're painted with onotoa red berry that is also used to dye loin cloths and decorate the body.

Close-up photo of traditional Yanomami BasketDaderot, Wikimedia Commons

Facial Decorations

Yanomami women use sticks to decorate their faces. These sticks pierce the lip and cheeks.

Portrait photo of two Yanomami women with traditional face decorationCarsten ten Brink, Flickr

Spiritual Beliefs

The Yanomami are incredibly spiritual. Every part of life has its own spirit, including live animals, rocks, plants, etc. However, not all of these spirits are kind.

Portrait Photo of Yanomami man with traditional face paintLuigino Bracci, Flickr

Shamans

The Yanomami believe that some spirits are nefarious—and even the root of some diseases. Shamans contact these spirits by using a hallucinogen to enter trances. This spirits are known as xapiripë.

Profile Photo of Yanomami man with traditional face paintGullane, The Last Forest (2021)

Contacting The Spirits

Davi Kopenawa, a famous shaman and activist. He explained what it was like to see these spirits, or xapiripë:

"Only those who know the xapiripë can see them because the xapiripë are very small and bright like light. There are many, many xapiripë, thousands of xapiripë like stars. They are beautiful, and decorated with parrot feathers and painted with urucum (annatto) and others have oraikok, others have earrings and use black dye and they dance very beautifully and sing differently."

Portrait Photo of Yanomami man blowing a long wooden pipeGullane, The Last Forest (2021)

The Women Prepare For The Ceremony

Many of these spiritual ceremonies don't involve women, however the women do lay the groundwork for them. The women are responsible for fermenting drinks and providing sustenance for the men.

 Portrait Photo of Yanomami woman with traditional face paintGullane, The Last Forest (2021)

Endocannibalism

However, women do participate in endocannibalism. This is where the ashes of the dead are consumed after being added to stewed bananas. This ritual is believed to strengthen the tribe while simultaneously keeping the deceased person's spirit alive.

Mourning

The Yanomami will mourn during the tradition of endocannibalism, and will share the story of the late person's life—even saying their name (the only time this will happen after a person passes).

Portrait photo of Yanomami with traditional face painting and body decorationGullane, The Last Forest (2021)

Menstruation

In Yanomami, "roo" means menstruation, but when translated to English, it means "squatting." This is because women believe that menstrual blood is toxic. Therefore, they don't use anything to absorb it.

Portrait Photo of Yanomami woman with traditional face decoration smilingGullane, The Last Forest (2021)

Menstruation

A girl's first period is a coming-of-age moment. She moves from childhood to adulthood, and must now cover herself with a loincloth. Because Yanomami are often pregnant or nursing, they usually experience very few menstrual cycles.

Photo of Yanomami woman in a traditional clothing with her back turnedGullane, The Last Forest (2021)

Marriage

Marriage is not a cause for celebration in Yanomami culture. Instead, it is more of a strategical alliance between men from different villages, who are looking to create political ties.

Photo of Yanomami man and woman sitting next to each other blurred backgroundGullane, The Last Forest (2021)

Marriage

Men can have multiple wives. Due to the practice of polygamy, there is a high demand for women. Girls as young as five or six can be promised to a future spouse, but will not be considered ready for marriage until she begins menstruating.

Portrait Photo of Yanomami woman in a traditional clothingGullane, The Last Forest (2021)

Marriage

Following a woman's first period, her parents will give her to her betrothed. Often this is a close relative like a cousin. Cross-cousin marriages are the most common amongst the Yanomami.

Portrait Photo of Yanomami woman with traditional face paintGullane, The Last Forest (2021)

Marriage

Once a girl begins her married life, she now serves her husband—performing the domestic chores she once did with her mother.

Portrait Photo of Yanomami woman with traditional face paintGullane, The Last Forest (2021)

Marriage

The Yanomami have a reputation for being quite aggressive with one another. Abusive relationships are not uncommon, and some men are known to discipline their spouses by beating them.

If things become too intolerable, a woman might flee her marriage, choosing to live with her brothers instead.

Profile Photo of Yanomami woman with traditional face paint smilingGullane, The Last Forest (2021)


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