Ten Fascinating Facts About the Famed (and Feared) Huaorani

[For the full episode from our visit with the Huaorani and more, check out our episode page HERE!]

So in the short time we spent with the Huaorani people we learned so much about their culture, their customs and their fascinating way of life. Yes, they have traditionally been known as some of the most dangerous people in all the Amazon, and for good reason. But we’ve not only survived our time with the Huaroani, we’ve loved getting to know them and have felt nothing but warmth and friendship from them. Here are some really interesting facts about the Huaorani that’ll hopefully give you a deeper insight into these amazing people:

A Huaorani family at the village of Apaike.
A Huaorani family at the village of Apaike.

The Huaorani people weren’t “discovered” by the outside world until the late 1940s, believe it or not. Employees of the Shell Oil company went deep into the Amazon rain forest of eastern Ecuador and began exploratory drilling in the area, but were quickly driven out by the ferocity of these previously unknown “savages,” who of course turned out to be Huaorani warriors.

A 1956 Life Magazine feature about the murdered missionaries.
A 1956 Life Magazine feature about the murdered missionaries.

Since that time, it’s hard – if not impossible – to estimate the number of people killed by the Huaorani over the years. But perhaps most famously, that number includes five American missionaries who were speared to death after trespassing on Huaorani land back in 1956. The news of their deaths was broadcast around the world, and Life magazine even covered the event with a photo essay. Other known victims of the Huaorani include oil company workers, rubber prospectors and others (including fellow Huaorani) who were seen by the Huaorani as a threat.

Though many Huaorani have now accepted a connection with the outside world, a large number of Huaorani continue to resist and reject any connection with modern society and continue to move deeper into the rain forest to preserve their isolated way of life.

The Huaorani community of Apaike.
The Huaorani community of Apaike.

The Huaorani speak their own language, called Wuao (pronounced “wow”), which linguists have determined is unique to the Huaorani and not believed to be related to any other language on earth. But it’s estimated that as many as half the Huaorani people speak at least some Spanish these days, and Spanish is taught to the children in school.

Today the Huaorani population is estimated to be about 4,000 people, spread out across a large (but shrinking) territory in eastern Ecuador known locally as the Oriente. But as you can see in our episode on PBS, many of the Huaorani are now concentrated and living in several communities like Apaike And Quehuere Ono.

The rain forest of eastern Ecuador. Home to the Huaorani.
The rain forest of eastern Ecuador. Home to the Huaorani.

The rain forest of the Oriente remains the essential basis of the Huaorani’s physical and cultural survival. They consider the rain forest their home, and to them it’s the outside world – our world – that’s dangerous. As one Huaorani put it, “The rivers and trees are our life.” They depend on their environment for literally everything they need to live, and are struggling hard to protect the rain forest and maintain their way of life.

Nik tries her hand at shooting a Huaorani blowgun.
Nik tries her hand at shooting a Huaorani blowgun.

The Huaorani are excellent fishermen and hunters, and the blowgun is still their main hunting weapon of choice. In fact, small blowguns are given to Huaorani boys when they’re young so they can grow and become skilled with them over time. Grown Huaorani warriors use blowguns that can reach up to 12-15 feet in length! And the arrows they use are dipped in a type of natural poison, which paralyzes the muscles of the animal (like a monkey, which is a valued meal) and causes it to stop breathing. Crazy.

That said, some animals are sacred to the Huaorani. Snakes (particularly anacondas) and jaguars both carry special spiritual significance and are never hunted.

Oil exploration near Huaorani territory.
Oil exploration near Huaorani territory.

Though the Huaorani culture is today one of the most unique and treasured on the planet, the Huaorani are very much in danger of fading into the pages of history, thanks to continuing (and at times increasing) encroachment on their territory by outside forces looking to exploit the many natural riches of the Oriente. Oil companies and logging companies in particular have posed a particularly dangerous threat to the Huaorani in recent decades, and many people worry that the Huaorani will be virtually extinct in a number of years if more steps aren’t taken to protect their culture and territory.

SEE MORE: full episode, videos, photos and blogs from our incredible time with the Huaorani here.

Safe and happy travels y’all!

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