Waorani People

Waorani People

The Waorani are Amerindians from the Amazonian Region of Ecuador (Napo, Orellana and Pastaza Provinces) who have marked differences from other ethnic groups from Ecuador. The entire Yasuni Biosphere Reserve is ancestral Waorani territory, which extends from the Napo River on the north and west, down to the Curaray River in the south and eastward into Peru. This vast territory, which stretches over 20 000 km2, underlies the current limits of Yasuni National Park and the Waorani Ethnic Reserve.

Information on Waorani history and distribution prior to the twentieth century is scarce and speculative The Waorani were traditionally a highly mobile, semi-nomadic population of hunter-gatherer horticulturalists.
They lived in four warring and widely dispersed groups located on hilltops away from major rivers; the headwaters of the Tiputini River constituted the core of ancestral Waorani territory. Other indigenous groups, mainly the Zaparos, lived along the Tiputini and Curaray rivers in essence surrounding the Waorani. When the Zaparos were suddenly decimated by disease and violent displacement during the rubber boom that hit the region in the late 1800s, the Waorani were able to expand their territory northward to the Napo and southward to the Upper Curaray and Villano rivers. Waorani territory likely reached its greatest extent at the beginning of 20th century
At least two lines of evidence suggest that the Waorani were quite isolated, even from other indigenous groups in the area, for a long time:
 1. - Their language, Wao Terero (or Wao Tededo), is an isolated one without known congeners and with only two known cognates at the time of missionary contact in the late 1950s Wao Terero is considered unique in linguistic construction, with no known similarities with Zaparoan phonology or structure.
2. - The genetic homogeneity of The Waorani also points to a lengthy isolation of their population.

During modern history, there were four major periods of early contact between the Waorani—which translates to ‘the people’ or ‘true human beings’ in Wao Terero—and
outsiders encroaching on their territory:
1. - The rubber boom in the late 1800s/early 1900s,
2. - Early oil exploration in the 1940s,
3. - Missionary work starting in the 1950s, and
4. - The oil boom starting in the 1970s.

Prior to contact with missionaries in the late 1950s, it is estimated that ∼17% of Waorani deaths stemmed from conflicts with outsiders whom the Waorani referred to as ‘Cohouri’ (or kowodi) and considered to be nonhuman predators or cannibals.

There is evidence dating back to the early 1900s, during the era of the rubber boom, of deadly spearings by the Waorani. Such lethal spearings grew more common in the 20s and 30s. Indeed, by this time the Waorani had generated a notorious reputation for their fierce attacks against intruders. The Waorani maintained their dominance of the region until the arrival of the oil company Royal Dutch Shell in the 1940s. Shell established a base camp on the western edge of Waorani lands and built several airstrips in the core of their territory. The Waorani were a constant threat to these operations, killing several Shell workers during the 1940s. In 1950, Shell abruptly abandoned operations in the Waorani territory.

As the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company was leaving, however, the missionaries were arriving. In 1955, a group of American evangelical missionaries started an aggressive effort to make contact with the Waorani, starting with gift distribution via airplane. A group of Waorani made news around the world in 1956 when they speared and killed five of these missionaries, whom had landed their plane deep inside Waorani territory in an effort to make first contact. Two years later, in October 1958, evangelical missionary Rachel Saint—sister of one of the killed missionaries—with the help of Dayuma—a Waorani woman who had run away several years before—made the first peaceful contact with one of the four Waorani groups. Over the next decade, members of this newly contacted group began to live in a new settlement, known as Tihueno (or Tewaeno), established by Saint.

In 1968, the Ecuadorian government authorized Saint’s American evangelical organization, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), to create a relatively small (∼1600 km2) ‘Protectorate’ in the westernmost part of Waorani lands for the translocation of the three other Waorani territorial groups. The following five years, Saint—often with the assistance of oil company helicopters—relocated the vast majority of the Waorani to the Protectorate. These events have led numerous authors to speculate about a government-missionary-oil company axis aimed at clearing out the hostile Waorani in order to make way for oil exploration. Oil exploration started up again in Waorani territory during the early 1970s in areas abandoned by relocated Waorani groups.

Total Waorani population size was around 600 when first surveyed in the early 1960s, and more than 500 had been relocated to the Protectorate’s mission base by the mid-1970s. In other words, over 80% of the Waorani population was suddenly living in less than 10% of their traditional lands. Moreover, instead of several nomadic, self-sufficient, dispersed, and warring groups spread across a vast territory, most Waorani were suddenly confined to a small area, living sedentary, missionary dependent lives. A deadly polio epidemic hit the missionary compound in 1969 immediately following the arrival of the third Waorani group, killing 16 and permanently handicapping many more; several authors argue that SIL was directly responsible for this outbreak due to inadequate vaccinations and sanitation while at the same time concentrating a large population in such a small area.

One of the most obvious changes attributed to the missionary influence is that the cycle of vengeance killing among the Waorani has largely been broken and internal warfare has ended, or at least reduced to very infrequent incidents. It is estimated that around 42% of Waorani deaths were attributable to internal group violence prior to missionary contact -the highest known homicide rate of any indigenous society. All Waorani deaths, even by illness or accident, were thought to be a direct consequence of another human, triggering a vicious cycle of revenge killings. Interestingly, Beckerman et al (2009) found that the most aggressive Waorani warriors did not actually enjoy higher reproductive success. Ziegler- Otero (2004), however, argues that the missionary work was ultimately ‘ethnocide’, destruction of a traditional way of a life and conversion to a foreign religion and new set of social norms.


In the traditional animist Waorani worldview, there is no distinction between the physical and spiritual worlds, and spirits are present throughout the world. The Waorani once believed that the entire world was a forest (and used the same word, ömë, for both). The Rainforest remains the essential basis of their physical and cultural survival. For them, the forest is home, while the outside world is considered unsafe: living in the forest offered protection from the witchcraft and attacks of neighboring peoples. In short, as one Huaorani put it, “The rivers and trees are our life.” In all its specificities, the forest is woven into each Huaorani’s life and conceptions of the world. They have remarkably detailed knowledge of its geography and ecology.

The Waorani believe the animals of their forest have a spirit as well as physical existence. They believe that a person who dies walks a trail to the afterlife, which has a large anaconda snake lying in wait. Those among the dead who cannot escape the snake fail to enter the domain of dead spirits and return to Earth to become animals, often termites. This underlies a mix of practices that recognize and respect animals, but does not shield them from harm for human use. The Waorani notion of time is particularly oriented to the present, with few obligations extending backwards or forwards in time. Their one word for future times, “baane”, also means "tomorrow".



Hunting supplies a major part of the Waorani diet and is of cultural significance. Traditionally, the creatures hunted were limited to monkeys, birds, and wild peccaries. Neither land-based predators nor birds of prey are hunted. Traditionally there was an extensive collection of hunting and eating taboos. They refused to eat deer, on the grounds that deer eyes look similar to human eyes. While a joyful activity, hunting (even permitted animals) has ethical ramifications: “The Huaorani must kill animals to live, but they believed dead animal spirits live on and must be placated or else do harm in angry retribution.”  To counterbalance the offense of hunting, the hunter demonstrated respect through the ritual preparation of the poison, curare, used in blow darts. Hunting with such darts is not considered killing, but retrieving, essentially a kind of harvesting from the trees. Spearing wild peccaries, on the other hand, is killing and is practiced with violence and rage alter the hunting their children would be beat with lianas.

While never hunted, two other animals, the snake and the jaguar, have special significance for the Huaorani. Snakes are considered "the most evil force in the Huaorani cosmology", particularly the imposing (though nonvenemous) anaconda, or ‘obe’. A giant ‘obe’ stands in the way of the forest trail that the dead follow to an afterlife with the creator in the sky. Here on earth, snakes are a bad omen, and traditionally killing them is considered taboo.

The Waorani identify deeply with the jaguar, an important and majestic predator in the Amazon Rainforest. According to myth, the Huaorani were the descendants of a mating between a jaguar and an eagle. Elders became shamans by metaphorically adopting “jaguar sons” whose spirits communicate medical and spiritual knowledge. In the Huaorani belief system, jaguar shamans are able “to become a jaguar, and so to travel great distances telepathically and communicate with other Huaorani..Plants, especially trees, continue to hold a complex and important interest for the Huaorani. Their store an extensive of botanical knowledge, ranging from materials to poisons, hallucinogens or medicines. They also relate plants to their own experiences, particularly that of growing. Among trees, certain kinds are auspicious. Canopy trees, with their distinctly colored young leaves and striking transformation as they mature to towering giants, are “admired for their solitary character … as well as for their profuse entanglement” with other plants. Other significant trees are the pioneer species of the peach palm (used for making spears and blowguns, as well as for fruit), and fast-growing balsa wood, used for ceremonial purposes. Peach palm trees are associated with past settlements and the ancestors who live there.


Most of the weapons use by the Waorani People is made of palm trees from the genera, such as:  Iriartea sp. Socratea sp and Bactris sp. Spears are the main weapons of the Waorani culture used in person to person conflict. Their important hunting weapon is the blowgun; these are typically from 3 to 4 metres long, consisting of two parts and then sealing it with bee wax and wrap around bark of epiphytes lianas. The arrows used are dipped in curare poison, which paralyzes the muscles of the animal, which is hit with it, so that it cannot breathe. Kapok fluff is used to create an airtight seal, by twisting the fibers around the end of the dart or arrow. With the introduction of Western technology in the 20th century, many Waorani now use rifles for hunting provided by oil companies.


Waorani families practiced endogamy, especially cross-cousin marriages — a woman may marry her cousin(s) from one or more sisters on her father's side, or from brother(s) on her mother's side (and necessarily vice-versa with regard to females and their marriage choices). The men may also have multiple wives. Sometimes, a man would kill another man to gain another wife; this was traditionally common if a man had no available cousin to marry. Husbands and wives often enjoy spontaneous sex, due to their nudity. Huaorani women remove all their body hair by first rubbing ash in the areas where they do not want hair – supposedly to reduce the pain – then pull out the hair.


The Waorani huts are made of palm leaves and medium size tree trunks. Inside, shafts of sunlight filtering through the roof created a cathedral-like atmosphere. Its dark but spacious-about 12m long, 6m wide, and 5m high. Eighteen people could live here-four families-with no privacy at all. Non-interference is the ethic in Waorani society. There is no concept of competition or rank, children have the same status as adults, and men and women are socially equal, although there is the usual division of labor between them. Men hunt, women cook; men fell trees, women take care of the children; men make weapons and poisons, women weave hammocks. The air inside smelled strongly of wood- smoke. Hammocks and crude hanging baskets bearing a few belongings surrounded the six hearths, with smoldering embers. A few spears lay across the beams of the house, and three blowguns were each propped in the corner nearest to its respective owner. The fires are kept going continuously and are even carried around in a termite nest, which will smolder for hours as the Waorani move to a new area. If for any reason they are left without a fire, rubbing two sticks together lights a new one.