Bora Indians Bora Indians - Survival of a Native Culture




Bora Indian Girl

By Dan James Pantone, Ph.D.



ne of the primary tourist attractions in Iquitos is the Bora Indians who live near San Andrés Village on the Nanay River.  Many tourists visit them and see them dance, but few get to really know the Boras and their culture.  Who are these indigenous people and how did they come to live near Iquitos?


The Bora native community consists of about 3,000 native-speakers almost all living in Peru (about 2000 individuals) and Colombia (about 1000 people), although several Bora villages exist in Brazil.  Unfortunately, the Brazilian Boras no longer speak their native language having been largely assimilated into the Brazilian culture.  The Bora language is closely aligned with Huitoto (Witoto). 


Bora TribeThe Bora tribe is divided into different clans, typically represented by an animal.  They paint their faces with different designs with huito (Genipa americana), depending upon their clan.  Intermarriage with the same clan is prohibited, thus preventing interbreeding and genetic aberrations within small communities. 


Traditionally, the Boras Indians do not dance as they do for tourists in Iquitos.  Instead they use large (six foot) batons that they pound in unison on the ground as they dance.  The batons typically have shells attached to them that add to the musical harmony.  I first witnessed traditional Bora native dances in Colombia near Leticia where they often spend the whole night dancing in their ceremonies. 


One authentic item you can view at the Bora native community in Iquitos is the Manguaré drum.  Manguaré drums have different forms, depending on whether they are male or female, and are used in some Bora ceremonies.  In addition, you can see traditional bark cloth that the Boras make by pounding the bark of a palm tree.  The Boras peel strips of bark from the tree and pound it with a wooden hammer.  After they wet and pound it until the outer bark disintegrates, only the inner bark is left.  The inner bark is the natural fiber used for traditional Bora clothing.  The bark clothes have a coarse, inflexible look and the texture of burlap.  The bark clothing is colored with natural dyes.  Yellow colors are obtained from a ginger plant and black from pressed green fruits of the huito tree. The huito liquid is clear when first painted, but later turns black as it is oxidized by the air.


In addition to bark cloth, the Bora Indians in Iquitos have beautiful bags that are woven from chambira, a fiber obtained from a palm tree.  The fibers used in these bags are typically dyed using native plants and the bags really are hand-made works of art. 


Bora Tribe ShamanOne interesting fact is that the Bora community in Iquitos does not seem to be deteriorating as one might suspect.  One key ingredient in maintaining a native culture is language, and the Bora natives here in Iquitos are passing their language (and consequently, their culture) on to their children.  If you talk to the children, you will see that they readily understand the Bora language. 


Besides language, another test of cultural integrity is traditional medicine, and the Bora tribe has managed to retain much of their knowledge of medicinal plants.  A good example is the coca plant (Erythroxylum coca) which plays an important role in the diet and traditional medicine of the Boras.  As in the Andes Mountains, coca leaves are consumed to provide essential nutrients and is an integral part of their diet.  Similar to the Andes, the consumption of coca allows individuals to work for extended periods without exhaustion.  What is different from the Andes is the manner in which the Bora Indians process the coca.  They do not chew the raw leaves as they do in the mountains.  Instead, they dry the leaves over a fire, place them into a sack and pound them into a very fine powder.  This powdered coca typically is not taken alone and traditionally a tobacco mixture is blown into one’s nostrils before the coca powder is placed in one’s mouth. 


Another example of how the Bora Indians are preserving their culture is the sustainable agroforestry project being conducted in Brillo Nuevo, a community of Bora Indians on the Ampiyacu River, a branch of the Amazon River located 120 kilometers east of Iquitos.  Scientists have learned much from observations on traditional Bora agroforestry.  Currently, scientists are incorporating traditional Bora agroforestry techniques into new models of tropical agriculture that will sustain the tropical rainforest rather than destroy it.


Bora NativesSurprisingly, the Bora Indians are not from Peru.  The Bora ancestral homeland is in reality north of the Putumayo River in what is now Colombia.  Before the turn of the twentieth century, the Boras were a semi-nomadic tribe, residing in large communal houses in the upland forest.  Essentially, they were nomads practicing shifting cultivation in communal fields, which they subsidized with hunting and fishing. 


Around 1900, the Amazon rubber boom changed the ways of the Boras forever.  This period was disastrous for the Bora communities of the Putumayo as the Peruvian rubber corporations enslaved the Boras and forced them to harvest the latex from wild stands of rubber trees.  Large numbers of Boras were wiped out during this period.  Before the rubber boom, the Bora indigenous population was estimated as over 15,000 individuals.  Some years later, following Peru's disastrous loss of the border war with Colombia in Bora Nativethe 1930’s and the ceding of territory north of the Putumayo, many Boras were evacuated to their present communities near Iquitos. By the 1940’s the total population of Bora natives had dwindled to fewer than 450 people.  If you would like to learn more about the sufferings of the Bora Indians during the rubber boom, please read the book The Putumayo, The Devil's Paradise, written by an American adventurer W.E. Hardenburg in 1912.


If you would like to learn how you can meet the real Bora Indians and find out how you can help them preserve their culture, please feel free to contact me via email at


The author, Dr. Dan James Pantone, is the editor of Amazon-Indians and an ecologist currently working with the Movement in the Amazon for Tribal Subsistence and Economic Sustainability (MATSES), a non-profit association that is helping indigenous people so that they themselves can preserve their culture and lands in a sustainable and independent manner.


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