Yaguas Yagua Indians | Curare




Yagua Woman | Girl

By Dan James Pantone, Ph.D.



f all the indigenous tribes that inhabit the Peruvian Amazon, the Yaguas are perhaps the most characteristic tribe of the region.  In fact, it was the Yaguas who gave the Amazon its name.  According to legend when the Spaniards first came to the Amazon, they saw the Yaguas with their blowguns through the trees wearing "grass skirts" and thought they were women.  Subsequently, they named the Amazon River after the Greek myth of the Amazon women warriors. 


Yagua Native ShamanUnlike some other tribes, they were not brought to the Iquitos area by the rubber barons.  They are actually from the Loreto region.  The Yaguas community consists of approximately 4,000 native-speakers who live primarily in the Loreto Province of Peru.  However, the Yaguas are extremely wide spread, and I have visited Yagua communities in Colombia and on the Yavarí River near the Brazilian frontier. 


The Yagua language is the only surviving language of the Peba-Yagua linguistic family.  The other languages, Peba, Masamae and Yameo, are extinct languages.  Peba and Masamae became extinct in the early 20th century while Yameo was last spoken in the 1960's.  Yagua is a unique language and linguists have been fascinated by its distinctive morphology and syntax. 


Interestingly, they do not refer to themselves as Yaguas.  In their native tongue, the Yaguas call themselves Nihamwo ("The People").  This is analogous to the Matsés Indians in that Matsés also means "The People" is their native language. 


The "grass skirts" that are typical Yagua attire are not really made of grass.  Rather they are made from the fiber of the aguaje palm (Mauritia flexuosa) Often, they will use a red dye (achiote) obtained from the fruit of the tree Bixa orellana to color the fibers and paint their skin.  Therefore, the Yagua still rely on the rain forest for much of their clothing. However, the women typically make their skirts out of red cotton cloth that they purchase. 


Yagua ShamanThe Yaguas are famous for their use of cerbatanas or pucunas (blowguns)Although the Yagua blowguns are typically half the length of the Matis four-meter blowguns (see page 1, Matis Indians: Last of the Hunters), they are still highly effective hunting tools and still commonly used.  Even though shotguns are a much more efficient means of hunting, blowguns are still used for economic reasons.  Shotgun cartridges are just too expensive.  A genuine Yagua blowgun (i.e. one not made for tourists) is truly a work of art.  One key factor in making an effective blowgun is carving a bore through the blowgun barrel that is perfectly true.  To do this, the barrel is initially made from two separate pieces of wood, and each half of the barrel is grooved by carving the piece of wood by hand.  Later, the two barrel halves are fitted together to form the barrel cylinder and held in place with the mouthpiece.  Brea (a type of tar) is then used to seal the outer surface of the barrel. 


The other key factor, besides making a blowgun that is true, is the curare-tipped darts, and Yagua shamans really are masters when it comes to making curare.  The curare vine, Chondrodendron tomentosum is only one of the many ingredients typically used to make curare.   Many other plants, including the strychnine plant, Stryens guinesis, are often used to produce curare.  The ancient knowledge of making the curare mixture has been passed down, generation to generation, by Yagua shamans.  Curare is a fast-acting poison that does not directly kill its victim.  Instead, it causes paralysis.   Death is caused by suffocation when the victim's lungs are paralyzed.


Yagua GirlFortunately, the Yagua have not been ravaged by alcoholism as have been many other Amazon tribes.   They do, however, have their own traditional alcoholic beverage called masato, which is made by chewing and fermenting the root of the yucca plant.   Masato is often consumed by the Yaguas in large amounts during festivals (masatiadas), some of which last four days.  Traditional dances (atunas) are performed during which they play music created with native instruments such as the flute (sutendiu) and drum (chinu). 


The Yagua community near Iquitos on the Momon River is small (less than 30 people) and no bilingual education exists.  Consequently, the younger Yaguas are losing their ability to speak their native tongue.  This is in stark contrast to the nearby Bora community which numbers over 300, has bilingual schools and all the children speak Bora as their primary language. 


If you would like to learn how you can meet the real Yagua Indians and find out how you can help them preserve their culture, please feel free to contact me via email at djpantone@amazon-indians.org


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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