Shipibo Indians

The Shipibo have achieved a recognition, not as fierce warriors like the Yanomamo or Shuar, but as skilled artisans and crafts people. The Shipibo (shuh-PEE-boh) number more than 25,000 and are found in about 110 scattered settlements and villages north of the city of Pucallpa. Because there are few roads in this dense patch of forest, paddling the region’s man rivers is often the most efficient means of travel.

In order to make the best use of the scarce land, the Shipibo do not live in large settlements. Instead their compounds are spread mostly along riverbanks in villages of no more than forty families. Compounds are made up of several dwellings grouped together and used by a single extended family. The main house is an all-purpose room where people sleep and the women spin cotton and weave their textiles. It is built of wooden support poles, with a roof covered in palm leaves. The floor is raised off the ground and made of bark stripped from palm trees. In rare cases, a floor of boards obtained from a sawmill may be built and firmly secured with nails. Typically there are no walls. Mosquito nets, which are stored in the rafters during the day, are brought down for use at night. The married women also have a separate cooking house as part of the compound. Enough distance is left between compounds to ensure a degree of privacy.

This arrangement seems to fit the way the Shipibo view and organize their society. Despite being linked by the same ancestors and speaking the same language, the Shipibo do not consider themselves a nation. They do not have a single leader or one official code of law. Each extended family forms a small community and makes its own decisions under the guidance of the men.

Traditionally, the Shipibo had a matriarchal society, which means that the women ran the households and made the important decisions. When a Shipibo couple marries, the man goes to live in his wife’s village. They are also matrilineal. Thus the group that inhabits a particular compound traces its descent through the mother’s family line. The Shipibo men therefore are often starting over when they marry. They establish new friendships and learn the rhythm and rituals of the family with whom they are living.

The biggest social event in Shipibo societ was a puberty rite, welcoming girls into womanhood. This involved extensive preparations b the parents and relatives of the girls involved and culminated in an elaborate feast. The main beverage served was a fermented manioic drink called masato. Special clay vessels were constructed for the fermentation and storage of this drink. Great quantities had to be brewed as the feast often lasted days and sometimes even weeks. Many people attended and all wore their finest garments, especially the women of the family hosting the event. These women often created their finest ceramics for the special occasion.

Today, their main means of making money is through the sale of these beautiful handicrafts. Girls are first taught to paint by the age of four, while boys are instructed in making wood toys including dolls, tops, and carved animals. A boy’s real education, however, involves learning how to hunt, fish, and gather fruits for the family. Farming, usuall using the slash and burn method, is also the man’s task. Typical crops include rice, beans, cassava, and cotton. Cattle, first introduced b missionaries, are also foten raised in Shipibo communities. The family rarely used the animals for meat or milk though. THey raised solely to be sold in the marketplace. But cattle are a status symbol, and few communities are able to afford them.

The Shipibo have held on to their traditional ways as much as they can. In truth, today SHipibo life is a blend of modern influences and their own timeless beliefs and customs. Many Shipibo have now accepted Western medicine in treating their ailments. Some gropus also own motorboats to collect raditional handicrafts produced by compounds and settlements aong the same river. In a dugout canoe, such a trip might take several weeks.

Despite 300 years of sporadic contact with white or mestizo civilization, and massive conversion to Christianity in the 1950’s and 60’s the Shipibo-Conibos maintain a strong identity and retain their ancient ways. They are known for their intricate designs on their pottery and their bright clothing. All of the villages use barter for trade, but their proximity to the burgeoning town of Pucallpa makes it inevitable that the people will soon be drawn into modern trade and exploitation.

Clay Pottery Creations and Textiles

The Shipibo are well known for their distinctive pottery. In their culture the designs they use are traditionally copied from the skin of the Giant Anaconda or the heavens, such as the Southern Cross. Many other designs were given to them by their culture hero Incan ancestors.

It is the women who are the artisans. Shipibo women use a very distinct pattern of geometric lines and designs to decorate their textiles and ceramics. These mazelike arrays of lines and crosses reflect their spiritual beliefs and portray their vision of the Universe. These designs were once used on almost everything created by the Shipibo. Even their bodies were painted with a dark vegetable de in the same series of figures.

According to their belief bari, the Sun, and Use, the Moon, had seven children who were the ancestors of all the Amazon’s native groups. At the end of tehir lives, these forefathers were turned into stars. The Shipibo call this group of seven stars Huishmabu. It is a constellation that not only helps them chart the course of the year but is also the source of their geometric designs.

shipibo pot It is very rare to find such a huge pot as this in perfect condition! This pot is a whopping 17″ tall x 15 1/2″ in diameter.
Shipibo fish sculpture, 8″ long.
Shipibo turtle sculpture, 9″ long.

Today theis star pattern is seen primarily on cloth and clay vessels. The pottery usually features graceful curving shapes and sometimes includes human faces of the design. These pots are still created today with an ancient but simple technology that involves coils of clay being stacked one atop the other. These coil pots are fashioned by many Amazonian peoples, but few with the enduring beauty of the Shipibo vessels. Pinched and smoothed with the fingers, Shipibo pots are known for being especially light and delicate.

The hand painted Shipibo cloth is on natural cotton fabric and painted with vegetable dyes. The cloth is worn as a wrap around loin cloth by the women of the tribe as well as being used for other functions.

hand painted shipibo indian cloth hand painted shipibo indian cloth
hand painted shipibo indian cloth hand painted shipibo indian cloth
hand painted shipibo indian cloth hand painted shipibo indian cloth
hand painted shipibo indian cloth hand painted shipibo indian cloth
hand painted shipibo indian cloth hand painted shipibo indian cloth
hand painted shipibo indian cloth hand painted shipibo indian cloth
hand painted shipibo indian cloth hand painted shipibo indian cloth
hand painted shipibo indian cloth hand painted shipibo indian cloth
hand painted shipibo indian cloth hand painted shipibo indian cloth
hand painted shipibo indian cloth hand painted shipibo indian cloth

Additional Information

“Native Peoples” by James L. Castner. 2002 Marshall Cavendish.

5 thoughts on “Shipibo Indians”

  1. I love their pottery. I have purchased 4 of them in the last 10 years in California. I just purchased a 22 tall and 26 wide. How do we locate the artist who made the pots? Paintings have autographs. Do the pots have a maker’s markers or signatures. I would love to know who painted my pots. I am an art collector. I research every piece for months to locate the artist, the tribe, the year, the century.

  2. It is very interesting that you do not mention that the focus of the puberty rite “welcoming young girls into womanhood” was radical clitoroidectomy and you also do not mention ayahuasca shamanism at all as essential to the designs of the textiles. Why not?

  3. This way of life sounds so beautiful, I hope to go to Pacullpa next fall or winter. I am so anxious, the Shipibo people seem like wonderful people. I pray that I will be able to meet them in person.

    1. I was there in 1972 and worked with the missionaries for two weeks. I was given from the indians, the clothing they wore including the wrist band and a beautiful Eagle pendant that is probably one of it’s kind. It was all as a way of saying thank you…

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