The Yanomamo (Yah-no-mah-muh) also called Yanomami, and Yanomama, are deep jungle Indians living in the Amazon basin in both southern Venezuela and northern Brazil. The Yanomami are believed to be the most primitive, culturally intact people in existence in the world. They are literally a stone age tribe. Cataloged by anthropologists as Neo-Indians with cultural characteristics that date back more than 8000 years, these are a Last Encyclopedia. They have never discovered the wheel and the only metal they use is what has been traded to them from the outside. Their numbering system is one, two, and more than two. They cremate their dead, then crush and drink their bones in a final ceremony intended to keep their loved ones with them forever. They are hunters and gatherers who also tend small garden plots.
They are one of the most successful groups in the Amazon rain forest to gain a superior balance and harmony with their environment. David Yanomami (one of the Amazon’s most respected “Page” or Medicine men) foretells that if the white man does not stop his perverse destruction of our Mother Earth, that the white men are doomed to extinction, right along with the rain forest and the Yanomami.
Children are an important facet of the Yanomami way of life and, indeed, their survival as a culture. In fact, men may take more than one wife in order to produce as many children in as short a time as possible. Members of a village community prefer to marry their own kin and will often wed a cousin or the son or daughter of an uncle. This practice results in strong bonds within a community.
Like so many other indigenous populations, the Yanomami have suffered tremendously because of the white man’s greed. As recently as the late 20th century, small independent gold miners would kill Yanomami tribe members in disputes over who had a right to mine the land. Sometimes it is really hard to distinguish which is the more primitive society.
Yanomami Villages and Shabonos
The Yanamami live in a small part of the Amazon River basin, the world’s largest river by volume. The climate is hot and wet with more than 100 inches of rain fall every year. There are about 200 to 350 Yanomami villages scattered widely throughout their territory each supporting between 40 and 150 people. In most villages, people build one big round hut, about 100 feet wide called a shabono or yano, and the whole village lives inside. In the middle is a big open plaza where children play and adults perform rituals. Yanomami build shabonos of tree trunks, vines, palm leaves, and other Amazon plants. Each family builds its own section of the shabono, called a nano. Nanos are small and feature an open cooking and heating fire. Fire sticks are still often used to make a fire. Making fire with sticks is a long and arduous process requiring skill and dexterity. They sleep in hammocks that hang near the fires to keep warm at night. Vulnerable to attack by insect pests and damage from storms, the shelter needs to be rebuilt every one to two years.
|Yanomamo female loin cloth||Necklaces|
The Yanomami rely on a primitive agricultural technique called “slash and burn.” Forests and woodlands are cut and burned to create fields. This low-tech method of subsistence agriculture requires few tools although, beyond a certain population density, is inefficient.
The women weave and decorate the baskets. Baskets are fashioned from palm fibers and then decorated. Around the home, many are shaped into bowls. They make both flat baskets and burden baskets which are carried by a strap around the forehead. These they dye with a red berry called onoto which they also use to decorate their bodies and dye their loin cloths. The baskets are then decorated with traditional geometric designs with masticated charcoal pigment. While baskets are often sold in stores, the local women are so adept at making them they simply whip them up when the need arises.
|Yanomamo Chief Selling Baskets||Women Making Baskets|
|Yanomamo Women With Baskets||Yanomamo Women With Fishing Basket|
|Yanomamo Girl With Basket||Yanomamo Women|
Shotos and Burden baskets are woven by the women. On the burden basket a strap is attached that fits around the forehead while the basket rests on the back like a backpack. The baskets are used for everything from carrying fish to firewood. Yanomamo Shoto’s are flat baskets or trays, usually use in the shabano or hut to store things as well as for serving trays. They are stored by hanging from the shabano poles. Yanomamo baskets are colored a reddish color from crushed onoto seeds and usually are decorated with traditional designs and symbols in black. The black is usually masticated charcoal. The baskets below are traditional handmade Yanomamo Burden Baskets from the Venezuelan Amazon rainforest.
|11″ x 12″||11″ x 11″||10″ x 10″|
Blow Guns and Bows & Arrows
The Yanomami as well as other Indian tribes in the Amazon Basin hunt with blow guns or bows and arrows. The Yanomami often hunt the tapir which looks a little bit like a pig and weighs up to 800 pounds.
The blowguns of the Amazon tribes are all made in a similar way. A piece of cane is used to fashion the shaft as it must be long and straight. Often a thinner pieces of cane is fitted inside a larger piece. A mouthpiece is cut or carved from wood. The darts are made from sharpened fibers and balanced on the end with either cotton, which they grow in the villages, or the fiber of the kapok tree. They often use poison from the poison dart frog to dip the ends of the darts in. They stroke the sides of the frog causing it to excrete the poison, then boil it down to intensify it. Blowguns are amazingly accurate. Although the darts seem fragile, they can easily piece a tree, and when used with the poison can bring down the largest game. The darts are carried in a quiver. These are often made from a section of bamboo. The top of the quiver can be made from animal hide or may be woven into a basket shape. The quiver can be entirely woven like a basket or even made from leaves. Some tribes such as the Guahibo decorate the shafts of the blowguns with woven fibers.
The bows and arrows of the Amazon tribes are all made in a similar way. A flexible piece of wood fashions the bow and is strung with a hand spun fiber found in the rain forest. The arrows are made with a piece of cane for the shaft and is fletched with feathers. Yanomamo arrowheads are carved with wood sharpened twigs or the bones of animals, birds, or fish, while other tribes, such as the Guahibo, often use scrap metal to fashion their points. Young boys begin at an early age to practice archery skills, often with a lizard tied to a string. The men carry quivers containing extra carved wooden spear and arrow points when they are out hunting. Around the outside of the quiver they also tie the fire making sticks.
Set of Yanomamo bow and arrows in a cane quiver. The quivers are decorated with charcoal and/or the crushed red onoto nut. Each quiver contains a bow and three arrows. The bow and arrows measure approx. 27″ to 28″ long. The arrows are fletched with feathers and each have a different type of arrowhead carved from hard wood designed to hunt different sizes of game – birds, small mammals and larger mammals.
Detail showing the three arrows and bow in the above quivers.
The Yanomamo quivers below are called “thora”. These are carried with a strap around the neck hanging down between the shoulder blades on the back. Within the thora are extra hand carved hard wood arrow heads or spear points. The lid of the thora is made of boar hide with the fur on the inside of the lid.
Yopo – The Hallucinogenic Drug
The Yanomami smoke an hallucinogenic drug called yopo. Yopo is made by grinding several natural roots and vines that are gathered in the rainforest. Smoking the drug is very painful, causing blinding pains in the head and nausea. After they have achieved a trance state, they communicate with the spirit world and relate what they are seeing with chanting and dancing.
|Yanomamo Village||Using Hallucinogenic Yopo|
|Yanomamo Yapo Ceremony||Yanomamo Yapo Ceremony|
|Yanomamo Yapo Ceremony||Yanomamo Using Hallucinogenic Yopo|
The yopo is taken by being forcibly blown into the nasal cavities by another person by means of a long pipe like object.
25 1/2″ long
All photos property of Hands Around the World.
One of the first things you notice about the Yanomami Indians is the distinctive manner in which they decorate their faces and, occasionally, their upper bodies. They use brushes to apply dyes from forest trees to paint symbols on themselves in various shades of red and purple for celebrations and rituals. Wooden sticks are polished and then placed through the nose or in the corners of the mouth. Toucan feathers are fashioned into headdresses or worn in the ears. Women also decorate their ears with flowers, scented leaves or palm shoots. For certain festivals, the men and woman may cover their bodies in white clay. Black paint, made from crushed or chewed charcoal, is used by men at war. The color symbolizes death. Women wear black paint on the cheeks when in mourning; after one hear has passed, they may wear red.
The Yanomamo people – Excerpts from: Napoleon A. Chagnon. Yanomamo: The Fierce People, CBS College Publishing, New York, NY, 1983.
At the Yanomami’s – Beata Pawlikowska – The authors travels the Orinoco river to meet the Yanomami
Yanomamo Interactive – University of Manitoba, includes material from the CD Rom created by Peter Biella and Napolean Chagnon
Yanomamo Interactive: Dr. Napoleon Chagnon’s famous film, The Ax Fight, is currently being developed into an interactive CD-ROM that will allow students to more effectively understand the social and political dynamics that the film portrays. An online demo is currently available that illustrates a few minutes of this film, as well as the accompanying background information that accompanies the CD.
The Axe Fight – Movie
The Axe Fight – CD index
Anthropologists and Napolean Chagnon
Yanomamo – Varying Adaptations of Foraging Horticulturalists by Raymond Hames in Just in Time Anthropology series
Yanoama – Yanomamo culture summary from the Ethnographic Atlas.
The Summit Times – Terminology Among the Yanomama Indians
Tribal Problems and Support
The CCPY is a Brazilian, independent, and non-profitmaking organisation.
The Yanomami in peril – from Multinational Monitor
The Yanomami Resource Page from PBS
Environmental and Human Rights Crisis in Amazon
Susanna Hecht, and Alexander Cockburn, 1989. The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers and Defenders of the Amazon. NY: Verso.
Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples
Marc S. Miller, ed., 1993. State of the Peoples: A Global Human Rights Report on Societies in Danger. Boston: Beacon Press.
Human Ecology in Amazon
Emilio F. Moran, 1993. Through Amazon Eyes: The Human Ecology of Amazonian Populations. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.
Leslie E. Sponsel, ed., 1995. Indigenous Peoples and the Future of Amazonia: An Ecological Anthropology of an Endangered World. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Human Rights Advocacy Organizations for Indigenous Peoples in the Amazon and Elsewhere
Commission for the Creation of the Yanomami Park (CCPY)
Rua Manoel da Nobrega, 111 conj. 32
04001 Sao Paulo, SP – Brasil
Phone: (5511) 925-1200
FAX: (5511) 284-6997
(CCPY regularly publishes information bulletins and alerts on the Yanomami situation).
46 Brattle St.
Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone: (617) 441-5400
FAX: (617) 441-5417
Link to Cultural Survival
Email: Ultranet firstname.lastname@example.org
11-15 Emerald St.
London WC1N 3QL
Advocacy Organization on Tropical Forests and Indigenous Inhabitants
Rainforest Action Network
450 Sansome, Suite 700
San Francisco, CA 94111
Tel: (415) 398-4404
FAX: (415) 398-2732
World Rainforest Movement
8 Chapel Row, Chadlington
OX7 3NA, England
Descriptions of Yanomami Culture and Life
Napoleon A. Chagnon, 1992. Yanomamo. NY: Harcourt Brace College Publishers. Fourth edition.
Kenneth Good, 1991. Into the Heart: One Man’s Pursuit of Love and Knowledge Among the Yanomamia. NY: Simon and Schuster.
Jacques Lizot, 1985. Tales of the Yanomami: Daily Life in the Venezuelan Forest. NY: Cambridge University Press.
Alcida Rita Ramos, 1995. Sanuma Memories: Yanomami Ethnography in Times of Crisis. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
R. Brian Ferguson, 1995. Yanomami Warfare: A Political History. Santa Fe: School for American Research Press.
Mining in the Amazon
David Cleary, 1990. Anatomy of the Amazon Gold Rush. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.
Gordon MacMillan, 1995. At the End of the Raibow? Gold, People, and Land in the Brazilian Amazon. NY: Colombia University Press.
Gold Miners Among the Yanomami
Dennison Berwick, 1992. Savages: The Life and Killing of the Yanomami. London, UK: Hodder and Stoughton, Ltd.