They venerate the jaguar, and believe they are children of Nweke (thunder). They call themselves the bravest people in the rainforest. Only five or six decades ago, Huaorani used stone axes and lived as nomadic hunters and gatherers. Now life is changing fast.
A few tribal Huaorani still continue as they have for a millennia, existing in supreme harmony with nature, hunting with blowguns and spears. I have visited one extremely remote village for the past thirteen years and have created a documentary photobook about these beautiful people and their remarkable life in the rainforest before it is lost forever. I write about their life and my experience with them. It’s about one of the last remaining tribal people living unchanged in a changing world.
The world outside the forest has a great opportunity to gain priceless information from these wise and knowledgeable people before it disappears. Now many of the young wear western clothes and long for radios and whisky. For the traditional Huaorani, between this world and the next stretches the Great “Obe” (anaconda). To reach the “the next place”, one must jump over the Great Obe into paradise, a forest of peace and good hunting. If you live your life correctly you can jump over and meet all the worthy Huaorani in the next life. Huaorani elders are trying to keep their traditions alive, but many are interested in what the western world can offer. I overheard a conversation a chief had with his grandson, who had just come back from working in an oil camp wearing sunglasses, shorts and a t-shirt. "I will jump over the Great “Obe” into paradise,” the chief said “but you will never. You will come back as a termite!...'
(Excerpt from book) 'I crash through the Amazonian underbrush as a tangled vine grabs my foot, and I plunge tumbling into a fetid, green, swampy pool. A naked four and a half foot native runs by, nearly crowning me as I duck below his ten-foot blowgun. Spitting mud, I get up and dash headlong after him. The woolly monkey we are chasing races one hundred and fifty feet above us through the dark canopy, allowing only brief glimpses as he leaps from tree to tree. When I catch up with the hunter, he is drawing a nineteen-inch poison-tipped dart from the quiver hanging around his neck. He cuts a notch near its point with a row of razor sharp piranha teeth, and then spins a short length of fluffy white fiber circling the dart’s base as he fits it into his blowgun. All the while his eyes fix intently on one point high in the treetops. I scan the foliage, but I am unable to spot any glimpse of his prey. The hunter positions the blowgun on his lips, and I follow the aim of the blowpipe. Lining up countless tiny openings through the myriad layers of vegetation, I notice a tiny, barely perceptible, dark patch of movement in the loftiest branches. Surely, I think, a shot now would be futile. Firing through that array of minute gaps would be like directing an arrow up ten stories, through a multitude of three-inch openings in each floor. He fills his lungs, and throwing his body forward, gives the blowgun a great blast of air and makes a hit...'
I have returned to visit the Huaorani, a tribal group deep in Ecuador’s remote Amazon Basin. They live within an isolated and protected region between the Curaray and Napo Rivers, designated the Intangible Zone. Huaorani land is prohibited to all outsiders unless given permission to visit, however it is rich with oil and hardwoods. Lumber concerns, oil camps and small settlements surround Huaorani territory and the lure of a quick buck brings these outsiders into Huaorani land from time to time. The result is that every few months a death by spearpoint is reported.
Only four or five decades ago, Huaorani used stone axes and lived as nomadic hunters and gatherers. The name Huaorani translates as The People, and they view all others as "Cowode" or non-human. They venerate the jaguar, and believe they are children of Nweke (thunder). They call themselves the bravest people in the rainforest. Huaorani were first known to the outside world as "Auca", a name given to them by another tribe, the Quichua, which described their past relationship with virtually all other human contact. In Quichua, "Auca" translates as savage. One anthropologist estimates that in the past, the cause of death for as much as 70% of male Huaorani was warfare. In 1956, first Western contact resulted in five dead missionaries. This is how the world beyond the Amazon first came to know the Huaorani. I know them as fearless hunters, but a warm and humorous people dedicated to their families, trying only to protect their land and culture. Today the Huaorani have adopted various levels of technology, depending on the village, from machetes to outboard engines. Tribal Huaorani now number somewhere around two thousand and most reside in peaceful, permanent communities. One known uncontacted Huaorani clan, the Tagaeri-Taromenane, live in self isolation continuing to survive as nomads, and violently repel all outsiders. In fact, the primary reason Huaorani lands have not been take over by outside concerns is due to the Tagaeri-Taromenane. Every few months a logger is found next to his chain saw with 15-30 spears rising from his chest, left as a warning. I have visited a particular Huaorani village several times over the past thirteen years. It is remote, requiring a small bush plane flight to a frontier oil, followed by a day bouncing over a rough track in an open truck, a pass through a government check point, and then four more days down river in a motorized canoe, often cutting through overhanging vines and fallen trees. When I first visited the village in 1998 I had to arrange for an audience with the village leader to ask for permission to visit. As I climbed from the canoe up the riverbank, I saw him standing on the bluff, arms folded, with piercing dark eyes appraising me as I approached. The headman, Kemperi, was remarkably fit at nearly seventy years-old. He stood a little under five feet tall, naked save his “kome”, a twisted fiber cord encircling his waist with his foreskin tucked up underneath, supporting his penis. Long, ageless jet-black hair fell down his back, cut short and straight above his eyes from ear to ear in traditional Huaorani fashion. His earlobes had great three-inch holes that had been stretched since childhood to accommodate large wooden earplugs. Hoping to get on the right footing, I offered him some fishhooks and line, stashed in a round film canister that I usually carry on my journeys. He gently examined the gift, delicately inspecting each large and small hook in his strong left hand. It was armed with an unusually long claw-like thumbnail that I later discovered he used deftly as a tool. After inspecting the hooks, he replaced them in the container, and looking very pleased, wedged the shot glass-sized canister into the hole of one of his earlobes.