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WARANI: The Saga of Ecuador's Secret People: A Historical Perspective
Jim Yost with Waorani Children, 1983
Waorani Indian children, rio Cononaco, 2002

Caempaede's group at Gabado started moving, a few at a time, to the protectorate at Tewaeno. Soon afterwards, Tagae's group raided those still remaining at Gabado and, in fear for their lives, the survivors of Caempaede's group also moved out. It was now 1975, but after only a short time living in the Protectorate, Caempaede's group decided that the new lifestyle did not suit them and, in spite of the continuing danger from Tagae, they returned to their homeland at Gabado, in 1976. Jim Yost had continued his contact throughout this period and began his studies. It was an unique opportunity: a chance to observe for the first time a people who had been isolated for Centuries, and whose origins were a mystery.

Waorani Indians, Learning to use Blowgun, 1983
Waorani Indian girls, using Achiote for face decoration, rio Cononaco, 2002

Unravelling the secrets of Waorani culture, Jim made some amazing discoveries. He found that the Waorani had maintained the highest levels of homicide ever recorded in the annals of human history. Fully fifty per cent of all deaths in the preceding five generations had been the result of homicide as the Waorani engaged in a continuous and deadly internal vendetta, pursued mostly at night, in spearing raids. No death, it seemed, whatever the cause, went unavenged. Furthermore, the Waorani were even reputed to kill by spearing any, although only a few instances have been proven, of their old people who no longer had the means to support themselves; and they practised infanticide, either strangling unwanted or malformed babies with vines, or burying them alive.

Even while Jim was studying the Waorani culture, the killings, in feuds and raids, continued, although their frequency gradually reduced due to increasing missionary influence. Apart from their extraordinary history of homicide, a further twenty per cent of Waorani deaths were caused by shootings by outsiders; and another five per cent died from snake bites.

six fingers...
...and six toes

Medically, the Waorani turned out to be something of an enigma: they had no trace of cancer; no cardiovascular disease; no high blood pressure; no allergies; and none of the known diseases familiar to us. 'Waorani', in their own language, means 'people'; anyone who is not a Waorani they call 'Cowode'– savages and cannibals. The Waorani lived in secrecy, in the hinterlands on hilltops, well away from major rivers to avoid contact with others. Living under the constant threat of being raided by war parties, the Waorani kept possessions to a minimum; they never knew when they might have to flee in the night and re-establish a home perhaps many days journey away on foot. In case of such an emergency, they maintained a series of gardens scattered over a huge territory to give them alternate living sites with food already available. It was a life of constant fear.

Waorani Indians ; family grooming, 1983
Waorani Indians: family grooming, 1983

Amazingly, even amid the turbulent way of life led by the Waorani, the underlying culture of the tribe maintained strong social ties: an egalitarian society with no concept of competition or rank, where children had nearly the same status as adults. And there was greater equality between the sexes than within Western culture between men and women, even if there were separate roles; while men hunted, women planted the gardens and prepared the food. They even used stone axes, treasured objects and fiercely protected, found, remarkably, as archeological artifacts in the forest, discarded by other peoples from another time. Living as semi-nomadic hunter gardeners, and because of the violence, they needed to roam a huge area in order to survive.

Hut burning before moving on, 1983
Hut burning before moving on, 1983

They traditionally lived in small groups of thirty to forty people, remaining in any one place for only a few months, during which time they hunted, prepared gardens for growing manioc, and took note of the whereabouts of trees, vines, and other plants essential to their lifestyle. While they harvested one garden, they simultaneously planted another next to it. Once hunting in the area became less successful, they burned the house and moved on, repeating the process at a new location, and returning in time to harvest the gardens when the manioc was ready. It was a cycle of life that was in equilibrium with their forest home, but they were continually on the move, and that's why they needed so much space.

Caempaede using Stone Axe, 1983
Caempaede using Stone Axe, 1983

Traditionally, the Waorani had no form of writing; no reason to count beyond ten; and are one of those rare groups to be classified as linguistic isolates - people whose language bears no resemblance to any other in the world. Their ethnic origins are obscure: no one knows how large their population may once have been. Their environment offers almost insurmountable difficulties for archaeological research, since their day to day material needs were mainly of plant origin and are therefore ephemeral.

Continuing his studies, Jim built a house in a Waorani village and brought in his wife and children. During this period at the Protectorate, there were up to two hundred Waorani lived in the village of Tewaeno at any one time. Under the influence of the Missionaries, they were learning to be peaceful with one another and to interact with the outside world. Rachel Saint was busy translating the New Testament into the Waorani language, and efforts were being made to contact any Waorani communities still remaining in the old hunting grounds.

Waorani Children, rio Cononaco, 1993

Dayuma, and her half Quichua son Sam, were themselves becoming more integrated with the outside world and began to establish a new settlement, not far away, at Tonaempaedi. While the more traditional Waorani stayed at Tewaeno, those who moved to Tonaempaedi convinced the Ecuadorian government to establish Spanish schools where the Waorani language was no longer taught.

Dayuma's son Sam wanted to establish some tourist visits to traditional living Waorani. His attentions focussed on Caempaede's group, since they had spent a short time at the Protectorate and had therefore already experienced some contact. Sam promised them a steady flow of presents if they would move from Gabado to the Cononaco river, which was less remote for Sam's tours and where one of the oil companies had built a large airstrip. Caempaede's group moved, and a few tourists began to trickle in on sporadic visits. Some of the visitors however also brought colds and flu, resulting in several deaths in Caempaede's group. Jim Yost, whose relationship with Caempaede's group was by now very close, travelled back and forth to treat the sick, but the Waorani had no resistance to these simple diseases, and more people died. After these bad experiences, Caempaede moved his group upriver, away from the airstrip, to keep away from outsiders and their diseases.

(left to right) Kelly Shannon (rear), Joel Rettig, Menga, Jim Larrick, Adrian Warren, James Yost, Grant Behrman, Hugh Maynard, rio Cononaco, Ecuador, 1983
Waorani Amazon Expedition 1983

Exploration for oil, which had by now been going on for almost forty years, had become a real threat to Waorani lands. Through the sixties and seventies, many international companies were becoming involved, working in increased safety since so many Waorani had been persuaded to move off the land to the Protectorate. Although Tagae's group continued to kill all who came near, he and the other remaining isolationist Waorani groups were losing ground. The oil companies would soon penetrate Waorani lands everywhere, cutting a criss-cross network of trails every kilometre or so.

As outsiders continued their relentless advance on to Waorani lands, Jim decided it was time to document the traditional way of life of Caempaede's group on film before it was too late. Fifty-year old Caempaede was still living as his ancestors had for generations untold, although now in peace rather than in war. His community still hunted with blowguns and spears, planted gardens, relied heavily upon kin relationships for survival, and held a thorough and deep understanding of their environment.

Grant Behrman, rio Cononaco, Ecuador, 1983
Grant Behrman, rio Cononaco, Ecuador, 1983

Caempaede's group were still a people who were living in perfect equilibrium with the forest, which in turn provided everything they needed for their daily lives. But for how much longer this traditional life would continue was difficult to predict.

Jim worked with a team from the BBC in 1982 to film a short sequence on the Waorani for David Attenborough's "Living Planet" series. Then, by chance, Jim was contacted by Grant Behrman, a South African living in the USA, who wanted to organise an expedition in 1983 to visit the Waorani. It seemed a good opportunity to make a full length documentary film, and the BBC again became involved. The American Museum of Natural History in New York wanted to create an exhibit on the Waorani so the task of making a collection of traditional artefacts was added to the expedition's agenda. A medical study was also undertaken. It became a huge project and Jim was concerned about the sociological impact of a team of seven cowode with a mountain of equipment descending on a small community of Waorani.

In order to maintain some control over the intrusion, the expedition made an independent camp some distance away from Caempaede's community on the banks of the river Cononaco. All the equipment and personnel were ferried in by light aircraft from the Missionary Aviation Fellowship based at Shell Mera to the oil company airstrip and then by inflatable rubber boat to the camp site. Once established the team waited for the Waorani to visit, hoping that it would not be a raiding party in the middle of the night. No doubt the activities of the cowode were observed continuously from behind a screen of forest foliage, but, on the third day, during the afternoon, some Waorani appeared in full view on the opposite bank of the river and stayed for some fifteen minutes, before disappearing into the forest once more. The following day, a party of Waorani calmly walked into the cowode camp and made themselves at home, lying in hammocks, examining equipment and closely watching activities. For Jim, this was a critical moment, but his presence signalled to the Waorani that they were among friends and the meeting was calm and peaceful. The following day, the cowode paid a reciprocal visit to one of the traditional houses where several families lived. It was another peaceful encounter and now the work could begin. The expedition team stayed with Caempaede's group for a month documenting their daily lives, hunts, crafts, relationships and gardening activities. The material was edited into three film productions: "Waorani - The Last People" (BBC), "Nomads of the Rain Forest" (WGBH Nova), and "Waorani" (ABC). Jim had mixed feelings about the project; on the one hand, his primary motivation in making the film was to present the issue of the need to protect Wao land from encroachment and loss, to try to get the International community to recognize the tenuous situation the Waorani were in; and he also knew that unless the documentary was made, there would be no archival film record of Waorani traditional life. On the other hand, however, he knew that many people would see the film and would therefore want to visit the Waorani, with all the risks that uncontrolled contact and diseases might bring.

Waorani boy with Adrian Warren
Adrian Warren
Hugh Maynard filming Karowae
Hugh Maynard filming Karowae
Minimo with Joel Rettig
Minimo with Joel Rettig
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