Cultural Overview

The Waorani are an interfluvial group of lowland tropical rainforest forager/horticulturalists speaking a language, Wao tededo, which is unrelated to any other. Their traditional homeland lies south of the Napo, where the Amazon Basin touches the foothills of the Andes, and may have been a Pleistocene refuge area. When the first Waorani groups were peacefully contacted in 1958, the total population did not exceed 500. These people were the only human inhabitants of an area of about 20,000 km2, living at a population density of around 0.025 person/km2. Subsistence was based on manioc slash-and-rot horticulture, with plantain, peach palm (chonta), and peanut as important secondary crops. Meat came mainly from blowgun and spear hunting, with peccaries, woolly monkeys, and toucans among the most common game animals. Fishing was a minor activity. Tepw, a chicha made from cooked, premasticated manioc left to ferment slightly then mixed with water, was a staple food. Medical examination showed that, before infectious diseases arrived, the Waorani were well nourished and very healthy (Larrick, Yost, Kaplan, King, & Mayall, 1979). Today, subsistence remains much the same, but there is increased reliance on fishing and on staple products bought or traded from the outside such as rice, sugar, salt, and cooking oil. Bread, candy, cookies, and carbonated beverages are much appreciated and are usually brought as treats by Waorani returning from the outside. Men continue to hunt with blowguns, but shotguns have become a welcome addition to the hunting strategy.

The precontact Waorani lived in four geographically separated mutually hostile groups (the Baiwaidi, Geketaidi, Piyemoidi, and Wepeidi—named after prominent elders). These groups inhabited dispersed "neighborhood clusters" of communal houses, usually separated from each other by a walk of 30 minutes to an hour. It was customary for each communal household to maintain two or three different houses and associated gardens, and to move among them every few months. The distance between one neighborhood cluster and another was usually a matter of a walk of a day or two. The distance between neighborhood clusters of hostile groups was ideally maintained at several days walk. The Waorani referred to all non-Waorani as kowodi (outsiders), and precontact relationships with kowodi were always hostile, although occasionally kowodi women were captured as wives. Today, the estimated 1,500 Waorani now living are spread among some 23 small villages, the great majority of them in a Protectorate of area 1,700 km2 (density > 0.6 person/km2) in which these four groups are still geographically apparent although they are no longer mutually hostile. Many younger Waorani live in the jungle towns closest to the Protectorate—Puyo, Tena, and Coca—and some live in other parts of Ecuador. There are two groups of Waorani, the Tagsidi and the Tadominani, who split off from other groups at the height of the internal warfare and who eschew all contact with both the pacified Waorani and all kowodi.

Waorani kinship was bilateral, traced equally through mother's and father's lines. However, kinship classification recognized two kinds of kinsmen in which parallel cousins were classified as siblings and their parents as one's classificatory parents, and cross cousins of the appropriate sex were classified as potential spouses (ki) and their parents as potential in-laws. Waorani who did not fall within this kindred were classified as people with whom one had no basis for relationships, many of whom would have belonged to hostile groups (Robarchek & Robarchek, 1998). Marriage was prescriptively with a bilateral cross cousin, and was arranged by the parents of the young couple. Completed fertility of 5.7 live births per woman was low for a natural fertility population (Larrick et al., 1979). These marriage patterns are still followed today, although young people have considerably more say as to whom and when they marry. Postcontact fertility patterns have shifted to higher completed fertility and more closely spaced births.

The precontact impact of Wao warfare was enormous, with an estimated 61% of all death and emigration a direct result of warfare (Larrick et al., 1979). Internal warfare accounted for 42% of deaths—Waorani speared by other Waorani. The motives for Wao warfare included revenge for prior killings, vengeance for deaths, illness, or other inauspicious events attributed to witchcraft and shamanism, raiding for women and/or prized objects (e.g., machetes, axes, canoes), and entrance of enemy Wao groups or outsiders into their territory (Yost, 1981b). Internal warfare ceased for each communal household of Waorani as it was contacted by missionaries, beginning in 1958. Most households were not contacted until the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although warfare has essentially ceased, there are still occasional spearings, mostly of kowodi for infringing on Wao territory or in retaliation for witchcraft.

Due in part to worldwide press attention around the time of first peaceful contact, the Waorani have received considerable assistance from the Ecuadorian government, international missionary organizations, and the oil companies that continue to invade their land. Most Waorani villages now have schools with resident schoolteachers, literate in both Spanish and the Waorani language. Access to medical care is provided by village health promoters and teams of physicians and nurses that visit the villages to provide primary healthcare, vaccinations, acute and preventive care for epidemic diseases, and referral to secondary and tertiary care facilities when needed. The Missionary Aviation Fellowship provides free airlift services to hospital for medical emergencies. Oil exploitation in Waorani territory provides jobs for numerous Waorani and entry into the national economy. Numerous nongovernmental organizations have various development and conservation projects with the Waorani. Thus, in a span of 50 years, the Waorani have entered the global village.

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Pregnancy And Childbirth

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