Gender over the Life Cycle

The Waorani traditionally recognized six life stages:

(1) enandin inga, an infant less than 3 months old;

(2) wemogi inga, 3 months to walking (about 2 years);

(3) wenwnga, 2-12 years old; (4) enenenga, 12-18 years old; (5) pikwnga, adult of 18 and over; (6) pikwnani, elders of 50 and older. Ancestors were referred to as dodani.

Passages in the life cycle were not particularly marked. Children grew into adulthood gradually learning from their elders how to perform subsistence activities of hunting and gardening. Men recall learning to hunt successively larger animals and the first time they went to hunt by themselves. Men who have been on raids in the past recall being relegated to the sidelines when young and allowed fuller participation with age and experience. However, different skill levels in hunting and raiding do not appear to have been milestones that were ceremonially marked. Both genders recall having their ears pierced and elongated, but not as a ritual occasion at a particular time in their lives. It is perhaps marriage that was the major ceremonially marked transition in Waorani life—the couple were seated in a hammock and sung over. After marriage, the couple lived together and, if both were mature, took on responsibility for provisioning each other with meat and manioc and initiating a sexual relationship. Children were the expected outcome of all marriages. Each birth was accompanied by short ritual restrictions for both mother and father on the kinds of food eaten and the type of work done. The transition to grandparent was also unmarked rit-ually. The dead—and sometimes the dying—were always buried when possible, but widows and other family members had no special restrictions or proscriptions for their behavior. Today, these life stages are still recognized, although childhood and adolescence are increasingly being defined by schooling needs and choices.

Socialization of Boys and Girls

Males and females were equally valued and reared similarly with the same expectations for strength, self-reliance, independence, and industriousness. The specific content of instruction was dependent on the primary role of men and women in hunting and gardening, respectively, but both sexes learned through active participation in the daily activities of their elders. Males learned from fathers and grandfathers (biological and classificatory) how to hunt and fish, to raid and kill, to clear jungle for gardens, and to make household goods such as blowguns and darts, the curare poison used on hunting-dart points, hunting and killing spears, fishing nets, and stone axes and knives. Females learned from mothers and grandmothers (biological and classificatory) how to garden, fish, cook, and make tepw, and how to make household goods such as hammocks, shigras (woven bags), baskets, clothing, and ceramic cooking pots. Both sexes learned to fish and gather wild forest products, how to survive in the jungle, and how to construct houses. Children were never punished, and no one could force a child to do something he or she did not want to do. Sometimes children were beaten with stinging nettles, but this was thought to increase their tolerance for hard work and endurance. There are reports of coercing children into desired behavior through threats of abandonment in the forest (i.e., certain death), but these were rare. All adults and older children in the small kin-based residential group were involved in the care of young children. Children of both sexes played and worked equally. Today, both sexes attend school and participate in sports, continuing the egalitarian treatment of children in Waorani society.

Puberty and Adolescence

The Waorani recognized the period of transition to sexual maturity and as children grew older and matured, they gradually took on more adult responsibilities in their social group. When girls matured sexually, they were eligible for marriage and often married within a year or two of first menstruation—probably between the ages of 16 and 20—but there was no marked change in their social status or in their autonomy and behavior after menstruation and before marriage. First menstruation was traditionally marked by having the young woman sit on a bed of stinging nettles for 1 day to toughen her for future childbearing. There was no similar ritual for young men at puberty. Rather, boys and young men were commonly subjected to beatings with stinging nettles in order to toughen them for hunting and fighting. Premarital sexual activity and, sometimes, premarital pregnancy both occurred before contact. There was no stigma attached to either. Most people, especially women, married young. Sometimes people were married when still children and taken to live with their future spouse who was usually older than they were, but in such cases sex was not permitted until sexual maturity was reached. It was the elders who decided who would be married to whom and when, and youth had little forewarning of their own marriage. Marriages usually occurred at larger gatherings of several social groups for tepw feasts. Unsuspecting youths would be plunked into a hammock with their future spouse, sung to, and thereby married without notice. Today, there is more courting behavior among Waorani youth, but elders are still important influences on choice of marriage partner. Many Wao youths are still married unawares at larger gatherings, which today are usually associated with intervillage sports tournaments. Consistent with the personal autonomy of the individual, youths married in this manner can choose to remain together or not. Premarital sex is still tolerated, cross-cousin marriage is still preferred, polygamy still occurs, and intermarriage with kowodi, primarily lowland Quichua, is now more common.

Attainment of Adulthood

Marriage, the attainment of sexual maturity (for those married as children), and family formation are the main markers of transition to adulthood. However, because of the frequent lack of eligible spouses during precontact times, men sometimes had to wait until their late twenties or thirties before marrying. The point of many Waorani raids was to attain a mate for a bachelor, with the young woman's parents being killed in the process. For males, participation in raids and/or the killing of an enemy was not in itself considered the mark of adult status.

Middle Age and Old Age

Middle age passed much as life in young adulthood for the Waorani, the major difference being the increasing family size and the eventual marriage of children and the ensuing grandchildren. There was no major role change for either men or women during this period. As men and women entered old age (pikwenani), and especially when they became less able to care for themselves, they were increasingly apt to be killed by younger Waorani, sometimes their own kin. It was not uncommon for rage that was not assuaged by killing an appropriate enemy to be directed at elderly community members. In addition, accusations of witchcraft were often made against elderly men and women as a justification for their murders. It was not uncommon for elderly people, the younger women, and the children to hide when the warriors came back from a raid to avoid possible death at the hands of their kin. Deaths of people unable to be self-reliant were rarely avenged. Today, many Waorani live into old age and die natural deaths. The end to internal warfare, the missionary message against killing, and the increasing sedentization of the population make it easier for the Waorani to care for their elders who are unable to care for themselves.

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