Overview of the Culture

The Shipibo are thought to have occupied the upper Peruvian Amazon area for about 1,000 years. They have principally and traditionally inhabited small settlements on the banks of oxbow lakes (cochas) and small tributaries of the Ucayali.

The Shipibo have long had a highly developed ceramic tradition, and their contemporary pottery is internationally known for its beauty and craftsmanship. Pottery is used for cooking, eating, and ceremonial purposes, and sometimes for decoration. The Shipibo women are also accomplished weavers, using a native cultivated cotton for making yarn and thread. They use a backstrap loom for large bolts of cloth that may be 10-15 m long and require the weaver to secure the distal end of the longitudinal threads on a tree. The geometric and repeating patterns used by the Shipibo are distinctive and are painted or engraved on pottery, cloth, faces, oars and clubs, and anything that might retain the figures.

Until the last few decades, the Shipibo economy has largely been one of subsistence supported by fishing, hunting, gathering, cultivation of high-carbohydrate plants such as yucca (at least two varieties of manioc, Manihot esculenta sp.), plantain, and a large purple sweet potato (Bergman, 1980). More recently, rice and corn have been sown and cultivated for market as well as consumption. Chiclayo (black-eye pea) is sown and cultivated on the exposed river beaches in the dry season.

Traditional Shipibo family patterns tend to be matrilocal and matrilineal, although this appears to alternate from generation to generation (Abelove, 1978; Eakin, Lauriault, & Boonstra, 1980; Hern, 1992b). Sororal polygyny was widely practiced in the past but is now much less common. The levirate and sororate are practiced; the brother of a man who has died accepts his deceased brother's wife as a second wife. She is often the sister of her new husband's first wife. Cross-cousin marriages were the preferred marital arrangements in the past, particularly in polygynous families.

A typical Shipibo village consists of a single matrilocal extended family containing five or six nuclear families and representing as many as four generations. Larger Shipibo communities appear to be the result principally of missionary activity in the 19 th and early

20th centuries (Myers, 1990). Catholic and then Protestant missionaries induced aggregation of various family groups into small communities that were more susceptible to proselytization for religious purposes.

Missionaries describe some encounters with the Shipibo as extremely dangerous (Samanez y Ocampo, 1980). This was particularly true for more isolated groups such as the Pisquibo, Shipibo who lived along the banks of the Pisqui river, a tributary of the Ucayali. Shipibo are depicted in various accounts as ruthless in the treatment of their enemies, especially the Cacataibo, or Cashibo as they are called by the Shipibo.

The traditional leader (curaca) of a Shipibo community is the male head of a large extended family, with an informal but permanent status until death, old age, or disability requires him to accede to a younger man. Currently, the Shipibo choose a village chief on a rotating basis and elect officials to conform with the national governmental structure. These leaders generally consist of an chief, jefe de la comunidad, or curaca (traditional), a teniente gobernador, official representative to the district government, and an agente municipal. These are not traditional Shipibo designations, but the community process by which leaders are currently chosen resonates with traditional Shipibo methods of dealing with issues that affect the community. Community assemblies are attended by both men and women, and while male leadership predominates, women express their opinions vigorously and often prevail.

Traditional Shipibo religious views and cosmology are animistic. Spirits reside in various living things, specifically certain trees and certain animals, and in the stars. Freshwater dolphins are of particular interest and are not killed because of their intelligence and capacity to inflict harm on humans. The Shipibo have survived culturally and demographically through hundreds of years of European colonization and missionary activity at the same time that other tribes such as the Cocama have lost their identities and languages. The Shipibo have apparently absorbed other groups such as the Setebo. The population numbers of the Shipibo during precolonial times is not known, but there is evidence that they, like all indigenous Amazonians, experienced catastrophic population losses following European contact owing to the introduction of exogenous diseases, armed conflict with European settlers, slavery, and intertribal warfare.

In the mid-1960s, there were approximately 100 Shipibo settlements from Atalaya to Requena, including those found on Ucayali tributaries and interior lakes, comprising a total population of approximately 15,000. In the mid-1980s, there were 125 identifiable Shipibo settlements. The present Shipibo population is estimated to be about 40,000-45,000 in 150 or more settlements, and many Shipibo have moved permanently to larger mestizo towns such as Pucallpa, which was originally a central Shipibo settlement.

In a baseline health study of the Shipibo village of Paococha in 1969, Hern (1971,1977) found a rate of population growth of 4.9% per year in a carefully defined population of 538. This extremely high rate of population growth means that the population doubles approximately every 14.3 years. The average woman had an average of 10 live births during her reproductive years. The Shipibo have the highest fertility ever recorded in a human group.

This means that, following a massive population crash during the 16th-19th and early 20th century time span, the Shipibo experienced a rapid recovery with population growth rates that exceeded precontact rates. The most rapid population growth of the Shipibo population occurred in the years immediately following World War II.

There has been aggressive immigration of other Peruvians into the upper Peruvian Amazon. The town of Pucallpa, which was principally a Shipibo settlement in the middle to late 19th century, contained a Peruvian mestizo-criollo population of about 3,500 in 1944. The Trans-Andean "highway" reached Pucallpa at about that time, and immigration from the Andes and the Peruvian coastal cities began, as did increased commercial activities in logging, petroleum exploration, fishing, cattle ranching, and agriculture. The Shipibo were increasingly exposed to sources of rapid cultural change, and they also found themselves competing increasingly with other groups and immigrant populations for the same resources.

Rapid cultural change in the region was enhanced by the establishment in the late 1940s of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, an evangelical Christian group dedicated to translating the Bible into native languages. Their base was built on the shore of Lake Yarinacocha and included a landing strip for the use of the missionary planes as well as establishing a fleet of floatplanes capable of landing on the waterways and lakes. The missionaries also provided excellent medical care to all indigenous groups with whom they had contact.

Another important influence on both cultural change and the health of the Shipibo was the establishment in 1960 of the Hospital Amazonico "Albert Schweitzer" by

Dr. Theodor Binder, a German physician who was dedicated to helping the indigenous people of the Peruvian Amazon. The hospital was several kilometers upstream from the Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Extensive and intensive contact between the Shipibo and the hospital has been a major source of cultural change for the Shipibo as well as a major contribution to their improved health. Shipibo families came from outlying villages to reside at or near the hospital while family members received prolonged treatment for diseases such as tuberculosis and leishmaniasis. This contact resulted in exposure not only to health education but also to European customs and a Spanish language environment. These families have then taken some of their adopted customs, material culture, and language influences back to the home villages. Yet another source of cultural change at the village level was the introduction of Western-style schools. These were primarily elementary schools sponsored by missionary groups such as the Seventh-Day Adventists or bilingual schools established by the Summer Institute of Linguistics. Some educational materials included reading and arithmetic, but the curriculum had a heavy emphasis on religious indoctrination and marching around the village plaza or soccer field in a goose-step military fashion. Later, these schools were replaced in all villages by government-sponsored bilingual schools with education levels through high school in some villages. The goose step, which seems antithetical to the languid cultural ethos of the Shipibo, continues to be the prescribed mode of marching.

Prior to large recent population increases throughout the upper Peruvian Amazon, the Shipibo lived in the presence of spectacularly abundant food sources (Bergman, 1980). A few hours fishing resulted in more than enough for a large family. Hunting wild game on high ground during the seasonally flooded dry season often resulted in kills of deer, wild boar, tapir, monkeys, large birds, large rodents, and land turtles that provided excellent sources of protein. Gathered and cultivated fruit and vegetables resulted in a highly varied diet rich in vitamins and fiber. General levels of nutrition were excellent.

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