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Title: Waorani  
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Subject: Indigenous peoples in Brazil, Classification of indigenous peoples of the Americas, Culture of Ecuador
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Not to be confused with Guaraní people.
"Aucas" redirects here. For the football club, see Sociedad Deportiva Aucas.
Total population
approx. 2,500 (various post-2001 est.)
Regions with significant populations

Waodani settlements: approx. 4,000,

Nomadic "uncontacted" Tagaeri, Taromenane, Huiñatare, and Oñamenane: approx. 250,
Wao Tiriro, many also speak Spanish.
Animist, Christian
Related ethnic groups
Kichwa, Shuar, Achuar, Siona, Secoya, Shiwiar, Záparo, Cofán

The Huaorani, Waorani or Waodani, also known as the Waos, are native Amerindians from the Amazonian Region of Ecuador (Napo, Orellana and Pastaza Provinces) who have marked differences from other ethnic groups from Ecuador. The alternate name Auca is a pejorative exonym used by the neighboring Quechua Indians, and commonly adopted by Spanish-speakers as well. Aucaawqa in Quechua – means "savage". They comprise almost 4,000 inhabitants and speak the Huaorani language, a linguistic isolate that is not known to be related to any other language. Their ancestral lands are located between the Curaray and Napo rivers, about 50 miles (80 km) south of El Coca. These homelands – approximately 120 miles (190 km) wide and 75 to 100 miles (120 to 160 km) from north to south – are threatened by oil exploration and illegal logging practices. In the past, Huaorani were able to protect their culture and lands from both indigenous enemies and settlers.

In the last 40 years, they have shifted from a hunting and gathering society to live mostly in permanent forest settlements. As many as five communities – the Tagaeri, the Huiñatare, the Oñamenane, and two groups of the Taromenane – have rejected all contact with the outside world and continue to move into more isolated areas.


The word Waodani (plural of Wao "person") means "humans" or "men" in Wao Tiriro. Before the mid 20th century, it included only those kin associated with the speaker. Others in the ethnic group were called Waodoni, while outsiders were and are known by the derogatory term Cowodi. This structure duplicates the in-group/out-group naming conventions used by many peoples. It reflects a period of traumatic conflict with outsiders during the 19th and early 20th century rubber boom/oil exploration.

The name Waodani (or the alternative English spelling Waorani) represents a transliteration by English-speaking missionary linguists. The phonetic equivalent used by Spanish-speakers is Huaorani (reflecting the absence of w in Spanish spelling.) The sounds represented by the English and Spanish letters d, r and n are allophones in Wao Tededo.


The Waodani are subdivided into the Huamuno Dayuno, Quehueruno, Garzacocha (Yasuní River), Quemperi (Cononaco River) Mima, and Caruhue.



In traditional animist Waodani worldview, there is no distinction between the physical and spiritual worlds, and spirits are present throughout the world. The Waodani once believed that the entire world was a forest (and used the same word, ömë, for both). The Oriente’s rainforest remains the essential basis of their physical and cultural survival. For them, the forest is home, while the outside world is considered unsafe: living in the forest offered protection from the witchcraft and attacks of neighboring peoples. In short, as one Huaorani put it, “The rivers and trees are our life.” [1] In all its specificities, the forest is woven into each Huaorani’s life and conceptions of the world. They have remarkably detailed knowledge of its geography and ecology.

The Waodani believe the animals of their forest have a spiritual as well as physical existence. They believe that a person who dies walks a trail to the afterlife which has a large anaconda snake lying in wait. Those among the dead who cannot escape the snake fail to enter the domain of dead spirits and return to Earth to become animals, often termites. This underlies a mix of practices that recognize and respect animals, but does not shield them from harm for human use.

Hunting supplies a major part of the Waodani diet and is of cultural significance. Traditionally, the creatures hunted were limited to monkeys, birds, and wild peccaries. Neither land-based predators nor birds of prey are hunted. Traditionally there was an extensive collection of hunting and eating taboos. They refused to eat deer, on the grounds that deer eyes look similar to human eyes. While a joyful activity, hunting (even permitted animals) has ethical ramifications: “The Huaorani must kill animals to live, but they believed dead animal spirits live on and must be placated or else do harm in angry retribution.” [2] To counterbalance the offense of hunting, a shaman demonstrated respect through the ritual preparation of the poison, curare, used in blow darts. Hunting with such darts is not considered killing, but retrieving, essentially a kind of harvesting from the trees. Spearing wild peccaries, on the other hand, is killing and is practiced with violence and rage.[3]

While never hunted, two other animals, the snake and the jaguar, have special significance for the Huaorani. Snakes are considered "the most evil force in the Huaorani cosmology",[4] particularly the imposing (though nonvenemous) anaconda, or obe. A giant obe stands in the way of the forest trail that the dead follow to an afterlife with the creator in the sky. Here on earth, snakes are a bad omen, and traditionally killing them is considered taboo.

The Waodani identify deeply with the jaguar, an important and majestic predator in the Oriente. According to myth, the Huaorani were the descendants of a mating between a jaguar and an eagle. Elders became shamans by metaphorically adopting “jaguar sons” whose spirits communicate medical and spiritual knowledge. In the Huaorani belief system, jaguar shamans are able “to become a jaguar, and so to travel great distances telepathically and communicate with other Huaorani.”

Plants, especially trees, continue to hold a complex and important interest for the Huaorani. Their store of botanical knowledge is extensive, ranging from knowledge of materials to poisons to hallucinogens to medicines. They also relate plants to their own experiences, particularly that of growing. Among trees, certain kinds are auspicious. Canopy trees, with their distinctly colored young leaves and striking transformation as they mature to towering giants, are “admired for their solitary character … as well as for their profuse entanglement” with other plants. Other significant trees are the pioneer species of the peach palm (used for making spears and blowguns, as well as for fruit), and fast-growing balsa wood, used for ceremonial purposes. Peach palm trees are associated with past settlements and the ancestors who live there.[5]

As with many peoples, the Waos maintain a strong in-group/out-group distinction, between Waodani (people who are kin), Waodoni (others in their culture who are unrelated) and Cowodi. The use of Waodani as a term for their entire culture emerged in the last fifty years in a process of ethnogenesis. This was accelerated by the creation of ONHAE, a radio service, and a soccer league.

The Waodani notion of time is particularly oriented to the present, with few obligations extending backwards or forwards in time. Their one word for future times, baane, also means "tomorrow".[6]


Spears are the main weapons of the Waodani culture used in person to person conflict.

Their main hunting weapon is the blowgun. These weapons are typically from 3 to 4 metres long. The arrows used are dipped in curare poison, which paralyzes the muscles of the animal which is hit with it, so that it cannot breathe. Kapok fluff is used to create an air-tight seal, by twisting the fibers around the end of the dart or arrow. With the introduction of Western technology in the 20th century, many Waodani now use rifles for hunting.


Waodani families practiced endogamy, especially cross-cousin marriages — a woman may marry her cousin(s) from one or more sisters on her father's side, or from brother(s) on her mother's side (and necessarily vice-versa with regard to females and their marriage choices). The men may also have multiple wives. Sometimes, a man would kill another man to gain another wife; this was traditionally common if a man had no available cousin to marry.

Huaorani women remove all their body hair by first rubbing ash in the areas where they do not want hair – supposedly to reduce the pain – then pulling out the hair.

Recent history

Around the time of World War II, inter-clan killings greatly increased. At this time, it was estimated that up to 60% of all Huaorani deaths were due to murder. Some of the Huaorani trace the beginning of the killing to the breakdown of clan relationships around ten generations prior to this time. Prior to this period, large gatherings frequently brought distant clans together from time to time to celebrate and arrange marriages, among other activities. These were organized by informal tribal leaders (although the Huaorani had no chiefs or formal leadership in general). When these gatherings became less common, clans became estranged from and offended by one another. Conflicts began to escalate until the Huaorani became one of the most violent cultures ever documented.[7]

In 1956, a group of five American missionaries, led by Jim Elliot and pilot Nate Saint, made contact with the Huaorani in what was known as Operation Auca, in which they lowered gifts in a basket from a plane to a Huaorani clearing below. Two days after friendly contact with three Huaorani, a man, woman and young child, all five of the missionaries were killed in a Huaorani spearing raid. Rachel Saint, Nate Saint's sister, had befriended a Huaorani woman named Dayuma prior to these killings. Saint, Dayuma, and Jim Elliot's wife Elisabeth converted the majority of that Huaorani villiage to Christianity. The incident was told in the film End of the Spear. Nate Saint's personal story, Jungle Pilot, with an epilogue by his son, Steve Saint, was written in 1997.

In 1987, Catholic Bishop Alejandro Labaka and Sister Inés Arango were also killed by Huaoranis.

Huaorani schools were set up to teach the Bible and beliefs of Christianity. Teachers were mainly of the neighboring Quichua. New systems of government were also introduced.

Currently (2012), the Huaorani have about 6,800 km² of land, about one third of their original territory. Some work with tourism companies, and others obtain education until university level. Half of the small children attend schools in Spanish, but others still spend their days hunting and gathering.

Land rights

In 1990, the Waodani won the rights to an indigenous reserve covering some 6,125.60 square kilometers. The protected status of Yasuní National Park, which overlaps with the Huaorani reserve, provides some measure of environmental protection. Additionally, the government has created a protected zone to avoid contact with the Tagaeri.


  • Laura Rival: Trekking through History. The Huaorani of Amazonian Ecuador. Columbia University Press, New York, NY 2002, ISBN 0-231-11844-6.
  • Lawrence Ziegler-Otero: "Resistance in an Amazonian Community; Huaorani Organizing against the Global Economy. Berghahn Books, New York, NY 2004, ISBN 1-57181-448-5

See also


External links

  • A film about the missionaries who were killed by the Waodani.
  • Acclaimed documentary about the Huaorani community near Yasuni.
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