Posted by: Dr. Breffni Lennon | June 25, 2012

For those with post Rio+20 fatigue: The Four Stages of Huaorani/Waorani Life

Speaking to Moi Enomenga in 1999, while on an expedition to the Ecuadorian rainforest, I learned a little about the four stages of Huaorani/Waorani life as they see it. Here is a short introduction of what we learnt. It is by no means authoritative but it may prove interesting for those of you with post Rio+20 fatigue.



In traditional Huaorani communities, it is the mother who must teach her daughter about her body. However, it is the grandmother’s role to provide support and guidance to a woman when she is pregnant. To make the expectant mother strong, she will use ortigo (a member of the nettle family) all through the pregnancy (over the body or in a tea). She will also make a tea from wild garlic to increase her strength. When it is time for the birth they will put up a hammock over a large bowl of water, so that the baby will fall into the water when born. When the baby is born, people from all other communities in the locality will come to visit the child. It is also the grandmother who gives the baby his or her name – usually the same name as the grandmother if the baby is a girl. In the old days, bad shamans would sometimes send evil spirits to an expectant mother if they did not wish the baby to be born. However, because they were essentially killing a new life, the shaman would usually die as well. Now, if the mother feels this is about to happen she will approach other people living in each community, so that they will go out and find the shaman and kill him before he can do any harm.


The Huaorani have no special rites of passage to becoming an adult. The only difference in their day to day routine will be that their parents will stop telling them what to do and will no longer punish them for their mistakes. Today, the Huaorani consider someone a man at about the age of 20, but traditionally you were a man when you were able to hunt alone and build a good house.


Traditionally, the Huaorani led a nomadic lifestyle and did not welcome outsiders in their territory (even other Huaorani), so they would often marry late in life. Now that many of them live in settled communities, a complex system of rules for marriage has developed over the past 30 years or more. It is now seen as important to marry someone from another community, so they will often meet at fiestas. If a man meets a woman he likes, then it is expected of her to stay in the community and marry him, if that is what he decides. Once married the couple decide where to live – in her community or his. However, the eldest child must marry the eldest child of another family. Also, if someone’s brother gets married, then that person is expected to marry one of her sisters. This was seen as a solution to resolving the inter-community warfare that has plagued much of Huaorani history, since one will have family members living in all the other communities in the area – this is the reason given for women not having a choice in who she marries. In the past, when there was a lot of fighting, the ratio of men to women meant that there were far fewer women residing in each community, and so a woman may have many husbands. However, today only the men can have more than one partner. When they first began to settle it was often the norm to have as many as five wives so that one’s community could grow and expand. Moi claimed that his father had up to 14 wives, although today the norm is one, or occasionally two.


When a Huaorani person dies there is no standardised ritual or ceremony to mark his or her passing. They do not believe that the person’s spirit has died, just the body that housed it for a while. So, although they are sad, death is not considered to be the end of existence. The dead person is placed in a box, with two spears crossing his/her body, and then soil is piled over the top to form a mound. The person is buried with all his/her favourite possessions in life, in order to keep their spirit happy and therefore stay near the community. When the Hauorani were nomadic, moving from camp to camp, they would leave the person at the place where they died. Today they build cemeteries to keep all the bodies together, because they fear the spread of illnesses that have been brought in by outsiders. Only the shamans are buried far away from their communities. This is because the shamans are believed to have power in their bodies, even after death, and it may be possible for their spirit to still attack people. Therefore, they are buried far away from the villages to protect those still living. The Huaorani believe in the cyclical nature of life – when, for example, someone dies a baby is born to take the place of that person. Many Huaorani believe that the world’s population will soon all die off. People claim to have seen it in their dreams, and the older people feel it in the nature around them. People will be killed in catastrophes such as earthquakes and war, but then they will regenerate and complete the circle. The Huaorani will be the first to be reborn – and then they will again repopulate the world.

Links to information on the Huaorani/Waorani people can be accessed here, here and here.

Moi Enomenga was a recipient of the National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in Conservation in 2011.


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