Yanomami Indians: pure and untouched

A few Yanomami Indians still live in the deep wilderness of the Amazon. These people still follow ancient traditions and are very close to nature. Anyone who wants to spend a few days with this tribe has to do something for it, because you are on the road for a long time…

Text: Angelique van Os | Photography & information: Henk Bothof

venezuela-yanomami-shabono-amazon
A shabono, or settlement of the Yanomami Indians in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, Venezuela.

For centuries they have been one with nature. Deep in the Amazon of Brazil and Venezuela, the Yanomami Indians still live authentically as hunters, fishermen and gardeners. They eat everything the jungle has to offer, from larvae, sugar cane, sweet potatoes, papayas, mangoes to crops such as plantains and cassava. There are dozens of shabonos, or communal settlements. Here the people live under a common roof.

Shabonos

The villages mostly consist of large families and vary in size between fifty and four hundred inhabitants. They are tight-knit communities. The shabonos have a characteristic oval shape, with an open area in the middle (on average about 100 meters). Marked pillars distinguish the houses built from rainforest resources. According to Survival International, which champions the interests and rights of indigenous tribes, the houses are susceptible to severe weather and insect infestations. As a result, the shabonos are rebuilt every four to six years.

The trip

Of course you first have to get to the Amazon to reach the Yanomani Indians. Photographer Henk Bothof flew with a small group of travelers from the capital Caracas to Puerto Ayacucho, which is located on the Orin-oco River near the border with Colombia. From there he continued his journey by small Chesna plane to St. Carlos de Rio Negro. Arriving in St. Carlos had a boat ready to go up the Rio Casiquiare. Via the branching Siapa River he finally came close to a number of Yanomami villages. However, they still had to sail for three days to actually reach the first people.

mosquitoes

Henk says that the inhabitants of a second village they visited had fled from the enormous amount of mosquitoes. “After a short introduction, we sailed on to see the Shabono where they used to live. After a visit we also fled from the mosquito plague. In the Amazon you will be bombarded non-stop by these beasts. We then went back to a village where we had made contact before and got permission to visit the inhabitants there. Many gifts were needed for this, such as fishing lines, machetes, fabrics, etc. The Yanomami have no use for money, but are happy with simple exchange items. I was allowed to stay with these people for two days and I was able to experience wonderful things such as making arrowheads. The Yanomami still traditionally hunt with bow and arrow.”

Strong snuff

Another characteristic of these indigenous tribes is their ritual practices, such as the application of Yakaona. Henk says that the shamans use powder from a tree bark and blow into each other’s noses through a blowpipe. This snuff is called yakoana. On the one hand, they use this as part of healing rituals for sick members of the community. On the other hand, the shamans may make contact with evil spirits. As with other Indian tribes, the spirit realm also plays an important role in their culture with the Yanomami. Every animal, stone, tree and mountain has its own spirit. There are also evil spirits that sometimes cause diseases or attack the tribes.

Living spirit of the Yanomami Indians

Another notable ritual is endocannibalism, in which the Yanomami people consume the bones of deceased relatives. Henk did not see this himself; it is quite rare that an outsider is allowed to attend. According to National International, the body is wrapped in leaves in the forest, just outside the shabono. The bones are collected about thirty to forty-five days after the shell has been consumed by insects. To us Westerners, it doesn’t seem like a good thing, because the ashes are mixed into a banana soup that the Indians then eat. They store the ashes in a pumpkin. During the annual Remembrance Day, the ritual is repeated until finally nothing remains of the ashes. This tradition is meant to strengthen the Yanomami people and keep the spirit of the individual alive.

“The Yanomami have no use for money, but are happy with simple exchanges”

Do you want to know more about the Yanomami Indians and other indigenous peoples and how you can support these vulnerable communities? Look HERE

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