Dodging a bullet: How a tribe of Amazonian headhunters survived one of the worst pandemics in history.

There are few places on earth as oppressive and ruthless as the Morona-Santiago province of south eastern Ecuador. Having already spent time living and trekking in 2 other Amazonian departments, I felt adequately prepared for the challenges that awaited me and my travel companion in this largely unexplored corner of La Gran Selva.

However, as with all my adventures, I was in for a few surprises.

Arriving at the capitol of the province, Macas, I quickly made inquiries on travel arrangements into the jungle (on foot of course, which is my preferred method). The receptionist at the front desk of our hotel was quick to tell me it may take some doing, since the indigenous of the area owned vast tranches of land and mostly shunned tourism; unlike so many other tribes in Ecuador who have embraced the concept of “gringo gold” with open arms.

I feel quite at home in the Amazon. Can you tell?

Though as it turns out, their reasons for remaining secluded from tourists are beyond the mere preservation of cultural integrity and actually have their origins rooted in antiquity.

The year 1541 to be exact.

That was the year Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana had left Quito in search of fame and fortune in what we now call the Amazon River Basin. Tragically, in the wake of that historic first journey followed an unimaginable amount of death.

The Shuar tribe shares a common heritage within the notorious Jivaroan people; an umbrella nation from which several prominent sub-tribes have sprung forth in the land comprising the headwaters of the Marañon River. You may know the Jivaroan people by their infamous hobby: Headhunting.

Yes, I mean that literally.

Though despite the gruesome nature of their reputation, a group of Shuar managed to carve out a more isolated and modest existence in what is now the Morona-Santiago province of Ecuador. Headhunting was practiced on a limited basis (think Hunger Games style combat), and they might as well have been invisible to the world at large.

Yup, they really did wear shunken human heads as trophies.

In the years that followed the legendary first voyage of Orellana in the Amazon, the very same diseases that served as the coffin nail to the Inca Empire, made their way through the emerald labrynth of jungle to its unsuspecting and suceptable inhabitants.

The death toll from the introduction of old world diseases like: Small Pox, Flu and Measles quickly reached the millions. Conservative estimates suggest 20 million died from diseases introduced by the Europeans, but the number is likely much higher due to the lack of infrastructure and accurate record keeping in the area at the time.

This aspect of the conquistador´s horrific legacy on the region was something I was well aware of while inquiring at the hotel desk about arranging a jungle trek and cultural exchange among the local Shuar tribe.

What I didn´t know, was that the Ecuadorian Shuar were perhaps the most clever survivors of the aforementioned apocylapse.

It took two days of sitting around Macas, eating Chicago style hot dogs (which my friend and I were thrilled to find), and lounging at the hotel pool before an official cultural liason, who worked with a cooperative of local Shuar families, secured us safe passage through their lands.

Even better, we would have a local Shuar guide.

To his credit, my travel companion didn´t flinch when I said we were going on a deep jungle trek with former headhunters. So we quickly packed our bags and headed out into the morning mist after throwing our gear into the back of a well-traveled Jeep.

We exchanged greetings and shook hands with the cultural liason (David) and our guide, Turi, who spoke limited Spanish and a whole lot of an indigenous language we didn´t understand. Turi had a stoic reserve about him that was actually rather charming.

Once David dropped us off  at our starting point, it didn´t take long for me to realize that this bit of jungle was nothing like the other parts of Amazonia I´d traversed.  Turi seemed amused at our difficulty pushing through the insanely dense, nearly impenetrable bush, while he glided through the tangled maze of green with the skill and grace of a Jaguar.

Turi slowed his pace to accomodate our struggle and began telling stories.

He explained how his ancestors spent years fighting with a neighboring tribe: The Ashuar. As a result, his ancestors left the area of the Marañon River to find a more peaceful place to call home. The brutal jungle environment in south eastern Ecuador provided a formidable land barrier between the peace seeking Shuar and the more aggressive Ashuar. Turi´s people learned to live within the harsh realm of their chosen territory and even developed successful agricultural practices, which persist to this day.

When the conquistadors arrived on the heels of Orellana´s successful first exploration, the Shuar had already heard the terrifying stories: Metal-clad men who rode upon the backs of great beasts (horses), and brought sickness and death wherever they went. Illnesses that no amount of offerings or sacrifices could abate, or even the most wise and talented Shaman could cure.

The conquistadors were NOT ready for the challenges of Amazonia.

So when Turi´s ancestors got word that the European explorers were close, they picked up their village and retreated into the most dense and forboding regions of the surrounding jungle.

Fueled by their lust for gold, cinnamon and other precious western commodities, the conquistadors tried to follow Turi´s people into what they nicknamed, “The green hell.” Alas, the area where Turi´s ancestors had settled offered no possible passage to anyone without an intimate understanding of the ecosystem and terrain.

Not even the most greedy or determined interloper could fight their way through.

The forest held its ground and fought back with months of rain, deadly diseases like Malaria, toxic plants and endless waves of mind numbing attacks from insects and poisonous snakes. Not to mention the living wall of green that was almost too much for a machete.

In the end, the conquistadors decided the area was entirely too hostile to host a fabled city of gold, or any other resources worth cultivating, and gave up.

Turi´s people eventually emerged from their refuge into a very different world. It wasn´t until Christain missionaries arrived and met the Shuar many years later, that they finally made it into the history books.

For their favorite…ahem…”sport”, no less.

Our guide took us on a grueling hike and told us the facinating history of his people. He even explained the ritualized and often misunderstood tradition of headhunting (and head shrinking, of course). We were hosted in his home later that day and partook in delicious traditional cuisine. Later, we even visited a waterfall where men´s initiation ceremonies had taken place in generations past.

The waterfall we visited after our hike with Turi.
(Sorry, the picture is from my old phone)

It was an absolutely unforgettable experience.

One can´t help but speculate, as we ride out the wave of an entirely new pandemic, the lessons we may be able learn from an Amazonian tribe that understood the importance of social distancing before it was cool.

Post Note: The Shuar and Ashuar are no longer bitter rivals. In fact, they´ve joined forces and are among the most politically active tribes who advocate for the preservation of the Amazon rainforest in all of South America