Huaorani tribe of Ecuador sing to thank nature at the Teata sacred waterfall, near the village of Nemompare, on the banks of the Curaray river, in Pastaza Province, Ecuador. AFP

Huaorani Tribe of Ecuador: Introduction to an Indigenous Tribe

Today, we’ll be embarking on a journey to find out a little bit about the Waorani or Huaorani tribe of Ecuador, living near the Peruvian border in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Traveling to a place is not successfully complete if you are unaware of the people of the place. Though holidays are escapes for most people where the less human interaction is the better, there are a few adventurous and zealous travelers who are curious about the traditional culture of the spot, which can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

While there are architecture, art, and the history of a place to learn from, when we engage with people from a place, we learn about ourselves from an entirely different perspective. Therefore, I’m going to talk about the indigenous tribes who are living among us yet are so very distinctive that we’re bound to be left humbled.

The Traditional Life of the Huaorani Tribe of Ecuador
The Traditional Life of the Huaorani Tribe of Ecuador

The traditional lifestyle of the Huaorani tribe of Ecuador consists of living in a jungle that is a resource for medicine, shelter, and food. Waodani, Waorani, or Huaorani, also referred to as the Waos, are the Amerindians of Amazonian Ecuador. They are profoundly distinctive from the other ethnic groups in Ecuador. So, what are we waiting for? Let’s delve into it!

Origin of the Huaorani Tribe of Ecuador

The Huaorani tribe of Ecuador are semi-nomadic horticulturists, hunters, and gatherers situated between the Napo and Curaray rivers, approximately fifty miles south of El Coca. These ancestral lands are around one hundred and twenty miles in width and are intimidated by illegal logging, executions and oil exploration. Previously, the Huaorani tribe had protected their lands and culture from intruders and enemies, but nowadays they have transformed from a hunting and foraging society to existing in forest settlements. 

However, not all communities of the Huaorani tribe have settled and are connected with the modern world. Like the Onamenane, the Tagaeri, the two groups of the Taromenane and the Huinatare have continued to move and live in more isolated regions. As a consequence of the oil companies and rubber boom transferring their land, the Huaorani tribe of Ecuador are now living in the designated territory that was given to them, a little over six hundred square km in the Western Amazon, instead of occupying the fluid space close to the Tiputini River like in the past. 

According to researchers, the population of the Huaorani tribe of Ecuador is about a few thousand. Though several attempts to contact the tribe ended in death, in the middle of the twentieth century the connection with the outside world began to form peacefully. Still, the isolated groups of the Huaorani tribe of Ecuador react violently to any outside attempt at contact. The inconsistent nature of the research as there are various communities in this ethnic group leads us to them more current facts about their culture and history. For example, the Huaorani people are physically muscular and short framed mostly.

History of the Huaorani Tribe of Ecuador

The phrase Waodani refers to “men” or “human” in Wao Tiriro. Prior to the middle of the twentieth century, the tribe involved only the people who were speakers of the Huaorani language that is commonly known as Sabela. The recent history dictates that at the end of 1940, the Huaorani tribe of Ecuador had come into contact with the Cowode or the non-Huaorani outsiders. 

Elisabeth Elliot sits with Waorani women, one of whom is examining her Dictaphone.
Elisabeth Elliot sits with Waorani women, one of whom is examining her Dictaphone.
  • The first attempt was the unwelcome exploratory drilling in the traditional lands of the Huaorani people by Shell, the oil company that promptly left the place due to the fierce protectiveness of the tribe. The Huaorani tribe is referred to as another derogatory term, Auca, which was given by the Quichua, meaning, in English, as savage! 
  • Further contacts by the missionary linguists weren’t successful either, which occurred in the mid-1950s. Due to intertribal disputes and the intrusion of the oil companies, it was feared that the Huaorani people would face extinction. That’s why the missionary people were partially interested in intervening, which resulted in five dead missionaries in 1956 as they were perceived as invaders by the Huaorani tribe of Ecuador. 
  • The most peaceful contact was established by Rachel Saint, who was the sister of one of the dead missionaries. She religiously learned the culture and language of the Huaorani people and became a contributor to the understanding of the Huaorani language. Dayuma, a young Huaorani woman, helped her with learning the Huaorani language and they were responsible for missionizing the tribe, which was started from the neighboring areas of Dayuma’s house.
  • Texaco, another oil company, approached the government of Ecuador to get a permit for oil exploration at the end of the 1960s. Dayuma and Rachel Saint played a major role in relocating hundreds of the Huaorani tribe of Ecuador from their lifestyle and native lands which they were accustomed to for millennia.

The opinions differ regarding the relocation. While some of the Huaorani tribe think of it as “ethnocide” as their lifestyle changed vastly, others find it a way of saving themselves from the oil companies. And for some, it was never a choice they had to make, they were compelled to move deeper in the forest and exist in a way they never knew how. 

The Social Structure of the Huaorani Community

Though modern culture has made some recent impact on the social structure of the Huaorani tribe of Ecuador, generally, the Huaorani people have egalitarian relationships instead of hierarchical ones. They work together to survive as a whole community. The adults don’t consider children inferior to them, so they have become pretty self-sufficient on their own as well. Men and women have slightly different yet equal roles while making any decisions in their families. Though the younger generation is aware of their ages, the past members weren’t found to do so. Therefore, their life expectancy is unknown.

Family Structure and Marriage in the Huaorani Tribe

Quintessentially, the families in the Huaorani tribe are nuclear. Even though oftentimes men are known to be in polygamous marriages, women have control over the number of children they are going to have by utilizing natural birth control. Normally, marriages happen between ambilateral cross-cousins but recent years have seen marriages between Kichwa and Huaorani. Disagreements tend to lead to violence regarding marriage sometimes.

Tribal Wives of The Huaorani Tribe of Ecuador
Tribal Wives of The Huaorani Tribe of Ecuador

Several people are part of a larger group of a family that cohabits under the same roof. There are groups of ten to thirty-five people including an elderly couple with thor married daughters, unmarried children, their grandchildren all eat and sleep together in longhouses. Huaorani families are intricately close to each other. For example, when a family member becomes ill, then other members also have to follow the same food restrictions and diet for the betterment of the sick person. They also share alliances with other longhouses, especially when they are from a cross-sex sibling. 

Traditional Culture of the Huaorani People

The World-Perception Of Huaorani People

There is no distinction between the spiritual world and the physical world as the Huaorani tribe believes that there are spirits all over the world. Once, the Waodani also thought that the whole world was a forest. The cultural and physical traditions survive based on the rainforest of Oriente, which is their home and the disconnected outside world is an unsafe space. If I want to put it briefly, I would have to repeat what one Huaorani said, “The rivers and trees are our life.” (Kane 1995, p. 1999) The Waodani life and their idea of the world are intertwined with the forest and they are very aware of their ecology and geography.

Hunting in Huaorani Tribe

The Huaorani people in the Ecuadorian rainforest hunt monkeys by climbing trees and shooting them with blowpipes.
The Huaorani people in the Ecuadorian rainforest hunt monkeys by climbing trees and shooting them with blowpipes
Credit: Pete Oxford /

Hunting symbolizes a vital part of the cultural significance and the diet of the Huaorani people. Often, the Shaman of the community would pray for a day to ensure success before a fishing or hunting party were to ensue, as they have diverse taboos regarding hunting and eating. Conventionally, they hunt only wild peccaries, monkeys, and birds. They have some ethical ramifications even regarding a joyous activity like hunting. For instance, they don’t hunt deer because their eyes look like the eyes of a human. They also don’t hunt predators on their land. 

They believe that they have to kill to live, but they also have to placate the spirits of the dead animal that continue to exist. Otherwise, they will have to face enormous retribution. The Shaman shows respect by poisoning the blow darts, utilizing curare, which will counterbalance the offense of killing animals, as then it’ll be regarded as retrieving rather than hunting. 

To know more about the Huaorani religion and its various aspects, visit this post that has detailed information.

Knowledge of Botany in the Huaorani Community

For the Waodani, plants and trees have a place of severe interest among them. Their botanical competence ranges from medicine to poisons to hallucinogens. The Huaorani tribe of Ecuador relate to the growth of plants and some are even auspicious to them. The colorful leaves of younger Canopy trees along with their strikingly towering stature as mature trees, are admired by the Huaorani people as they entangle with others, yet they are solitary in nature. 

Another pioneer tree for the Huaorani people is the palm tree, which is used for blowguns, spears as well as fruits. The trees are analogous to the predecessors who used to live there and past settlements. Shamanic ethnomedicine also utilizes the beverage called ayahuasca alongside a newly recognized mushroom known as Dictyonema Huaorani and the substance of the Psilocybe genus.

Weapons Used By the Huaorani People

The men of the Huaorani tribe of Ecuador also hunt jungle creatures using spears
The men of the Huaorani tribe of Ecuador also hunt jungle creatures using spears
Credit: Pete Oxford /

The blowgun is the primary weapon of the Huaorani tribe of Ecuador and is three to four meters long. The arrows are dipped in curate poison that paralyzes the animal when hit and stops its breathing. To make a very tight seal, they utilize Kapok fluff and twist the fiber at the end of the arrow or dart. Nowadays, though, several Huaorani people utilize Westernized weapons like rifles. 

Modernism in the Huaorani Tribe of Ecuador

The Huaorani people that have made contact with the outside world are profoundly different in their way of dealing with the outsiders or Cowodi. Some of the Huaorani people have embraced tourism and work with the organizations they trust. While some perceive tourism as a little change in the spectrum of time, others view it as one of the threats, like the invasion of oil companies. 

Community tours in Huaorani Tribe of Ecuador
Huaorani Community Tour

So much so that they have found a unified voice called ONHAE or Organization of the Huaorani Nation of the Ecuadorian Amazon. It was established in 1990 and represents the Huaorani community with respect to their education and land rights. Though the education system is basic and the discovery of the tribe has just been made, some are educated to the university level.

How to Reach the Huaorani Tribe

To reach Bohanamo in the territory of the tribe, you will have to be at Shella airport to board a flight to Bohanamo. The flight takes around one hour to reach your destination. You will be welcomed by the tribe and thus will begin your journey to the Huaorani, where you will learn their way of living and can participate in many other activities. 

Activities to take part in the Huaorani Territory

The local Huaorani people and the tourism agencies take care of the three “jungle-lodges” in the area. The tourists who want luxury and a way to know the people of Ecuador along with good service choose these lodges. For you, there are several attractions which include various cultural activities, kayaking, fishing and bird watching, etc. 

A large number of tourists who are looking for adventure in the Huaorani find these establishments fascinating. The concept of lodges began some time ago when other Amazonians were interested in the same. Huaorani started to explore the probability.

Huaorani Tribe of Ecuador
Huaorani tribe of Ecuador

During my research, I came across this extensive article that will fulfill much of the curiosity you feel towards this tribe.

My journey to enlighten you about the Huaorani tribe of Ecuador ends here! These are indigenous tribal people who demand our respect and companionship. I hope you understand the severity of this extinguished traditional culture of the Huaorani tribe, which will push you to take a trip to get to know them in person and spread awareness along the way. Until then, travel well, be well!


Kane, Joe (1995), Savages, Alfred A. Knopf

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