The Indigenous Shuar of Ecuador

The Shuar people of Ecuador are an indigenous tribe living in the tropical rainforests, lowlands and savannas of the country. There are different groups of Shuar: the Achu Shuar who reside in the wet lowlands that stretch along the Andes from Ecuador into Peru; the Muraiya Shuar who prefer the Andes foothills; and those who remain in the tropical forests located high in the Andes Mountains. Their traditional rituals have become legendary and their culture is fascinating.

The Shuar and Europeans first met during the sixteenth century. The Europeans found them to be semi-nomadic, residing in casual groups without political leadership. Each household lived independently and consisted of a husband, his two wives and unmarried children. Once a child got married he or she was to leave the home immediately. Strangely enough, the men were in charge of weaving clothing and hunting, while woman were responsible for the gardens and fields. When it came to feuds and war, both men and woman stood side by side.

Upon meeting the Spanish, the Shuar were peaceful. However, when the Spaniards tried to force the Shuar to pay tax, they responded with violence and drove them out in 1599. By the twentieth century, however, the tribes were modernized, with the establishment of the Shuar Federation to represent their interests.

During the nineteenth century, the Muraiya Shuar made headlines for their war trophies. The Tsantsa they created became known to the world as shrunken heads. The Shuar’s reasoning behind the shrunken heads was not as war trophies per say, but they believed that the shrunken head held the soul of the victim and would give them the power to control their daughters and wives. As these women cultivated the land, the men believed that their ancestors would bestow good crops on them. Edmundo Bielawski was the only one to ever get footage of a shrinking head ceremony in 1961.

Peaceful trade relations were made through Catholic Jesuits and in 1935 a Shuar Reserve was created by the Ecuadorian Government. Missionaries began educating the Shuar in Christianity and agriculture, discouraging the shrunken head tradition and warfare. Today, the Shuar are involved in politics and serve in the Ecuadorian army where they are still respected as elite warriors, often being selected for specialized units.