The Yanomami are deep jungle indians living in Amazon basin both in southern Venezuela and northern Brazil. They number around 32,000 people and their territory covers an area of approximately 9.6 million hectares. Their language is part of the Yanomami linguistic family consisting of at least 4 subgroups; Yanomae, Yanomami, Sanima and Ninam.

For thousands of years the Yanomami have been one of the most successful groups in the Amazon rainforest, living in great harmony and balance with their environment. However, since the 1940’s there has been various contact with catholic missionaries, miners and ranchers which has threatened their culture. There have been many epidemic outbreaks (measles and influenza) from this contact and populations have decreased. Now, they are struggling as the government fails to protect them from criminal invasions, attacks and more disease. It is worth noting that almost 60% of the Yanomami land is covered by mineral applications from public and private mining companies. Gold miners, cattle ranchers and deforesters are illegally destroying their land and medical care is not reaching them. 




Village Life

There are approximately 300 villages scattered through their territory and each village live in large circular communal houses called yanos or shabonos. Some can house unto 400 people with each family having their own hearth where food is prepared and cooked during the day. At night, hammocks are slung near the fire which is stoked during the night for warmth. Vulnerable to insect and storm damage the houses are usually rebuilt every one or two years. In the middle of the house is a large open place where children play and adults perform rituals. 

The Yanomami believe strongly in equally and thus decisions are made by consensus. Each community is dependent from others and they do not recognise “chiefs”. Children are an important facet of the Yanomami way and, indeed, their survival. In fact, many men take more than one wife to produce as many children as possible. Members of a village community prefer to marry their own kin and will often wed a “cross” cousin, that is the son / daughter of a maternal uncle or paternal aunt. This practice results in strong bonds within a community. Despite this social idea, all local groups maintain a network of relations of matrimonial, ceremonial and economic exchange with various neighbouring villages.

Inter-community visits are frequent; ceremonies are held to mark events such as harvesting and the “reahu” which commemorates the death of an individual. For certain festivals the Yanomami will paint their bodies with various geometric symbols and design from forest dyes. Wooden sticks are polished and placed through the nose or mouth and many flowers and feather headdresses will be worn for decoration.

Agriculture & Subsistance

They are hunter gatherers who also tend small garden plots. As this Amazonian soil is not very fertile they use an agricultural technique called “slash and burn” where they clear parts of the forrest every 2 or 3 years for their gardens of over 60 crops including plantain, cassava and fruits. The men traditionally hunt with blow pipes or bow and arrows and have a wide array of game including; Tapir, Peccary, Deer and Monkey. Both men and women fish, with the use of “Timbo” a fish poison functioned by pounding bundles of vines in the water producing a liquid which stuns the fish allowing the Yanomami people to simply scoop the floating fish from the surface. They also collect nuts, shellfish and insect larvae while wild honey is highly prized with 15 different kinds. 

The Spirit World

The Yanomami have a huge botanical knowledge and use approximately 500 plants for food, medicine, house building and other artefacts. These plants link themselves to the spirit world which is fundamental to the Yanomami belief system and cosmos. Every creature, rock, tree, and mountain has a spirit. Shamans control these spirits “Xapiri” by inhaling a hallucingenic snuff called “yakoana”. The shamans power / vision and communication with the spirit world makes these people the pillar of the Yanomami society.

Below, Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami shaman explains this world;

"We Yanomami learn with the great spirits, the xapiri, We learn how to know the xapiri, how to see them and listen to them. Only those who know the xapiri can see them, because the xapiri are very small and bright like lights. There are many, many xapiri - not just a few, but lots, thousands like stars. They are beautiful and decorated with parrot feathers and painted with urucum (red berry paste). Others have earnings and use black dye and they dance very beautifully and sing differently. The whites think that when we indians do shamanism we are singing. But we are not singing, we are accompanying the music and the songs. There are different songs: the songs of the macaw, of the parrot, of the tapir, of the tortoise, of the eagle, of all birds which sing differently. So that’s what the xapiri are like. They are difficult to see. Whoever is a shaman has to accept them, to know them. You have to leave everything: you can’t eat food or drink water, you can’t be near women or the smell of burning, or children playing or making a noise - because the xapiri want to live in silence.

They are other people and they live differently. Some live in the sky, some underground, and others live in the mountains which are covered with forests and flowers. Some live in the rivers, in the sea and others in the stars, or in the moon and the sun. Omame (the creator) chose them because they were good for working - not in the garden, but for working with shamanism, for curing people. They are beautiful and difficult to see. The xapiri look after everything. The xapiri are looking after the world. Our shamans know that our planet is changing. We know the health of the Amazon. We know that it is dangerous to abuse nature, and that when you destroy the rainforest, you cut the arteries of the future and the world’s force just ebbs away. The sky is full of smoke because our rainforest is being logged and burnt. The rains come late, the sun behaves in a strange way. The lungs of the sky are polluted. The world is ill. The forest will die if it is destroyed by the whites. Where will we go when we have destroyed our world? When the planet is silent, how will we learn? We have kept the words of our ancestors inside us for a long time, and we continue to pass them to our children. So the words of the spirits will never disappear.

And their story has no end." 


Information Referenced from the Instituto Socioambiental | Povos Indígenas no Brasil and Survival International

Date accessed 01.04.15
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