If you’ve read some of my other recent articles, you’ll know I’ve become just a little bit obsessed with the rainforest lately, and I’ve now moved on to tribes of the rainforest. Because rainforest is found in a number of places, there is more diversity among the people who call the forests home than you might imagine. The tribes of the rainforest are decreasing in number because their habitat is being destroyed. Where they are able to maintain their home, they live life pretty much the same way they have done for centuries. Let’s examine and learn a bit more about some tribes of the rainforest, together, shall we?
There are around 136,000 Huli and they are the indigenous people of Papua New Guinea. They have lived in the South Sea island nation’s highland areas for around 1000 years and are most recognizable by their bright colored displays. They are one of tribes who have members that speak English, as well as Tok Pisin and the Huli language. They are one of the relatively newer tribes of the rainforest, and were only discovered by Europeans in the year 1935.
These are truly one of the tribes of the rainforest. There are only around 35,000 of them and they live in some 200-250 village communities in the Amazon rainforest. This is the tribe you often see on TV that has lots of piercing in order to mimic wild animals. Somehow they live in an area with more dangerous insects than people in Brazil. They still follow a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but are also horticulturalists. There is a distinct male/female divide with women staying at home tending to crops and the children while men go off to hunt. Girls are usually married as soon as they hit puberty.
This is a very small group of people. There are 1,600 Cashinahua in Perú and in Curanja and on Peru’s rivers. In Brazil there are 400 Cashinahua who live in a state called Acre. The tribe is mostly gone now because they were killed off or forced off their lands by rubber extractors. They are known mostly for their use of hallucinogenic compounds and decorating themselves in bright colors. The ones who were not killed were wiped out by western diseases introduced by explorers. Although the Cashinahua live in traditional village communities, they have embraced some of the trappings of modern life, including swapping their blow darts for guns for hunting.
This is one of the endangered tribes of the rainforest. They live in Brazil in the Amazon basin. There are only about 8,000 of them but that number is slightly increasing year on year as the tribe took political action to retain control of their lands. They live by a means of shifting cultivation to avoid depleting the soil and amazingly, utilize more than 250 plants for food and 650 plants for medicine. Another tribe that adorns and paints their bodies, the Kayapo use bright colors often in circular patterns to represent the sun and moon, but also use symbols that represent insects and bees – the source of their ancestral knowledge.
These people live in Northern Peru and southeastern Colombia. In the 20th century there were around 50,000, but they were killed off through internal conflicts, by people extracting rubber or by disease. There are now around 8,000 of them left, some of them living in government established reservations. The Witoto are famous for their low-signal drums, their wide use of medicinal plants and large communal housing complexes. There used be a thought that the Witoto were cannibals but no evidence supports this. They are major agriculturalists but still hunt with blow darts, along with modern guns.
I’m only including this one to set the record straight. Pygmy is no longer considered to be a respectful term and it was actually applied to a number of tribal groups in Africa whose males were typically shorter than average men. The anthropological definition states pygmy applies to groups where typical male height is less than 150cm (4 foot eleven). So, in fact, there really is no actual tribe called pygmy, and in reality, if there were a tribal classification based on height, which in itself in modern terms is nonsensical, pygmy people are not restricted to Africa, but in many rainforests around the world. Now you know, when you hear someone use the term pygmy, you can explain what it means and advise them against using the word.
Among the rainforest tribes that used to be called pygmies are the Baka. They live in the eastern rainforests of Cameroon, northern Gabon, south western Central African Republic and the northern Republic of Congo. These people are also only 1.52 meters (5 foot) or less and are semi-nomadic. Like nomadic peoples throughout history, they are often viewed with suspicion and marginalized. Due to deforestation, their habitat and nomadic lifestyle are dwindling and younger tribespeople are moving away from their roots to become more sedentary in towns and cities.
It would be so easy to think that all tribes of the rainforest are pretty much the same. It’s true, they do live similar lifestyles in similar habitats, but they all have their own society, rituals, culture and often their own language. I’m going to do some more reading about rainforest tribes. Are you?
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