ALTERNATE NAMES: Campa (derogatory)
LOCATION: Peru; Brazil
LANGUAGE: Asháninka; Spanish
RELIGION: Native mythical beliefs
The Asháninka are an ethnic group of the Peruvian Amazon rain forest. They are also known in Peru and abroad by the name "Campa." They consider this name derogatory because it derives from the Quechua thampa, which means ragged and dirty. Asháninka means "our fellows" or "our kin-folk."
Europeans first attempted to colonize (invade and rule) the area in 1595. In 1742 this period of colonization came to a sudden end with a general Amerindian rebellion led by the legendary Juan Santos Atahualpa. The uprising lasted until 1752 and succeeded in expelling all missionaries and colonists from the area. The Asháninka and their neighbors had control of their land for over a century.
By the mid-nineteenth century the encroachment of agriculture from the Andes and of the rubber-tapping industry from the Amazon brought Europeans back. In 1847 recolonization by Franciscans (a Catholic religious order) and European, Chinese, and Japanese settlers began. Some 5 million acres (2 million hectares) of Asháninka territory, along with the main rivers, were granted to the British-owned Peruvian Corporation forty-four years later. The Asháninka people were then used as laborers. Appalling working conditions together with virus epidemics took a heavy toll.
During the last decades of the twentieth century, the Asháninka territory has been the site of conflicts between the Peruvian Army and rebel groups. Since the beginning of the 1980s, the Shining Path (a communist rebel group) has entered their territory. Since then, guerrilla (rebel) and army actions often result in Asháninka deaths.
The Asháninka are one of the largest ethnic groups of the Americas. They inhabit mainly the Central Forest in the Amazonian part of the eastern Andean foothills in Peru. Their communities also stretch across the easternmost Peruvian Amazon to the state of Acre in Brazil. Their traditional heartland is the Gran Pajonal, a remote plateau of rolling terrain dissected by river gorges. On the slopes there are pajonales (grasslands), created in part by a long history of Asháninka clearing and burning.
Difficult access to the region allowed the inhabitants to remain isolated from outside influences until relatively recently. The degree of integration with their neighbors varies according to the geographic situation.
The Asháninka language belongs to the pre-Andean Arawak linguistic family. The largest language family in South America, it includes several dialects. Most of the population is monolinguistic (speaking one language) until they go to school. If indeed they do go, they learn Spanish. Children are given a provisional name when they start walking. Their official name is decided when they are seven years old.
Among the Asháninka, history and nature are explained through myths and heroes. A great cliff in the Tambo River, for example, used to be a Spanish ship that a powerful hero, Avireri, transformed into a rock. Its sailors became red ants. Other dangerous insects, such as wasps, are also transformations of bad men. As to the origins of their neighbors, it is said that Avireri, the great mythological transformer, turned a murderous hawk and his wife into huge rocks that can be seen in the Ene River. Their feathers became canoes, and each carried Piros, Matsigenkas, Shipibos, and all the other Indian groups that live down the river.
The Asháninka vision of the cosmos is mainly mythical. There is not a figure of a creator but a hero, Avireri, who transformed humans into animals, plants, mountains, and rivers. Their universe is inhabited by the living forms that can be seen, and also by a host of invisible beings. Among the good spirits are the Sun (Pavá) and the Moon (Kashirí). There are also evil spirits or kamári. The Asháninka have shamans (holy people) or sheripiári who are intermediaries between the people and supernatural beings.
The Asháninka have an apocalyptic vision of the world (a vision of doom). They believe that this world is plagued by evil forces and that people will be destroyed. After that, there will be a new world with new people free of sickness or death.
The Festival of the Moon is a celebration of the god Kashíri. According to legend, he is the father of the Sun. Kashíri appeared to a young girl and introduced her and her people to manioc (cassava). He made the young girl his wife, and in giving birth to the Sun she was burned to death. Kashíri began taking his nephews to the forest, where he slaughtered and ate them. When his brother-in-law threatened to kill him, he escaped by rising into the sky. Kashíri continues eating human souls and that explains why the Moon gets fatter every month.
Peru is a Catholic country. Some Indians gradually lose their traditions in the process of acculturation (association with and taking on the dominant culture) and begin to celebrate national holidays.
Asháninka rites are aimed at protecting the people. Prospective parents, for example, follow a special diet during pregnancy. They refrain from eating turtle meat for fear that this would make their child slow-moving and slow-witted.
When girls reach adolescence, they spend up to six months in isolation. During that time they spin thread. Afterward they are welcomed back to daily life with a wild celebration.
After death a human soul can join the good spirits if the person was sufficiently good in his or her lifetime. However, the Asháninka consider it far more likely that the soul will become an evil ghost. In that case, it will revisit the settlement and attack those living there. That was the reason why, traditionally, the Asháninka would often abandon a settlement after someone died.
Inside Asháninka villages there is a real sense of community. Many economic activities, such as hunting and fishing, are carried out collectively and the take is divided equally among everyone. Intertribal trade has always existed.
Traditionally a native community housed between 300 and 400 people. Related nuclear families (parents and children) lived in private dwellings surrounding a communal home. Individual houses had two walls made of tree trunks, palm leaf roofs, and raised floors built with pona palm trunks.
Living conditions have changed considerably since the conflicts between the Peruvian Army and guerrillas, as well as the illegal trade in coca. Nowadays, under the raised floor, the Asháninka build trenches where they keep provisions, anticipating attacks. Many Asháninka are refugees, having been forced to abandon their homes and land to save their lives. Asháninka refugees experienced severe malnutrition that had never before been experienced in South America.
There are few restrictions on appropriate marriage partners among the Asháninka, apart from immediate family members. To prevent pregnancy, some women eat native plant roots. Polygyny (multiple wives) is practiced, and women used to be traded for goods from other tribes.
The Asháninka wear the chusma. This is a traditional garment made of a long piece of fabric with an opening in the middle for the head—from front to back for men, and from side to side for women. It is joined on the sides with vertical lines for men and horizontal lines for women. Chusmas are made of dyed cotton and ornamented with feathers and beads. Before contact with Europeans, the Asháninka wore chusmas only for special occasions. On regular days, they would go virtually in the nude, although women often would wear an apron suspended from a string, covering their genitals. Accessories include nasal pendants and pins made of silver, pins for the lower lip, necklaces, feather headdresses, and arm and leg bands. They also paint their bodies and blacken their teeth.
The list of Asháninka crops is long, and ingredients for meals are varied. Crops include yucca, yams, peanuts, sweet potatoes, bananas, pineapples, tuber beans, pumpkins, and peppers. Some communities have added potatoes, maize (corn), and lima beans. Women are in charge of the garden, and men hunt. The Asháninka also keep and eat chickens and their eggs, and they hunt tapirs, boars, and monkeys. To supplement their diet, they collect honey, a root called mabe, ants, and several palm fruits. They also fish. Out of necessity, the Asháninka have begun to produce cash crops, like coffee.
Education has been badly affected by the social unrest in the area. Since 1990, over seventy rural schools have been closed. Dozens of teachers are reported as having "disappeared," meaning it is not known whether they are dead, have joined the rebels, or are in hiding. Some schools make do with improvised chairs and tables made of tree trunks, and blackboards donated by aid organizations.
Music and songs are part of ceremonies and rituals. Asháninka voices, imitations of jungle animal sounds, and stamping of the feet are accompanied by various instruments. Early European accounts of Asháninka instruments included two-headed monkey-skin drums, five-to eight-tube panpipes (hollow pipes of graduated length), bone flageolets (small, end-blown flutes), two-hole transverse flutes, and musical bows.
Most Asháninka still live by fishing, hunting, and cultivating small plots of land. Most males spent much of their working time hunting. Although meat is the main source of protein, most of a family's food comes from cultivated plants. Yucca, plantain, peanuts, sweet potatoes, and sugarcane are grown, as well as medicinal herbs. Colonization brought extensive coffee, cacao, rice, and coca plantations to some areas. Selling produce provides some income for the Asháninka. Communities are self-sufficient, and most economic activities are carried out collectively. The product is divided among the families. There is also a long tradition of trade between tribes.
Since before the arrival of Europeans, the Asháninka made objects that seemed related to sport or games. These included humming tops, bull-roarers, and maize-leaf balls. They also practiced wrestling. In modern times, those who live side-by-side with settlers take part in the spectator sport culture. Soccer is Peru's favorite sport, and it is played even in the most remote regions.
Contact with Western civilization has brought to some communities new forms of recreation. Radio and television have joined more traditional forms of entertainment such as storytelling, singing, and dancing. In remote areas, where life continues to be similar to the past, the division between work and ceremonies or recreational time is not as sharp. Because many activities are carried out collectively, work also offers a chance for social intercourse.
The Asháninka traditionally are a seminomadic tribe (one that moves periodically). As a consequence, their material culture is minimal. The few objects they possess are produced with great skill and are decorated artistically. Designs consisting of complex angular, geometric patterns drawn in rectangular panels adorn most objects, from pots and beadwork to musical instruments and clothes. The Asháninka make the fabric for their typical costume, the chusma. They use wild cotton and two kinds of weaving frames. The Asháninka make twined baskets, sieves, and mats. Some containers are made of calabashes. Their plates are made of clay and have red designs.
The Asháninka traditional way of life is a casualty of the war between the national army and guerrilla groups. The mountain area of the Asháninka's forest territory was the birthplace of the rebel Shining Path (communist movement). The Asháninka and other Indian peoples of the region have tried to remain outside of the conflict between the national army and the guerrillas, but have often been its victims. Many are refugees in their own land. Those who have been able to remain in their villages have seen their social structure severely affected by political violence. Furthermore, the coca that has been grown in the area for centuries and used since ancestral times for its medicinal qualities has been turned into cocaine in the hands of outsiders. This dangerous and profitable drug attracts those who are interested in the illegal trade.
Asháninka peoples, together with other indigenous tribes, have formed pressure groups. Along with the help of international organizations, they demand justice and defend their human rights. There is still a long way to go before they can also secure Amerindian rights and be free to conduct their own way of life.
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Kalman, Bobbie. Peru: The People and Culture. New York: Crabtree Publishing Company, 1994.
King, David C. Peru: Lost Cities, Found Hopes. New York: Benchmark Books, 1998.
ewington, Anna. Rainforest Amerindians. Austin, Tex.: Raintree Steck-Vaughan Publishers, 1993.
Lewington, Anna. What Do We Know about the Amazonian Indians? New York: P. Bedrick Books, 1993.