Subsistence and Commercial Activities. As is typical of other Amazonian peoples, Piaroa subsistence is based on the varied mix of shifting cultivation, hunting, fishing, and collection. Cultivation provides the bulk of calories in the diet. The major food crops are bitter manioc—the carbohydrate staple—followed by maize, root crops like sweet potatoes and yams, and fruits such as bananas and pineapples. A quick rotation of gardens is the traditional practice, with plantations being actively harvested and weeded through the first manioc crop, which lasts about two years. With more sedentary settlements have come prolonged cropping periods and more intensive management, such as the replanting of up to three successive manioc crops and the staggered cropping of late-maturing orchard crops to follow the initial manioc phases.
Most of the protein and fats in the diet derive from hunting or fishing of a wide range of species. The indigenous hunting technology consists of the blowgun, lance, and several kinds of traps (snares, cones, gummed sticks), but the shotgun has come to be the main tool. Fishing is done with hook and line, cone traps, suffocants, dams, scoop baskets, and bows and arrows. The relative importance of each differs according to the local ecology: hunting is dominant in the headwater zones, fishing is more prominent in the downriver sites. Significant seasonal or daily nutrition also comes from collecting wild forest plant and animal foods, among them palm fruits, frogs, honey, ants, termites, caterpillars, spiders, earthworms, and grubs. The diversified resource-exploitation system permits all houses to be virtually self-sufficient in the direct acquisition of food, but they still depend on trade to obtain certain tools, for instance manioc-grater boards, pots, blowguns, and steel cutting tools.
The traditional resource system and the economic autonomy that goes with it are being lost in the modern nucleated and sedentary towns. Current economic trends include reduced importance of hunting and gathering for subsistence; loss of native ethnobotanical and zoological knowledge; increased emphasis on agriculture and cash cropping; adoption of new crops and domesticated animals, especially cattle; increased time given to wage labor or extractive enterprises such as gold mining or vine collecting for sale to makers of rattan furniture; increased use of cash in economic exchanges; increased purchase of packaged foods; increased consumption of Western luxury goods such as watches, radio-cassette players, and tennis shoes; and the establishment of communitywide businesses to market agricultural produce. Additionally, a new economic upper class is being formed by Piaroa professionals (schoolteachers, nurses, commissaries, and electric-plant Operators, who draw government salaries) and businessmen—bodega owners and motor-boat operators.
Industrial Arts. The traditional craft items are baskets, unpainted pottery, hammocks and loincloths (woven on looms), braided string, benches and mortars (carved from wood), bark cloth, feathered crowns, and painted ceremonial masks. Some of these skills, especially loom weaving, are being lost in the more acculturated communities.
Trade. The Piaroa have a reputation as consummate traders and are famous for the high-quality curare they produce and sell to other ethnic groups. Other indigenous products traded, both intra- and interethnically, include grater boards, blowguns, canoes, pots, magical plants, peraman wax, carraña (a minty resin), red dye, baskets, cotton hammocks and loincloths, religious fetish items, feathered head bonnets, and dogs. Important Western goods incorporated into the trade network are beads, fishhooks, and steel tools. The traditional trade system has declined both inter- and intraethnically in recent years as the Piaroa have become more oriented to the urban markets and goods of the White society.
Division of Labor. Many tasks are assigned by gender; for example, men cut garden clearings and plant maize, tobacco, and magical plants, whereas women plant the manioc and other root crops, weed, and do most harvesting. With the recent trend to cash cropping, men are assuming a greater role in the planting, weeding, and harvesting of the gardens. Women also perform the nonstop chore of processing the manioc into edible form—peeling, washing, grating, pressing, and baking into bread. Meanwhile, men do the hunting and most of the fishing, build the houses, and perform religious labor. Men are the basket makers and principal potters, whereas women are the experts at loom weaving.
Land Tenure. There is no formal conception of land ownership among the Piaroa. Land is transformed into property through the input of labor, as in the case of making a garden, and exists as property only as long as it bears resources resulting from that labor. In this sense, communal gardens are owned in individual sections according to who put in the work of clearing and planting a particular area. Likewise, secondary forests containing resources are considered the privilege of their makers. In a larger sense, land is controlled by the community that occupies and uses it. Rights to occupy a place are enhanced by having known ancestors who once lived there. With permanent, nucleated settlement have come changing attitudes toward landownership. Over thirty communities have now received collective land titles from the government, but most of these grants are small.