ETHNONYMS: Onicoin, Saranahua, Sharánahua
The Sharanahua ("Good people") Indians live in the area of the upper reaches of the Río Purus, primarily in Peru, but there are some in Brazil as well. In addition to Sharanahua Indians themselves (who numbered only ninety in 1973), the Sharanahua tribe includes the remaining populations of Mastanawa, Chandinahua, and perhaps some Jamináwa people. Many authorities consider the Marinahua to be also a part of the Sharanahua tribe. The population of this mixture of culturally similar and intermarrying peoples has been estimated at 1,350 to 1,850. Their language belongs to the Central Branch of the Panoan Family.
The Sharanahua lived in the upper Rio Taruacá region, to the north, at the time of contact. Fleeing a Peruvian attack, they migrated to the Rio Curanja in about 1935. They left the Curanja after a measles epidemic and reached their present location in the 1940s, where they fought the Jamináwa. In the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, the Sharanahua fell victim to epidemics of flu, whooping cough, and measles, which cut their population in half; they believe that these epidemics were caused by Peruvian bombs. Strangers to living on a river until the 1940s, the Sharanahua did not acquire the technology to make canoes and fishing nets until the 1960s. Since then, a few Sharanahua have become migrant laborers in order to obtain goods and cash. They trade with merchants who come up the river, exchanging animal skins (especially the valuable skins of jaguars and ocelots) for guns, metal pots, rum, clothing, needles, flashlights, lipstick (for face painting), kerosene (for lamps), soap, matches, and other goods. The Sharanahua also go downriver to sell skins and turtle eggs. In earlier times, Sharanahua would kill a trader who they felt had cheated them; after learning the serious consequences of such an act, they took to displaying their anger by refusing to pay debts incurred on credit advanced against the value of skins to be delivered in the future.
Until the 1940s or 1950s, all Sharanahua gardening was done in upland gardens. When they moved to the Río Purus at about that time, they learned to use the floodplains to grow some crops, and now there is a basic distinction between the types of crops grown in floodplain gardens and those grown in upland gardens. In the spring, in the floodplain gardens, women raise fast-maturing maize, watermelons, and peanuts and harvest these crops before the fall rains raise the river's water level. Men, on the other hand, grow slow-maturing manioc in soils that never flood and bananas, plantains, and sugarcane in lands that flood intermittently. Gardens produce approximately 60 percent of Sharanahua food.
Women gather vegetables, fruits, and fungi from the forest and take shrimp and small fish living in waterlogged bamboo from the river. Using shotguns, men hunt for the most desirable game (deer, tapir, peccaries, capybaras, and pacas), but sometimes may end up with only a less desirable bird, monkey, turtle, or armadillo. Hunting is considered the chief occupation of older boys and young and middle-aged men and provides approximately 30 percent of the food eaten. When the dry season comes, the Sharanahua use poison to stun the fish in the shallow river, and then men use spears to catch the larger fish from canoes while women catch smaller fish floating on the surface and remove fish from the spears. A fish belongs to the person who first sees it, not to the one who catches it.
The Sharanahua village is small, usually well under 200 people, and is laid out in two parallel lines of houses. Houses are large versions of the style of house used by Peruvians living in the jungle; they sit 1.2 to 1.8 meters above the ground on posts, have thatched roofs and, often, bark walls. Their elevation from the ground protects them from surface water during the rainy season and presents a barrier to the nocturnal entrance of domestic dogs and chickens. There is also a separate cook house. The area around the house is cleared of vegetation to prevent it from harboring mice, insects, and snakes.
Sharanahua social organization is based on patrilineal descent. Sister exchange is often practiced, and descent groups often have other descent groups with whom they customarily intermarry. Some personal names are customarily associated with each patrilineage. Postmarital residence is matrilocal, and a couple's daughter's husband's family of origin supplies the couple with meat after a hunt.
Rivet, Paul, and Constant Tastevin (1921). "Les tribus indiennes des bassins du Purús, du Juruá et des régions limitrophes." La Géographie 35:449-482.
Siskind, Janet (1973). To Hunt in the Morning. New York: Oxford University Press.
Torralba, A. (1976). "Leyendas saranahuas: Bapa la mujer que no espero." Misiones Dominicanas del Perú, 47(284): 23-26.