LOCATION: Ecuador; Peru (Eastern slopes of the Andes mountains)

POPULATION: 10,000–30,000

LANGUAGE: Jivaro; Quechua

RELIGION: Traditional mystical and spiritual beliefs


The Jivaro are a tribe of people from the Andes mountains. The name "Jivaro" was given to this group of people by Spanish conquerors. The Jivaro prefer the name Shuar. Their history as great warriors goes back to the days of the expansion of the Inca empire when the Jivaro fought to remain free of Inca control. They also battled the Spanish during the Spanish Conquest. In the centuries following the conquest, the Jivaro continued to fight modern society, resisting successive waves of missionaries. Once known for their practice of shrinking human heads, some Jivaro are quickly adapting to contemporary life. No longer isolated from society, their traditional life-style is fading as their villages adopt modern ways. Most Jivaro, however, remain isolated and continue to live a traditional way of life.


The Jivaro live on the eastern slopes of the Andes where mountain ranges meet the Amazon River headwaters. This tropical forest region is characterized by frequent, heavy rainfall and dense tropical vegetation. The Jivaro are mainly concentrated in Ecuador. Current estimates place the population at approximately 10,000 to 30,000 people.


The Jivaro speak Jivaroan, which has many dialects. Many Jivaro now also speak the Quechua language, which is spoken throughout the Andes region.


The Jivaro have a rich mythology. A variety of ancient myths have been passed down through the generations to explain the origins of the Jivaro people. In one story, the Andean foothills were subject to a severe flood, killing all but two brothers. When the waters receded and the brothers returned to their shelter, they found dishes of food laid out for them by two parrots. One of the brothers caught one of the gift-bearing parrots and married her. This marriage produced three girls and three boys, whose descendants became the Jivaro people.

The boa constrictor holds a unique place in Jivaro mythology. The largest snake in the Amazon basin, it is respected and feared both for its strength and because it is believed to possess supernatural powers.


The Jivaro believe that spiritual forces are responsible for real-world occurrences. They believe spirits inhabit animals, plants, and objects. Many daily customs and behaviors are guided by their desire for spiritual power or to avoid evil spirits. Fearful of witchcraft, the Jivaro often attribute sickness or death to the power of their enemies to cast curses.

The Jivaro worship many deities, or gods. Nungui, or Earth Mother, is believed to have the power to make plants grow. Living deep underground, she emerges at night to dance in the garden. Women sing to Nungui to ask her to protect the garden, and they carefully weed the garden daily to appease her. Jivaro believe in a protective spirit that comes to them in a vision. This spirit, known as arutam , is thought to protect them from injury, disease, and death.

Some Jivaro have been influenced by Christian missionaries


Jivaro holidays consist of the various rituals and celebrations that mark major life transitions or events. Jivaro may share in celebrations of national holidays if they are visiting an area where festivities are taking place.


Jivaro rites of passage and celebrations are connected to their spiritual beliefs. All personal milestones and important events have spiritual significance. The most important moment in a young male Jivaro's life is when he is encouraged to gain his arutam or protective spirit. Parents fear that without this protective spirit, Jivaro youths will not survive into adulthood.

At or before puberty, young male Jivaro are led deep into the forest. There they consume a hallucinogenic drug called maikoa and then await a vision of the arutam soul that will protect them from danger. They may remain in the forest for days, fasting and bathing in a waterfall, while they await the sacred vision. If the vision does not come, they return home, then set off again to the forest to make a second attempt. Once this power is received, the boy is allowed to participate in many adult activities.


The Jivaro are a very sociable people. When visiting a neighbor or relative's house, guests enjoy a hospitable welcome. Beer made from manioc (cassava) root is offered, and the family meal is shared. Often, if the distances traveled are great, guests are invited to stay for several days. Banana leaves laid on the dirt floor serve as beds for visitors.

These visits also provide an opportunity for men to seek new wives. In contrast to Western cultures, it is the Jivaro men who are fussy about their appearance. A man may spend hours before a visit or party painting his face and putting decorative adornments on his clothes and in his hair. On special occasions, complex geometric designs are painted on the nose and cheekbones. Parrot feathers adorn the hair, and ear sticks are placed through holes in the ear.

Gift-giving is also important among the Jivaro. The fangs of a boa constrictor, thought to bring good luck, are a common gift for a potential bride. If she returns the gestures of affection to her suitor, he may begin negotiations with the woman's father to marry her. Romantic love and mutual attraction are very important in the selection of a spouse. In addition, women seek good hunters and warriors as husbands, while men desire good gardeners and potters. The husband is obligated to pay a bride price (a payment to her family) or perform services for the wife's father.


Jivaro families live in large one-room shelters without internal walls or rooms for privacy. Traditional Jivaro houses are large ovals built from materials found in the forest. These shelters, called jivaria, generally house large families of about eight to ten people. Contemporary Jivaro houses resemble the one pictured on the next page. However, only a small minority of Jivaro live in contemporary houses.

Jivaria houses are built by the male head of the household with help from his male relatives. Houses must be strong to withstand heavy rainfall.

Houses have very simple furniture: lowlying beds made of bamboo (with no mattresses) and shelves to store basic pottery.

The Jivaro are completely without political organization. There are no tribal leaders or community organizations. The only unit of organization is the family group. The Jivaro population is widely dispersed, with an average of one to five miles (one-and-a-half to eight kilometers) between houses. Families live in a house for no more than ten years, since the nearby supply of firewood and small game becomes depleted. Families then move a few miles or kilometers away to an area richer in resources.


The roles of males and females in Jivaro society are clearly defined and are tied to religious beliefs. The division of labor is partly the result of the belief that most things have either male or female souls. Manioc (cassava), for example, is thought to be female, so all tasks related to the planting, reaping, and processing of manioc are the domain of women. Planting and reaping of corn, which has a male soul, are the responsibility of men.

Most Jivaro families have one or two dogs. They are not kept as pets, but rather as an essential aid to hunting and for protection from enemies. Dogs hold a privileged position in Jivaro households. They receive generous attention and care. In addition, monkeys or birds are sometimes kept as pets.


Daily dress among the Jivaro is simple. Both men and women wear clothes made of plain brown cloth, occasionally painted with vertical stripes. These homewoven clothes are durable and rugged and can last for many years. The women drape the cloth over one shoulder, sometimes belting it at the waist with bark string or a piece of woven cotton. Men wrap the cloth around the waist so that it reaches down below the knees. A common feature of male attire is the etsemat, a woven band decorated with feathers that is worn around the head.

Ceremonial dress is more elaborate. Men paint their faces with black and red dyes. An ornament made of bird bones is wrapped around the shoulders, signifying the possession of an arutam soul and the spiritual power it provides. More recently, the Jivaro are acquiring Western clothing. These manufactured clothes are often used for special occasions such as visits to neighboring families.

12 • FOOD

The Jivaro have a varied diet of meat and vegetables that they obtain from many sources. The primary foods of their diet are the vegetables grown in their gardens. These are supplemented by searching for wild plantains and other edible plants. Protein in the diet is provided by raising chickens and hunting wild game. As with many other Amazon peoples, the most popular drink among the Jivaro is beer made from fermented manioc (cassava) root.


Most Jivaro children receive little formal education, although programs are being instituted to educate all Jivaro children. In some remote Jivaro settlements, lessons are broadcast via radio. Jivaro children are also taught the skills needed for survival in the jungle. They learn these basic skills from their parents and elder siblings. For example, they are taught how to swim at a very young age. Due to the widely dispersed population, most children have little contact with playmates other than their siblings.


Songs and music are a part of Jivaro daily life. Songs accompany many daily events and special occasions. Jivaro men sing special songs while weaving, as do women while gardening. At parties or ceremonial events, flutes and drums made with monkey skins are used to accompany the singing.


Much of the workday is dedicated to ensuring a constant supply of food. The Jivaro are primarily farmers. They grow several staple crops, including manioc (cassava) root, sweet potatoes, sugar cane, peanuts, and plantains. The women spend a large part of the day keeping the large garden free of weeds. Women are also responsible for producing pottery for storing food and drinks. Young girls tend to the house and are responsible for such tasks as sweeping the floors with banana leaves.

The men have more varied duties, including clearing the forest, collecting firewood, and hunting. They also craft blowguns and spears for hunting game. Making a blowgun can take as long as a couple of weeks from start to finish. Wood from a chonta palm tree is split open, tied together, and hollowed out with a mixture of sand and water. The mouthpiece is made of bone. Darts are made quickly by sharpening palm leaves. Curare, a poison that paralyzes, is placed on the tip of the dart. Darts can be shot nearly one hundred feet (thirty meters) to reach monkeys in trees or large birds.

The Jivaro are no longer completely isolated from modern society. They frequently trade skins and featherworked handicrafts to obtain modern goods. In addition, some Jivaro work as laborers to obtain cash. Particularly valued are machetes, axes, and guns, useful tools for life in the forest.


The Jivaro do not participate in sports.


The Jivaro are a festive people, and parties lasting through the night or even over several days are common. The main form of entertainment is dancing and drinking manioc (cassava) beer with neighbors in the evening. After a few hours spent drinking and talking, drums are brought out. Dancing and singing follow, usually until dawn. For the Jivaro, these parties provide a rare occasion for social interaction and communication in a society where there is almost no contact with people outside the family.


The Jivaro are skilled craftspeople. Women learn to make pottery from a very young age. The art of weaving is reserved exclusively for men. They spin, weave, and dye cotton wool with natural dyes extracted from tropical plants. Elaborate feather headdresses and artifacts are also widely sought for their artistic beauty. The skills to make these traditional items are still taught to successive generations. However, the growing availability of Western goods has diminished the quality of traditional goods.


Modern society continues to challenge traditional culture. Like many native people, the Jivaro struggle to hang on to their traditional way of life as contemporary influences enter their world.


Descola, Philippe. Spears of Twilight: Three Years Among the Jivaro. New York: New Press, 1996.

Furneaux, Rupert. Primitive Peoples. London: David and Charles, 1975.

Harner, Michael J. The Jivaro: People of the Sacred Waterfalls. New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1973.

Weyer, Edward. Primitive Peoples Today. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1961.


Embassy of Ecuador, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available http://www.ecuador.org/ , 1998.

Interknowledge Corp. Ecuador. [Online] Available http://www.interknowledge.com/ecuador/ , 1998.

STAAC. Jivaro Indians. [Online] Available http://www.nzp.com/1201jivaro.html , 1995.

World Travel Guide. Ecuador. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/ec/gen.html , 1998.

User Contributions:

Katherine Walsh
very valid information, you made my study so much easier, thanks
this is really good!! due to the fact that there isnt a lot of information about it!!
there are nothing about spiritual beliefs i got to know what is it.
I would like to know more about Nungui, were can I find such information?
WOW! I have searched for so long for this information for a project and it has everything I need.
joselin nieto
o my gosh i cant belive this i did this project about ancinet people and it had every thing i needed to know
thanks... i've been lookiing for this info for over a week... I'm glad i've found it..!!!
thanks... i've been lookiing for this info for over a week... I'm glad i've found it..!!!
I actually found something and my research project is due in one week and it was assigned four months ago.
Do you have photos or illustrated examples of Jivaro face paintings? Or would you know a link to photos of Jivaro face painting? Off hand, would you know of any other indigenous Indian groups that use a checkerboard pattern of face painting. Thanks so much for your time. Enjoyed the information on the Jivaro. Great site. Informative. David
All that information and you conveniently left out the good stuff. The four tribes of the Jivaro were headhunters, and they waged war on each other Hatfield and McCoy style until very recently. As a matter of fact, the government had to go up in the hills and teach them how to make fake shrunken heads out of goat skin because when these extremely smart people found out people would pay good money for shrunken human heads, they stepped up the "production" to the point it was feared they would exterminate each other. They also made use of shamans who were zonked out of their minds on a drug called natema which is stronger than LSD. it should also be noted that they are the only unconquered Native tribes, owing to them being very good at war. They once sent the Spanish Governor of the province's body back to his settlement after they had killed him by pouring molten gold down his throat til he died, which made the Spanish think twice about messing with with them.
I just got this project and im done already! thanx! =)
Working on a project and this helped a lot. Thanks!
im working on a project and this is the best website i have found thanks
Now I am reading a novel in a section was mention JIVARO people, so I have been curious to know more about them. I got what i want to know.Thanks a lot.
Thank you VERY much. You have helped me a lot with my assignment. However I need to know if the Jivaro people are facing any sustainability issues and how they have adapted to their environment. If anyone knows some websites that may help me, Please could you post them on this website!
Thank you very much again!
Good job. I am writting a project and I found this website very helpfull, Thanks
im despretly searching images of the shuar gods, deities, spirits for a wood carving project! can you help me?
Thanks for this website my project is done already. Good job and good well done too. Everything I need was here.
Wow so happy I found this. Preparing for my college final and it helped me out with know what I need to know. Great information so happy that I found it
Amazing- Helped with my project for school. Thanks
Amelia Oortega
In the early 1960s I lived in Quito Ecuador. My father was an attaché at the US embassy. One day a man came to our home to see us. I don't remember anything about him except he brought a shrunken head wrapped in gold fabric. He carefully uncovered it and we were looking at the shrunken head of a German miner. He also showed us the shrunken head of a monkey. This man also brought a gift. It was a very beautifully painted pot made by the Jivarro Indians. The name Shuar wasn't used at that time. A boy in my class in school was the son of a missionary killed by the Jivarro.

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: