Shipibo-Konibo Indians

It is estimated that Peru's Amazon is home to 16 language families and around 65 ethnic groups. That this is only an estimate is testament to the vast area of Peru covered by dense Amazon rain forest, in which there are still 'uncontacted' tribes. 

One indigenous people that you are likely to come across are the Shipibo-Konibo, who have traditionally lived along the Ucayali River. Formerly two groups, the Shipibo (apemen) and the Konibo (fishmen), they eventually became one distinct tribe through intermarriage and communal ritual. 

Their numbers are thought to be around 35,000, scattered over a large area of Amazon jungle in Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia, as well as Peru. 

Those living in Peru are believed to number around 20,000, representing approximately 8% of the registered indigenous population in the country, although census data is unreliable, owing to the itinerant nature of the group. 

The Shipibo and Konibo were never conquered by the Inca Empire and they resisted attempts at colonization by Franciscan priests, who began appearing in the Amazon rain forest in the 17th Century. The Franciscans eventually established a settlement in Shipibo territory, near the present port city of Pucallpa.  

Pucallpa grew rapidly during the Rubber Boom of the early 20th Century. Since the 1950s, there have been intense missionary efforts to convert the Shipibo-Konibo to Christianity. 

Pucallpa is still the easiest place to see Shipibo-Konibo in the flesh, as many wander the streets of the city selling their crafts, before returning home to their open-sided, stilted, thatched-roofed houses in villages such as San Francisco, Nuevo Destino, and Santa Clara. All can be reached in about an hour by boat from Lake Yarinacocha - and the first two now are linked by dirt roads to Pucallpa.

A smaller number of Shipibo-Konibo women also commute to Iquitos from the surrounding rain forest. Whilst there, they stay in a communal house, working on painting the fabrics, when not out selling. 

The Shipibo-Konibo are a matriarchal society who maintain many of their traditional practices, such as the use of ayahuasca rituals. As a result, Pucallpa and Iquitos are the gateway to a number of lodges that offer spiritual retreats, involving ayahuasca and guided by Shipibo shamen. 

They are also famed for the distinctive geometric designs which they use to decorate their handmade ceramics and textiles. So even if you don't see them in person, you are likely to come across their artistic influence at some point during a Peru visit. 

The designs often involve maze-like red and black geometric patterns and are closely connected to their complex cosmology, in which ayahuasca plays an important part.

Those Shipibo-Conibo that live close to urban centres have been able to generate extra income from the sale of their sought-after pottery, clothing and craft items. However, those living in more remote areas are feeling the pressure on their centuries-old way of life, as climate change and deforestation is affecting their ability to hunt, fish and raise crops. As a result, there is an ongoing trend of relocation to urban areas, in order to gain access to better educational and health services, as well as to look for alternative sources of monetary income.