If visiting an Amazon lodge downstream from Iquitos, chances are that you will get the chance to visit the Yagua village of Nuevo Peru. This is a tourism experience, undoubtedly, but offers a starting point to understand a little more about one of Amazonia’s larger indigenous groups.
It is estimated that there are some 6,000 Yagua living in north-eastern Peru and southern Colombia, in 30 communities along the Amazon, Napo, Putumayo and Yavari rivers and their tributaries.
The Yagua language is still in use, although the majority of people can also speak Spanish with varying degrees of proficiency. Prior to the Spanish Conquest, the Yagua were in contact with the Incas, and so their language contains a number of Quechua words. In fact, their name may come from the Quechua word yawar, meaning 'blood' or 'the color of blood' - a reference to the Yagua custom of painting faces with the red seeds of the annatto plant (Bixa orellana).
Ever since the Conquest, the Yagua have been subjected to almost continual threats to their lands and way of life. Firstly, even before seeing a white person, diseases to which they had no immunity, such as smallpox and influenza, would have had a devastating effect on population numbers.
Then, in 1686, a Jesuit mission was established in the area, followed by the arrival of Franciscan missionaries, all determined to convert local tribes to Catholicism.
In the early 18th Century, Portuguese raiding parties from Brazil attacked these Spanish missions, causing much geographic dispersion of those Amazonian people that were in contact with the Spanish, and inflicting severe casualties.
The most cataclysmic event, though, was the Rubber Boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Europeans arrived in large numbers looking to make their fortune. To do so, they exploited the indigenous people to extract natural latex from the surrounding rainforest.
Sadly for the Yagua, much of the finest rubber latex in the Amazon was to be found in their traditional homeland, the forested areas surrounding Iquitos and the Colombian city of Leticia. As a result, many Yaguas died in conflicts, as well as by further exposure to European diseases. Those that were not killed or enslaved fled to remote regions of the jungle.
With this dispersal, subjugation and death, Yagua sense of unity and cultural interchanges declined. Remarkably, though, their language and many facets of their culture have survived and continue to be viable, especially in some of the larger and more isolated communities.
Of those cultural facets, the skill of the Yagua men with the blowpipe is probably the best known. With these slim, yet effective weapons, they provide for their families by hunting monkeys, pacas (large rodents), sloths, birds, and other small animals.
Bush meat, though, is not the only food source. Yagua men are highly competent fishermen, taking advantage of the nutritional bounty to be found in Amazonia's rivers and lakes. Slash and burn agriculture is also widely practiced.
While the men are expected to provide the ingredients, Yagua women traditionally prepare the meals and are in charge of running the household.
When not searching for food, Yagua men are also engaged in the making of handicrafts, such as masks, wood carvings, jewellery, dolls, flutes, rattles, baskets, and miniature blowguns, which are exchanged with neighbouring groups, or sold to tourists.
The Yagua masks are carved from gourds or dried wood. These masks are etched with tribal designs, and are then painted with dyes derived from fruit, vegetables, seeds, and flowers. They are often adorned with beads, shells and feathers.
The Yagua produce jewellery from natural items, such as fish or animal teeth, shells, seeds. Often they will be decorated with natural dyes.
Yagua rattles can be made in two ways. Either leaves from the Schacapa tree are bundled together, to make a rattling sound that is used by shamen in ceremonies; or they use the seeds from the same tree. Schacapa seeds are collected, hollowed out and dried. The sound created is very much like that of a castanet.
Yagua dolls are created from the pounded bark of the Llanchamo tree, along with plant fibres, seeds, fish scales and gourds. They are hand-painted, and often dressed in traditional Yagua dress.
While the Yagua generally dress in Western apparel on a day-to-day basis, they still retain their traditional garments for use on special occasions, or for the benefit of visitors.
Men wear skirts made from Mauritia palm fibre, while women use simpler skirts made of red cotton. Armbands and a small chest covering of the the same material are also worn, with a headdress often adorning the men.
The palm fibres are often dyed a reddish-orange colour, with that same annatto berry pigment that is applied to their bodies.
The Yagua belief system has a Creator, along with demons and spirits, that are often linked to Amazon rainforest animals. The most important spiritual being is Mayantu, and celebrations in his honour last for several days and nights, involving drinking and feasting. During the rituals, young children are given a secret name that is known only to the men of the tribe.
Marriage is another cause for celebration. Yagua women are considered to have reached maturity at fourteen or fifteen years of age. When a potential suitor - from outside their clan - has been found, the man comes to live at the home of his prospective wife for a year. During this time, he works in her family’s fields and hunts for them. Usually, during this period, the girl falls pregnant.
At the end of the year, all being well, the couple returns to the man’s family to live, and are considered officially 'married', a fact celebrated with a feast.
Evil spirits are held responsible for an individual's death. If the deceased is an important figure in the community, his entire house and belongings are burned to stop the spread of these malevolent spirits.
Yagua villages normally consist of up to a dozen houses, located close to a river or stream, and housing 70 - 80 people. Previously, the whole community lived together in a maloca - a large, beehive-shaped structure, covered in palm leaves. This reflected the Yagua view of themselves as a large, extended clan, and offered extra protection in the case of attack.
Today, however, the maloca is used solely for religious ceremonies. Only men can enter. Yet, there is still a strong sense of community, with individuals expected to work for the good of the whole village.