NOTE: I wrote this article here, around 12/25/01. On 3/26/04, I posted it at Wikipedia. This is the original version
The word Shuar, in the Shuar language, means "people." The people who speak this language live in tropical rainforest between the upper montain of the Andes, and the tropical rainforests and savannas of the Amazonian lowlands, in Ecuador and Peru. They distinguish between people who speak Shuar but who live in different places -- thus, the muraiya (hill) shuar are people live in the foothills of the Andes; the achu (swamp-palm) shuar (or Achuar) are people who live in the wetter lowlands east of the Andes. Shuar refer to Spanish-speakers as "apach," and to non-Spanish/non-Shuar speakers as "inkis." Europeans and Euro-Americans used to refer to Shuar as Jívaro; this word probably derives from the 16th century Spanish spelling of "shuar" but has come to mean "savage" (and Shuar consider it an insult).
From the time of first contact with Europeans in the 16th century, to the formation of the Shuar Federation in the 1950s and 1960s, Shuar were semi-nomadic and lived in separate households dispersed in the rainforest, linked by the loosest of kin and political ties, and lacking corporate kin-groups or centralized or institutionalized political leadership. The center of Shuar life was a relatively autonomous household consisting of a man, his wives (usually two), unmarried sons, and daughters. Upon marriage sons would leave their natal household, and sons-in-law would move in. Men hunted and women gardened. When Shuar first made contact with Spaniards in the 16th century, they entered into peaceful trade relations. They violently resisted taxation, however, and drove Spaniards away in 1599.
In the 19th century muraiya Shuar became famous among Europeans and Euro-Americans for their practice of shrinking the heads of slain Achuar. Although non-Shuar characterized these shrunken heads as trophies of warfare, Shuar insisted that they were not interested in the heads themselves and did not value them as trophies of warfare. Instead, they sought the "muisak," or soul of the victim, which was contained in and by the shrunken head. Shuar men believed that control of the muisak would enable them to control their wives' and daughters' labor. Since women cultivated manioc and made chicha (manioc beer), which together provided the bulk of calories and carboydrates in the Shuar diet, women's labor was crucial to Shuar biological and social life. In the late 1800s and early 1900s Europeans and Euro-Americans began trading manufactured goods, including shotguns, in return for shrunken heads. The result was an increase in local warfare that has contributed to the stereotype of Shuar as violent.
At that time Shuar culture functioned to organize and promote a warrior society. Boys of about eight years would be taken by their fathers or uncles on a three to five day journey to a nearby waterfall, during which time the boy would drink only tobacco water. At some point the child would be given "maikua" (Datura arborea, Solanaceae), in the hope that he will then see momentary visions, or arútam. These visions were produced by an ancestor spirit, or wakaní. If the boy were brave enough he could touch the arútam, and acquire the arútam wakaní. This would make the boy very strong, and posession of several arútam wakaní would make the boy invincible. Shuar, however, believed that they could easily lose their arútam wakaní, and thus epeated this ritual several times. A Shuar warrior who had lived to kill many people was called a kakáram. Shuar believed that if a person in possession of an arútam wakaní died a peaceful death, they would give birth to a new wakaní; if someone in possession of an arútam wakaní were killed, they would give birth to a muísak.
Shuar fought primarily with spears and shotguns, but -- like many other groups in the region -- also believed that they could be killed by "tsentsak," invisible darts. Although tsentsak are animate, they do not act on their own. Shamans (in Shuar, "Uwishin") are people who possess and control tsentsak. To possess tsentsak they must purchase them from other shamans; Shuar believe that the most powerful shamans are Quichua-speakers, who live to the north and east. To control tsentsak Shuar must ingest "natem" (Banistereopsis caapi). Many Shuar believe that illness is caused when someone hires a shaman to shoot tsentsak into the body of an enemy. This attack occurs in secret and few if any shamans admit to doing this. If someone takes ill they may go to a shaman for diagnosis and treatment.
The discovery of oil in the upper Amazon has motivated Ecuadorian and Peruvian interest in the region. In the 20th century Ecuadorian Shuar and Peruvian groups like the Achuar have had significantly different histories. The remainder of this article focuses on the Ecuadorian Shuar.
At the end of the 19th century Catholic priests re-established missions among the Shuar, and poor and landless Euro-Ecuadorians from the highlands began to settle among Shuar. Shuar entered into peaceful trade relations, exchanged land for manufactured goods, and began sending their children to mission boarding schools to learn Spanish. In 1935 the Ecuadorian government created a Shuar reserve, in part to regulate Euro-Ecuadorian access to land, and gave Salesian (Catholic) missionaries charge over the reserve. Missionaries were largely successful in teaching Shuar spanish, converting Shuar to Christianity, encouraging the war-weary Shuar to abandon warfare and the production of shrunken heads, encouraging Shuar to abandon the puberty rites through which Shuar acquired an arútam wakaní, and encouraging Shuar to participate in the market economy. They were largely but not completely successful in encouraging Shuar to abandon polygyny for monogamy. They were relatively unsuccessful in discouraging the practice of shamanism.
By the 1950s Shuar had lost a considerable amount of land to settlers. At this time they abandoned their semi-nomadic and dispersed settlement pattern and began to form nucleated settlements of five to thirty families, called "centros." These centros facilitated missionary access to Shuar. They also provided a basis for Shuar petitions to the Ecuadorian government for land; in return Shuar promised to clear rainforest to convert to pasture, and the government provided loans for Shuar to purchase cattle which they would raise for market.
In the 1960s Salesian missionaries encouraged leaders of the centros to meet and form a new organization. In 1964 they formed the "Federacíon Interprovincal de Centros Shuar-Achuar" the Interprovincial Federation of Shuar and Achuar Centros (many Achuar live in Ecuador, although most live in Peru). The Federation is democratic and hierarchically organized, most of its leaders are salaried by the Ecuadorian state. In 1969 the Federation signed an accord with the Ecuadorian government in which the Federation assumed administrative jurisdiction over the Shuar reserve. The Federation assumed the duties of educating children, administring civil registration and land-tenure, and promoting cattle-production and other programs meant to further incorporate Shuar into the market economy. Since that time the Federation has splintered into several groups, including a separate Achuar Federation, although the various groups maintain cordial relations.
Thanks to the work of the Federation Shuar identity is very strong; nevertheless, most Shuar also identify strongly as Ecuadorians and have entered Ecuadorian electoral politics. Many Shuar also serve in the Ecuadorian Army, and the Army has appropriated the 19th century stereotype of Shuar as violent savages, forming elite units of Shuar soldiers (although all commissioned officers are non-Shuar). These units served Ecuador valiently in a war between Ecuador and Peru in 1995.