The Fabulous Variety of Life in the Upper Amazon

FROM the base of the Peruvian Andes, a blanket of branches and leaves spreads east across the South American continent for some 2,300 miles [3,700 km]. Eventually, this sea of green abuts the blue of the Atlantic Ocean.

The portion of this jungle located in Peru​—its Amazon region—​covers almost 60 percent of that country. Although only a fraction of the human population of Peru lives in this area, plants and animals in abundance find refuge beneath the forest’s 115-foot-high [35 m] canopy. In fact, the Amazon is considered to be one of the richest ecological treasure chests on earth. Over 3,000 varieties of butterflies float and flutter through the thick air. Some 4,000 types of orchids flaunt their gorgeous flowers. More than 90 species of snakes lurk in tree limbs and along the forest floor. And an estimated 2,500 species of fish​—including electric eels and piranhas—​patrol the rivers and streams.

Foremost among these waterways is the mighty Amazon River. In some locations, between eight and ten feet [2.5-3m] of rain can soak the forest annually, causing the Amazon and its 1,100 tributaries to spill across the forest floor. Heat and moisture combine to create a steam-bath atmosphere, which the plants love. Remarkably, though, the lush vegetation flourishes in clay soil that is considered to be among the poorest on earth, unfit for permanent cultivation.

 Ancient Roots of Human Habitation

Who would choose to live in such a place? Archaeologists believe that the Amazon River basin was home to millions of people in past centuries. Presently, an estimated 300,000​—divided into more than 40 ethnic groups—​inhabit the Peruvian region of the Amazon. It is also believed that 14 of these indigenous groups now live almost completely isolated from the outside world. After being briefly exposed to “civilized” society, these peoples retreated into the deepest recesses of the forest, hoping to avoid any further contact.

When did those jungle dwellers arrive here, and where did they come from? Experts surmise that centuries before the Common Era, the first migrations came from the north. The Jivaro (famed for shrinking the heads of their slain enemies) came from the Caribbean; and the Arawak, from Venezuela. Other tribes are thought to have come from Brazil in the east and Paraguay in the south.

Once established, most of the tribal groups seem to have roamed within specific areas, hunting and gathering. They also grew the few crops suited to the acidic soil, such as cassava, hot peppers, bananas, and maize. Spanish chroniclers observed that some of the peoples were well-organized, devising food storage facilities and methods for raising wild animals.

A Clash of Cultures

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Spanish conquistadores invaded the Amazon.  Close on their heels were Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries intent on converting the natives to the Roman Catholic faith. Those missionaries made marvelous maps that opened up the Amazon to European interests. But the missionaries also opened the way for disease and destruction.

For example, in 1638 a mission was founded in what is now Maynas Province. The missionaries rounded up the natives, indiscriminately lumping rival groups together and forcing them to integrate into community life. For what “noble” purpose? Because the natives were viewed as ignorant and inferior, they were forced to work for the missionaries and conquistadores. As a result of close contact with Europeans, thousands of natives died from measles, smallpox, diphtheria, and leprosy. Thousands more died from hunger.

Many Indians fled the missions set up by the various religious orders, and dozens of missionaries were murdered in uprisings. In fact, at one point in the early decades of the 19th century, only one priest remained in the Amazon region.

How They Live Today

Today, many indigenous people continue to live according to tradition. For instance, they make their village homes in the time-honored manner​—framed with poles cut from the forest and thatched with palm leaves or other vegetation. Because these dwellings rest on stilts, the yearly flooding presents no problem and dangerous animals seldom intrude.

The tribal groups dress and decorate themselves in a variety of ways. Men and women living deep in the jungle wear loin cloths  or short woven skirts, and their children remain naked. Those who are more in contact with the outside world have adopted Western styles of dress. Some natives pierce their nose or earlobes and adorn them with rings, sticks, bones, or feathers. Others, such as the Mayoruna, pierce their cheeks. Some Tucuna and Jivaro even file their teeth. Many among the various tribes remove their body hair and mark their skin with tattoos.

The Amazonian peoples know thousands of different plants and use the forest as a medicine chest. From it they extract treatments for snakebite, dysentery, and skin ailments, to name a few. Long before Western societies discovered rubber, the Amazonian people tapped rubber trees for sap, using it to waterproof their baskets for work and to make rubber balls for play. The forest also provides the materials necessary for transportation and long-distance communication. For example, the men fell trees and carve canoes for navigating their river highways, and they hollow out large logs to make drums for beating out messages that can be heard a great distance away!

The Influence of Shamans and Superstition

To the inhabitants of the Amazon, the jungle is full of souls wandering at night, spirits causing illness, and gods lurking in the rivers awaiting unwary victims. Consider the Aguaruna, one of the largest groups in Peru. They revere five different gods: “Father Warrior,” “Father Water,” “Mother Earth,” “Father Sun,” and a “shaman Father.” Many believe that humans are transformed into plants and animals. Fearful of offending spirit beings, the natives refrain from killing certain animals and hunt others only when necessary.

Presiding over traditional religious life and society are the shamans, or medicine men, who use hallucinogenic plants to enter into trances. Some villagers look to these men to cure illnesses, to foresee the outcome of hunting and planting, and to foretell other future events.

Will It Disappear?

The world of the people of the Amazon is shrinking fast. New highways dissect the forest. Farms and coca cultivation eat into the jungle. Illegal logging lays bare great swaths of forest, each day destroying an area the equivalent of 1,200 soccer fields! Even the waterways suffer as legal mining operations and illegal cocaine production pollute the tributaries that feed the Amazon River.

Indeed, the isolated people of the Amazon are feeling the effects of living during what the Bible prophesied would be “critical times hard to deal with.” (2 Timothy 3:1-5) Is the Amazon doomed to total destruction? The Bible provides the assurance that this will not be the case. Under the rule of God’s Kingdom, the entire earth will be transformed into a paradise, as our Creator intended it to be.​—Isaiah 35:1, 2; 2 Peter 3:13.

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Amazon River

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The Aguaruna worship five different gods

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Lamas tribal women

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A native of the Amazon using a blowgun to fire darts

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© Renzo Uccelli/​PromPerú

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Typical village home

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An area equivalent to 1,200 soccer fields is logged illegally each day

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© José Enrique Molina/​age fotostock

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© Alfredo Maiquez/​age fotostock

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Top: © Terra Incógnita/​PromPerú; bottom: © Walter Silvera/​PromPerú