Culture of the Huaorani of Ecuador

Western contact with one of the last societies to remain isolated within the environment in which their culture developed, the Huaorani of northeastern Ecuador. I then synthesize the conclusion that cultural primary subsistence mode affects economic, gender and kinship relations depending not only on the initial factor endowment of the society of interest, but by primary subsistence modes and factor endowments of other societies they eventually come into contact, and often conflict with. This contact and conflict often reveal the ways these cultural economic, gender and kinship institutions depend on subsistence not only endogenously, or within the culture itself, but also exogenously, in response to other cultures with different environmental constraints, even for peoples as isolated and reclusive as the Huaorani. The result is both cultural change and persistence that indicate and define cultures within themselves over time, and against each other.

Initial factors and evolving response

The Huaorani people of northeastern Ecuador provide a rich example demonstrating how a culture's mode of subsistence impacts other aspects of their behavior and cultural organization, which are ultimately affected by the same constraints faced by other cultures, even if this takes a relatively long period. Huaorani culture derived from or was deeply influenced by an initial factor endowment described basically as "abundance" (Rival, 2005, p. 299). The abundance of game and vegetable subsistence on the edge of the Amazon basin, coupled with an abundance of space and superiority in conflict over other neighboring peoples, resulted in an egalitarian, "emerging agricultural" society with lower incorporation of technology, specialization and commerce compared to other more industrial, agricultural or pastoral civilizations, corresponding to Neilsen's level 2 "simple horticultural societies" (2005, p. 7). This relaxed, less-articulated and more communal social structure evolved throughout the region with some variation, but regional similarities are more pronounced than differences compared to cultures from outside the contiguous geographical area. This cultural reaction to the abundance of particular factors in the Huaorani environment evolved into a stable but fluid culture that is only now undergoing massive change on what Neilsen calls a 'demic' (2005, p. 2) or structural level resulting from contact with external societies. These recent changes illustrate how the Huaorani initial factor endowment and resulting subsistence mode impacted other aspects of cultural behavior, particularly economic organization, gender and kinship.

Beckerman, Erickson, Yost, Regaladod, Jaramilloe, Sparks et al. (2009) describe the Huaorani (or Waorani collectively, with 'Wao' used in singlular or as an adjective) culture evolving in lowland semi-tropical forest between the Napo and Cuarary rivers in northeastern Ecuador, which they defended vigorously against intrusion by neighboring cultures until the late 20th century (8134), in ethnographic jargon an "interfluvial lowland tropical rainforest horticulturalist/foragers speaking a language unrelated to any other" (8135). The result was a low human density in a region disturbed more by internal violence rather than competing population pressures that resulted in a rich endowment of factors like hunting space, water access and relative isolation (Beckerman et al. 2009, p. 8134). What would be difficult to obtain in a semi-tropical forest would be farmland, because clearing the jungle took significant human work and the Huaorani also lacked access to what Neilsen (2005) describes as a key component to full-scale, permanent vs. transitional agriculture, "animal traction" (6), or the animals and technology other cultures put to work breaking forest and prarie to the plow. Because of the lack of these particular endowments of heavy animal labor, pasture and farmland, combined with the prevalence of game, fish and found vegetation, agriculture never developed beyond the individual 'kitchen garden' stage into full, commercial specialization and production. Neilsen finds this typical of hoe and stick horticulture vs. heavier mechanized agriculture (2005, p. 21).

Response to factor endowment drives economic, gender and kinship role development

Nonetheless this agricultural development did tie the Huaorani to the land more than a pure hunter-gatherer mode of subsistence, and led to the development of social organization based on matrilinial kinship units where a male marriage into a female's domestic unit achieved full consumation through child rearing (Belaunde, 2008, p. 460). Families evolved into extended subsistence units depending on mutual contribution through communial management of the found environmental resource. This stable, egalitarian culture arose in context between the group "Huaorani," or "the people," defined by other sentient but non-Wao and thus 'non-person' groups of neighboring-invading humans and animals (Rival, 2005, p. 290), punctuated only by the highest rate of vengeance killing the world has possibly ever seen (Beckerman et al., 2009, p. 8134). This pronounced violence within and between the Huaorani group and its neighbors seems to have arisen more from spiritual-mythological constructs rather than subsistence mode, however, given low population density, lack of encroachment and ease of subsistence, corroborated by anecdotal verification by the principals, or "informants," themselves (Rival, 1989, p. 624). This research will focus less than other papers on this spectacular violence level, as a result deriving from cultural subsistence modality rather than as driving subsustence mode choice. Beckerman et al. (2009) conclude that raiding success was actually detrimental to male procreative success (8139), which supports a view that Huaorani violence arose after or alongside subsistence rather than providing the main means of resource acquisition. While Wao violence against both male and female in-group members is a salient and distinguishing aspect of this culture, subsistence choice has more impact on this culture than the undeniable tradition of retributive murder against males and females.

Contact affects cultural evolution

This isolation was significantly influenced by successful Huaorani defense of territory until sustained peaceful contact with outsiders beginning 1958 (Beckerman, et al. 2009, p. 8135). The result displays continuities and differentiation within the culture before and after partial assimilation. The Huaorani resistance to invasion was driven perhaps by a cultural origin myth where the ancestors were driven from the promordial homeland downriver by cannibals (Rival, 2005, p. 296), but the result was a stable range where extended family units retired to individual longhouse homesteads where males married into and joined a woman's group, the pair shared subsistence responsibilities with similar expectations of contribution if differing modes of procurement (Lu, Fariss and Bilsborrow, 2009, p. 259), and entered full adult status upon successful child rearing. Families enjoyed peer status without overarching laws, governance, status or class dominance, where the common habitat was exploited by individuals for subsistence, but no formal common property arrangement was codified into formal contracts or enclosure (Lu, 2006, p. 189) until only recently. Once adults became too old to procure sustenance, elders were expected to commit suicide by leaving the group (Rival, 2005, p. 298), reinforced by cultural traditions of reverence for contributions of durable but small-scale agricultural development resulting from the casual institution of withdrawal from consumption of group resources (Belaunde, 2008, p. 461). Likewise unwanted infants were put to death by the mother on childbirth (Rival, 1998, p. 626). This voluntary attrition and the culture of retributive assassination contributed to sustainable population levels and a less-differentiated "longhouse sharing economy" (Rival, 1998, p. 621) where adults shared procurement tasks that varied by gender but often overlapped (Lu, Fariss and Bilsborrow, 2009, p. 247), with both genders defined by conjugal participation and consumption rights both complicated and reinforced by constrained polygyny (co-fatherhood) but matrilineal descent (Rival, 1989, p. 629).

Gender roles result in and affect kinship roles

The result became a loose confederation of ethnic members posed against a threatening but subordinate assemblage of mostly similar but meaningfully differentiated neighbor cultures. Mothers acted as 'hosts,' with males and unmarried women equivalent as 'guests' until they entered full status by rearing children who would contribute to a persisting family unit joined across households through sisterhood and male affinity via "extended patrimony" (Rival, 1998, pp. 624-5). Men were free to impregnate wives' sisters but not their wives' daughters or their sisters' daughters (Rival, 1989, p. 624), which led to association across longhouse settlements which complemented the "uxorilocal" economic partnership within the household. Several males could claim paternity if they had contact with a mother prior to childbirth, but only one became the de facto "official" father, depending on who performed the work of 'couvade,' or child rearing, with the mother (Rival, 1998, pp. 624-5). Households became defined by food procurement and communal eating, which conferred standing in the group, even though males and females habitually engaged in different modes of obtaining resources. Women performed the primary ongoing agricultural operations but hunted on occasion, especially before maturity (Rival, 2005, p. 291). While men hunted and fished with poison prohibited for women's use, they also performed gardening work once the limited space was cleared from the forest (Lu, Fariss and Bilsborrow, 2009, p. 247)

"Today," however, argues Rival (1998), "few Hauorani live in traditional longhouses" (624). After sustained peaceful contact with the west, this recently stable culture is undergoing significant cultural evolution resulting in a range of assimilation between extremes indicated by levels of commercial subsistence, particularly wage labor (Belaunde, 2008, p. 460) and manufacture for export by Huaorani units on the edge of the cultural range,…