There were pacifist Indian tribes

Ethnology: The most dangerous Indian tribe


In 1956, despite all warnings, five Protestant missionaries invaded the Huaorani area on the upper reaches of the Amazon. They didn't last long. Today the Huaorani are peaceful - at least most of them.

The venture was called "Operation Auca", after the Quechua word for the Huaorani, which means "wild, uncivilized". The five Americans - Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Peter Fleming, and Roger Youderian - first dropped gifts to cheer the Huaorani. Finally, in January 1956, they discovered a sandbank on the upper reaches of the Curaray, where their plane could land. There they made their camp. After an initial peaceful encounter, "Operation Auca" ended two days later in a bloodbath: a group of Huaorani attacked the five missionaries and impaled them with their spears. They threw the corpses into the river.

Elliot and his fellow fortunes should have known better: The Huaorani were considered an extremely warlike tribe. Anyone who penetrated their territory, around 20,000 km² of rainforest between the Napo and Curaray rivers in the Ecuadorian province of Oriente, had to expect their hostility. The Huaorani used spears to hunt down all intruders, whom they called “cowodi” (roughly: “non-human cannibals”).

But the aggressiveness of this Amazon people was not only directed against the outside world. Incessant feuds between different clans and families meant that the number of Huaorani had dropped to only about 500 by the 1950s. A recent study by anthropologist Stephen Beckermann of Pennsylvania State University estimates that as many as 59 percent of all adult deaths - men and women - were caused by violence. The authors of the premature death were usually other Huaorani on vengeance or robbery campaigns. Analysis of the data also showed that the fiercest warriors had fewer wives and children and that their offspring were more at risk.

This finding contradicts the findings published by the controversial American anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon in 1988 about the Yanomami in Brazil. In "The Fierce People" ("The wild people") he described a violent jungle society in which the most aggressive men had the greatest reproductive success (see info box). However, the Yanomami were not quite as aggressive as their cousins ​​at the western end of the Amazon basin, and apparently - unlike the Huaorani - they took breaks between their vengeance campaigns.

Perhaps it was precisely the sister of the missionary Saint, who had been killed by the Huaorani, who enabled the hyperaggressive people to break out of the spiral of violence: Rachel Saint visited the tribe and finally set up a missionary post with the help of Elliot's widow and the converted Huaorani wife Dayuma . What the men failed, the women achieved: many Huaorani turned to Christianity. Mincaye, one of the men who took part in the massacre on the Curaray, is among the crowd of converts. Mincaye became a preacher of the Christianized Huaorani and developed a special relationship with Steve Saint, the son of his victim, who also proselytized with the Huaorani.

As a result, the violence decreased and the number of tribal members increased. Today there should be around 2000 Huaorani again. But there is also criticism of the missionaries: their Christian propaganda has destroyed the cultural identity of the indigenous people and - even worse - their missionary work has opened the door to the Huaorani area for the oil companies. Indeed, the aborigines today usually cover their nakedness with shorts. And there are rumors that the missionaries are paid by the oil companies.

In any case, not all Huaorani have surrendered to Christian pacifism. Some of them, the Tagaeri-Huaorani, have withdrawn deeper into the jungle while fleeing from missionaries and oil workers and have given up contact with the rest of the tribesmen. And they do not hesitate to kill intruders like before: The monk Alejandro Labaca and the nun Ines Arango, both from the Catholic Capuchin order, had to pay for this knowledge with their lives in 1987. Labaca's body had no fewer than 89 spear wounds when it was found. Since then, no attempt has been made to convert the Tagaeri-Huaorani - the most dangerous tribe still lives in the depths of the rainforest.

Criticism of Chagnon

Napoleon Chagnon's theses that particularly aggressive warriors had a competitive advantage in reproduction did not go unchallenged, and his methods were also criticized.

If evolution actually selected for murder and manslaughter, it would have to lead to the demise of the community in question, it was argued. In addition, Chagnon initiated part of the observed violence himself, for example through the unjust distribution of gifts. The stigmatization of the Yanomami as “killers” ultimately justified their suppression by loggers and gold diggers.