Anthropologist on Living With a Remote Amazon Tribe

By Tom Foreman
Inside Base Camp
May 21, 2003

For centuries, the indigenous peoples of the Amazon have been saddled with two opposing stereotypes. One view is that they're violent savages in need of a civilizing influence. The other is that they're noble and pure people uncorrupted by the decadence of modern society.

Whichever view is true, this is certain: The modern world is closing in fast on these unusual people and Flora Lu Holt is watching.

Holt is an ecological anthropologist who has spent more than ten years studying an ancient and remote tribe in Ecuador called the Huaoranis. The men in this Amazon tribe still hunt for food with blow guns and poison-tipped darts. Even as late as 1994, they were known to spear adversaries to death.

Yet, Holt has found a way to live with and help them during a time of tremendous change. And that is how she came to be sleeping in their midst when the Huaorani came into conflict with another, even more remote tribe.

Flora Lu Holt: And some of the Huaorani that I was with said, "Well, we don't know what they're going to do. At night, they have these spearing attacks and who knows, maybe they'll spear these huts."

Tom Foreman: What is a spear attack like?

Flora Lu Holt: Their mode of attack is to wait for a moonless evening and a group of men with spears that they've made from the wood of a chonta palm—they're very, very sharp on both ends—will go in the middle of the night and just attack.

Tom Foreman: While people are sleeping? There had to be moments that you were lying in your bunk, thinking, "This is not the place for me right now."

Flora Lu Holt: I certainly felt lonely and I felt a little isolated. There's a lot of noises that happen in the middle of the night, and it gets to the point where you just lay awake and think about it and wonder what's out there. But at some point you've just gotta cross your fingers and fall asleep.

Tom Foreman: What exactly are you studying with the Huaorani?

Flora Lu Holt: I want to understand how their use of the forest is changing and how their social organization is changing as a result of contact [with outsiders] and the market economy. I think it's a fallacy to think that they were this static, untouched people in isolation. They've always been changing, because culture is a dynamic thing. What I'm interested in is at the rate of change. You have oil companies going in, you've got researchers going in, you've got people concerned about Amazonian conservation with really good intentions that are having a great impact on these people.

Tom Foreman: And this has changed dramatically, even in the past 10, 20 years?

Continued on Next Page >>


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