Shuar fieldsite in Amazonian Ecuador

Primary Site Researcher

H. Clark Barrett

Dr Clark Barrett is in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has worked with the Shuar of Ecuador since 1997. His work focuses on using cross-cultural comparisons to identify universals in human cognition and development, particularly developmental universals in domain specific cognition about living things including dangerous animals, the living/dead distinction, and the intentions of others, as well as cognition about artefacts.

He has also conducted ethnographic work on hunting and natural history knowledge, shamanism, and Shuar folk metaphysics. | Website


The Shuar live in the Upper Amazon region of eastern Ecuador, extending from the foothills of the Andes east and south into Peru. Many Shuar live in cities along the eastern cordillera of the Andes, such as Puyo and Macas, but the majority live in small villages of up to 20 households, reachable by foot or small plane.



Population estimates vary, but range from around 40,000 to 90,000 people in Ecuador.


Shuar, in the Jivaroan language group. Most Shuar speak Shuar as their primary language, but also speak Spanish due to government-sponsored bilingual schooling throughout the area.

Ethnic Identity and History

The Shuar are part of the Jivaroan cultural and language group which also includes the Achuar, Shiwiar, Aguaruna, and others. This group became well-known in the European imagination in the 19th century due to the practice of making 'tsantsa,' or shrunken heads, as trophies of war.

Throughout their history of contact with European colonisers and the Inca before them, the Shuar and other Jivaroan groups developed a reputation as fiercely independent, and successfully resisted forceful domination by outside groups until the missionary efforts of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Now the Shuar, as one of the largest indigenous groups in Ecuador, play an important role in the indigenous rights movement that is growing in Ecuador and South America more generally. While violent strife between the Shuar and other Jivaroan and non-Jivaroan groups has characterised much of their history, the indigenous rights movement has served to generate a pan-ethnic sense of indigenous identity in Ecuador and elsewhere.

Political and social organisation

Traditionally, the Shuar had little or no political or social organisation above the level of the household, except for limited purposes such as trade in specific resources such as blowgun arrow poison, or temporary alliances in warfare. Even within villages, the Shuar attitude could be characterised as highly individualistic, at least at the level of individual family units, and this attitude persists today.

The Shuar, as individuals, do not like to be told what to do, and there is a strong cultural norm towards the rights of individuals to make decisions on their own. This manifests itself in frequent within-village feuds, and in the fact that people in traditional Shuar villages will often simply leave, with their family, when conditions are not to their liking.

Shuar children

These cultural norms seem to work well in the low population densities and relative isolation in which many Shuar lived until recently. In areas of the Amazon basin where huge areas of land are uninhabited by people, it is possible for a family to live in relative isolation, supporting itself with the help of a few nearby households.

Today, however, the living conditions of most Shuar people are in a period of transition as roads, electricity, and commerce encroach ever more rapidly into the Amazon region, and as population densities increase and land is divided into permanent parcels by the local government. These changes have forced many Shuar to live in situations for which their norms of family-level independence are not well-suited.

In most Shuar villages today, landholding heads of household (mostly men but a few women) are socios of the village, which gives them voting rights as well as the obligation to participate in mingas, or community work parties. Village officials are elected yearly by a vote of the socios, including a president, vice-president, secretary, and treasurer. Most villages have Spanish/Shuar bilingual primary schools.

Mingas are community-level cultural institutions (seen throughout Ecuador) that appear to be stabilised by the power of shame-based sanction and reputation in fairly small groups, and that work reasonably well for things like clearing grass from airstrips or soccer fields once a month. People who don't show up are chastised, and helping is seen as part of one's duty in being a 'good' community member.

One can't profitably shirk for long in a small community where absences are noticed; showing up and making at least some contribution is the only way to avoid negative reputation effects, which likely affect - traditionally anyway - prospects for mates, social exchange partners, and other profitable social interactions.

In terms of norms of sharing, fairness, and reciprocity, the Shuar exhibit food-sharing norms that are fairly typical of hunter-horticulturalist societies: high-variance foods, in particular, meat, are shared widely between families, whereas low-variance foods, such as garden foods (eg manioc, plantains) are mostly consumed within the family.

Shuar man

Schooling and literacy

Almost all Shuar villages now have access to bilingual (Shuar/Spanish) primary school education as part of a government-sponsored bilingual education program. In a sample of 47 adults in one village, Chinimpi, the mean number of years of schooling was six years, with a standard deviation of four years, and some individuals had gone to high school (Barrett and Haley, in prep).

However, this is a large village on a road with access to a high school, and so probably represents the upper end of access to formal schooling among the Shuar. Also, schools have appeared in many villages only in the past several decades.

Most Shuar people over 50 years or so probably have little or no formal schooling, and individuals over 20 probably average three or four years. For younger individuals, it is now much more common to complete primary school and even to attend secondary school. Degree of literacy correlates with schooling: most younger individuals are literate, but decline substantially with age, and almost no elderly individuals are literate.

Hierachy and kinship

As in most Amazonian societies, levels of kinship between individuals living in the same village are high. In Chinimpi, for example, the average coefficient of relatedness between residents was 0.045. for comparison, the coefficient of relatedness between second cousins - individuals with different grandparents but the same great-grandparents - is .031.

On average, each resident was related by blood to nearly half the village: 306 residents, mean number of consanguineal kin = 147; SD = 74.7 (Hagen, Barrett, and Price, 2006). Traditionally, Shuar villages would fission when they got too large, breaking along kinship lines. Chinimpi is at least twice the size of a typical Shuar village, so these data probably underestimate kinship levels in most villages.

The preferred marriage practice is to marry individuals from other villages. Traditionally, the Shuar practiced cross-cousin marriage, the ideal of which was to marry a first cousin. This still happens sometimes, but is becoming less common. In social life, affinal relationships are extremely important, in particular, the relationship of brother-in-law. Hunting and work parties are often composed of brothers and brothers-in-law.

There is very little hierarchy in Shuar social organisation. All heads of household are considered equal, and generally are, in practice, in terms of political power. Most Shuar villages have an elected president, but these presidents have very little formal power, and play a mostly organisational role, coordinating village work parties and meetings, for example.

There are notable differences in status and prestige, but these are not officially recognised in any way. Indeed, there is strong norm against individuals presenting themselves as better than others. Some individuals, for example, have high-status paying jobs, such as schoolteachers. When these individuals try to act like these jobs give them some special authority in village meetings, they are often ridiculed.

Man holding a child

Economic practices and daily life

Traditionally the Shuar, like many Amazonian groups, have practiced swidden (slash and burn) horticulture, suplemented by hunting, fishing, and foraging. This is still the case in the majority of Shuar villages. In places close to roads, however, population densities have increased, leading to a depletion of game. As a result, in villages near roads, the majority of calories still come from garden foods, but protein comes from purchased goods such as sardines, or domesticated animals like chickens.

In most traditional Shuar villages, there is economic division of labour, with men practicing hunting and women gardening. Hunting was traditionally by blowgun and trapping, but shotguns have replaced blowguns in most places. Men clear gardens initially, and women then plant and tend to the crops, which consist mostly of manioc and plantains, but with many other crops as well.

Giant tree trunk in the rainforest

Fishing is often a multi-household practice involving men, women, and children, in which a plant-based piscicide is released into streams and fish are collected at many points downstream. Fishing is a seasonal activity, whereas hunting and gardening are practiced year-round, taking up usually about half of the day each day. Folkbiological knowledge is of substantial importance for these subsistence activities, and is perhaps the best-elaborated component of folk knowledge.

The unit of daily life is the household, and most afternoons are spent socialising, with village members congregating in the households of family and friends. In most villages, socialising is centred around the consumption of nijiamanch, or chicha, a fermented beverage made from boiled and masticated manioc root. This is made and served exclusively by women.

There are frequent parties that involve nijiamanch, music, and dancing, often frequented by people from other villages, which is where much inter-village socialising is done. Sports are also a major daily event in Shuar villages. Volleyball is the most popular sport, followed by football (in villages with fields large enough to play). Villages often host tournaments which are another venure for inter-village socialising.

Religion and healthcare

Most Shuar would call themselves Christian, either Evangelical or Catholic. These two groups of missionaries have been in competition in the Amazon area of Ecuador for some time. In general, Evangelicals promote culture change more than Catholics, and the influence of Christianity is more evident in Evangelical villages and households. The majority of Shuar are not actively practicing Christians, however. Many traditional beliefs persist, such as beliefs in forest spirits and witchcraft.

Shamanism has been a major part of Shuar life until recently, and continues to be in many places. A sharp distinction is made between illnesses that can be cured by shamans and those which require medical attention at a hospital or clinic. People visit shamans (uwishin) to resolve social and family problems. Witchcraft accusations have been a major source of strife and violence, and continue to be in some places.

Sunset view through trees

Explore this fieldsite with Google Earth

Google Earth allows you to explore sites anywhere in the world using satellite images of those sites. Navigate the fieldsite and explore it in detail using the files below:

Google Earth files for Ecuador (KMZ, 453B)


Gregory Bryant and H. Clark Barrett (in press). Recognizing intentions in infant-directed speech: Evidence for universals. Psychological Science.

Edward Hagen and H. Clark Barrett (in press). Perinatal sadness among Shuar women: Support for an evolutionary theory of 'psychic pain'. Medical Anthropology Quarterly.

Edward Hagen, H. Clark Barrett, and Michael Price (2006). Do human parents face a quantity-quality tradeoff? Evidence from a Shuar community. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 130, 405-418.

H. Clark Barrett and Tanya Behne (2005). Children's understanding of death as the cessation of agency: A test using sleep versus death. Cognition, 96, 93-108.

H. Clark Barrett, Peter Todd, Geoffrey Miller, and Philip Blythe (2005). Accurate judgments of intention from motion alone: A cross-cultural study. Evolution and Human Behavior, 26, 313-331.

Tim German and H. Clark Barrett (2005). Functional fixedness in a technologically sparse culture. Psychological Science, 16, 1-5.

H. Clark Barrett (2004). Descent versus design in Shuar children’s reasoning about animals. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 4, 25-50.

H. Clark Barrett and Kevin Haley (in prep). Economic Game Behavior Among the Shuar.

Back to top