General Information


General Description of the Shuar
University San Francisco of Quito

Location area of the five groups: Shuar, Achuar, Shiwiar, Wampis and Awajun

The Shuar (around 110,000 people) are mostly located within the Morona-Santiago and Zamora-Chinchipe provinces, and in a lesser quantity within the provinces of Napo, Orellana, Sucumbíos and Guayas. The Achuar are settled east and southeast of Shuar settlements, on both banks of the Pastaza river and its tributaries, on the one hand, and in the basin of the Morona river, on Ecuadorian and Peruvian land, on the other. The Shiwiar, very similar to the Achuar in linguistic and cultural terms, live even further east, in Peru, between the Pastaza and the Tigre rivers. The Achuar and the Shiwiar are made up of around 6,000 people (Gnerre, 2009).

In Peru, on the middle sector of the Santiago and Morona rivers, can be found the Huambisa (around 7,000), very similar to the Shuar in linguistic and cultural terms. Finally, further south, in Peruvian territory, south and north of the Marañón river, are the Aguaruna (probably around 28,000), the most distince of the ‘Jivaros’, in linguistic terms (Gnerre, 2009).

The Shuar and their world

The Shuar territory of the Ecuadorian Amazonia covers almost 25,000 km2, which is nearly 10% of Ecuadorian territory (excluding the Galapagos Islands). The Shuar are part of the five ethnic groups from the Occidental Amazonia. The other four, closely related to the “Chicham” linguistic family, are the Achuar, the Shiwiar, the Aguaruna and the Huambisa.

Traditional life

The Shuar have traditionally been located in forests. Extensive families live in large separate households dispersed in the rain forest and never in populated units. Their basic traditional alimentation consists of manioc, cultivated and harvested by women in plots of land that have been cleared of vegetation by the men.


The Shuar territory includes a number of distinct life zones, from the Amazonian lowlands (300 meters above sea level) and its tropical forest, to the highlands at about 3,000 meters above sea level. All the Shuar territory is made up of tropical moist forests, receiving abundant rainfall beyond 3,000 mm per year; the natural vegetation varies according to the altitude, which in turn determines the average temperature of the local area.

The Spanish Conquest

The Shuar were never subjugated by Spanish conquistadors during the colonial era in South America. The Spanish established some settlements and opened some gold mines in the valleys surrounding the Zamora and Upano rivers during the 16th century, and they tried to force the Shuar to work in these mines and to pay taxes in gold to the Spanish government. However, the Shuar refused and famously rebelled at the end of the 16th century attacking and destroying one of the main Spanish settlements.

Anthropologic studies of the shuar
The Shuar are renowned both by the scientific community and the public due to their shamanistic practices; these practices are still common, even if most Shuar are nominally Christians and have been baptized according to the rites of the Catholic Church. Both the most famous ethnographic account of the Shuar in the English language (Harner, 1972) and a recent anthropologic study concerning a Shuar healer and shaman who also became a political leader (Rubenstein, 2002),  describe these practices in a similar manner. During a Shuar male traditional puberty initiation rite a young adolescent was prepared for a period of some days, and then subsequently led to a sacred waterfall and  given some hallucinogenic plants to consume in order to have a “vision”. During the vision the power and strength of the waterfall were ritually absorbed by the spirit (the”arutam”) of the youngster who became an invincible warrior.

Cultural changes

The Shuar culture started to suffer changes at the beginning of the 20th century when missionaries from the Salesian Catholic order, mainly Italian fathers, set up missions within the Shuar territory, and when the mixed-race colonists from the Ecuadorian highlands came down the eastern Ecuadorian rivers to settle on Shuar territory  to create farms and cattle ranches. During the 1930s, the Salesian missionaries opened an educational center in Bomboiza where young Shuars were sent to learn Spanish as well as to read and write. Salesian linguists also developed a written Shuar language (by using the standard Latin alphabet), prepared Shuar dictionaries and grammatical booklets, and translated the Bible as well as other texts into this Shuar language.

Current situation

The Shuar peoples are currently settled within Morona-Santiago and Zamora-Chinchipe provinces, as well as in the valleys surrounding the Upano and Zamora rivers, but now have to share these densely-populated areas with mixed-race colonists who have been living in these same areas for several generations. The Shuar settlements have collective title deeds to their land whereas the colonists can boast of individual title deeds.

Organizational system

The Shuar Federation, more precisely the Interprovincial Federation of Shuar Centers (FICSH), was legally established in 1964 through a decree from the Ecuadorian Social Welfare Ministry as one of the first indigenous organizations existing in Latin America (Rubenstein, 2001). The Federation unites almost 500 Shuar communities within an extensive area including most of the Morona-Santiago province and an important part of the Zamora-Chinchipe and Pastaza provinces. The Federation is a democratic organization with a hierarchical structure.

The 460 communities or centers (from the Spanish word “centros”) include populations consisting of a few dozen to hundreds of Shuar. Around five to thirty communities come together to form associations from which leaders are democratically elected to represent the centers at each level of the Federation.


The Shuar educational system reports to the Educational Province Department of the Morona-Santiago province as regards to elementary studies, whereas the secondary studies depend on the Yamaram Tsawaa Experimental Educational Unit. In Shuar elementary and high schools, the knowledge is transmitted in Spanish and Shuar. Currently several Shuar leaders are graduates of these educational institutions.

Linguistic and cultural richness and inherent studies

The Shuar culture is an Amazonian culture, developed according to the environment as well as intercultural exchanges dating back to remote times. The experience gained from daily life as well as the oral transmission of individual knowledge from the elders has generated a pool of invaluable scientific knowledge that is possessed by a few privileged elder men and women. The knowledge and wisdom exclusively owned by these elders are currently being studied by young professional Shuar who come to see this cultural power as the foundation of a Shuar academic education as well as the basis on which the lifestyles of new generations can be based.

The Shuar knowledge of philosophy, literature, linguistics, cosmology, medicine, biology, geology, art, music, etc., is a product of years of experience, but is now at risk for disappearing into oblivion. It is consequently highly important to implement a methodical strategy regarding the study and documentation of Shuar knowledge. This knowledge has to be respected by non-Shuars and fully assimilated and made public by the Shuar themselves, which means an indispensable collaboration from all social actors as well as governmental and non-governmental organizations.

Up until recently, foreign (non-Shuar) researchers have been the source of the majority of the studies and documentation of the Shuar culture. However, these studies have not always been correct in the way they depict the Shuar culture. This is the reason that a group of young Shuar professionals, experts in linguistic and cultural themes as well as on other scientific areas, have decided to study and document the Shuar culture as a long-term objective, The current project is the first phase of this work and will be the driving force to promote the implementation of studies concerning various sectors of the Shuar culture.

Finally, with the current project we want to disseminate to the whole world our cultural reality as well as invite all young Shuar to value their culture and to join the path of revitalization for the Shuar culture and language. Furthermore, we invite national and foreign researchers to start cooperative projects within this participative framework respecting our ancestral and intellectual property rights.


  • Gnerre, M. 2009. Perfil descriptivo e Histórico-Comparativo de una Lengua Amazónica: el Shuar (Jíbaro). Universidad del País Vasco. Vitoria-Gasteiz.
  • Harner, M.J. 1972. Jivaro: People of the Sacred Waterfalls. New York: Natural History Press. Rubenstein, S. 2001. Colonialism, the Shuar Federation, and the State. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 19: 263-293.
  • Rubenstein, S. 2002. Alejandro Tsakimp: A Shuar healer in the margins of history. University of Nebraska Press.

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