The Auca* of Ecuador

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* The term "Auca" is actually a contemptuous Quechua term for jungle barbarians; but the name has so firmly taken root that it can hardly be avoided today.
Broennimann, P. 1981. Auca on the Cononaco: Indians of the Ecuadorian rain forest. Basel; Boston: Birkhauser Publishers.

April, 2000: Ecuador

The Auca are a small, indigenous, semi-nomadic group in Ecuador whose ancestors are believed to have migrated across the Bering Strait. Although the Auca today have some contact with "cuwudi," or strangers from the outside world, they still rely heavily on native plants and other natural resources to supply many of their daily needs.


Map of Central and part of South America.


Ceremonial gourd used for drinking. (From Stern, Introductory Plant Biology, 8th edition, © 2000 McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.)


An herbarium sheet of Bactris spp. (Photo © 1999 Erica Kipp.).

The Auca refer to themselves as "Huaorani," or "the people." They are hunters and gatherers who practice slash-and-burn agriculture to grow manioc, plantains, and bananas. These crops, along with ripe palm fruits collected from the forest, comprise a large part of their diet. Manioc, Manihot esculenta, is in the Euphorbiaceae family. Commonly known as tapioca, cassava, and gari, M. esculenta generally grows well on impoverished soils and can be harvested year-round. The storage roots typically contain cyanide, which protects them from insect and nematode consumption. Different cultivars of Manihot contain varying amounts of cyanide, and it can be removed by soaking in water, drying, or other methods. Although high levels of cyanide have been detected in bitter manioc, the Auca grow and collect the sweet manioc they call "canae," which has glycosides in the outer bark only. The large roots are dug up, cut into small pieces, and cooked in water until tender, yielding a starchy, high-calorie food. Manioc is also used to make "chicha," a milk-like drink that is both sweet and nutritious. During chicha processing, the women cook and mash the manioc in water, periodically scooping out some pieces, which they chew and then spit back into the pot where their salivary enzymes ferment the "brew" slightly. Chicha is often consumed the same day it is processed, or shortly thereafter, from hollowed calabash (gourds) used as cups and bowls. (Gourds are dicots in the Cucurbitaceae family whose other members include pumpkins, cantaloupes, and luffa.)

The two main palm fruits collected by the Auca women are from the mauritia and chonta palms. The mauritia palm is scientifically known as Mauritia spp., and the chonta palm as Bactris spp. Both are members of the Palmae or Arecaceae family. The reddish fruit of the mauritia palm is called "nontoca." Women carry the chonta and nontoca fruit in large nets slung over their backs or in palm-woven baskets. When the nontoca pulp is boiled in water, it yields a nourishing, refreshing drink as well.

The Auca obtain protein from Howler monkeys, peccaries, and other game, which they hunt with spears or blowguns. Men hunt food not just for their immediate families but for the whole group, since the kill is divided up according to certain rules. Their blowguns and spears are made from chonta wood. The blowguns are used to hunt small to mid-sized animals, while the spears are used for larger animals such as boars. The Auca hollow out the blowguns and fashion the spears with astonishing precision considering the tools available to them. Blowgun darts are coated with curare, a strychnine-containing muscle relaxant obtained from the bark of Strychnos toxifera, a liana (woody, climbing vine) in the Loganiaceae family. The bark is scraped off the liana, macerated, and put into a funnel of palm leaves with water. The water leaches the chemicals out of the bark quickly, with the first drops of toxin falling into a calabash shell within 15 minutes. After collection, the aqueous solution is boiled down into a viscous, dark brown concentrate. The men then coat the tips of their darts with the curare, which hardens as it cools into a shiny, lacquer-like finish, retaining its potency for years.

The Auca live in huts made of several species of tree trunks lashed together with vines to form the four walls and topped with palm fronds woven into a waterproof roof. They start fires by twirling a piece of wood, and they wear only a cotton hip-cord called a "kumi." The Auca also make yarn from the fibers of yet another palm, Astrocaryum chambira, and then knot it into hammocks.

The unavoidable contact with "cuwudi" is changing many ways of life for the Auca as clothing, ammunition, and currency infiltrate their culture. It may be just a matter of time before necessity forces the Auca to exploit the environment they once used only to cover their basic needs.

References, Websites, and Further Reading

Broennimann, P. 1981. Auca on the Cononaco: Indians of the Ecuadorian rain forest. Basel; Boston: Birkhauser Publishers.

Mabberley, D.J. 1997. The plant-book. 2d edition. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Auca on the Cononaco website by Peter Broennimann.

For information on palm research at The New York Botanical Garden and journal articles for further reading.

Government site for information on Ecuador.

Stern, Introductory Plant Biology, 8th Edition

Chapter 2: The Nature of Life
Carbohydrates (including starch and cassava), pp. 22—23
Proteins, pp. 24—26
Enzymes, p. 26

Chapter 5: Roots and Soils
Storage roots, pp. 69—70
Human relevance of roots (including cassava/tapioca), pp. 75—76

Chapter 6: Stems
Monocot stems, palms, Mauritius, pp. 93—95

Chapter 8: Flowers, Fruits, and Seeds
Differences between dicots and monocots (including palm growth pattern), p. 129
Chart comparison of dicots and monocots, p. 130

Chapter 24: Flowering Plants and Civilization
Origin of cultivated plants, pp. 436—38
Euphorbiaceae Family, pp. 444—47
Gourds of the Cucurbitaceae Family, pp. 452—53

Chapter 26 : Biomes
Tropical Rain Forest, pp. 487—88

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