Hunting in Amazonia

  • Glenn H. ShepardJr.Email author
Living reference work entry


Subsistence Activity Indigenous Society Food Taboo Indigenous Reserve Computerize Modeling Technique 
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Hunting is an important food source for Amazon forest dwellers, indigenous and nonindigenous alike. Hunting and predation also represent central concepts in the worldview and social organization of native Amazonian peoples. Both approaches – hunting as a subsistence activity or ecological adaptation and hunting as a social and symbolic practice – are essential for understanding the impact of local livelihoods on Amazonian biodiversity. Unfortunately, the divergent methods and theoretical orientations of these potentially complimentary approaches rarely if ever create a dialog in the scientific literature.
Fig. 1

A Matsigenka bow hunter on the upper Manu River, Peru, 1996

Hunting became a central concern in the 1970s for anthropologists attempting to understand the supposedly low levels of sociocultural complexity of Amazonian indigenous peoples (Fig. 1). Archeologist Betty Meggers (1971) suggested that Amazonia was a “false paradise,” imposing ecological limitations on the growth and social stratification of native societies from ancient times through the present. A whole field of ecologically oriented anthropological studies grew up around the “protein debate,” namely, whether protein capture was a limiting factor on historical and modern Amazonian societies (Gross, 1975). The debate turned out to be largely spurious, since, as Beckerman (1979) said, protein from aquatic animals, terrestrial game, and even vegetable sources turned out to be more abundant than originally estimated. Moreover, recent archeology has demonstrated far more densely settled and complex societies in prehistoric times than those observed in the ethnographic record (Denevan 1976; Heckenberger et al., 2008). Though the protein debate faded away, quantitative studies on hunting and other subsistence activities by Amazonian communities continued, becoming heavily influenced by microeconomic theory (Alvard & Kaplan 1991; Hames & Vickers, 1982; Hawkes, Hill, & O’Connell, 1982). “Optimal foraging” models predict that hunters’ choices will be largely constrained by practical considerations maximizing protein return for time invested, which is to say, “bringing home the biggest bacon” (Jerozolimski & Peres, 2003).

But hunting for indigenous societies of the Amazon is not just a means of obtaining protein. The exchange of meat is important in defining social, political, and even sexual relationships (Siskind 1973). In the Amazonian cosmos-as-ecosystem, hunting is a fundamental metaphor that structures the mutual exchanges, ecological as well as cosmological, between humans, animals, and the spirit world (Reichel-Dolmatoff, 1976; Århem, 1996). Just as humans hunt and kill animals for food, so do certain dangerous animals, demons, and other spirits look upon humans as animals of prey. Widely shared across native Amazonian societies are myths about how primordial humans were transformed into animals and other beings. Despite this transformation in their outward appearance, all such beings retain their fundamental human nature and, indeed, continue to view themselves as humans.
Fig. 2

If possible, Matsigenka hunters avoid touching the animals they have killed, leaving close kinsmen such as a brother-in-law to carry the animal home. In this way, the hunter avoids contaminating himself with the animal’s blood and strong odor, which could offend the animal’s spirit. The practice also ensures that meat is shared among kin (Manu, Peru, 1996)

According to the mythology of the Matsigenka people of Peru, for example, the snake is a hunter with poisonous arrows (Shepard, 2002a). The hunter himself is invisible: the snakes that human beings see are his arrows. The snake views himself as a human being, out in the forest, hunting for his family. When he looks at a human person, he sees a tapir, a peccary, or some other animal of prey, which he shoots and kills to feed his family. Likewise the Matsigenka believe that the spirits of hunted animals can take revenge on a human hunter’s family, making small children fall ill or die suddenly, thus reversing the role of predator and prey in a cosmological tit-for-tat (Shepard, 2002b). In the fluid Amazonian worldview, rife with transformations across species boundaries, most beings are both human and animal; their status in any given relationship depends on the point of view, or what is called “cosmological perspective” (Viveiros de Castro, 1996). This prolific area of anthropological study, intellectual heir to the structuralist paradigm of Claude Lévi-Strauss, is thus called “perspectivism.” Indigenous rituals and practices associated with hunting are often concerned with re-signifying the killing of the animal to remove its human subjectivity so that the predatory act will not be interpreted as an act of warfare by the offended animal spirit (Fausto, 2007) (Fig. 2).

Both cosmological concepts and practical considerations influence the dietary choices of Amazonian populations, native and otherwise, through restrictions and taboos on their consumption of game animals, fish, and other foods. Indigenous as well as nonindigenous riverine Amazonian peoples may avoid or reject meats and fish with particularly strong or unusual odors, especially during periods of ritual vulnerability like pregnancy, couvade,1 illness, or old age (Murrieta, 2001; Piperata, 2008; Shepard, 2004). Ross (1978) interprets game animal taboos in Amazonia as adaptive responses, aimed at protecting particularly vulnerable species. However Milton’s (1991) comparative study documents such a wide variety of dietary taboos among different indigenous societies that any single ecological explanation would be too simplistic; instead, symbolic considerations and notions of group identity appear to be the overriding factor. Yet biologists and ecological anthropologists tend to overlook or ignore altogether the role of food taboos and other cultural factors influencing hunters’ choices (see Shepard, 2002b) (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3

White-lipped peccaries are among Amazonian hunters’ favorite prey (Manu, Peru, 2007)

The spatial impacts of hunting pressure are also influenced by variable social systems and cultural norms. Yanomami villages, for example, periodically migrate, creating a “reticular” rather than “central-place” pattern of resource use (Albert & LeTourneau, 2007). Indigenous hunters of the Guyana region appear to avoid sacred places in their hunting excursions, though ecological and geographic factors also strongly affect their choices (Read, Fragoso, & Silvius, 2010). Variable local beliefs and practices related to hunting and food consumption ultimately influence hunters’ behavior and modulate their impact on the local fauna. Developing adequate community-based management systems necessarily requires understanding and leveraging such local concepts (Shepard, 2002b; Vieira, von Muhlen & Shepard, in press).

With growing international concern over the erosion of Amazonian biodiversity, ecological anthropologists and tropical biologists have invested much research effort in evaluating the impact of hunting by indigenous and other local populations on vulnerable animal species (Alvard, Robinson, Redford, & Kaplan, 1997; Ohl-Schacherer et al., 2007; Peres, 2000; Robinson & Bodmer, 1999; Sirén, Hamback, & Machoa, 2004; Souza-Mazurek et al., 2000). “Sustainability indices” have been used to calculate the maximum sustainable harvest for different animal species (Robinson & Redford, 1991). Yet such indices depend on detailed quantitative inputs about hunting activity in the study communities, requiring extensive fieldwork. Ongoing empirical research is essential, but it is impractical to conduct hunting surveys in every community to develop case-by-case management strategies. As a way of streamlining conservation planning, computerized modeling techniques have been developed to simulate the intensity and extent of depletion of key species through space and time across different management strategies (Levi, Shepard, Ohl-Schacherer, Peres, & Yu, 2009; Shepard, Levi, Neves, Peres, & Yu, 2012) (Fig. 4).
Fig. 4

Spatial modeling described in Levi et al. (2009) and Shepard et al. (2012) allows communities and conservation planners to better understand the long-term impacts of different management scenarios on the depletion of key game animal species

Some conservation biologists question the traditional view of indigenous societies as innate defenders of nature, especially once they adopt Western technology (Redford, 1991). Many conservationists fear that growing, Westernizing indigenous and other local populations will decimate biodiversity (Robinson, 1993; Terborgh, 1999; Peres, 2011). Defenders of indigenous people, however, have contested that indigenous reserves are as efficient as parks at preventing deforestation and fires (Nepstad et al., 2006) and that the “biodiversity cost” exacted by indigenous groups is compensated if they are empowered to deter incursions by more destructive loggers, miners, and ranchers (Yu, Levi, & Shepard, 2010; Zimmerman, Peres, Malcolm, & Turner, 2001). Moreover, indigenous reserves and other human-inhabited protected areas account for more than half of all forest reserves in Amazonia (Peres, 1993), meaning that the conservation of vertebrate biodiversity on a large scale must contemplate the management of hunting by local populations, ideally with their participation (Chapin, 2004; Sheil & Lawrence, 2004) (Fig. 5).
Fig. 5

As indigenous hunters adopt firearms, their impact on game animal populations increases dramatically (Rondônia, Brazil, 2001)

If biodiversity is to be conserved across Amazonia, hunting management strategies must be biologically sound, socially and culturally sensitive, as well as practical and enforceable on the ground (Yu et al., 2010). Hunting is a complex and variable socio-environmental practice, and adequate management requires ongoing dialog across multiple disciplines and collaboration between local people, scientists, and conservation planners.


  1. 1.

    The custom in some cultures in which a man takes to his bed and goes through certain rituals when his child is being born, as though he were physically affected by the birth


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyMuseu Paraense Emílio GoeldiBelém do ParáBrazil