The Amazon region of South America boasts the largest rainforest on the planet, with millions of species of plants and animals and a river that contains twenty percent of the world’s fresh water. But this vast basin is not only the mother of a vast array of flora and fauna — it is also the ancestral home of more then one million indigenous Americans.
The indigenous peoples of the Amazon are divided into some 400 different tribes, each with its own unique language, culture and territory. Although virtually all native Amazonians have some sort of interactions with the outside world, some ever since Europeans began to arrive more than 500 years ago, there still remain a few ‘uncontacted’ tribes that have had no interaction with the modern world at all.
These native peoples have lived in the Amazon rainforest for many thousands of years, and in far denser populations in the past than they do today. Much of the original population has disappeared completely or are now only scattered remnants of what they once were, but despite the decimation of their population, native peoples still live throughout the Amazon, mostly in settled villages by rivers, where they farm vegetables and fruits like rice, corn, beans, manioc and bananas, with hunting, gathering and fishing serving as supplementary food sources. Outside of agriculture, many indigenous tribes produce handicrafts to sell to the tourists who pass through their land, while others make frequent trips to the city market to sell their crops and wares.
Today, almost no indigenous Amazonians live according to their fully-traditional ways. Instead of wearing loin cloths and other traditional clothes, for example, today many Indigenous people of the Amazon wear western-style clothing, use metal pots, pans and other utensils, and have access to some sort of ‘Western’ healthcare and education. Only a few small groups in the Amazon basin live a traditional, semi-nomadic lifestyle, and in most cases the way of life of these tribes is highly threatened by oil development in the region.
One of the most important things you should know about indigenous Amazonians is the centrality of land to their lives. Indigenous people revere the rainforest, which until recently kept them isolated and protected from outsiders and provided them with everything necessary to life. Nearly all of their modern problems in some way revolve around land, with oil and gas exploration, illegal logging and the rapid spread of ranching and farming threatening their very existence.
Click here for a list of Things to do in the Amazon River Basin.