Huaorani People of Ecuador: Culture & Waorani Language

Instructor: Briana Marquardt-Hutto

Briana has experience teaching and tutoring students of a variety of educational levels ranging from kindergarten to college and has an MA in Applied sociology.

This lesson focuses on various cultural aspects of the Huaorani people of Ecuador including their relationships, social habits, language, diet, and lifestyle.

Who Are the Huaorani People?

The Huaorani people, sometimes called 'Waorani' or 'Wadoni,' are a traditionally semi-nomadic hunter-forager-horticulturist indigenous group located in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Their exact origins are unknown as is much of their history. Today researchers estimate their population to be around a few thousand. As a result of the rubber boom and oil companies moving in, the Huaorani were eventually given a designated territory of a little over 600 square kilometers in the Western Amazon but previously occupied a more fluid space near the Tiputini River.

It's been speculated that around the time the Huaroni developed peaceful contact with the outside world during the mid 20th century (after several interactions which ended in death), a few splinter groups such as the Tagaeri and Taromenane developed. These groups choose to remain in isolation, reacting with violence in reaction to attempts at contact.

It can be problematic to make sweeping generalizations about all Huaorani people because information collected by researchers is sometimes inconsistent or may only apply to Huaorani in the area they studied. There are some things known about the more recent history and culture of this ethnic group. For example, physically, the Huaorani tend to be short-statured and muscular.

Social Structures, Family, and Marriage

While the recent influence of modern culture has had some effect on social structure, in general, the Huaorani have egalitarian relationships rather than hierarchical ones. Individuals work together for the survival of the community as a whole. Even children are fairly self-sufficient and aren't considered to be inferior to adults. Men and women have slightly different roles but have an equal role in decision making in families. While some of the younger generations now keep track of their age, it was not common to keep track of age in the past, so life expectancy is unknown.

Typically, families are nuclear (though sometimes men take multiple wives), and women often limit the number of children they have using natural forms of birth control. There has generally been a preference for marriage to occur between ambilateral cross-cousins, but in recent years there have been some marriages between Huaorani and Kichwa. At times, disagreements regarding marriage alliances have led to violence.

People are also a part of a larger family group--those who live in the same house together. Groups of around 10-35 people (typically an older couple plus their unmarried children and married daughters and their children) live in longhouses where they sleep and eat together. They are so connected that when one person is sick, all others must follow the same diet and food restrictions to help that person get well. A longhouse may also share an alliance with other longhouses (especially that from a cross-sex sibling).

Hunting, Gathering, and Horticulture

Traditionally, the Huaorani people sustained themselves on a mix of hunting, gathering, and growing a few crops like manioc, plantains, and sweet potatoes. As a result, their diet consists of the crops they grow, forest fruits they collect, and meat. Foraging has traditionally been more important to them than gardening. In past years they lived more nomadically, creating small settlements for a period of around ten years before moving on to a new area.

While the Huaorani prefer foraging and hunting, they do grow some crops such as manioc.

The Huaorani don't consume dairy products, and thus meat is their primary source of protein. The main tools the Huaorani use to hunt are blowguns and spears. Their spears have sharp points on both ends and are sometimes dipped in a paralyzing poison. They have taboos against hunting certain animals and primarily hunt and eat monkey, wild boar, birds, and fish. Consistent with their egalitarian structure, hunting is something everyone can do, including women and children (though older individuals may provide children with some instruction).

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