For over 2000 years, the Shipibo indigenous tribes in the Ucayali region of the Amazon River basin have been considered the caretakers of the jungle.
Previously two distinct tribes, the Shipibo and Conibo, they became a single tribe due to intermarriage and cultural similarities.To this day, they maintain many of the traditions of their ancestors, including the ritual use of Ayahuasca and other plant medicines of the Amazon. With one foot in the past while living in the 21st century, they strive to uphold the wisdom gathered from millenia of living in the richest and most biodiverse region in the world.
The population of the Shipibo is approximately 20,000, concentrated mostly around Pucallpa in the Yarina Cocha and Ucayali river region, an extensive indigenous zone. Most others live in scattered villages over a large area of jungle forest extending from Brazil to Ecuador. They remained largely isolated from other civilizations until the rubber boom of the 19th century.
During this time, Shipibo were employed as wage laborers in agriculture and timber extraction for mestizo bosses and patrons. They also had interaction with Westerners in the form of physicians and nurses, Protestant missionaries, and representatives of the Peruvian government. Today, the Shipibo people range from the well-acculturated, such as those living near the frontier city of Pucallpa, to moderately acculturated groups who reside in remote areas downriver. However, their culture at large remains under threat due to constant pressure from colonialism, corporate resource extraction in the rainforest such as oil speculation and logging, narco-trafficking, and the influence of missionaries.
Regardless of their familiarity with Westerners, the traditions and culture of Shipibo living are characteristic of many other indigenous tribes that maintained a close connection with the land. Family and community are important aspects of their culture, both for social connection and for survival. Sharing of labor is common within tribes. Both men and women of the Shipibo traditionally performed all aspects of agricultural work, although men did the strenuous task of felling trees.
To this day, both men and women also fish and collect wild foods, although the latter is more often done by women. Women also cook, care for children, perform most of the housework, and manufacture ceramics, textiles, and bead work. Men build houses, make canoes, manufacture weapons, and carve wooden artifacts but more typically work as wage laborers and may be away from their families for weeks at a time.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Shipibo culture is their deeply-rooted spirituality, with an emphasis placed on plant spirit shamanism. For them, much of their knowledge comes from the plants themselves, particularly when it comes to healthcare and their worldview. This is evidenced in their pottery, textiles, baskets, art, and beadwork, which display patterns representative of the harmonious energy field that pervades all things.
Underlying these designs is the concept of an all-encompassing reality of oneness which can challenge the typical Western mind. These patterns represent not only the oneness of creation, the non-dualistic nature of all things, the union or fusion of perceived opposites – they are also an ongoing dialogue or communion with the spiritual world and powers of the Rainforest.
The visionary art of the Shipibo brings this paradigm into a physical form. Interestingly, the icaros, or healing songs, sung during their Ayahuasca ceremonies are the audial representation of these patterns – a shaman can look at the patterns and sing the corresponding icaro, or hear the icaro and translate it to its corresponding pattern. In this way, their practices, products, and culture as a whole embody the rich and complex cosmological system that is their heritage.