The Yanomami are an indigenous tribe (also called Yanamamo, Yanomam, and Sanuma) made up of four subdivisions of Indians which live in the tropical rain forest of Southern Venezuela and Northern Brazil. Each subdivision has its own language. They include the Sanema which live in the Northern Sector, the Ninam which live in the southeastern sector, the Yanomam which live in the southeastern part and the Yanomamo which live in the southwestern part of Yanomami area.
The Yanomami depend on the rain forest; they use “slash-and-burn” horticulture, grow bananas, gather fruit, and hunt animals and fish. Yanomami frequently move to avoid areas that become overused, a practice known as shifting cultivation when the soil becomes exhausted.
The Yanomami are known as hunters, fishers, and horticulturists. The women cultivate plantains and cassava in gardens as their main crops. Men do the heavy work of clearing areas of forest for the gardens. Another food source for the Yanomami is grubs. The practice of felling palms to facilitate the growth of grubs was the Yanomami’s closest approach to cultivation. The traditional Yanomami diet is very low in salt. Their blood pressure is characteristically among the lowest of any demographic group. For this reason, the Yanomami have been the subject of studies seeking to link hypertension to sodium consumption.
Today about 95% of the Yanomami live deep within the Amazon forest as compared to the 5% who live along the major rivers.
Compared to the “forest people,” the “river people” are much more sedentary and subsist by fishing and trading goods such as canoes and hooks with other villages. The “forest people” are horticulturists as well as hunters and gathers. They will spend up to two hours of their day “garden farming” which is quite a labor intensive process. Some of the crops grown include sweet potatoes, bananas, sugar cane and tobacco. However, as horticulturists the Yanomami do not get sufficient protein from their crops. Therefore, the Yanomami will spend as much as 60% of their time trekking.
YANOMAMI MYTH: THE ORIGIN OF EATING THE DEAD
Poreími was a talented, generous Yanomami with a magnificent intelligence. He is the one who gave the Indians stone axe blades. All the stone axe blades that are found at ancient sites are from Poreími. At that time, there was a terrible scarcity of food in the world and the Yanomami had to eat meat raw, as they did not possess fire yet. At that time, Poreími went to the jungle and built a magnificent house to live in with his wife Poreímiyoma.
One day some Indians came to visit them, and as a gift, they left different kinds of plantains, including a very large variety called “pareamu”. That is what the one they were presented with is called. Later, Poreími received another visit from Wayaromi, who as a present left “wabu”, a fruit that is eaten when better foods are in short supply. As ‘wabu” is poisonous in its natural state, Wayaromiriwa (the spirit of Wayaromi) showed Poreími how it should be prepared, cutting it into small slices with a tortoise shell.
Then Wayaromi turned himself into a bird.
Later, some other Yanomami arrived at Poreími’s house. Not with presents this time, but with… empty stomachs. They brought with them a frightful hunger. Poreími, moved by their plight, gave them abundant food to eat and on saying goodbye gave them several kinds of plantains, urging them to plant many, especially the “pareamu”. He also gave them the “wabu”.
The vistors then returned to their village. In their gardens they planted many plantains, harvested them in great quantities and since then have not suffered hunger any more. Grateful for the precious presents they had received they sent a delegation to pass on their thanks to Poreími.
Arriving at his house they found him very upset: his son had died. At that time the Yanomami used to bury their dead. Poreími told his guests how he had carried out his son’s funeral: he had burnt the body, collected the bones, ground them to ash and eaten the ashes in a soup of “pareamu” plantains.
When he said goodbye, he urged them to do the same with their own dead. Since then, the Yanomami no longer bury the dead but burn them and consume their ashes mixed with plantain soup.
THEY EAT YOUR ASH TO SAVE YOUR SOUL – YANOMAMI DEATH CULTURE
Unless we are talking about bizarre rituals we are not able to accept and to understand. But, we are still interested to find out more about the controversial moments of one society and its own taboo practice. We are simply addicted to open the covered stories and to smell the burning of the human’s innocence for the sake of primitive and animal fears.
The cultural and religious conviction of the Yanomami rests on the belief that the soul needs to be protected after death, a belief that appeared in European antiquity as well. The soul could enter another life form. Due to this, the Yanomami do not hunt special kinds of birds, which are seen as a possible container for the souls of dead tribe members. Following the religious beliefs of the Indians, the soul is only able to achieve a full salvation if the dead body is burnt after death and if the ash is eaten up by the family and the relatives of the dead person. So, in contrast to the funeral rites which are practiced all around the world, the Yanomami do not bury the corpses. In a ceremony the dead body is burned down and the remaining ash and bones are collected by the remaining relatives. During this ceremony, they cry and sing sad songs, while their faces and bodies are blackened by grime. After the burning, the bones are crumbled and, together with the ash, the remains are put into some kind of pot, where they are kept until the second part of the funeral ceremony. Between these two phases there could be a long time span, because the Yanomami delay the second step until there is a festivity. As a part of this festivity, bananas, which comprise the most common dishes of the Indians, are cooked and the resultant banana mush will be mixed with the ash and bone of the dead tribe member. Then, all of the relatives gather to eat up the mush. The reason for that is the religious belief. The soul of the former tribe member is absorbed by the tribe again and freed by this procedure to be ready for salvation. If this ceremony was not carried out, the soul of the Indian would not be able to be freed and would be damned to remain in the world between life and death. As a consequence of this religious belief, the Yanomami care for their dead tribe members in a special way.
In times of war, the most humiliating and dangerous situation appears if a tribe member is killed in the forest and the others are not able to locate his corpse. This would be a burden for the remaining relatives as well, because they would not be able to save the soul of their loved one. In view of this fact, it does not seem strange that enemies threaten each other with remarks of not eating up their adversaries. This is a really dangerous threat, because the souls of the Yanomami warriors would become lost, caught in the world between life and death. This religious belief of an unsaved soul seems to be comparable to the catholic belief in purgatory, where Christians who have committed suicide are captured until they have served a sentence for their sins. In contrast to this Christian point of view, the Yanomami have no chance to get saved by a higher power. Only the ceremony of ash eating can save their soul. If one takes into consideration the fact that the Indians are not even willing to speak their real names in public because of the fear of losing their souls, one will understand that the meaning and importance of the soul forms the centre of the Yanomamis’ religious thoughts and beliefs. Even the sporadic contact with white settlers and gold-seekers and the fact that many Indians died as a consequence of the diseases the encounter with modern civilisation brought them did not make them change this strong belief in the irreplaceable importance of this death ceremony, which had been misunderstood by the first settlers who met the Indians as some weird kind of cannibalism. Only the more thorough research of anthropologists could explain this ritual and make this unknown exotic custom known, as well as understandable, for the common settlers, who lived on the boarders of the Yanomami territory. As a consequence, we are able to better understand the reasons for this uncommon ritual of ash eating and with a better insight into the daily life of the now well-known Indians, they have lost their horror. They are just small Indians, semi-nomadic hunters, who eat the ash of their dead comrades to render a service to these former members of their own community. Furthermore, the story of the Yanomami and their death ceremonies show us that religious misunderstandings could have hazardous consequences in relationships between people. Sometimes, it seems to be advisable to find out the reasons for religious practices and beliefs instead of establishing immediate and fast prejudices. It is better to learn about the cultural aspects of a new, and at first unfamiliar, environment. This would save people from conflicts over religion all around the globe. Who, for example, would have thought that some Indians in the rain forest were saving the souls of their dead loved ones by eating up their ashes and bones?
THE YANOMAMI TRIBE TODAY
Since most outsiders have invaded the Amazon via the large rivers, the Yanomami have been able to live in isolation until very recently. Because of this they have been able to retain their culture and their identity which many Indians of the Amazon have lost. Men usually make up the hunters and the women the gathers. Men will go on long distant hunts that may last up to a week. The fact that just about all of the Yanomami live deep within the forest has been quite significant for their survival.
In Yanomami society, marriage ceremonies are almost non-existent and are not celebrated in any way. Polygamous marriages are common, meaning husbands can have many wives. A girl can be promised to a man at an age as young as five or six, however cannot officially be married off until after her first menstrual period.
After a Yanomami girl receives her first menstrual period, she is literally handed off by one of her parents to another man, usually a relative. Cross-cousin marriages, which are marriages between the girl and the son of a maternal uncle or paternal aunt, are the most common form of marriage. Most prefer to marry within that Yanomamo tribe, for fear of violent breakouts between different tribes. The female goes to live with her spouse, and must perform the chores and duties she previously did for her mother.
Violence and abuse between couples in Yanomami culture is very common, and if a woman feels she can no longer bear to live with her husband, she may flee to live with her brothers.
Polygamy is commonly practiced in Yanomami culture, and women are expected to accept this. The elder wife in a marriage usually has precedence over the others, and can act as a boss or a superior over the other wives. She usually no longer has sexual relations with her husband, however she can give the most unpleasant chores to the wife she chooses. The husband is not supposed to show favorites, due to jealousy between the wives.
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- Yanomami Death Culture by Dr. Frank Jacob
By Johnson Okunade
I’m a writer, historian, computer scientist, blogger, culture activist, A Bowen University Student (Proudly Bowenite), and a friend-to-all. Feel free to contact me on anything.
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