The first (human) inhabitants of the Amazon were probably Stone Age hunter-gatherers who arrived a little over 20,000 years ago. These people split into two different communities. Some lived in the Amazon basin and others went to live up in the Andes. The Amerindians who went to live in the Andes adapted to the heights of up to 17,000 feet and the lack of oxygen by developing larger lungs and extra red blood corpuscles.
About 500 years ago the population in the Amazon basin is estimated to have been at least 5 million. Floodplains next to the rivers were very fertile so there was lots of competition over the land. The people who settled here could live in permanent villages with populations reaching 3000. They grew beans and manioc and managed to prosper. They also relied on hunting and gathering.
In 1531 Francisco Pizarro and 180 Spanish Conquistadors landed in Ecuador. They had a big impact on the Amerindian communities, wiping out whole tribes. The Amerindians were badly affected by diseases which the Spanish brought with them, such as smallpox, measles and even the common cold. The Spanish also killed many Amerindians using guns.
Amerindians living in the rainforest now live in much smaller communities. They create large clearings in the forest, often near a river for a good water supply, and on a mound so it is less likely to flood and is less humid. They build their huts around the edge of the clearing. There is often a central communal hut used for meetings and special occasions called a maloca. The huts are made out of wood and palm leaves are used to make a thatched roof.
Because the Amerindians live in such isolation socialising is very important and neighbouring tribes often exchange visits. Normally Amerindians don’t wear any clothes, apart from a piece of cloth tied around their waste, because of the heat, but on these special occasions they wear face and body paints, feathered headdresses, nose pieces and ear plugs. Men wear a round wooden disc between the chin and a stretched lower lip. Alcoholic drinks are sometimes specially brewed from fermented fruit. On other special occasions, such as harvest festivals, songs and dances tell of their cycle of life.
Amerindians are subsistence farmers; they only grow enough food to feed the village. A clearance is made in the forest and the vegetation is burnt, the ash provides nutrients for the soil, this is called slash and burn. Crops are planted, usually manioc, yams, beans or pumpkins, and harvested but after four or five years the soil becomes exhausted so the farmers abandon the clearing and move on to a new area of land. The old land then can grow back to how it was originally, which takes about 50 years, ready to be used again. This is called shifting cultivation.
The Amerindians also need to hunt. They use bows and arrows and blowpipes to hunt birds and monkeys which live out of reach in the forest canopy. They smear the tops of the arrows and darts with poison. Curare is the most commonly used poison and comes from the strychnos vine. It is a powerful nerve toxin and when it enters the bloodstream it paralyses the muscles and causes death by suffocation when the lungs stop working. Another poison used is a sticky resin taken from the bark of the virola tree. It is a muscle relaxant causing animals to fall out of the tree when hit. The deadliest poison though, comes from arrow-poison frogs which produce lethal toxins from glands in their skin. Some poisons are released in a river or pool to suffocate nearby fish.
The rainforest also provides plenty of other drugs. There are cures for conditions such as stomachache, snakebite and diarrhoea. Tobacco is smoked for relaxation and the leaves of the coca bush are used as stimulant, keeping hunters going for days without food or sleep.
Every community has a shaman, or witch doctor, who knows more about healing and medicine than anyone else. The shaman acts as a priest and doctor. Because Amerindians believe that they are surrounded by spirits, who are responsible for everything that happens to them, the shaman has to deal with them on behalf of the people. The shaman will enter into a trance, using hallucinogenic drugs to deal with problems.
The rainforest provides the Amerindians with everything they need to survive and the Amerindians are careful to preserve the rainforest so they can continue to live in the same way for many years to come although they are threatened by western diseases and deforestation.