- Our history

The continued occupation of the western Amazon region on both sides of the Peru-Ecuador border by the Jivaro peoples, whom ethno-historians refer to as the “Jivaroan complex”, is well-documented and established. Historic Jivaro-speaking populations also occupied extensive areas in highland regions found in current Peruvian and Ecuadorian territories. Whereas the Andean Jivaros have disappeared and their languages are no longer in use, the Amazon Jivaroan complex (Awajún, Wampís, Achuar and Shuar) preserves its territorial location to a large extent, maintains its enormous cultural vitality and, in general, experiences significant demographic growth.

Due to its location, the Amazon Jivaroan complex had contact with different pre-Hispanic peoples, maintaining relationships with populations on the northern Peruvian coast, as embodied in the iconography and mythology. These contacts were facilitated by the existence of passages in the mountain range, which reaches lower altitudes in this region, the continuity of the climate in some areas and the extreme proximity between the headwaters of rivers on the coast and in the jungle. Hocquenghem argues that the influence of the Sicán, a culture that developed arsenical bronze, reached the present-day area known as Bagua around the ninth century A.D. Mythical references to these contacts seem to be expressed in the Jivaro tradition, which alludes to clashes with the Yuk Iwa. The discovery of objects from diverse cultural traditions in the Awajún territory reflects the existence of material trade flows involving metal objects found in Shamatak and on the banks of the Comaina River, in the upper reaches of the Cenepa River Basin, as reported by Guallart (1990: 39; 1997: 88-90).

The Inca Empire never obtained control of the current Awajún territory, although it was able to maintain an administrative hold over some Palta and Guayacundo segments of the Andean Jivaroan complex through military means and political alliances. The Inca conquest of the Guayacundo people occurred during the reign of Inca Yupanqui, after the occupation of Cajamarca in the mid-fifteenth century. In order to secure this zone, exhausting wars were subsequently fought during the reign of Huayna Cápac. The chronicles describe the difficulties the Incas faced in their attempts to conquer the Jivaro peoples known as the Bracamoro and Rabona. These attempts were first made from the southwest around 1490. On this occasion, the Incas sailed down the Marañón River in rafts. A contingent reached the Cenepa River and the Kumain, Kampanak and Numpatkaim rivers to the foot of the Cordillera del Cóndor, where they fought against the ancestors of the Awajún people. Another contingent sailed down the Chinchipe River, where it was ultimately resisted by the Bracamoro and the Xoroca. At the time of the civil wars between Huáscar and Atahuallpa, around 1520, an Inca army advanced once again from the north towards the Chinchipe River; however, after attempting to occupy the area of the Jivaroan Bracamoro, the Inca army failed and “retreated, fleeing from the fury of the men dwelling in such area”, as documented by Cieza de León. The Bracamoro mentioned in the chronicles are referred to as the Pakamuru in Awajún tradition.

The first Spanish expedition into Bracamoros took place in 1536, as ordered by Pizarro, and resulted in the founding of the short-lived town of Jerez de la Frontera in the area surrounding Pongo de Rentema (Rentema Gorge) at the confluence of the Marañón and Chinchipe rivers; it was later refounded as Nueva Jerez de la Frontera. The towns of Ávila, Perico and Chirinos were subsequently established as Spanish settlements. When the Spanish founded Jaén, Hispanic conquistadores had already made advances into the region from both the north and the south. They penetrated the Zamora River Basin from the north, where they founded the short-lived town of Bilbao in 1541. Other early expeditions in the region were made in the direction of the Yacuambi River, where Zamora de los Alcaides, now known as Macas, was established. Based on these conquests, the Spanish crown established the Gobernación de Bracamoros (Government of Bracamoros) and the Gobernación de Yahuarzongos (Government of Yahuarzongos), which were subsequently consolidated into one.

According to early colonial documents, the populations living in the Awajún territory were referred to by different names, such as Xoroca (headwaters of the Numpatkeim and Marañón rivers upstream from the confluence of the Chinchipe River up to the Cenepa River), Huambuco, Cungarapa (Nieva River) and Guiarra (in the lower and middle reaches of the Santiago River). Indigenous people living in Shushunga are later referred to as Tontón, neighbors of the Xoroca. In the case of the term Guiarra, this word implies a corruption of the term Shuar(a), which was broadly used among the Jivaro to identify different segments of this Amazonian group. Totón is associated with the locality of Tutumberos, name that an Awajún settlement still goes by. The Huambuco, known by the Awajún as Wámpuku, were, according to oral tradition, tall and dark-skinned with curly hair; they were formerly known as Shuwashiwag.

Sixteenth-century documents do not refer to the Awajún by this name. The term Aguaruna or Ahuarunes, which supposedly refers to the male practice of weaving, began to appear in documents dating back to the first half of the eighteenth century. Maldonado’s map published in 1750 locates the Ahuarunes on the right bank of the Santiago River near its confluence with the Marañón. The term Antipas, by which the Awajún were also referred to in historical documents, is primarily used in the nineteenth century and is derived from the name of a local leader, Nantip (Institute of Common Good, 2009). In any case, according to Awajún tradition, it seems that many names were used to refer to the ancestors of all the local groups that are currently identified as Awajún. Those families originating from the upper and lower Cenepa are known as Antashiwag and Pinchushiwag, respectively.

Even today, the Jivaro peoples, including the Awajún and Wampís, bear a reputation of being warlike, which is based on their firm decision to defend their land. The ability to establish alliances with different local groups in order to defend their territory is one of their most distinguishing characteristics.

Gold: Motivation to Conquer the Land of the Jivaro Peoples

The early interest of the Crown in controlling the Jivaro region was largely related to the discoveries of gold deposits, which resulted in a model of extractive occupation. The first mines were identified by the Spanish in the region of Zamora in 1556, which led to new discoveries and settlements; encomiendas de indios (grants of Indians for the purpose of tribute collection and labor extraction) were granted to work these mines. The cities of Valladolid and Loyola were successively founded the following year at the headwaters of the Chinchipe River, in addition to Santiago de las Montañas along the Santiago River, Santa María de Nieva at the confluence of the Nieva and Marañón rivers and Sevilla del Oro and Santa Ana de Logroño de los Caballeros in Yahuarzongos to the north. As in the west, these settlements and towns were quite unstable.

The area became more important when the Spanish discovered the Cangasa and Iranbiza gold mines in the Santiago River Basin on tributaries that originate in the Cordillera del Cóndor (Condor Mountain Range), where it is said that extracted gold has 23 carats. In addition to these mines, deposits such as Zamora, Valladolid, San Francisco and Nambija were also found in the area. There were seventy-one encomiendas in the Gobernación de Bracamoros-Yahuarzongos (Government of Bracamoros-Yahuazongos) in 1571, with a total of 22,270 Indians.

The indigenous populations, living in the areas where the Spanish made their “discoveries” and founded cities, became subject to the encomiendas (Colonial labor system implemented by the Spanish), and the encomendero (holder of the encomiendas) would receive the right to collect tributes, which indigenous inhabitants were forced to pay starting at the age of 14, as “free” vassals of the King of Spain. In order to subjugate the indigenous population, the encomenderos and authorities used soldiers and the so-called “indios de lanza”, warriors from other indigenous towns that had become allies of the Spanish. The tribute was paid in kind or through personal services, mainly as gold or in the form of work to extract it. Since censuses, official inspections and tribute assessments were not carried out until much later, the arbitrariness in the collection of tributes and the exploitation of Indian labor were significant, including the fact that children, who did not meet the minimum age requirement, were forced to work. Attempts to conquer were resisted time and again, but the repeated epidemics, such as the smallpox and measles of 1589, helped drastically wipe out the Jivaro population in some areas to such an extent that the President of the Real Audiencia de Quito (Royal Audience of Quito) stated the following in 1603: “It is unfortunate that almost all the natives have died,” referring to the Yahuarzongo area (Cuesta, 1989: V, 448).

Abuse and mistreatment gave way to constant escapes, which resulted in armed raids, and local rebellions, such as those recorded in the region of the Cangasa and Logroño mines in 1569 and 1579, respectively. A general uprising of various local allied Jivaro groups took place in 1599 to expel the Spanish. Attacks on different Spanish towns, such as Logroño and Sevilla del Oro, occurred almost simultaneously with the participation of the Jivaros from the Morona and Santiago rivers, interrupting communication between Santiago de las Montañas and the cities of the Real Audiencia de Quito. The Jesuit historian Velasco wrote about this tradición (a combination of fiction and history that forms a kind of historical anecdote), in which 16 rebels poured molten gold in the mouth of an encomendero, in response to his un-bridled greed for this precious metal.

After the general uprising, some areas completely shut off to the presence of the Spanish until almost the end of the Colonial period, as was the case with Zamora, Logroño and Sevilla del Oro, which blocked the way to the Marañón River from the north. The Jivaro continued harassing the inhabitants of the Spanish settlements along the Santiago River, and the Cangasa mines remained closed.

Nevertheless, it was crucial for the Crown and the encomenderos to recover the Cangasa and Zamora mines and restore safety to the access routes and transit, all within the Jivaro territory. For this reason, the Spanish made numerous attempts to recover and secure entry into the Cangasa mines throughout the seventeenth century. In 1678, 1692 and 1695, the Spanish invaded the region of Cangasa, seeking to establish a route through the Cenepa and Cucuasa rivers and reopen communication with Loja. The Spanish took many prisoners from among the Jivaro during these raids, particularly women and children, who were handed over to the authorities for their personal use. The Jivaro of the Cenepa River Basin, in the areas of Cangasa and Suririsa, reacted by strangling their own children in order to prevent them from being taken by the Spanish.

Afterwards, the area between the left bank of the Santiago River and the Cenepa River Basin remained closed to traffic and was no longer used by the Spanish; the Awajún living in the Cenepa River Basin recovered their autonomy. The Spanish continued trading with some limitations on the Marañón River from the region of estates in the Uctubamba Valley to the west until Pongo de Manseriche (Manseriche Gorge), although they did not found new Spanish settlements until much later in the republic.

On the eve of Peruvian independence, the resistance of some Jivaro groups was finally crushed from Cuenca (Ecuador), and communication, although fragile, to the Marañón River via the Santiago River was able to be reestablished. Despite their interest in axes and iron spearheads made available along this route, the Jivaro population continued rejecting the establishment of outsiders among them as they feared the diseases they would bring.

Throughout the nineteenth century, gold mining to the north of the Marañón River attracted the interest of the authorities once again, to such an extent that by the end of the century, President Andrés Avelino Cáceres had acquired a mining concession with some partners in order to work the alluvial gold deposits on the banks of its tributaries; nevertheless, the Jivaro, who staged several attacks in 1894 on the towns where miners and rubber tappers lived, resisted the occupation of the area, making transit along the Marañón River difficult. In the west, landowners from Uctubamba and Chachapoyas attempted to make way to the Marañón – Amazonas rivers through Awajún territory, leading to repeated confrontations and relative progress along the border with the establishment of a road and some trade posts. This continued resistance explains why the Jivaro territory to the west of Pongo de Manseriche did not succumb to raids aimed at recruiting rubber workers during the rubber boom.

Later, around 1930, the area of the Chirinos and Chinchipe rivers became an attractive site for mining, and the region experienced a gold mining boom; however, the technology used limited the continuity of the exploitation, and gold veins were progressively abandoned. Nonetheless, speculations were made regarding the gold potential of the entire disputed region during the war of 1941. George McBride, the North American geographer in charge of the aerial photography studies to demarcate the border, indicated the following in his final report issued in 1949: “Further east, along the western, northern and eastern foothills of the Cordillera del Cóndor, there are gold deposits that, at some time, yielded good profits, but are now mostly abandoned. Some believe that these deposits constitute potential wealth in the disputed regions, which may be compared to the forecasted oil production. Others believe that the gold deposits are almost completely exhausted (McBride, 1996:119). While old gold veins dating back to colonial times were no longer intensively exploited along the Cenepa, Santiago and Marañón rivers, alluvial gold was being extracted on a small scale without using mercury (Serrano Calderón de Ayala, 1995).

Interest in gold mining in the Cordillera del Cóndor was sparked in the late 1970s, when a high-grade gold vein was rediscovered in the area of Nambija (Ecuador) on the westernmost flank of the Cordillera, specifically sites that were previously exploited by the Incas. As a result of these findings, miners raced to the region. Nevertheless, as superficial veins became exhausted, miners advanced to the northeast in the direction of the slopes of the Cordillera del Cóndor. The sandstone shafts in the area of Nambija suffered a massive collapse soon afterwards. This caused mining companies associated with large corporations to enter the region, thus displacing small-scale miners, who advanced in large numbers to the northeast along the border, scattering throughout the lower Nangaritza in the Machinaza, Río Blanca and El Zarza sectors, following routes to border posts and rivers.


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© Photos by Marco Huaco. All rights reserved.
© Text excerpted from the Research Report "A Chronicle of Deception" by Research Team of ODECOFROC. All rights reserved.