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Exploring the Ancient Life of the Omaguas, Amazonian People (El Coca, Ecuador)

“In 1492, the natives discovered they were Indians, discovered they lived in America, discovered they were naked, discovered that the Sin existed, discovered they owed allegiance to a King and Kingdom from another world and a God from another sky, and that this God had invented the guilty and the dress, and had sent to be burnt alive who worships the Sun the Moon the Earth and the Rain that wets it.”― Eduardo Galeano, Los hijos de los días (Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History)

Being fluent in Spanish would have been a great help when visiting Coca, a small town in Ecuador, a starting point to reach Yasuni National Park through Napo River (Amazon rainforest area). But I was not fluent in Spanish, neither was Dutchie. The lady from the eco-lodge who picked us up from the Francisco de Orellana Airport was hardly speaking any English. She mumbles fast in Spanish and we were struggling to understand few Spanish words, combined them with the overall situation to make sense. Basically, we had to wait for other guests until noon before leaving to our lodge by boat. We arrived in Coca at 8:30 am, we just came too early.

El Coca

We decided to visit the only museum in Coca, The Orellana Archaeological Museum, and Cultural Center or MACCO, that located on the banks of the Napo River. Dutchie and I were the only visitors on that morning, my first time as the only guest in a museum. It felt luxurious to have all the space for ourselves. The museum introduced us to the Ecuadorian Amazon and its people’s history and past. Its collection includes objects that were developed and used by the indigenous communities who lived in the riverbank of the Napo River in the era 1100-1480 AD, the Omaguas, people of the Tupi-Guarani language family from the central region of the Amazon Basin.

 

 

 

The Omaguas lived along the Napo River, inhabited the Amazon Basin. They were known as rich spiritually people and cultured community. The last Omaguas were reported to flattening their forehead from the early age using little boards tied to their heads. The face transformation was believed as their way to honor their deity, the moon. They painted their faces in a unique way that they also created unique patterns on their pottery to mark the ownership and status. It’s noted that pottery played an important role in their daily life and designed with the reference to the river’s life.

What struck me most about the Omaguas was the design of their funerary urns, especially the urns of the shaman, the leader of the tribe. The urns of the shaman had special anthropomorphic designs, showing their strong connection to nature. The Omaguas did not let their dead to be left alone. The dead were first buried in shallow graves to let the body decomposed. Then they dug up the dead’s bones and placed the bones inside the urn and kept the urn in their homes. After some period of time, the family would bury the urns. The common shape of the urns represented a female figure or the belly of a pregnant woman. A rebirth after the death.

 

 

 

The Tree of Life is a myth that we often heard in some ancient communities, and it is also known in the Amazonian tribes in the form of the story of the Tree of Fish. “The Tree of Fish” is built in the middle of the museum as an enactment of a folklore related to the Amazonian people in Ecuador. The folklore told a story of jealousy that turned humans to cut down the tree of fish and since then humans were punished to get their food only after working for it.

 

 

 

The Omaguas culture was gradually died out as the Europeans’ dominance widespread in the region. After being open to the foreigners, the community experienced nothing but a great deal of loss from massive epidemic brought from Europe and the Spaniard’s mistreatment over the lands and the natives’ beliefs. The Omaguas left their riverfront homes and moved to the deeper Amazon forest (now Peru) as their refuge. Their cultures vanished following their evasion.

The Map of Napo Pottery and the Communities in Amazon before the Europeans settlement

 

If we had not visited the museum, I might not have known the Omaguas and their noteworthy culture in Ecuador. It’s about a history with sorrowful ending of an indigenous community to survive and it told us of their fragility in facing the “outsiders”. There are few more indigenous tribes who have lived long before the Spaniards’ influence and they stay existed in Ecuador’s lowland and highland. These tribes have kept their languages and customs until today. Challenges that they are facing now; how to keep their rainforest and river as their home when resisting to the modern world and its development that will ruin their home. There should be a place in this world for everyone to call home.

See also: Ecuador’s Forgotten Tribe.

 

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27 Comments »

    • It was an interesting museum. No plans ahead and basically there was no other places that we could visit at 9 am in El Coca. It was a good visit!

  1. The history of Central and South America never ceases to amaze me ~ it seems there is something new discovered. Or like you have written here, a piece of history that is fascinating but I’ve never before come across. A peek into a past few could ever imagine.

    • Thank you so much, Randall! Just like the ocean, Amazon rainforest has so much intriguing things to see and to discover. Fascinating humans life and their nature in the past and present!

  2. I have never heard of the Omaguas before, and this post has successfully made me really curious about this community and its culture. It’s heartbreaking to know that this once colorful society is now all but gone. Those face paintings are truly unique, and the unusually-shaped urns mind-boggling. Thanks for introducing us to this fascinating culture, Indah!

    • It is indeed, something that we can learn from Amazon rainforest, how to protect the indigenous tribes and their culture while facing modernization. I can see the challenge is already happening in our own backyard in West Papua and Kalimantan.

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