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Observations placeholder

Michael Harner - The Jivaro and Conibo



Type of Spiritual Experience



Jivaroan peoples refers to groups of indigenous peoples in the headwaters of the Marañon River and its tributaries, in northern Peru and eastern Ecuador. These groups identify speakers of distinct languages of the language family of the same name.

The Jivaro people are famous for their head-hunting raids and shrinking the heads from these raids. These head-hunting raids usually occur once a year in one particular Jivaro neighborhood. These raiding parties usually only attack one homestead per raid, killing the men, spearing the older women to death, and taking younger women as their brides. Once the heads have been collected they are shrunk by cutting the skull vertically and removing the skull and jaw bone. Then, the head is boiled and later mixed with hot gravel and sand, shrinking the head to the size of a large orange. The head is sewn along the lips, which are blackened with charcoal.

In some respects they are an example of shamanism gone wrong, where the beliefs have taken a literal shape and all the symbolism has been lost.  Beheading has a very distinct symbolic meaning, but here they literally behead.

The implication in Michael Harner's quote is that the reason is their resort to some quite fearsome drugs.  If you take fearsome drugs you contact fearsome spirits and eventually the shaman becomes a sorceror, which they seem to have become here.

Jivaro religion usually involves a god and goddess. The Jivaro god, Tsungi, is the god of shamanism, and the Jivaro goddess, Nungui, refers to mother earth. Nungui is described as being a short and large woman, dressed in a black dress. According to Jivaro belief; if Nungui dances in a woman's garden, this will produce a productive garden during the harvest seasons.

Jivaro also engage in hunting activities. These activities usually involve both a man and his wife hunting with a blow gun and poisoned dart, dabbed with the poisonous plant curare, which stops the heart beat of the animal. Jivaro usually hunt for monkeys and birds, but they do not rely on hunting as their primary food source.

Hunting is the time for a man and woman to have sexual intercourse with one another, so they have also lost the reason why chastity is used in seeking spiritual experience - they have become aggressive because they have lost the means of diverting sexual energy into spiritual experience.

A description of the experience

The Way of the Shaman – Michael Harner

The degree of violence and competition in Jivaro society is famous in the anthropological literature and contrasts radically, for example, with the peacefulness of the Conibo. And both the Jivaro and the Conibo stand apart from Australian and many other tribal peoples who have long practiced shamanism without employing psychedelics. Still Jivaro shamanism is highly developed, dramatic, and exciting.

The source of the experience

South American shamanism

Concepts, symbols and science items


Science Items

Activities and commonsteps



Taking drugs