The Spirits and the Forest: Dances and Rituals in Colombia’s Northwest Amazon

Yukuna mask. According to Schultes, the yellow face is the Sun. For the Makuna, this mask paired with rounded paddles represents the bureru bird; when the paddles are L-shaped, the mimi or the rapasu. Collected by R.E. Schultes, Colombia. PM 53-47-30/7495

In the early 1940’s, Harvard professor of Botany Richard Evans Schultes traveled to Colombia for the first time to study medicinal plants and arrow poisons. His trip marked the beginning of a life-long relationship with the country’s Amazon rainforest where he spent more than 12 years doing scientific research. There he found a treasure trove of botanical species, and dozens of his publications described tropical plants until then unknown to science. His contribution to the store of information on the botany of the Colombian Amazon forest is unparalleled.

Besides being a botanist and accomplished photographer, Schultes was also a self-made ethnologist. He was fascinated with the Native’s use of hallucinogenic plants—an interest that went beyond the purely botanical aspect. He studied the biochemistry of these plants and entered the world of symbolism and shamanism, and it is thanks to his interest in Amazonian cultures and his friendship with several Native groups that the Peabody now curates a unique collection of Yukuna dance masks and other objects of material culture from the Barasana, Taiwano, Kubeo, Tukano, and Makuna ethnic groups.

This online exhibition shows part of his ethnographic collection, presenting the objects within the ritual context that gives them meaning. Although Professor Schultes’s travels, work, and photographs were well documented by himself and his biographers, the ethnographic collection he donated to the Peabody is little known. It is therefore a unique opportunity to make part of it available online to those interested in Northwest Amazonian cultures.

A second important ethnographic collection curated at the Peabody Museum comes from the Siona and Kofán Indians of Colombia’s Putumayo region. These objects were acquired by the Peabody through purchase from American adventurer and writer Victor W. von Hagen, also during the 1940’s—a period of intense anthropological research in all of South America and particularly in Colombia. A prolific writer, von Hagen travelled extensively and collected many objects in Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador that he later sold to important museums in the United States. The Peabody counts around 100 ethnographic objects collected by von Hagen from the Indians of the Putumayo region.

Colombia’s Amazon rainforest is home to many aboriginal groups. For thousands of years, their relationship with the environment has been intimate, knowledgeable, and especially respectful. Living in that green world for so long has allowed them to accumulate a great amount of knowledge about their environment. Ethnologist Roberto Pineda has rightly defined the Amazon rainforest as an “interior continent” not only for its size­—it covers more than 7 million square kilometers—but also for the number and variety of native species of plants and animals that live there.

Regarding the human population, in Colombia’s Amazon region alone there are 10 linguistic families representing over 40 spoken languages and dozens of aboriginal populations that live in dispersed settlements, mostly along the rivers. For the inhabitants, everything in the forest has a meaning and an explanation, where dances, rituals, and feasts are important ways to remember and strengthen the idea that humans and nature must coexist and that social groups must cooperate in order to survive. But today this is rapidly changing. Many parts of the Northwest Amazon are experiencing the impact of Western colonization and deteriorating environment. Evidently, Native societies are not immune to these problems and the beliefs and traditions that once helped them live in a sustainable relationship with nature have suffered greatly, many times to a point of no return.

The objects in this collection can serve to remind us that ritual traditions are important. They are elements of social integration that can always serve the purpose of bringing families and ethnic groups together by recognizing a common historical past, even if today their ancient ways of living have changed. To us, these wonderful objects full of symbolic meaning are a reminder that the people who made them had—and still have—an extraordinary way of seeing the world, and that we ought to study and understand it, if only to make us a better and more culturally sensitive people.