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Fieldwork research in the Colombian Amazon

The Yukuna: Keeping the Old Alive

While many indigenous groups in Colombia have been forced out of their ancestral lands to scratch a living from a cash based economy, curandero Don Fermin and his family retreated deeper into the forest to continue walking on the footsteps of their ancestors.


The Yukuna, like other Amazon groups, have traditionally engaged in itinerant slash-and-burn agriculture, hunting, fishing, and gathering fruit. But different pressures have led many to engage in economic activities.  


Entire villages have migrated to Leticia and other towns in Colombia’s Amazonia. But Don Fermin and his family chose to stay in the forest and live of its physical and spiritual nourishment.

The maloca has historically been the centre of the Yukuna ritual, social and family life. Three concentric circles inside it define where different activities take place: the centre circle is the sacred place, around this is a social and working area, and the outer circle is divided into domestic units.


The mambeadero is a specific sacred place within the maloca. It is a place for conversation and pensiamento, where the sacred medicine mambé is prepared and the world of the ancestors evoked.

Coca and tobacco, the two plants that make up the mambé, are essential in the mambeadero. The tobacco inspires speech and causes visions in those who consume it. While coca gives physical and spiritual vitality that supports both the individual and the community.


The skull of Don Fermin's pet monkey is now part of his witchcraft regalia, which he uses for purification and healing.

When a young man wants to sit in the mambeadero, he has to first learn the yetárafue, a series of advices for taking care of himself, his family, and his community. 


These advices are learned from an adult mambeador, in this case Don Fermin, who teaches the youngster the tasks involved in preparing coca and the discipline associated with coca-chewing.


Armando was an apprentice of his uncle Don Fermin. In this picture, Armando places the roasted leaves inside a hollow trunk before pounding them into powder with a wooden mortar.


The combination of this powder and dry yarumo leaves, sifted through cloth, makes the mambé. The alkaline yarumo leaves optimise the stimulating effect of the sacred plant for nocturnal cosmogony and myth learning sessions.

In this picture, Acácia cooks the cassava root in the designated area of the maloca. Sharing the cassava root with their guests means both forging and reinforcing social links.


In Yukuna mythology, plants are people, and humans forge working alliances with them so that the society and its culture can reproduce.


At the beginning of time, each Yukuna group received the seed of a particular plant, which would identify them culturally. As the groups traded and intermarried, these seeds got scattered all over the territory. Today, the different plants in the vegetable garden represent their rules of kinship and reciprocity.


Parrot feathers waiting to be used in the evening rituals.

Like in many other Amazonian communities, children are taken to be more sensitive to dark magic. In this picture, Acácia paints her daughter's face with achiote to protect her from evil spirits.


During the harvesting season, Don Fermin and his family host members from other Yukuna villages. In this period, they dance the chontaduro, a sacred masked ritual where the different families engage in spiritual, social and economic exchanges.


The men from the guest maloca arrive wearing masks representing the different animals that live in the Yukuna territory. Through ritual, men embody the power of both visible and invisible beings in a dramatic performance that lasts for several days — where one enters the ceremony as an individual with his/her subjectivities, and through an ancient form of ritualistic storytelling, emerges as one with the community.

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