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Rainforests, wildlife preserved by indigenous spiritual beliefs

New research within the native Wapishana and Makushi communities of
Guyana suggests that indigenous cultural beliefs such as shamanism
help preserve tropical forests and wildlife.

The analysis, published in the September 2010 Journal of Latin
American Geography
, draws from a massive data set that tracks wildlife
populations, hunting kill sites, and spiritually significant features
of the landscape within a 48,000-square-kilometer area in southern
Guyana. The authors recruited the hunters themselves to record much of
the data.

The data show that hunters avoid spiritual sites, potentially creating
animal refuges. More than 99 percent of their kills occurred more than
500 meters away from spiritually significant sites.

A spiritually important mountain outside the Wapishana
village of Shiriri. Hunters and other community members avoid this
site, despite its proximity to the village. Photo by: Jeff Luzar

The scientists used geographic methods to rule out other influences
over kill locations, such as distances from villages or roads,
vegetation types, and the abundance of food for the hunter’s main
prey: deer, rodents, peccary, and other small mammals.

“These sites are usually considered to be dangerous,” said co-author
Jeff Luzar, a visiting scholar of anthropology at Stanford University,
in an interview with “Maybe it’s a mountain that has
some kind of story associated with it, or a spring, that people will

Shamans and elders located the spiritual sites on maps of the region
for the scientists, and they recounted the cautionary tales associated
with the sites.

One shaman told the researchers of an angry dragon-like spirit locked
under a mountain just outside the village of Shiriri. The shaman said
earth tremors occurred the one time he climbed the mountain, so
hunters never go there to hunt.

Through the stories they tell, shamans appear to regulate “who goes
hunting, why they go, how long they follow the proscriptions, and how
that influences their diet and hunting practices,” said co-author Jose
Fragoso, a biologist at Stanford University, in an interview with

“Shamanism is a fulcrum around which a lot of environmental use is
mediated,” Fragoso said.

The new data should spur more comprehensive studies of hunting and
indigenous resource use, said anthropologist Neil Whitehead of the
University of Wisconsin, who was not part of the research. Whitehead
has studied the Patamuna and other Guyanese indigenous groups.

Ewell (front of canoe) and Wycliff, two indigenous
technicians from Rewa Village, head out to collect animal population
counts for the study. Photo by: Jose Fragoso

“Choices during subsistence hunting are more complex than they first
appear,” Whitehead told “It incorporates lots of
cultural values.”

The scientists trained dozens of indigenous hunters, usually men, to
conduct wildlife population counts. Intergenerational teams paired
each of the more experienced hunters with a younger hunter. The teams
walked along specially crafted paths in the forest, systematically
recording any animals and animal signs they saw. Collectively, the
hunters have walked more than 25,000 miles (40,000 km) to date,
gathering data.

“We train them in scientific methods of collecting information,
combining the traditional skills of hunters with the ability to record
and think of things in a scientific way,” said Fragoso.

These techniques yield better wildlife population estimates than those
typically gathered by visiting scientists, according to Fragoso. The
counts show that hunting practices in these communities are
sustainable, he stated.

“Because of their societal and cultural rules, their hunting is not as
intense as it could be,” said Fragoso. “They seem not to have caused
any extinctions or major population reductions.”

Added Luzar: “The Wapishana and Makushi seem to be very good stewards
of their resources.”

Citation: Read J, Fragoso J, Silvius K, Luzar J, et al. (2010) Space,
Place, and Hunting Patterns among Indigenous Peoples of the Guyanese
Rupununi Region. Journal of Latin American Geography 9(3): 213-243.
doi: 10.1353/lag.2010.0030

Keith Rozendal is a graduate student in the Science Communication Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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