A ‘mythscape’ is not just a sacred geography, but a reference to a larger community of shared meanings and values, regardless of geographical location and borders. Mythscapes connect vertical and horizontal planes in a dynamic flow of meanings, charging the mundane with the sacred and creating large communities in regions where actual settlements are separated by significant distances, like in the north-west Amazon.


A photographic essay focusing on the relationship between humans and their environment in two areas along the Amazon River basin: the Cerros de Mavecure on the Inírida River, and Mitú on the Vaupés River. One of the most isolated cities of Colombia, Mitú accounts for an outstanding ethnic diversity, hosting twenty-six different communities of ancestral indigenous origin, each speaking a different dialect. The Cerros de Mavecure, three hills sacred to the Puinave and Curripaco Indians, are the setting for countless stories related to the creation history and origins of indigenous culture. Unforgettably, both Mavecure and Mitú remain tragic historic sites of the exploitation of rubber and the brutal enslavement of the indigenous population. The following text gives a modest insight into the cultural richness and diversity of the indigenous population of the north-west Amazon basin and explores the relation between human and nature for two different indigenous tribes, the Puinave community of Cerros de Mavecure and the Tukano Indians of Mitú.


Dense and interwoven, the diverse vegetation of the rainforest is calmly reflected in the glossy, dark-red water of the Amazon River. A symmetric yet rippled line parts reality and reflection. Uninterrupted, this line challenges one’s orientation of up and down. It confidently lays an identical representation of one world over another, just like a pattern to follow.


Reflections unite the horizontal with the vertical plane of the world. Equally important, the vertical plane signifies the existence of another sphere, parallel to our own. Connecting the physical with the spiritual world, the vertical plane gives meaning to the horizontal one. Everything is more than it appears, for the visible world is only one level of perception. Behind every tangible form, every plant and animal, lies an ulterior dimension, a world of deified ancestors walking the world as spirits, where rocks and rivers are alive and plants and animals are human beings.


The noble practice of observing and imitating the natural world, inherent in indigenous cultures, holds a mirror up to today’s societies and their relation to the natural world. By acknowledging the indissociable and reciprocal relationship between nature and the human being, most of indigenous oral tradition consists of sensible metaphors and profound analogies. These comparisons intelligently guide human behavior and establish a functioning framework for social coexistence.


Due to the fragile nature of such oral traditions, this text cannot be understood as a transcription of indigenous thought and knowledge, but only as a personal impression of the ideas and tales recorded during these travels. One has to take into account that the traditions and languages vary greatly between the native tribes settled along the north-west Amazon River and its tributaries. This complexly coded oral tradition has too often been hastily transcribed and interpreted, especially by missionaries and occasional travelers who gathered passing tales told in broken Spanish or Portuguese. Consequently, the native culture of the Amazon basin has often been misunderstood as consisting of naive, simplistic stories, primarily concerned with animals, wanderings and common places – significant stories that were told to listeners whose eyes were blind to the vertical plane of our world.


Incredibly rich in knowledge and natural resources, indigenous communities of the Guainia region were victims not merely of mis-interpretation, but of wilful obliteration of their culture and beliefs. Religious missionaries that arrived in the beginning of the twentieth century condemned culturally crucial stories like the Yurupari legend, rituals such as the dance of the Dabucuri, and customs such as the wearing of long hair and indigenous attire, as demonic and shameful.


In an attempt to demonstrate the contemporary importance of indigenous knowledge, this essay focuses on the values present in the analogies and oral traditions, illustrated by the example of two tribes amongst the many communities settled in the north-west Amazon basin: the Puinave and Curripaco of the Remanso community on the Inírida River, and the community close to Mitú, consisting of people from the Tucano, Barasana and Cubeo tribes of the Vaupés River. The multitude of ethnic families living together exemplifies one of the three analogies chosen for this text, which are ubiquitously present in the oral tradition of the communities living around the sacred Cerros de Mavecure and the Vaupés River.


The Amazon rainforest is characterized by tremendous biological diversity, which lays ground for its significance and resistance. Correspondingly, diversity takes an essential role in indigenous belief systems. Indispensable for survival in nature, biological diversity and cross-pollination ensure a strong ecosystem, which probably inspired the native communities of the north-west Amazon basin to culturally install the rule of exogamy, where a man must marry a woman outside his own community, a custom that guarantees not only genetic but also cultural and linguistic diversity.


Related to this principle is another key characteristic of the rainforest ecosystem: biological interdependence, in which every species is to some extent dependent on another. Life in the rainforest is competitive and countless species have developed complex symbiotic relationships with others in order to survive. Each species that dis- appears from the ecosystem may weaken the survival chances of another. This basis of the natural world is mirrored in a telling by the malocero (the person entrusted with the maloca, the spiritual and healing abode of the community) of the Tukano from the Vaupés. Narrating the story of the arrival of the first people, who traveled on anacondas up the Amazon River, the malocero identifies the tools the first settlers brought to use and care for the land given to them. He explains how each ethnic group that settled around the Amazon River has its particular attribution and function in the curing and maintaining of the territory. Implying that any negligence of responsibility within one community will negatively affect the other.


The maloca itself demonstrates another principle that has been observed in the natural world and implemented into indigenous culture: the principle of seasonal cycles. As the center of the community, the maloca manifests both a physical space in which people live and a cosmic model of the entire universe. The maloca represents a universal roof uniting everything: the soil, which is connected to the sky, the stars, the river, the animals, the people – all are inter-dependent. Serving as an astronomic observatory, the maloca is also where the indigenous exercise their ability to read stellar con- stellations, tracing the changes in the ecological calendar. For each seasonal transition, the indigenous have developed certain customs, shaman-led rituals, have identified certain illnesses they need to be aware of and practice certain activities like the cultivation of manioc, depending on the swelling and ebbing of the river. Just as all natural life follows its seasons and cycles, humans of the Amazon have introduced important gatherings and ritual festivals that mark the seasons of the year. The ritual of the Dabucuri is a deep physical expression of the ideas of the reciprocal relations between humans and the natural world. By offering and sharing mambé (a mix of coca and the ashes of yarumo leaves), yopò/rapé (mixed tobacco), chicha and yagé, spirits are invited to come and dance in the maloca to share the harvest. This festivity of receiving and giving promotes reciprocity and exchange, values on which the entire social system depends.


In Tucanoan thought, a phenomenon never is, but always is like something else (do’pa). This can be understood as an invitation to observe and reflect on our ever-changing environment, realizing how much a place can affect us or, respectively, has affected our origins. The fading of the binary division between nature and human will help us to realize how humans are capable of interacting with their environment in a relational, reciprocal and mutually enhancing way. It is beneficial to free ourselves from the romanticized and idealized image we might have of indigenous cultures, as we risk misunderstanding them as something completely detached from our own contemporary reality.


Just as we tend to hold on to an Eden-like image of the Amazon, as one of the last surviving areas of pure and immaculate nature on the planet, its indigenous inhabitants equally tend to be portrayed along the lines of noble savages, reduced to ‘ancient’ cultures that are soon to be extinct. This essay intends to present a realistic and optimistic view of the richness of native culture, showing that indigenous thought will always prevail due to its astounding flexibility, integrity and spirit in regards to the challenges we face today.

Gazing at the Inírida River from the community of Remanso.
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Gazing down at the Inírida River from the top of Cerro de Mavecure.
The Tukanos are renowned among the indigenous communities for the crafting of canoes. The canoe, called a bongo, is used for transportation between the river landings and different territories, as well as conucos, where communities farm yuca and paxiúba palms. Some groups, like the Barasana, use broken canoes to bury their elders close to the water, facilitating the spirits of the dead to drift away.
A young boy in Mitú collects dried yarumo leaves for the preparation of mambé.
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View from the Cerro de Mavecure, the three hills called Mono, Pajarito and Mavecure.


Admirative of ant colonies, the Puinave people of the Inírida River draw a fitting analogy between the intelligent organization of ants and their own community’s social structure. The Bachaca, a red ant with a disproportionately big head, spends its day amongst a colony of workers, cutting fleshy leaves in order to prepare a subterranean kingdom for its queen, even more impressive in size. Following the observations of the Puinave, the queen, at the very peak of her existence, flies out to unite with another insect high up in the air. Impregnated with the eggs of another entity, the queen returns to the earth, enters the nest prepared by

the workers and lays her eggs. Devoted to her reproductive calling – the formation of a new family – the queen cuts her wings. An oral legend heard in the community of Remanso describes how humankind was first introduced into the world with the help of ants, who carried animal and human bones into a nest. Possibly a creation myth, this story certainly proves the respect and admiration the indigenous population holds for the animal kingdom, here taking the ant as a model for their social structure and division of labor. Curiously, the ant is also an excellent example of a symbiotic relationship in nature.

Daniel and his brother, two dancers from the Tukano community, are dressed to perform the Dabucuri, which invites the spirits of the forest to come and dance in the maloca, sharing the abundant harvest. The bodies of both dancers (los danzadores) are covered with natural pigments called carayurú, chimpe and bey, made from dried leaves and tree resin.
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Ismenia is collecting yuca to prepare the chicha that will be offered during the Dabucuri.


For the Tucano Indians of the Vaupés, rivers are not just routes of communication and transport, they are the veins of the earth, the link between the living and the dead, and the paths along which the ancestors traveled at the beginning of time. Believed to have arrived in sacred canoes, the first people were brought up the river from the east by enormous anacondas. Within these canoes they carried the tools necessary to maintain and cure their land, along with the three most important plants: coca, manioc and yagé – gifts of Father Sun. In the canoes sat mythical heroes in hierarchical order: first chiefs – wisdom-keepers – who were dancers and chanters; then warriors; finally shamans and maloceros, serving the community. Thus the rivers of the Vaupés were created and populated, with the Desâna people coming into being on the Río Papuri, the Barasana and Tatuyos on the upper Piraparaná, the Tucano on the Vaupés, the Makuna on the Popeyacá and lower Piraparaná, and the Tanimukas and Letuama on the Miriti and Apaporis. When the serpents reached the center of the world, they lay over the land, outstretched as rivers, their heads forming river mouths, their tails winding away to remote headwaters, the ripples in their skins giving rise to rapids and waterfalls. The first settlers recognized each other as family, and to ensure exogamy, a man had to choose a bride who spoke a different language.

Elvira Romero, Cubeo.
Emson, Barasano.
Beatriz, Tatuya.
Teresa, Taiwana.
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Gatherings and festivals like the Dabucuri mark the seasons of the year. Through sacred dance, the recitation of myths, and the sharing of coca and yagé, such celebrations promote the spirit of reciprocity and exchange on which the entire social system depends, even as they link, through ritual, the living with their mythical ancestors and the beginning of time.
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A boy picking coca leaves for the preparation of mambé, a coca powder that is obtained through a process of roasting, grinding and sifting coca leaves and ashes.
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The maloca is the centre of communal life in indigenous cultures. Up to eight hearth families live together in the longhouse, the principal social-political unit of Tukanoan society, simultaneously a place where people live and a cosmic model of the entire universe.