How a Tribe of Hunter-Gatherers Helped Me Put Death Into Perspective

Implements of death are common among the Waorani, even for the very young. The author spent several weeks with this tribe of hunter-gatherers in the Amazon jungle, and the effects of her stay have been long-lasting. Ilana Strauss

I ran into death at a going-away party last year. (He was there to pick up someone else.) My cousin had died young after losing a fight with cancer, and my family and I were getting together to say goodbye.

No one at the party knew how to deal with death; no one even knew which expressions could make the situation more palatable. From my perspective, there wasn't anything to do or to think, no way to turn my series of confused feelings into a coherent story. The idea of someone close to me dying was hopelessly unnatural.

Before that moment, I hadn't had much experience with death, and I don't think that's unusual. In my culture, death is hidden. People shove it into hospitals, cemeteries and industrial farms. You can eat a hamburger every day without ever seeing a cow die.

But not every culture is that way.

Where death is part of life

When I went to live with hunter-gatherers in the Amazon jungle for a few weeks this spring, I was surprised by how much death I saw.

The indigenous Waorani are amazing hunters. They go into the jungle with spears and come back with wild pigs and capybaras. One day, a hunter brought a dead wild pig back to the village. The women proceeded to cut it open, and the intestines spilled out like so many gray gummy worms.

A couple of Norwegian tourists were there at the time, and the three of us watched the grisly spectacle.

"We should see this," the Norwegian man told his girlfriend. "We should know what we eat."

Then he turned to me. "You're not a vegetarian, are you?"


Afterwards, the Norwegian tourists and I went fishing with a Waorani guide, using capybara organs as bait. I was a lousy fisherman, but the guide was pretty great at it, and he caught a fish almost immediately. The guide knocked this fish on the forehead with the back of a screwdriver, and it went still.

The guide went back to fishing, but the fish started flopping around in the bottom of the canoe again.

"Kill it," he told me, nodding at the screwdriver.

Even as a kid, I didn't like to fish because I didn't want to hurt the fish. How could I? I didn't even eat animals. But this fish wasn't going to survive, and it was in what must have been unbelievable pain, so I did the only thing I could do to help the poor thing: I smacked it in the forehead with a screwdriver. To my horror, it kept wiggling, and I kept smacking frantically, willing it to just die already, but it kept moving. The guide finally looked over.

"It's okay," he assured me. "It's dead. It's just ... it's dead." That day, I was death.

Dead fish in a Waorani boat
This is the fish I killed with a screwdriver. Ilana Strauss

Death and life are close cousins

Not that I was the Grim Reaper to every animal I encountered. On the same trip, I became friends with a spider monkey. We were the only primates in the jungle who couldn't understand the other primates around us, so we bonded. He'd wrap his tail around my arm, and I'd feed him from a bottle, like a baby.

And he was a baby — an orphan, in fact. Years ago, the Waorani had gone hunting and caught a female monkey. They killed her, but when they cut her stomach open, they found him inside. They've been taking care of him ever since.

It seemed like death and life shouldn't be so close to one another. A dead mother and an adorable C-section baby shouldn’t be in the same story. Hunters and nurses shouldn't be the same people. But that's the thing about life and death, creation and destruction: they're neighbors.

This monkey's life was connected to the death of its mother.
This monkey's life is forever linked to the untimely death of its mother. Ilana Strauss

And that applies to humans, too. A few months before, a Waorani teenager had eaten poisonous leaves and died. At least three family members told me about this (in our mutually broken Spanish), even though I was a stranger. They were sad, but not shocked or confused like the people at the party had been.

That's when I realized that death wasn't unnatural. My lack of experience with death was what was unnatural. I wanted to push death aside, to look away from the bloody pig, forget the monkey's origin story and avoid the teenager's grave. But there's no more death in the Amazon rainforest than there is in the Chicago suburbs or New York streets. Everyone dies.

A week or two later, I happened to read a book that I thought would be about work culture in the Middle Ages, but turned out to be about the difference between how modern and medieval people approach death. What I took away from it was that medieval people would be horrified by our obsession with keeping the dead alive.

The writer wasn't talking about medicine or oxygen tanks. He was talking about photos of dead relatives hanging on walls, about Facebook pages with deceased owners. It's like we're so against the idea of death that we just pretend our dead loved ones are still alive. But putting a photograph of a dead relative on the wall and constantly ruminating on him doesn't bring him back to life; it just turns him into a ghost, and us into the haunted.

When I left the Amazon jungle and returned to the urban jungle, I decided to try and stop thinking about death as an aberration or a curse. He's just a neighbor, after all.