Why I Spent My Vacation Living With Hunter-Gatherers in the Rainforest

indigenous Waorani children
These children are part of the Waorani community, a nomadic group that often travels between different settlements. Ilana Strauss
Ilana with the Waorani
The author with members of the Waorani tribe, a nomadic group that often travels between different settlements. Ilana Strauss

I've been obsessed with hunter-gatherers for the last few years. It started when I realized that my sleep problems were being caused by modernity. (Turns out my biological clock doesn’t tick very well with the schedules 19th century factory owners made for their workers.) I wondered what else about modern society jarred with my natural rhythms, so I set out to know more.

If you want to see how elephants behave naturally, you don’t go to the zoo. You go to the savanna. If you want to see how humans behave naturally, you don’t go to a Manhattan high-rise or a vegan co-op or even a small farming village. You go to a hunter-gatherer community in the wilderness.

I decided to Google "hunter gatherers." A result came up for a research center deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon, where volunteers worked with local indigenous Waorani hunter-gatherers to document flora and fauna.

I emailed the research center, and, while it took months, we worked out the travel arrangements. Rafael*, the volunteer coordinator, got back to me a mere four days before I was planning to leave. He said he'd just come back from the jungle, where members of a local Waorani tribe had told him they wanted to learn English. He asked me if, instead of volunteering at the research center, how about living with the tribe and teaching them English? I said yes, because, you know ... why not? (*All names have been changed for privacy reasons.)

'A school of the jungle'

butterfly Amazon jungle
A gorgeous butterfly in Equador. Ilana Strauss

After a stressful four-day packing, vaccinating and flying extravaganza, I arrived in Coca, a small Ecuadorian city on the outskirts of the jungle, where Rafael picked me up.

"Why do they want to learn English?" I asked him (in Spanish) over lunch.

"They have one foot in the jungle and one in the city," he replied. "But they don't want to learn in a classroom, a box. They want una escuela de la selva. A school of the jungle."

"I've never taught English."

"That's okay. Just teach them parts of the body. Then other stuff."

"Ohhh, like that kids' song,” I said. "'Head, shoulders, knees, and toes.'"


That would be the entirety of my ESL training.

Into the jungle

On our way to the jungle (I was still fuzzy on how we would get there), we ran into a few of Rafael’s friends: Martina, a young mother who had come into town to look for her runaway teenage daughter; and Alma, Martina's aunt.

Alma was an elderly woman who laughed a lot, wore black leather boots, sported tiny painted flowers on her nails and was stronger than me. Embarrassingly stronger. This 70ish-year-old woman would end up carrying my backpack for me all day as I adjusted to the altitude and humidity.

Martina and Alma were heading into the jungle too, so Rafael left me with them. I never saw him again.

We got on a bus going somewhere, and I sat next to Alma, who chatted enthusiastically the whole ride. She spoke with a really thick accent, and I couldn’t understand her Spanish, so I nodded and smiled the whole time. She didn't seem to notice.

The bus arrived at a tiny village near the edge of the jungle. We walked to Martina's home, a big house with guava trees but no hot water near the edge of the jungle.

Over rice and fried plantains, Martina told me stories about the Waorani killing outsiders who were just trying to be friendly. In once instance, a Waorani killed a woman's brother. The woman convinced the Ecuadorian government to give her thousands of dollars to return to the Amazon to help the indigenous people there. She flew back to the community with a vile of diseased cow blood and proceeded to poison 800 members of the tribe.

Oh, and then we watched "The Lego Movie."

road built by oil companies into the Amazon
This is the road built by the oil companies in the hunt for drill sites in the Amazon rainforest. Ilana Strauss

The next day, I found out that Martina, the only human being I could understand, would not be coming with us into the jungle. First Rafael, now Martina, I thought. Maybe Alma will swim away midstream. Perhaps sensing my apprehension, Alma said she'd take care of me — I think. I hugged her.

The next day, we took a bus through the jungle, passing oil rigs all along the way. I thought the oil rigs were just a weird coincidence until I realized that the road had probably been built for them. Oil was discovered in the Amazon in the late 1960s. Shell, Standard Oil and other companies started drilling, and the companies have since relocated most of the Waorani to make way for drilling.

We took a motorized canoe a couple hours to the Waorani community. That's when I realized Alma was a Waorani who lived there — she'd just been in the city for the day. I saw her go from 21st century person to hunter-gatherer. Or, really, I remembered that she was both.

That explained her thick accent. She must have grown up speaking Wao, the Waorani indigenous language, and only started learning Spanish in late adulthood. She was probably born before oil company explorers, missionaries or tourists set foot in Waorani territory. Her life was a montage of the last 10,000 years of human history in fast-forward mode.

Welcomed but alone

indigenous Waorani children
These children are part of the Waorani community, a nomadic group that often travels between different settlements. Ilana Strauss

The community consisted of half a dozen traditional houses made from materials found in the forest. The Waorani are nomadic; they're always traveling between different communities, so the number of people living in any particular community is constantly changing. I saw anywhere from half a dozen to 40 or so family members and friends of all ages living there at a time.

I assumed that even though I was not volunteering at the research center, I'd still visit the place and get to know the researchers. But as it turned out, there was a problem with the research center: it didn't exist.

For weeks, I asked the Waorani and passing tour guides where it was. Nobody had heard of it. It seemed to be a fiction, something that only existed on a web page. It wasn't even a scam; Rafael never asked me for money. And yet, it successfully brought me to a hunter-gatherer community in the jungle. It made no sense — not as a research center, not as a business strategy, not even as a series of causes and effects — but there I was.

So I was alone. There were no researchers, no other volunteers. It was just the Waorani and me, a city girl who was suddenly eating wild capybara, walking barefoot through the jungle, cutting up wild plants for medicine, cooking instant coffee in a pot over a fire and washing my clothes in the river. Coming straight from Brooklyn, this was a bit of a culture shock — especially the instant coffee. No one in Brooklyn drinks that stuff.

Not that modern hunter-gatherers are living in the past. The Waorani I met, for instance, bought rice at a shop only a couple hours' motorized canoe ride away. They also had solar panels, which they used to generate electricity for air conditioning and dishwashers.

I'm kidding, obviously. They didn't harness electricity for dishwashers; they used it for their flat-screen TV.

A foot in both worlds

Waorani community
This is the main hut of the Waorani community where I stayed. Traditional houses are made from materials found in the forest. Ilana Strauss

These folks lived in traditional shelters they made themselves from jungle plants, bathed in the river, spoke an indigenous language, collected fruit from tree tops, speared wild pigs, which they cooked over an open fire ... and hung a flat-screen TV inside one of their huts, which they used exclusively for watching movies and music videos every few days.

These music videos featured a band that seemed to be the Ecuadorian equivalent of the Spice Girls. The women danced and sang about love in what looked like various places around one of their apartments and a green screen. Singing about love sitting in a living room. Singing about love leaning on a telephone pole in the highway. Singing about love in front of a bunch of pixelated meditating people. The girls' AOL email addresses and multiple phone numbers appeared by them as they sang. It was bizarre.

What I'm saying is that the Waorani had a TV. Some even had smartphones. In fact, I'm friends with them on Facebook. What was it that Paul Simon sang? "These are the days of lasers in the jungle, lasers in the jungle somewhere." Try smartphones in the jungle. It’s like the Waorani bypassed the last few millennia and landed in 2017.

Well, almost all of them. One group of indigenous people peeled off from the Waorani in the mid 20th century. This group, los incontactables (the uncontacted) retreated deep into the jungle, where they have chosen the traditional ways and rejected modernity. They've been carrying on a blood feud with other tribes ever since. Every Waorani I talked to seem to know someone who'd been speared by an uncontactable — although the casualties seem to fall more heavily on the side of uncontactables.

"They attacked people in a canoe around here last year," an indigenous guy told me as we floated down the river in a canoe.


"Here," he pointed to a nearby sandy bank. "Don't worry though. They haven't attacked anyone in six months."

He also told me the uncontactables are the real reason the entire Ecuadorian Amazon hasn't been drilled for oil yet — they inhabit the only region of the jungle where it's illegal to drill, and that's no coincidence. The uncontactables seem to have found that violence is the only way to effectively get people to leave them alone.

"They're the guardians of the forest," he told me.

Daily living

indigenous Waorani tribemember with missing teeth
This member of the Waorani community has an infectious grin — and that's true of the group, which is full of laughter. Ilana Strauss

The indigenous people I actually met, not the ones I feared from afar, were by no means the same as the hunter-gatherers who traversed the planet 10,000 years ago. But they came pretty close, especially compared to the rest of humanity. Clocks and artificial lights didn't determine their daily rhythms; the sun did. They hunted and gathered food in the wilderness around them and had an encyclopedic knowledge about local plants and animals. One 26-year-old told me he'd tried working in a city for a while but liked the jungle better.

They also have a different acceptance of life and death. Tribal warfare, diseased cow blood ... the Amazon seemed like a place of violence. But of course, there’s no more death there than anywhere else. Everyone dies.

In the U.S., people can stuff death into corners —hospitals, industrial farms— and pretend it’s not there, then find themselves consumed by private confusion and horror when it invariably appears. But the Waorani can’t avoid it.

So they have a kind of comfort around it. I was surprised by how quickly and nonchalantly they told me about a young man in their family who’d eaten a poisonous plant and died a few months ago. They were sad, but they weren’t shocked. They knew that death and life are neighbors, not enemies.

They also didn't have jobs in the jungle — you know, those tasks the rest of us spend most of our waking hours doing. No one in the community had a 9-5, a commute, a shift, a boss or a customer. No shopping malls, no coffeeshops, no banks. The rainforest was their grocery store and pharmacy. Their lives didn't revolve around making and spending money.

People in the jungle, even ones from different communities, all seemed to be friends, or at least friendly. One day, a policeman came through while the Waorani were gutting a wild pig they'd caught earlier. Alma scooped up some of the pig's blood and chased the policeman around, splattering him until his uniform was covered in blood. They both giggled the whole time. I tried to take a photo, but the policeman stopped me, scared I'd post it on Reddit.

Of course, it wasn't all lying in hammocks and throwing pig blood at policemen. The hunter-gatherers also spent time, you know, hunting and gathering. They'd hunt wild pigs, gather bright orange fruit from treetops, fish for catfish and piranha, dig up yucca and pick plantains with their friends and family.

But most of the day, they played, chatted in the shade, swam, turned leaves into string, crocheted bracelets and baskets, cooked, ate, washed clothes and bathed in the river, sucked on sugar cane, sang "Head, shoulders, knees, and toes" with me, and nursed their pet baby monkey. (Someone told me they ate his mother, cut her stomach open, found him inside and had been caring for him ever since.)

They were an incredibly cheerful bunch, prone to laughing much more than I was used to in the U.S. I talked to one old man in Spanish for a week until I realized he didn't speak Spanish. He'd just been nodding and smiling at me as I had with Alma.

Age was different there. Alma, who carried by backpack through the jungle for me, was no exception; the older folks were just as physically capable as anyone else. I saw an elderly woman lead a hunt and a barefoot old man track a wild pig through the jungle. Young children ran around with the adults and used knives; I even saw a baby playing with a machete. Like the children, the dogs, cats and chickens were free to come and go, choosing when to be domesticated and when to be wild.

monkey raised by tribe
This monkey is being raised by the community, but he ended up there because the tribe killed his mother. Ilana Strauss

The best of both?

I spent two weeks with the Waorani. That's not much, and I'm probably simplifying some things that were much more complicated than I realize, especially since I didn't speak Wao and none of us spoke perfect Spanish. I didn't become an expert in a new culture, but I got a feel for daily life there.

About 10,000 years ago, every human was a hunter-gatherer. Modern hunter-gatherers are humanity's control group. They're not a perfect one — they're on Facebook, for heaven's sake — but they're the closest we've got. While living with them, I thought a lot about which bits of my own life are built into my DNA, and which are just stuff humans made up over the last 10,000 years. Which things are literally facts of life, and which can be changed? It's a question I wanted to answer for myself, and it's also one I thought about for families, schools, workplaces, towns, cities and countries.

It's up to us how we design society, from how much time people spend at work, to how police interact with communities, to whether the elderly are a benefit or a burden, to how important money is, to whether the rainforests and the people living in them will still be around in a few decades. Knowing the full spectrum of humanity — from the urban jungle to the Amazon jungle — gives us more choices.

Like the Waorani, we can mix and match the best bits.