Indigenous hammocking communities in South America

The first reported sighting of a hammock came from Europeans exploring the Caribbean and South America. According to historical documents, Christopher Columbus came across people sleeping in nets hung from the rafters of their houses. So it’s no surprise that the indigenous people living there consider the hammock integral to their culture — they have had centuries to get comfortable with it.

While each indigenous group has developed their own language, culture and religious beliefs, the thing that unites them is how they integrate hammocks into their everyday life.

The Taino

When Christopher Columbus arrived in the southern Carribean, the first people he encountered were the Taino, decendants of Arawak tribes that had migrated from the jungles of South America. While exploring the islands, Columbus discovered something intriguing: a bed hung between two points. The Taino called it a hammock, the local word for fish net. Little did they know that their simple innovation would change the world.

The Taino had an advanced culture, agricultural expertise and a well-organized social structure. They were also serious seafarers, travelling in boats that often carried 100 people. Curious about outsiders, the Taino were happy to trade with European explorers, who conscripted them to work in mines and on plantations. Inevitably, the Taino became sick from European illnesses, and by the late 1500’s, there were few Taino remaining — scholars believe smallpox and other diseases killed more than 75% of the population.

While today the Taino are considered ‘extinct’ by anthropologists, their legacy remains. Today’s indigenous tribes in the Carribean still use many of the boat-building, hunting and farming techniques inherited from their Taino ancestors…as well as the hammock.

The Warao

The Warao people are an indigenous group of around 20,000 people settled along the wetlands and swampy shores of the Orinoco River in Venezuela. The Warao are closely connected to the river, which provides the necessities of life. Not surprisingly, boats are central to Warao culture – it is said that children learn to paddle and swim before they learn to walk. Their main diet is river fish, but at certain times of the year the river swarms with small crabs, a local delicacy.

Living alongside (and on top of) the river, the Warao’s housing is well-adapted to their environment. Families live in huts constructed on stilts, with open sides allowing for air circulation. A clay cooking oven is positioned in the centre, with several hammocks hung around it, used by the entire family for sitting, visiting, relaxing and sleeping.

The Zo’e

One of South America’s smallest indigenous tribes, the Zo’e remained hidden away in a remote region of northern Brazil until the late 20th century, when mining surveyors spotted their dwellings from an airplane. Hearing about these ‘uncontacted’ tribes, Brazilian missionaries sought out the Zo’e, reaching their settlements in 1987. Unfortunately, the Zo’e soon contracted diseases, and many became sick and died. Once the Brazilian government realized the problem, they ejected the missionaries and blocked any further incursions into Zo’e territory. To limit contact with outsiders, a small health clinic has been established so that the Zo’e can get medicine without leaving their territory.

Though the Zo’e remained hidden away for centuries, once seen they are easy to identify: they all wear a long wooden rod through their lower lip. The families live in open-sided rectangular houses, and under the roof they hang hammocks and build fires for cooking.

The Yanomami

The Yanomami are one of South America’s most high-profile indigenous tribes. Their territory straddles the border area of Venezuela and Brazil, where the mountains meet the Amazon.

Rather than residing in clusters of small huts, the extended family and relatives work together to construct a covered area in the shape of an oval, called a shabono, with an open space in the middle. They hang their hammocks near the communal fires that burn all night.

Often photographed wearing body paint, sometimes with thin sticks inserted in their nose and cheeks, the Yanomami have become emblematic of the struggles faced by indigenous people as the modern world encroaches deeper into the remote areas of the planet.

After suffering decades of illegal mining, which brought violence, poisoned rivers and disease, the Yanomami fought back. Working in partnership with conservation organizations, they pressured the governments to protect them, and in the early 1990s they were victorious, as the governments of Brazil and Venezuela created the Yanomami Indigenous Area.

There are many ways to sit in a hammock. How many of them do you know?