Foto: Arno Vogel, 1978


  • Autodenominação
  • Where they are How many

    AC1.645 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
    Peru97.477 (INEI, 2007)
  • Linguistic family

History in Peru


The history of contact between the Ashaninka and the world of non-indians varies greatly according to region. In Peru some local groups have been in contact since the end of the 16th century as a result of missionary activities during the colonial period, whereas others only came into contact with national society at the end of the 19th century during the caucho and rubber period.

We can separate the history of contact between Ashaninka and brancos into two major periods: the colonial era, characterized mainly by missionary incursion into the Selva Central, and the period of post-independent Peru characterized by the expansion of latex collection, which shaped the different regions of the Amazon, and by the activities of new sectors of non-indian society vis-à-vis indigenous populations. Whilst contact with brancos profoundly altered the lives of the Ashaninka, the history of this people did not begin with the arrival of Europeans.

Trade and war in the Selva Central

The Ashaninka have been present in the Peruvian Selva Central for at least five thousand years. The territory of the sub-Andean Aruak was on the borders of the central part of the Inca empire, whilst in the Amazon region the boundaries between the Aruak and Pano groups were less well defined (both were called Anti by the Inca). In a number of studies the French anthropologist Renard-Cazevitz (1985; 1991; 1992) shows how these three groups established neighbourly relations which, according to circumstances, took on a peaceful or warlike character.

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish there had existed, albeit on a small scale, continuous peacetime trade relations between the lowland peoples and the Inca. The Ashaninka actively participated in this trade. During the summer period delegations of Amazon indians would climb up to the nearest Inca cities with forest products: animals, skins, feathers, wood, cotton, medicinal plants, honey…In exchange for these goods, the Anti returned to their territories with cloth, wool and above all metal objects (silver and gold jewellery, machetes…). Many of these objects would be distributed through kinship networks and inter-Amazon trade. In addition to their economic value, acquiring rare and therefore precious goods was also a means to ensure peace, by establishing political alliances and even kinship links amongst the traders.

Despite such interchanges, periods of peace were interspersed with wars and the empire always sought to conquer the forests and their inhabitants. Despite its superior military apparatus and its continued efforts, the expansionist trends of the Inca empire towards the east were useless and disastrous. Whenever the Inca threat intensified, the ‘peoples of the forest’, warriors experienced in their environment (with steep valleys, forests and rivers difficult to access), mobilized their widespread internal trade networks within the lowlands.

The basis of these inter-Amazon trading and warring networks, which predated the Inca empire, operated until the late 19th century when they progressively collapsed with the intensive penetration of non-indians into the Amazon region during the rubber boom. The Ashaninka, and the sub-Andean Aruak generally, occupied a prominent position in this trade and war system. Their privileged status derived not just from their strategic location between the highlands and the Pano-speaking groups (which enabled them to mobilize the ‘peoples of the forest’ whenever the threats from the Inca or the branco intensified), but also from their control of production of the main product of Amazon trade: salt, called tsiwi among the Ashaninka of the Amônia.

For the ‘peoples of the forest’ salt was a highly sought-after product both for the flavour it gave to food and for its ability to conserve food in the hot and humid climate of the lowlands. Located near the Perene river in Ashaninka territory, the mines in the hills of the Cerro de la Sal constituted both the main source of supply for Amazon peoples and the political, economic and spiritual centre of the sub-Andean Aruak. Although their traditional settlement pattern is one of dispersion, in the proximities of the Cerro de la Sal there arose a greater concentration of different groups: Amuesha, Matsiguenga, Nomatsiguenga and, above all, Ashaninka.

Under this scenario for centuries the Anti blocked any mass penetration by non-Amazonians into their lands, maintaining the frontier between the highlands and lowlands relatively stable.

Colonization and indigenous uprisings

Unlike other indigenous societies in the Amazon region, the Ashaninka have a long history of contact with the world of the brancos, dating from the end of the 16th century. Following their occupation of the coast and the highlands, the Spanish conquered the Inca empire and began their penetration towards the Amazon. The Jesuits Font and Mastrillo were the first to make contact with the Ashaninka in 1595. Exploring the Selva Central from the highland town of Andamarca, the two letters sent by these Jesuits to their superiors constitute the first documented source on the Pilcozone indian group, now identified as being the Ashaninka.

Forty years after the first contact made by the Jesuits, the Franciscans began their evangelizing mission to the indigenous populations of the Selva Central, starting further north near the Cerro de la Sal region. In 1635 Jerónimo Jimenez announced the arrival of the Franciscans by entering Ashaninka territory and founding the mission of Quimiri (the present city of La Merced). In 1637 he organized the first exploratory voyage on the Perene, but met his death in an Ashaninka ambush. In 1648 lured by the myth of Paititi which describes it as a place rich in gold, an expedition of missionaries and adventurers tried to reach Cerro de la Sal, but was similarly decimated in an Ashaninka attack.

Despite succesive defeats, Spanish entradas continued. The breakdown of the native systems of exchange resulting from the establishment of missions in strategic locations can be seen for the first time with the evangelizing enterprise of Biedma, a Franciscan identified as the first explorer of the Peruvian montaña region.

After obtaining authorization in 1671 to undertake new entradas in the Cerro de la Sal region, Biedma organized a first expedition in 1673, reopening the Quimiri mission and establishing that of Santa Cruz de Sonomoro, thereby controlling the main access routes to the highlands. In 1674 Biedma founded the Pichana mission with the intention of controlling native traffic between the Ene and Tambo rivers in the direction of the Cerro de la Sal. Left under the control of Padre Izquierdo, the Ashaninka population of Pichana, lead by the cacique Mangoré and supported by the chiefs of Cerro de la Sal, rose up against the Franciscan administration, which was attempting to prohibit polygamy, and killed the missionaries.

An adept of the use of force to conquer the indians, Biedma died in1687 during another expedition to found a mission on the Tambo. The tragic death of Biedma, probably the victim of the revenge of the Piro who the previous year had been attacked by the Conibo who were accompanying the missionary, practically sealed off the Tambo to non-indian access until the beginning of the 20th century.

A hundred years after the first contacts between the Ashaninka and non-indians, the results of Spanish penetration were practically zero. Efforts by the colonizers continued into the 18th century with the intensification of the pressures on the Cerro de la Sal. In some missions the priests installed forges and presented themselves as the only suppliers of metal tools, as a way of attracting and controlling the native population. Ignored during Biedma’s time, the Franciscan request to the Crown to build forts in the region came to fruition in 1737 with the construction of the first fort at the Santa Cruz de Sonomoro mission.

The major missions were able to group hundreds of indians, but the proportion of mission indians was minimal. Many indians fled abandoning the missions, others preferred to remain isolated from the brancos, while the majority established sporadic contact with the missionaries, generally through a chief, in order to obtain metal tools and other goods. Despite this overall situation, the continuing support of the Franciscans by the Crown, in terms of both armed men and money, increased the level of Spanish pressure on the Selva Central and the growth of the missions caused significant impact on the way of life of the indigenous population, creating the bases for indigenous uprisings. From the indigenous viewpoint, life in the missions was also associated with death and the terrors of disease.

The settlement pattern imposed by the missions implied above all a process of compulsory settlement and the forced co-habitation in multi-ethnic villages of a heterogeneous population characterized by bonds of affinity, but also by internal rivalries and conflicts. This loss of freedom, the essence of Ashaninka life, was felt more sharply with the prohibition of polygamy. As Bodley (1970: 4-5) explains, during the first centuries of the Spanish conquest the role of chiefs determined the success or failure of the missions. Thus while the distribution of goods to the chief ensured a certain level of control over the population, the behaviour of the chiefs constituted a challenge to the Christian ideal. A source of prestige among the chiefs, polygamy was regarded by the Franciscan priests as scandalous social behaviour that represented chaotic and primitive promiscuity.

It is in this context that the indigenous insurrection led by Juan Santos Atahualpa occupies a important place in Peruvian history and merits special attention. Through this movement the indians of the Selva Central, and above all the Ashaninka, regained their political autonomy and the whole of their traditional territory that had been progressively lost to the brancos. Described as an Andean mestiço or a Quechan indian, Atahualpa had received a religious education in Cuzco and had travelled to Europe and Africa (Angola and Congo) with a Jesuit priest. He arrived in Quisopango in the heart of the Gran Pajonal in March 1742 accompanied by a Piro chief. Proclaiming himself the Inca or ‘son of God’, the legitimate heir of the empire conquered by the Spanish, Atahualpa announced his intention to recover his lost kingdom and expel the intruders with the help of his indigenous brothers, united in the struggle against the branco.

With the news of the arrival of the liberating messiah, indigenous messengers were despatched from the Gran Pajonal and spread through the Selva Central and neighbouring highlands. The indians responded to the call and the Franciscan missions were rapidly abandoned. Ashaninka, Amuesha, Piro, Conibo and other groups converged on the Gran Pajonal encouraged in the hope of seeing the son of God. Highland indians joined the movement and a pan-indian uprising had begun in the Selva Central. Juan Santos Atahualpa invited all the Spanish and Africans to leave for the highlands. The ultimatum was turned down and armed conflict became inevitable.

Between 1742 and 1752 confrontations between indians and Spanish troops multiplied, providing the rebels with a series of victories that ensured the political autonomy of the indians of the Peruvian Selva Central and the inviolability of their traditional territories for more than a century. The revolutionary ideals of Atahualpa were not confined to the lowlands; on the contrary he intended to unite all the indians against the non-indians.

During the decades that followed the uprising of Atahualpa and the Anti, the Peruvian Selva Central remained under the control of indians. The Spanish confined themselves to controlling the access routes to the highlands and to protecting their positions in the highlands. On the lower Ucayali the missionaries established trade relations with the riverbank Pano groups, but the territory of the Ashaninka remained inaccessible to brancos. At the independence of Peru in 1822 the Amazon region remained largely unknown, a mysterious and threatening region whose integration was necessary for the consolidation of the new nation state.

The Ashaninka and the rubber economy

The re-conquest of the Peruvian Selva Central progressively took shape, moving from the Chanchamayo region in the direction of the Cerro de la Sal and the Perene. Although a continuation of the moves started by the Spanish in previous centuries, the new Peruvian colonization movement took a somewhat different form. It was mainly guided by economic and political interests and only secondarily by religious or civilizing concerns.

The first move in the re-conquest was a Peruvian military expedition organized in 1847 against the Cerro de la Sal. Despite indigenous resistance, the military accompanied by Andean colonists founded the fort of San Ramón, established new settlements and steadily gained control of Ashaninka foundries.

Colonization of the Chanchamayo valley, the Perene and the Cerro de la Sal was encouraged by the government through policies to facilitate migration of Andean origin and through incentives to foreign immigration.

In 1891 the government granted a concession of 500,000 hectares of land along the Perene river to the Peruvian Corporation. This British company was charged with developing the region, mainly through coffee plantations into which hundreds of Ashaninka were steadily incorporated as labourers.

Displaced towards the Gran Pajonal and the lowlands, or gathered into agricultural colonies, little by little the Ashaninka gave way to the growing presence of whites. By the end of the 19th century Peruvians controlled the Cerro de la Sal and started industrial salt production. With the loss of salt signifying economic dependence, a dramatic story hit the lowlands of the Peruvian Amazon and profoundly altered the way of life of its indigenous populations: the caucho boom.

The search for rubber, a native Amazon species, profoundly changed the history of the region and had dramatic consequences for its indigenous populations. As was the case in Acre, the Peruvian lowlands provided the stage for the decimation of several indigenous peoples. The exploitation of rubber began in the 1870s and affected the Ashaninka in the upper Ucayali region. It is important to note that the principal form of rubber production in this area was caucho (Castilloa elastica) and not seringa (Hevea brasiliensis). Inferior in quality to seringa, caucho is characterized by the itinerant nature of its production, requiring a permanently mobile labour force to go in search of new trees.

Unlike the seringueiro (rubber tapper) settled in the seringal (rubber estate) and walking his trails daily to collect the latex of the hevea, collecting caucho requires felling the tree and implies the permanent territorial expansion of the labour force as the production capacity of each area is successively exhausted. While the methods of extraction are different and the environmental impact is most destructive in the case of caucho, the rubber economy, both seringueira and caucheira, is based on the same economic system: known as aviamento in Brazil or habilitación in Peru.

In both habilitación and aviamento, the entire rubber economy is built around a hierarchical chain of debt that connects the different intermediaries. At its base, in other words in the relationship between the patrão (employer) and the producer, money does not circulate and serves only as an abstract reference for establishing levels of debt, a debt that is permanently rolled over by the acquisition and supply of fresh merchandise in exchange for the rubber produced. The fictitious prices are arbitrarily selected by the patrão with the purpose of keeping his workers under his control through control of a debt that can never be paid off. A modern system of slavery, aviamento binds the seringueiro to the seringal and to the patrão seringalista. In a similar way, by means of never-ending debt habilitación creates a dependency relation between the patrão caucheiro and his workers. Although important, the difference between the extraction of caucho and that of seringa resides basically in the mobility that the caucho system requires. However the economic structure that underpins and guides production of the rubber is generally speaking identical.

The exploitation of caucho in the Peruvian Amazon is associated with the bloodthirsty figures of the major patrões, such as Carlos Scharf or Julio Cesar Araña. The latter ruled an ‘empire’ in the region of Iquitos; however history has elected Carlos Fitzcarraldo as the ‘king of caucho’. Fitzcarraldo retreated to the indians of the Gran Pajonal after being accused of spying for Chile and condemned to death by the Peruvian authorities. Identified by the Ashaninka as the returned ‘messiah’, and more precisely as the personification of an amachénka spirit sent by Pawa (the Ashaninka god), Fitzcarraldo managed to bring under his control several Ashaninka groups, whom he presented with weapons. The Campa were joined by the Piro and some mestiços, constituting a veritable militia that enabled Fitzcarraldo to control caucho production over a vast area. The death of Fitzcarraldo in a shipwreck on the upper Urubamba in 1897 brought to a close the adventures of the person responsible for the bloody raids that marked the history of the region. Caucho extraction led to the decimation of many native populations. As well as exploiting the traditional rivalries between groups, Fitzcarraldo encouraged intra-ethnic attacks among the Ashaninka, breaking the prohibition on internal warfare within the group.

After 1912 the caucho economy suffered a steady decline with the crisis provoked by falling prices on the international market. The raiding expeditions institutionalized by the patrões caucheiros tailed off during the early decades of the 20th century until they finally disappeared. With the advance of Peruvian settlement into the Amazon region, many Ashaninka ended up working in the different economic activities carried out by brancos: ranching, agriculture, coffee, hunting, logging, caucho.

Faced with the violence of the caucho economy, many Ashaninka also took up arms whilst others migrated to the regions of the Brazilian and Bolivian frontiers where protestant and evangelical missions offered some form of protection.

'Gringos' and 'communists'

For many Ashaninka the North American missions that sprung up in the Amazon during the 20th century constituted a form of protection against the patrões caucheiros and slave labour. In 1921 Stahl, a Seventh Day Adventist missionary, established a mission on the upper Perene and announced the Apocalypse and the arrival on Christ on Earth. His messianic movement steadily attracted around two thousand indians from the Perene, Tambo, Pango and Gran Pajonal regions (Bodley 1970: 114).

As the announced event did not take place, little by little the greater part of the Ashaninka abandoned the missionary. Over the following decades the number of missions expanded. Through the Summer Institute of Linguistics, the South American Indians Missions, and above all the Seventh-Day Adventists, the North American missionary presence grew among the Ashaninka, reaching record numbers.

The indigenous messianic tradition was also awakened by the involvement of Ashaninka groups in the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR). The arrival of the MIR in 1965 split communities, but some Ashaninka ended up joining the revolutionary forces. The armed struggle was short and severely repressed by the military using extreme violence: villages bombed with napalm, torture, and executions. Following the guidance of a shaman, the Ashaninka saw in Lobatón, the leader of the movement in the region, the return of Itomi Pawa, the son of God, and the hope of a better future (Brown & Fernandez 1991).

In the 1980s revolutionary guerrilla movements, dissidents of the Peruvian left, entered Ashaninka territory once again. Sendero Luminoso (SL), founded in 1969 by Guzman, began its Maoist propaganda in the Selva Central, in competition with the Movimento Revolucionário Tupac Amaru (MRTA), the remnant of the MIR. Fighting amongst themselves for control of the rural population and the cocaine trade which financed their actions, the two movements established armed revolutionary bases against the Peruvian government, which progressively organized the counter insurrection.

The state of war which characterized the Peruvian Amazon at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s brought disastrous consequences for the Ashaninka: assassination of leaders, torture, forced indoctrination of children, military training, executions… In 1990 Sendero Luminoso achieved total control over the Ene and the upper Tambo regions and by the following year around ten thousand Ashaninka were living under the control of the guerrilla (Espinosa 1993b: 80-82).

Faced with this state of violence the reactions of the Ashaninka were energetic and various. Some collaborated, others withdrew from the areas of conflict, and many fought with their own weapons, organizing a counter offensive against the ‘communists’ of the MRTA and the SL. Using new methods of political organization in the form of modern indigenous associations, the Ashaninka re-invented old models of warrior confederations, used with success to counter Inca and Spanish expansionism. Facing threats, the political alliance of the sub-Andean Aruak got organized and went to war once again against a common enemy.