Shipibo Indians Shipibo Indians - Masters of Ayahuasca




Shipibo Girls

 By Dan James Pantone, Ph.D.



n Iquitos, Peru it is quite common to see Shipibo women selling their handicrafts on the Boulevard and surrounding areas.  Unfortunately, the majority of visitors do not appreciate just how interesting the Shipibo tribe is nor do they realize how special their handicrafts are.  Consequently, I have written this article to shed light on one of the most fascinating tribes in the Iquitos area who unfortunately are commonly ignored by the majority of tourists visiting Iquitos. 


Shipibo WomanThe Shipibo community consists of about 35,000 people living in over three hundred villages concentrated in the Pucallpa region and is situated to the north and south of the city of Pucallpa.  Shipibo communities are mostly situated along the Río Ucayali and nearby oxbow lakes.  The Río Ucayali connects with the Río Marañon to form the Río Amazonas (Amazon River), the longest and largest river in the world.  The Río Amazonas flows northward past Iquitos on its long journey to the Atlantic Ocean.  Similar to the Matis, Mayoruna, Korubo, and Marubo Indians, the Shipibo Indians speak a native language of the Panoan family.  Presently, most Shibibos speak Spanish as well and their native language.  The Shipibo people are primarily artisans, hunters, and fishermen and some practice slash-and-burn agriculture.  Primary tools are machetes and spears.  Virtually none of the Shipibo villages have electricity.


Despite over 300 years of contact with Europeans and Peruvians and the conversion of many Shipibos to Christianity by missionaries in the 1950's and 60's, the Shipibo tribe maintains a strong tribal identity and retains many of their prehistoric shamanic traditions and beliefs.  Chief among their traditions is the Ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi) ceremony.  Perhaps surprisingly to those who have only experienced Shipibos involved in touristic enterprises, the Shipibos were not always as peaceful as they are presently, nor was their use of Ayahuasca solely employed for peaceful purposes.  Prior to the 1960's, the Shipibos were actively involved in warfare with outsiders and sometimes with other Shipibos.  According to  Michael J. Harner in his essay "Common Themes in South American Indian Yagé Experiences," anthropologists have studied the Shipibo Indians of the Ucayali region of eastern Peru and have reported that a common function of Ayahuasca-taking by shamans is to reap revenge on their enemies.  He reports that Shipibo shamans believe that taking Ayahuasca permits the shaman's soul to leave his body in the form of a bird which then can fly to a distant enemy at night.  This bird then changes back into the shaman's human form so he can destroy the sleeping enemy.  Shipibo WomanUnder the influence of the Banisteriopsis drink mixture, the Shipibo Indians often report seeing giant anacondas, poisonous snakes, and jaguars.  Less frequently, other animals are observed in their visions.  In addition, Harner reports that often a shaman, taking the drink, believes he acquires giant snakes which are to be his special demons to be used in protecting himself against other shamans in supernatural battles. According to Harner, the Shipibo shamans, under the influence of the drug, believe they imprison other persons' souls with supernatural boats whose demon crews are led by a yellow jaguar and a black puma. 


Ayahuasca is commonly depicted by Shipibo artisans, who are well-known for their intricate designs, on their pottery and colorful fabrics depicting their Ayahuasca-based cosmology.  The geometric designs used by Shipibo artisans are quite unique.  As might be expected, their pottery was initially very simple and used as containers to preserve food.  With time, pottery and designs have become more and more complex.  The sophisticated designs and geometric patterns of the ceramics are passed from one generation of artists to another.  The pieces are extremely soft and light weight and their technique is all done manually without the use of pottery wheels.


Shipibo Women - TapestryThe art form of the Shipibos is little understood by the outside world.  To the artists, it is not something that they are taught, rather they are inspired to create their distinctive patterns.  The women, rather than the men in the village, are the artists.  Commonly the women will work together to produce a single piece.  Each of the women seems to be moved by the same artistic spirit and one woman can interrupt her work and then assign another woman in the village to complete a particular piece.  When the artwork is finished, the resulting piece will look like it was made by a single artist.  This really is communal art at its finest.


There are many theories about the meaning of the unique intricate Shipibo geometric patterns.  Some anthropologists consider it an ancient language form; others hypothesize that the patterns represent a mapping of the rivers of the Amazon.  Some even believe the patterns represent the shapes of the Anaconda.  While anthropologists may not be able to agree on the meaning, art lovers can appreciate the beautiful designs, the soft curves and the pristine yet original look of the Shipibo designs. 


Shipibo PotteryShipibo women in Iquitos commonly sell their fine embroidery work and other crafts on the Boulevard and Plaza de Armas in Iquitos, and the Mercado Artesanal in San Juan near the airport.  Unfortunately, the proximity of most Shipibo communities to the burgeoning cities of Pucallpa and Iquitos makes it inevitable that their culture will soon be altered by mainstream trade, exploitation and encroachment of western values.


If you would like to learn how you can meet the Shipibos and find out how you can help them preserve their culture, please contact me at   Additionally, if you would like to purchase an authentic hand-painted Shipibo tapestry, embroidery, or ceramics, please e-mail me at


The author, Dr. Dan James Pantone, is the editor of Amazon-Indians and an ecologist currently working with the Movement in the Amazon for Tribal Subsistence and Economic Sustainability (MATSES), a non-profit assocation that is helping indigenous people so that they themselves can preserve their culture and lands in a sustainable and independent manner.  


Matis Indians
Return to Main Page | Previous Page | Next Page

© Copyright 2004-2014 Dan James Pantone, all rights reserved, Shipibo Indians