The homegardens of the Piaroa serve many purposes in addition to food production. They provide building materials, supplies for hunting magic, medicinal plants, and the setting for social activities. The gardens display the creativity of their owners, and they serve as sources of pride and self-esteem. The Piaroa use them for the first stages of their agricultural experiments and, perhaps most significantly, they use them as places to live.
In the current issue of the Journal of Ethnobiology, Serena Heckler describes how the composition of Piaroa homegardens supports and complements the lives and activities of their owners. The gardens are the most important locations for their socializing, where all family members and their visitors gather. Children may play in the gardens, women talk, men discuss business; visitors may congregate there and be served beverages and foods. Men and women both cultivate their plants in the homegardens, though the former are more likely to focus on cash crops and the latter on herbals. The gardening spaces of the men and women will overlap freely.
Heckler is careful to distinguish the homegardens from the swidden fields, where women cultivate the manioc crops that she analyzed in another article that complements this one, reviewed here on January 9th. While the Piaroa have to shift the manioc fields every few years, the homegardens remain next to their houses where they can intensively manage them, even if they live in the same homes for decades. In that earlier article, she reported that the women were the primary cultivators of the manioc fields, and gained a lot of self-esteem from their work. In this article she analyzes the numerous levels of meaning that the homegardens have for Piaroa men and women.
The author studied the homegardens of three different Piaroa communities in Venezuela’s Amazonas State for a year in 1998-1999 in order to analyze the functions of the gardens and the ways they influence the lives of their owners. She drew maps of the gardens in an isolated village where the Piaroa live close to the forest, in a village much closer to the market town of the area, and in a Piaroa barrio in the market town itself, San Juan de Manapiare. She drew the maps with the aid of the garden owners, who identified the plants and their uses. Her subsequent analysis of the maps then allowed her to figure out the relationships of the gardens to the lifestyles of the people.
She reports a number of interesting findings from her research. She found, for instance, that closeness to the market town does not necessarily diminish the diversity of plants in the gardens. Market gardening, in fact, may foster experimentation and innovation. However, the homegarden of the most remote village does have the most species of plants. She also reported that an increasing problem for the Piaroa in the market town is that their more valuable fruits such as papaya are being stolen. But these tidbits aside, her most significant conclusion is that the homegardens form the basis of much Piaroa socializing, and they need to be understood as essential elements in their communities.
Heckler, S. L. 2004. “Cultivating Sociality: Aesthetic Factors in the Composition and Function of Piaroa Homegardens.” Journal of Ethnobiology 24(2): 203-232.