Except for sorcery attacks against unknown outsiders who are presumed to be responsible for diseases and deaths, Piaroa territory is almost completely free of physical violence. Joanna Overing, in a 1989 article added this week to the Archive of this website, describes essential elements of Piaroa beliefs: how they define maturity in terms of routinely acting in a tranquil, cooperative fashion, and how they view the good life in terms of tranquility and harmony.
The Piaroa have a strongly egalitarian culture that supports individual autonomy. All the members of a multi-family household share the produce of the forest, but the products from gardens are owned individually by the people who grow them. Individuals are free to choose how much they wish to be part of any collective activity—there is no coercion in their society, which has no authority over individuals. While the concept of a collective will is foreign to them, the Piaroa nonetheless highly value social skills and the ability to live together in a community. To them, the function of the community is to help people prevent relationships of domination from developing.
In order to pass their values on to succeeding generations, the Piaroa ruwangs, the religious and political leaders (the shamans), gather children together when they reach six or seven years of age for lessons in social morality. They teach them Piaroa opposition to negative social values such as vanity, jealousy, arrogance, dishonesty, cruelty, malice and ferocity, and they emphasize the importance of mastering their emotions. The children are free, however, to adopt Piaroa virtues as much as they desire, though they have no models of violence to emulate. Adults discourage their children’s temper tantrums, and they pointedly disapprove through silence childish displays of anger.
In this article, Overing contrasts the Piaroa to the Shavante, an American Indian society living in the Mato Grosso region of Central Brazil. The Shavante, who practice gender separation and discrimination, glorify male ferocity, bellicosity, power, and aggressiveness. By comparison, the Piaroa idealize peaceful gender relationships. Their symbol of gender harmony is a meal composed of meat and manioc bread, the product of a man’s hunting and a woman’s gardening. They believe both men and women should achieve tranquility and control—a mastery of emotions and of the harm that can come from human creative powers.