For centuries, the Bora Amazonian indigenous tribe has guarded its culture from outsiders, namely the corporations that invaded the rainforest to benefit from its rich resources. While they were almost wiped out in the 20th century, there are now several thousand Bora Indians who continue to maintain their way of life. Today they have adapted to survive, and often entertain tourists with a version of their traditional dance routines in Iquitos, Peru.
A semi-nomadic tribe, the Bora originated from north of the Putumayo River in Columbia. The rubber boom at the beginning of the 20th century saw them enslaved by corporations that forced them to harvest the latex from the trees. Many died of disease and, by the end of Peru's border war with Columbia, the tribe was driven almost to extinction from an initial population of 15,000. By the 1940s, there were fewer than 500 left. Today there are approximately 3,000 Bora people in settled communities. The vast majority live around Iquitos, Peru. About one-third inhabit parts of Columbia, while there are also a few villages in Brazil.
While some have converted to Christianity, the Bora are predominantly animists who believe that there is no difference between the spiritual and physical world. They hold that the spirit world is stronger than humans, and that its power infuses everything around them. Spirits dwell in objects such as trees or even villages, and Bora shamans offer instructions on exactly how to treat plants and animals, as well as how to eat them. As a result, the Bora have a deeply ingrained respect for local flora and fauna, which is matched by an elaborate knowledge of the surrounding rainforest.
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Trees, in particular, hold a complex and important role in the Bora's lives, both spiritually and practically. They use strips of bark from fig trees, which they pound with a wooden hammer, softening the inner bark to make clothing. Natural dyes from ginger plants or huito trees are then used to decorate the paper-like cloth. Fiber obtained from palm trees is woven to make bags, rattles, masks and blowguns, and then colored with vegetable dyes to sell to tourists. The Bora also maintain their traditional medicines from forest plants, and the leaves of the coca play an important nutritional role in their diet.
The Bora are divided into different clans, each represented by an animal or plant, and paint their faces with unique markings to signify their allegiance. They practice exogamy, which means that marriage within a clan in banned, thus preventing inbreeding. Women from another clan will join the male home upon marriage. The Bora's closest ethnic relatives are the Huitoto or Witoto, long-term rivals with whom they now have a strong allegiance and frequently intermarry.
The community is no longer deteriorating, a trend ecologist Dan James Pantone attributes to the fact that the Bora have been at pains to maintain their culture and Huitoto language by ensuring it is passed down to their children. Bora ceremonies feature all-night dancing, using six-foot batons decorated with shells, which they pound in unison on the ground as they dance. The Manguare drums, which are shaped differently for men and women, also provide a constant beat. Both men and women wear skirts and animal-tooth necklaces with plumed headdresses made from macaw feathers.