Thursday, October 7, 2010

Sunday Dinner with the Shuar

My friend Daniel asked me an interesting question: "Do the Shuar people of Amazonian Ecuador eat bugs for their version of Sunday Dinner?"

Since Daniel is "The Bug Man"-- creator of whatsthatbug.com and the new book (available this week!) "The Curious World of Bugs"-- I thought he might already know this answer.  But Daniel is known for the extensive research he does to answer his readers' questions, and I wasn't surprised when he consulted me for my "expert" opinion.

He asked me because he knew I'd spent time living in a Shuar village for a documentary.  But the question had many implications -- such as: do the Shuar even have a concept of anything like "Sunday dinner"?  And if so, would the Shuar include bugs in it?

The best approach really was the simplest.  So that's the answer I gave him:

No.

The Shuar never served me bugs at all, and I saw no evidence that there was any tradition of entomaphagy (bug-eating) among them.  But then, I was a stranger, so they may have decided NOT to serve us bugs even if they ate bugs themselves...

Shuar necklace from Ecuador with scarab elytra.
But they did have an amazing tradition of insect jewelry.  According to Daniel's research, the Shuar have a history of using the shell of the Giant Metallic Ceiba Borer Beetle to make decorative ornaments.  I did not see any beetles I identified as a Giant Metallic Ceiba Borer Beetle when I was in Ecuador, but I have in my possession a gorgeous necklace of beads, animal claws, and a dozen heads of what Daniel has identified as a kind of scarab beetle.  The insect heads (Daniel says they are really "elytra") are a metallic emerald color, and they glint and flash in sunlight.  They are fragile, so I keep the necklace in a box in my closet -- for preserving, not for wearing.  When Daniel asked this question I brought it out to show to my daughter, who said, "What IS that?", quickly followed by "Can I put it on?"  "Maybe when you're older,"I said, as I quickly collected the beetle heads that had already fallen off.  My husband's reaction was "The Shuar used to be headhunters, right?  Don't you think it's weird that this necklace is decorated with giant beetle heads?  Do you think there's a connection?"  I told him I didn't know.

So the Shuar didn't serve beetles or any other kind of bug at Sunday Dinner -- to me, anyway.  In fact, as far as I could tell they didn't HAVE Sunday Dinner.  There was a group of local missionaries who ran a church and a small school for the villagers, but it seemed that the Shuar people's  ancient connections to the jungle were much stronger than their ties to Christianity.

However, I DID see evidence of meals as a celebration.  I was served many delicious meals by our Shuar hosts and when we first arrived in the village, the Shuar welcomed us by serving us chicha, a fermented beverage made from yucca root.  Chicha is made by the women of the village who dig up the yucca root and chew it up into a fibrous paste.  They spit out the paste into a large bucket and wait for their saliva to start the fermentation process.

When we first arrived in the village, our group of about 10 people was ushered into a large communal hut and along with 20 or so Shuar villagers, we sat in a circle along the outer wall of the hut.  A cup of chicha was proudly passed around the circle in a large hollowed out gourd.  And politeness requires that it be drunk in the same way.  It is the privilege and duty of the last person to receive the cup to finish off all the chicha that is left in the cup, which in our case was quite a mouthful, thanks to a number of somewhat squeamish visitors.  But in spite of our trepidation about drinking a viscous mixture of yucca and human saliva, this ritual made us all feel welcome and honored to be there.  And after a few days in the jungle, chicha started tasting pretty good.

So, again, the answer to Daniel's question is simple:

No, the Shuar never served me bugs at Sunday Dinner.

But they celebrated friendship and family and tradition with delicious foods, prepared with love and pride -- and large cups of home brew -- and as far as I'm concerned, that's Sunday Dinner.