Outside the few main towns of the Peruvian jungle, there are few sizeable settlements, and the population remains dominated by about fifty indigenous tribes. For most, the jungle offers a semi-nomadic existence, and in terms of material possessions, they have, need and want very little. Communities are scattered, with groups of between ten and two hundred people, and their sites shift every few years. For subsistence they depend on small, cultivated plots, fish from the rivers and game from the forest, including wild pigs, deer, monkeys and a great range of edible birds. The main species of edible jungle fish are sabalo or doncella (oversized catfish), carachama (an armoured walking catfish), the feisty piranha (generally not quite as dangerous as Hollywood depicts) and the giant zungaro and paiche – the latter, at up to 200kg, being the world’s largest freshwater fish. In fact, food is so abundant that jungle-dwellers generally spend no more than three to four days a week engaged in subsistence activities, which, as some anthropologists like to point out, makes them “relatively affluent”.
After centuries of external influence (missionaries, gold-seekers, rubber barons, cash-crop colonists, cocaine smugglers, soldiers, oil companies, illegal loggers, documentary makers, anthropologists and now tourists), many jungle Indians speak Spanish and live fairly conventional, westernized lives, preferring shorts, football shirts and fizzy drinks to their more traditional clothing and manioc beer. While many are being sucked into the money-based labour market, however, others, increasingly under threat, have struggled for cultural integrity and territorial rights; some – voluntarily isolated or uncontacted – have retreated as far as they are able beyond the world’s enclosing frontier. Today they are struggling as their traditional and last remaining hunting grounds are infiltrated by oil companies and loggers.