Ancient Waorani Fishing Net

by Miguel de la Iglesia
© 2003



The summer of 2000 I spent three months living in the Ecuadorian rainforest (South America) with the Waorani. I spent most of the time learning some of the traditional ways they still preserve.

The author in the year 2000 and Waorani friends.

The Waorani people is believed to be one of the most ancient groups of the Ecuadorian Amazon forest. Experts describe their language as isolated, with no relationship to that of any of the other native groups in the area. That is why it is highly probable that these "island-cultures" continued occupying the same territory from time immemorial. They may be among the remaining groups who originally occupied this part of the Amazon forest. A piece of evidence supporting this belief is that there are no myths about migration in their oral tradition, while such myths (later verified with archaeological evidence) do exist in the groups which migrated into the region at a later time.

As in many other native groups, the name they use to refer to themselves, Waorani, is a plural, and it means "the people" in their language. Wao is the singular for it. The word Waorani refers specifically to the members of their ethnic group. They use a different word for non-Waorani people. It is cowori, and it means stranger in the broad sense. It is used to refer to both Europeans and neighboring indigenous peoples such as the Shuar, Achuar, Shiwiar, Kichwa, etc.



First of all they gather and prepare all the necessary materials. I list the exact materials used, but a great variety of other materials can be used if your aim is not to make an exact replica of a Waorani fishing net, but rather to learn the technique used to weave it.

The first thing they do is to prepare enough cordage to make the fishing net. The amount of cordage they need will depend on how large they want the net. There is no limit for this, they can make it as big as they want. There is no rule about when they have to finish weaving. Thanks to this, if they run out of cordage they can finish whenever that happens. They simply make the last knot, and the net will be complete. They also save a long enough piece of cord to do the final big laces which will tie the handle (and frame) to the net.

The cord is made with the fiber they take from the leaves of a palm they call Opogenkowe (Astrocaryum chambira). The part used is the "skin" of the young leaves. Each leaf of Opogenkowe palm (Astrocaryum chambira) yields two pieces of fiber.

What these women do is very interesting; they twine the fiber into cord while they are weaving. This way they do not have to make any knots on the net. Having knots on the net is not a big problem, but the fewer knots the better, as these are weak points in the net.

The method used by Waorani women to twist the fiber into cord is the "leg (thigh) rolling method", used world-wide by other natives, The technique is described by Norm Kidder in his article Making Cordage By Hand (Bulletin of Primitive Technology #12, Fall, 1996, Figures 6a-c).

The Needle
The needle used by these women is the simplest one I have ever seen. It is made from a little piece of stalk, bent in the middle. They usually use a piece of one of the edges of the Opogenkowe's leaves, which is sufficiently strong.

Figure 1: Traditional needle used to weave fishing nets.

The Guiding Band
The guiding band is simply a guide to ensure that the holes in the net are all of the same size. Waorani women often use the stalk of the leaves of a palm called Omakehue (Phytelephas sp.) cut into flat pieces of the same width, but if this palm is not available, they can use a similar species.

The Handle
The handle must be a strong, flexible and sufficiently long branch to surround the entire net, while going through the external big laces. The two ends of the branch will be tied together to act as a handle. They use a wide variety of species for this. In fact, any good piece of wood is a potential handle.


First of all, they must do a double lace as shown in Figure 2. To do it easily, they usually use one of their fingers to wrap the cord around. Once they have done this, they thread the needle at the "B" end of the cord. They simply bend the needle over this end, as showed in Figure 1. By doing it this way, they do not have to make any knot. A knot would make it difficult to pass the needle through excessively narrow holes.

Figure 2: The first double lace.

Next steps in the weaving of the net are shown in Figures 3a-d. Once they have this first part done, they continue by creating interlaced figures of eight (study the drawings and you will realize it is true). When they have 7 or 8 figures-of-eight done, they pull tightly from the "A" end to make a knot. They continue weaving, making sure that all the "eights" are of the same size. This gives them the size for the center of the net. They continue for as long as they want, depending on how large they want to make the fishing net.

Figure 3: How to weave the first part of the net (the central part).

When they have the central part of the net the length they want it, they use the guiding band to help them make the holes even. They add a guiding band to the side of the net they have just woven and start making loops around it as shown in Figure 4. At this moment, they change from figure-of-eight laces to another kind of lace (blanket stitch). From now on they just have to keep going around the net. They make extra laces each time they go around a corner. This is a very important detail done to make the net wider with each pass, and to ensure it will be flatter when finished. They go on adding pieces of guiding band until they finish this part.

Figure 4: How to change from the central part weaving to the guiding band weaving.


Upper left: First steps using a "guiding band" made by a Waorani woman.
Upper right: Twined fibers of Opogenkowe with a traditional "needle".
Bottom: Untwined fibers of Opogenkowe.

As they weave around the net, it does not look like a fishing net at all. Instead, it looks like a narrow, tall bag, but it is supposed to look that way. Once they have gone around the net as many times as they want, they simply tie the end of the cord to the side of the finished net. Finally, they flatten the "bag" to break the guiding bands so they can be easily removed. Now the bag transforms itself into a beautiful fishing net.


This is the easiest part. The net is now finished, but a handle is needed to use it. First, they take the long piece of cord they saved and tie it around the net while making big laces. A long enough piece of cord must remain at the end to tie it to the handle.

Big loops are tied all the way around the net to attach the handle.

They slide the long branch through these big laces until it surrounds the net. Finally they use the last part of the cord to attach together the two ends of the branch, and the fishing net is finished.

A Waorani woman with a finished fishing net.


The Waorani are not a traditional fishing people. They subsist mainly on wild game and food grown in chacras, small gardens of plants such as papa china (Colocasia esculenta), ice-cream-bean (Inga edulis), peach-palm (Bactris gasipaes), hungurahua (Oenocarpus bataua), cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), bananas (Musa sp.), sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) and most of all manioc (Manihot esculenta). The fact that they are not a fishing group is clearly seen in their very simple way of fishing. In fact, during the three months I spent with them, only three times did they use this technique, while they went hunting almost every day.

Waorani fishing makes use of the leaves or the roots of different species of plants. These plants are pounded in a small pond created by the temporary damming of a creek. The sap of these plants contains either saponins or rotenones (sometimes both). These compounds affect the capacity of fish to intake the oxygen of the water, making them to die or at least become faint. The fish then rise to the surface. Then, the fish are easily captured by the Waorani with their fishing nets. Once the Waorani have captured all the fish they want, they release the water from the dam, and the poison dissipates. The fish that were only fainted can then revive. The only problem with this form of fishing is that it kills a lot of other fauna too that is not used by the people.

Some of the plants used by the Waorani to poison the fish are: Clibadium asperum (leaves), Bauhinia rubiginosa (bark), Pyllanthus juglandifolius (bark), Pyllanthus pseudoconami (stems, leaves and roots), Minquartia guianensis (bark) and Lonchocarpus nicou (the whole plant).

To learn more about this fishing technique, you can read the article Fishing With Poisons (Bulletin of Primitive Technology #25, Spring, 2003) by Chuck Kritzon.


As I said before, the technique described in this article is not limited to the materials the Waorani use. You can try some other materials from around where you live and make a good and usable fishing net. Any kind of needle can be used for this job. You can use a little piece of willow stalk, for example, or a bone needle. Any hard but flexible material can be used for the guiding band. Birch bark, for instance, should work great. The cordage can be substituted for hemp (Cannabis sativa L. subsp. sativa var. sativa), dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum) or raffia (Raphia sp.), for example, and any kind of hard and flexible wood would make a good handle.

Traditionally, the Waorani fishing nets are striped red and white (natural color of the fiber), as can be seen in photos above. You can do the same by changing the colors of the cord while weaving so you will end up with a beautiful striped fishing net.

The same technique shown here is used by the Waorani people for many other weaving tasks. The same steps followed to make the first part of the net (the center) are also used to make many different kinds of necklaces. They also use the same type of weaving to make the bands for the quiver used to carry the poisoned darts used for hunting.


Cabo de Villa, Miguel Ángel., 1999 Los Huaorani en la historia de los pueblos del oriente. Ed. Cicame. Quito, Ecuador.

Cerón M., Carlos Eduardo and Montalvo Ayala, Consuelo., 1998 Etnobotánica de los Huaorani de Quehueiri-Ono, Napo-Ecuador. Ed. Abya-Yala. Quito, Ecuador.

Fuentes C., Bertha., 1997 Huaomoni, Huarani, Cowudi, Una aproximación a los Huaorani en la práctica política multi-étnica ecuatoriana. Ed. Abya-Yala. Quito, Ecuador.

Kidder, Norm., 1996 Making Cordage By Hand. Bulletin of Primitive Technology # 12.

Kritzon, Chuck., 2003 Fishing With Poisons. Bulletin of Primitive Technology #25.

Mondragón, Martha L. and Smith, Randall., 1997 Bete Quiwiguimamo. Salvando el bosque para vivir sano. Centro de Investigación de los Bosques Tropicales - C.I.B.T. Ed. Abya-Yala. Quito, Ecuador.



E-mail your comments to "Miguel de la Iglesia" at
A former version of this article was also published in The Bulleting of Primitive Technology (Fall 2003, #26).

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