The mission taking Amazon tribe to London: Helen Nowicka reports on the plight of six Ecuadorian Indians in the capital seeking rescue funds

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Antonio Chiriap comes from a long line of head shrinkers: his people, the Shuar Indians of Equador's Amazon jungle, are proud of their skill at decapitating enemies and reducing their heads to the size of an orange by boiling the skin, then filling it with hot sand.

Five-feet tall and stocky, with a slight paunch, Antonio's benign appearance contradicts the tribe's bellicose reputation.

However, he is out of his home environment: encountered suddenly in the rainforest wearing his headdress of flame-red and yellow toucan feathers, he would look terrifying. In London, where most headhunters wear suits, he barely gets a second look.

The Shuar are one of the seven main indiginous tribes found in Equador's rainforests. There are around 20,000 Shuars, or Jivaros who are regarded by Equadorians as producing fierce and proud warriors.

Antonio Chiriap and his people live an arduous six-hour walk through difficult terrain from the nearest vehicle track. Until the Fifties, with the arrival of the mineral prospectors, their way of life had altered little in hundreds of years.

The tribe once lived in efficient huts made of tree and plant fibre, taken from the jungle. With widespread felling, the plants that had provided their building materials have disappeared. The structures that they now live in are made from thin metal sheeting, which retains heat and makes the dwelling unbearably hot during the day.

The traditional Shuar garments made of toucan feathers, fur, wooden beads, and loin coverings similar to grass skirts, are saved for ceremonial occasions, having been replaced for everyday by T-shirts, trainers and jeans.

However much of the Shuar lifestyle continues unchanged. After sunrise, men and women eat and drink. Chicha, a fermented beer often made from yucca plants, is the drink of choice, and meal are made of bananas, chicken, types of sweet potato, and meat, when available (small hamster-like animals are a popular delicacy). Chili is enjoyed extra hot.

Occasionally the craftsmen leave the village for the town of Puyo, several hours away by road, where they operate a workshop for the making and selling of traditional handicrafts.

In the village, the men cultivate food crops, leaving until the afternoon fishing or hunting. Women carry younger children on their backs while tending gardens and preparing food.

At night, Shuar bathe in a river before gathering later for singing and music, involving a two-string violin strung with monkey gut, and drums.

The Shuar are proud of their longevity, often living into their nineties. The elders of the tribe tell stories to their many grandchildren, for Shuar are polygamous, and whisper advice into the children's ears while they are sleeping.

The Shuar believe they come from the earth and worship Arutam, who cannot be seen or touched and is not pictured in any image, but is believed to act as a 'light that protects.

Rituals in praise of the deity are performed before waterfalls, and believers can receive visions and power.

(Map omitted)

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