The Shabono, the Structure of the Yanomami Community
The Yanomami are one of the most numerous indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest. Gathered in small communities, they live in a unique structure named Shabono, a large circular dwelling that perpetuate their communal way of life.
A threatened Amazonian people
The Yanomami (also spelled Yąnomamö or Yanomama) are a group of about 35,000 indigenous people who live in the Amazon rainforest between Brazil and Venezuela. Distributed in approximately 250 autonomous villages, each community is economically and politically autonomous. However, they maintain a vast social network throughout the whole Yanomami territory. It extends over nearly 20 million hectares, which makes it the largest indigenous forest territory in the world (9.6 million hectares in Brazil and 8.2 million in Venezuela).
The Amazonian forest where their territory resides is dense and humid. It is crossed by many rivers, including the great Orinoco River. However, the Yanomami are wary of water and prefer the cloudy heights and mountainous hills of the forest.
This territory has been under threat for almost a century. In the 1950s, the first sustained contacts with the outside world began, and the arrival of evangelical and Catholic missionaries disrupted the lifestyle of the indigenous people. But the door to their territory was brutally opened during the military dictatorship of Brazil, in the 70’s great roads were traced in the middle of their territory, destroying everything that was in their path. Then, during the gold rush of the 80’s, miners came following cattle ranchers and military. Nearly 40,000 Brazilians invaded their land. They defiled their natural environment, but above all they destroyed villages and imported diseases that decimated the Yanomami population. 20% of the Yanomami population was eradicated in only 7 years. Although the areas and people are now preserved under the Yanomami Park label, many violations, violence and degradation continue to occur and land exploitation is still a serious problem. However, there are still small communities that have not been exposed to this. The uncontacted Yanomami, Moxihatetea, nevertheless lives in an area near illegal mining corporations, potentially exposing them to the same perils as other communities.
The Shabono, home of the Yanomami
Yanomami communities live in large circular communal dwellings, the Shabono (also spelled xapono, shapono, or yano). They house the entire village maloca in one hut. They are built in the center of a clearing in the forest, from palm leaves, thatch and wood, the trees of the clearing being used to build a fence.
The circular (or sometimes rectangular) shape allows for an open and common space in its center, visible to all inhabitants and protected from the outside by the palisade structure. This common space is intended for games and parties and reinforces the community aspect of such a shared structure. In the peripheral part covered with palm leaves, each family has its own hearth and sleeps in hammocks placed by the fire. The shabono are designed for a village of about 50-100 people, although some structures can accommodate up to 400 people. For traditional shabono, the central space covers a diameter of about 80-90m and the peripheral covered area about 10m.
The shabono are temporary dwellings conditioned by their environment. Within an area of about 10 kilometers around their village, the Yanomami live by hunting, fishing or gathering. When the game in the territory starts to run out, the gardens are no longer fertile or the framework starts to rot (often about every 5 years), the Yanomami move. Otherwise, the Shabono is rebuilt, its diameter being adapted to the needs of the community.
An architecture to structure the community
The elemental structure of the shabono is perfectly optimized to the community life style of the village. The division between communal and individual space is clearly established. The circular or oval aspect allows for a community life symbolically placed in the center of the village. This reflects their societal system, equality between individuals is paramount. There are no leaders, decisions are made by consensus, by debating collectively.
Under the roof, the spaces are divided by the supporting structure, allowing for individual spaces for each family. The roof itself is extremely functional. It is divided into two parts, an outer one covering the living area and which slopes outwards, and an inner one that slopes inwards overlapped to prevent the rain from entering the interior.
The really interesting aspect is that each family builds the unit they will live in next, and it’s the union of these units that will form the circular structure and define the central space. These units by their aggregation protect the center of the community from the outside. The fact that each family through its own unit associates to form a larger structure building and preserving the Yanomami social model is finally a kind of fantastic spatial holism.