Kuwamai: Historic Epidemics and Resilience of Cariban-Speaking Peoples, Northern Amazonia


  • Renzo S. Duin International Center for Amazonian Indigenous Knowledge (AMIK), Netherlands & Department of Anthropology, University of Florida, USA https://orcid.org/0000-0002-0525-2667




Colonial history, Amazonian historicities, Guiana, Amazonia, Wayana, pandemic viral diseases, voluntary isolation, indigenous etiology


How Amazonian Indigenous Peoples combatted emergent epidemic diseases in colonial times, and their innovative responses to epidemiological crises, has not received sufficient attention. This study outlines a clash of cultures and an entanglement of places and people related to pandemic diseases and epidemic death in the Eastern Guiana Highlands, northern Amazonia. By means of archival and historical sources, the article provides eyewitness insight into multiple waves of highly contagious epidemics that affected Cariban-speaking communities in Eastern Guiana – Suriname, French Guiana, and Brazilian Amapá – over the past 550 years. The paper commences with some general statements on illness and healing. Hitherto unpublished journal entries by the Governor of Suriname of an outbreak of the pox during the winter of 1743-1744 set the scene, these are followed by rare nineteenth and twentieth century historical accounts, and a novel interpretation of Wayana oral history – posited to be the first account of the spread of a viral disease in Amazonia in July 1542. The paper concludes with responses to the current COVID-19 pandemic from an indigenous etiology which demonstrates indigenous historical consciousness of the social present as related to events from the past.

Author Biography

Renzo S. Duin, International Center for Amazonian Indigenous Knowledge (AMIK), Netherlands & Department of Anthropology, University of Florida, USA

Dr Renzo S. Duin obtained a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Florida, USA. His dissertation focusses on the socio-political landscapes in the Eastern Guiana Highlands, northern Amazonia. His research and publications cover a broad range of topics from material culture, intangible heritage, social memory, oral history, identity, historical ecology, decolonisation, and the intertwining nature of these topics. He has held research and teaching positions at the University of Florida, USA, and Leiden University, the Netherlands, and research positions at Oxford University and University College London, UK. In this capacity he led and participated in various international and interdisciplinary research projects. He is founder and board member of the International Center for Amazonian Indigenous Knowledge (AMIK) www.amiknow.org


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How to Cite

Duin, R. S. (2021). Kuwamai: Historic Epidemics and Resilience of Cariban-Speaking Peoples, Northern Amazonia. ETropic: Electronic Journal of Studies in the Tropics, 20(1), 247–272. https://doi.org/10.25120/etropic.20.1.2021.3759