Aliens and Cannibals - First Contact in Ecuador, 1956 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Aliens and Cannibals - First Contact in Ecuador, 1956

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First contact: it's a tricky business. Both sides run the risk of bodily harm and possible cultural contamination. The less-developed culture runs the additional risk of seeing its way of life destroyed. That is why those planning interplanetary exploration, or anticipating visitors from outer space, have already started worrying about the possibility of dealing with the 'take me to your leader' scenario.

SETI, NASA, and others contemplating visitors from the stars might do well to look back at earthly precedents – such as the day in 1956 when five missionaries ended up dead in the Ecuadorian jungle after proclaiming, 'We come in peace.'

What went wrong? Did anybody learn from this?

Boldly Going

There is no starship mission more dangerous than that of first contact.
– Jean-Luc Picard
Our orders are, the gospel to every creature.
– Jim Elliot

Jim Elliot and his friends were dedicated non-denominational Christians back in the 1950s. Elliot and his wife Elizabeth, both with degrees in Classical Greek, had a mission: to take their ideas about the Bible to places where no missionary had gone before. They believed that sharing this gospel with the people they called the Auca Indians would help them. From their base in Ecuador among the Quichua, they planned an excursion into unknown territory, the region around the Curaray River. Armed with a plane and trinkets to share, they hoped to spread a message of brotherly love.

The Elliots and their friends paid a high price for carrying out what they thought was a mandate from Heaven  – the headline on the multi-page spread in Life magazine sort of said it all:

Go Ye and Preach the Gospel: Five Do and Die

What did these people think they were doing, anyway? And who were they trying to get to know?

'Savages' vs 'Cannibals'

The Quichua people of Ecuador called the people in the forest 'Auca', but that wasn't their name. 'Auca' was Quichua for 'savage' or 'enemy'. It's an old story: the people over the next hill always have tails. You scare your kids with stories about them. Natural prejudice aside, however, the Auca were considered really dangerous – deadly with their curare-tipped spears and blowguns. The Quichua warned the missionaries to stay away from those people.

'Those people' had a name for themselves. Depending on whether you wrote English or Spanish, it was Waodani, or Huaorani. It means 'people', no surprise there. The People who lived in the rainforest didn't trust the people who lived outside the rainforest – a godless lot who probably did everything wrong. The Waodani word for these outsiders was 'Cowodi'.

'Cowodi' means 'cannibal'.

The Waodani had a religion, thank you very much. According to Waodani religion, the god Waengongi had created the world, but had stopped communicating with people. Animals and people living in the forest were spiritually connected. At death, the Waodani tried to go to the afterlife down a forest path guarded by a giant anaconda. If they failed to get past the snake, the Waodani believed, they would be reincarnated as animals – most often, as termites.

Why did the neighbours fear these people, and why did the missionaries believe they would benefit from Christianity? Well, the murder rate among the Waodani was pretty high. By the late 1940s, murder accounted for 60% of all deaths. Stresses among the tribal groups had led to a lot of unresolved tensions. These people didn't like strangers, and apparently, they were beginning not to like each other very much. At the time, the Waodani were regarded as among the most violent cultures on Earth. Considering the record of humanity in general, that's saying something. And if they didn't stop killing each other, there soon would be no Waodani left.

The missionaries thought they could help. They were young, they were idealistic, and they were naïve. Very soon, they would become martyrs.

Spreading the Word

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.
– Jim Elliot, paraphrasing a statement by Philip Henry (1631 - 96).

Jim Elliot (1927 - 56) was born in Oregon to a travelling preacher and his wife. Jim embraced Christianity at an early age, and was determined to make his mark in sharing the gospel. At Wheaton College in Illinois, he studied ancient Greek because he believed that language study was an important tool in reaching preliterate peoples. There he met his future wife, Elizabeth, who studied the same subject and had the same goals. Together, they went to South America.

Jim joined with others – Nate Saint, Roger Youderian (a former soldier and survivor of the Battle of the Bulge), Ed McCully, and Pete Fleming – all married men, most of them fathers of young children, who agreed to join Jim in his project: to convert the Waodani to Christianity. Nate Saint was a pilot, so they began with a flyover.

Over a couple of months, the missionaries initiated contact with the Waodani by flying over their village, broadcasting friendly messages via loudspeaker. They made 13 flights in all. They lowered gifts in a bucket: first, an aluminium cooking pot decorated with floating ribbons. They gave the Waodani other things, such as buttons, trousers, an axe head, machetes and knives. When the Waodani started sending them gifts in return – a feathered headdress, a parrot  – they figured they were ready for the next step. They set up a camp and waited for visitors.

A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing

When it comes time to die, make sure all you have to do is die.
– Jim Elliot

'Operation Auca', as it was called, seemed to be going well. The missionaries had gone from flying over the Waodani village in an airplane and lowering gifts to settling into a nearby camp. They hoped for friendly visitors – and they got one.

Their first visitor, a man named Naenkiwi, was intrigued by the airplane, well who wouldn't be? So they took him for a ride over the village. Naenkiwi waved and shouted to his neighbours. There was a lot of talking, but not much of it understood. The missionaries knew only a few words of the Waodani language, gleaned from a woman – a refugee from some family feud – who now lived among the Quichua. Still, it was a promising start.

What the missionaries didn't know was that Naenkiwi was potentially bad news. The man had brought along two women, one of whom, Gimade, he wanted to marry. The older woman was there as chaperone. In addition, Gimade's relatives were against the marriage. None of which, of course, was known to the missionaries, who were still at the stage of saying, 'we're your friends', but lacked the vocabulary for much more.

Later, Naenkiwi and Gimade headed home. Their chaperone, who wanted to talk to the missionaries some more, stayed behind. Thus it was that the two younger people arrived back in the village unaccompanied, and, when asked, made up an excuse about the missionaries having attacked them... even the chaperone, returning with a better version of events, was unable to deflect the fear and outrage... and when Nampa, a warrior, started haranguing the group, saying, 'Remember how our mothers warned us when we were children. Cowodi have always carried guns and shot us. Now here's our chance, let's kill them,' it was all over bar the shouting.

In voicing fear that the aliens were up to no good, Nampa was exhibiting much the same attitude as that expressed by the astrophysicist Professor Stephen Hawking about possible extraterrestrial visitors. It's dangerous to know too little about the people you're talking to. What looks like a friendly gesture to you may seem like a deadly threat to them.

Blood in the River

How long will it take him to get to Heaven?
– Steve Saint, five years old, on learning of his father's death.

A war party, armed with spears, went out to a sandbar to meet the missionaries as they stepped from their plane. Accounts of what happened are confused. It seems that once the attack started, one of the missionaries fired a gun, possibly in an attempt to deter further violence. Whether he intended to or not, he hit Nampa, who died1. Jim Elliot was felled by a spear. Then, in the words of Geketa, one of the participants:

We speared another, and even as they were running, I speared two more... The last cowodi called out to us. 'Don't spear. Don't spear.' And we understood. 'We just came to meet you. We aren't going to kill you. Why are you killing us?' He was standing on a log jutting out of the river when Kimu ran a spear through his chest, and he fell into the water.

It was mid-afternoon, 8 January, 1956. Nate Saint's watch stopped at exactly 3:12pm. The bodies were later found floating in the river. The Waodani, fearing reprisal, set fire to their village and fled in terror from the cannibals.

First contact with the Waodani was over.

After First Contact

But we are sinners. And we are buffoons... It is not the level of our spirituality that we can depend on.
– Elizabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor, Epilogue '96.

The events on the Curaray River engaged the world, largely because on 30 January, Life magazine, whose reporters were on the scene when the bodies were found, ran a picture spread with the story, using the missionaries' own photographs. One photo was even printed from the camera the man had been holding when he died – water damage and all. The missionaries were hailed as martyrs.

Rachel Saint, Nate's sister, and Elizabeth Elliot, Jim's widow, were not ready to give up. In the next few years, they did what their husbands should have done: they learned more about the Waodani. In the US, Rachel made personal appearances – at Billy Graham's crusade in New York City, on the influential television programme, This Is Your Life. These appearances raised money for the missionaries' work, while adding to the mythos of the Western Christian who brings the light of civilisation to 'savage' people.

Then Rachel and Elizabeth went to live with the Waodani, taking along Elizabeth and Jim's little daughter. Although Elizabeth Elliot returned to the US in the early 1960s to become a writer, speaker, and radio personality, Rachel Saint lived the rest of her life among these people, remaining in Ecuador until her death in 1994. And yes, the Waodani accepted Jesus. And yes, the murder rate went down – by 90%, almost right away – even though two Catholic missionaries were killed by an isolated tribe in 1987.

Did the Waodani live happily ever after? Well, hardly. They've shifted from hunting and gathering to living in settlements. Their way of life is threatened by loggers. They have suffered from disease, especially polio, introduced by alien contact. They have lost much of their land to oil companies. A group of Waodani have refused to deal with the outside world and retreated further into the forest. The Ecuadorian government has placed this group, the Tagaeri, under protection. The rest go to school, mostly in Spanish, where they lose much of their culture. Some go back to the forest to live, others take jobs with the tourist industry.

Is all this change simply inevitable? It depends, one supposes, upon your point of view. While some anthropologists are livid that this pristine culture has been interfered with, others might say that contact with outsiders saved the Waodani from extinction. Christians point out that now, these people have access to the same heritage as the other peoples of the world: literacy. And, after all, the murder rate is much lower than before.

Today, the grandson of Naenkiwi, the first Waodani to fly in a plane, flies his own plane in the jungles of Ecuador, bringing supplies to his people. Who taught him? Steve Saint, the son of one of the murdered missionaries. Steve's son, by the way, calls one of the men who killed his grandfather by a name which means 'grandpa'. The older man travelled to the US to attend his honorary grandson's graduation.

The missionaries and their wives obviously believed that this contact was a worthwhile thing – that good would come out of it all. Some Waodani agree. They would probably all have wished, however, that it could have been gone about more wisely.

For Further Information

Go here to read Life magazine's coverage of Operation Auca.

Go here to read an account of the Waodani from a more modern perspective, by a Christian who is a bit more skeptical than the original missionaries.

A film called End of the Spear presents a fictionalised account of Operation Auca and its healing aftermath. (Be prepared to read subtitles if you can only understand Spanish and English.)

The documentary Beyond the Gates of Splendor tells the story using interviews with the families of the five men and some of the Waodani involved, as well as footage shot on site, up to two days before the deaths of the missionaries. If you have no other time for this story, see this documentary, which is an intimate but even-handed look at the anthropology of two groups of people: 1950s American university graduates and Ecuadorian rainforest hunter-gatherers. The filmmakers are obviously capable of viewing both with equal amounts of critique and sympathy.

Photo supplied by the Library of Congress
1Whether Nampa died then and there, or later, is a matter of controversy.

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