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ETHNONYMS: Acaguayo, Acauayo, Acawai, Accawai, Acquewyen, Akawai, Akawaio, Akawoio, Capohn, Guaica, Guayca, Ingarico, Inkariko, Kapohn, Kapon, Kapong, Occowyes, Seregong, Serekon, Serekong, Serracong, Serrakong, Wacawaio, Waica, Waika, Wakawai, Wayca, Wocowaio


Identification. The Akawaio are an American Indian group living along the Guyana-Venezuela border. "Kapon" (sky, kak; people, pon ) is the Akawaio name for themselves, which they share with the Patamona, their neighbors to the south. "Waika," "Serekon," and "Inkariko" are names applied by Pemon, Patamona, and Makushi neighbors.

Location. The principal Akawaio territory is the upper basin of the Mazaruni River and the Essequibo tributary rising in the Pakaraima Mountains on the Guyanese-Venezuelan border. Lying between 60° and 61°20 W and 5°10 to 6° N, it covers approximately 10,207 square kilometers. Settlements are at 470 to 610 meters. Rainfall averages 260 centimeters per year and is bimodal (i.e., there is a dry season and a wet season). There are a few Akawaio communities on the lower Mazaruni and lower Potaro rivers and two isolated villages, Kwabanna on the Waini River and Mabora on the upper Demerara. Several settlements are located on the Cotinga River, Brazil. Akawaio share villages with Pemon on the upper Cuyuni River, Venezuela. Isolated families live in a number of townships.

Demography. There is no reliable census, but unofficial estimates indicate a population of some 6,000 Akawaio in the upper Mazaruni and adjacent areas. There has been a considerable increase since the 1940s and 1950s, when they were estimated at 1,400 to 1,600, and 1969 estimate of 2,920 (including Kamarang River Pemon). In 1977, 2,700 were reported in the upper Mazaruni, 250 to 300 in the lowlands, 420 in Kwabanna, and 65 in Mabora. The 1982 Venezuelan Indigenous Census recorded 491 Akawaio in the Cuyuni region of Venezuela.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Kapon language is one of the Guiana Carib languages.

History and Cultural Relations

The territorial extension of the Akawaio was considerable. They dominated the Mazaruni and Cuyuni valleys, maintained a presence on the Demerara, and were reported as trading from Berbice. Laurence Keymis, writing in 1596, mentioned "Wacawaios" on the Demerara and "Wocowaios" in the Pomeroon area, Guyana. Major John Scott, in 1669, referred to "Occowyes" as one of the "great powerful nations that live in the uplands of Guiana." Throughout the colonial period, under the Dutch and then the British, there are constant references to them as traders and travelers and to small groups settled around the upriver posts. They were occasionally employed to police the forest near the plantations. To the west, they entered Venezuelan history under the nickname "Guaica" when, in mid-eighteenth-century Spanish Guayana, Capuchin missionaries began to settle them in mission villages.

Upon destruction of the Caroní Mission in 1817, the Guaica-Akawaio population fled eastward; groups were in contact with Anglican missionaries in British Guiana from 1831, when their enthusiasm for religious instruction was noted. Akawaio regularly visited the lowlands and were employed as guides, boatmen, carriers, hunters, forest workers, and woodcutters. The majority continued to live a customary life in the upper Mazaruni. Naturalist C. F. Appun entered the upper Mazaruni in 1864 followed by C. Barrington Brown, a geologist, in 1872 and 1875. First missionary visits were made by the Jesuit Fr. Cary-Elwes in 1917, 1919, and 1921. The Seventh-Day Adventists established their Kamarang River missions in Guyana after their ejection from Venezuela in 1931. Anglican and Wesleyan missions began in the 1950s. When in 1946 an "Upper Mazaruni Reserve" and a government station were created, with regular air contact, the Akawaio lost their autonomy and began to experience profound change. Today the upper Mazaruni is a subdistrict of the Guyanese ministerial region No. 7, known as Mazaruni-Potaro.

There is near identity in language, society, and culture between Akawaio and their Pemon neighbors, who have raided, traded, and intermarried with each other. The Caribs (Kari'ña) were traditional enemies, mutual hostilities being frequent in the eighteenth century, when Carib groups, retreating before the Spanish advance, ousted Akawaio from some of their lowland territories.


The settlement pattern is one of part-time occupation of a central village with family gardens nearby. Villages traditionally numbered from 60 to 80 people but now reach 600 to 800. Akawaio have a formal organization, a church, and, today, a school. Traditional sites were, for security, located inland from a navigable river, in a forest clearing, or in the preferred white-sand savanna areas. A nearby stream and forest with good soil for gardening are still mandatory. Houses are oblong, round, or square, with timber trames, leaf-thatched roof, bark or stake walls for protection against night cold and marauders, and two opposed doors. Each nuclear family customarily maintains a hearth around which hammocks are slung and belongings are stored in the roof space above. Open huts are used as kitchens, for informal meals, and for family gatherings. In the 1950s an elevated square house of planks, a wood-shingle or tin roof, windows, and internal partitions was introduced with limited success. Separate nuclear-family dwellings are now preferred.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Akawaio are slash-and-burn cultivators, and they hunt, fish, and gather as well. The staple is cassava bread made from bitter manioc, accompanying a meat or fish stew seasoned with chili peppers. They make a great variety of drinks of low alcoholic content. Crops include bananas, sugarcane, sweet potatoes, yams, taro, cotton, gourds, and calabashes. They hunt deer, peccaries, tapir, agoutis, pacas (Cuniculus paca ) and birds, traditionally using bows and arrows and blowpipes, but today shotguns. Fish in the upper Mazaruni are small and scarce. They are obtained with hook and line, fish poison, and dams with basket traps. A cash economy began in 1946 with the sale of balata (a latex from Manilkara bidentata), surplus garden produce, and timber products. Gold and diamond mining, often full time, steadily developed from the 1960s. There is an increasing dependence on imports and a loss of self-sufficiency. Alcoholism, family alienation and break-up, prostitution, neglect of the elderly, shortages of food, and impoverished village life are negative aspects of free-lance mining.

Industrial Arts. Men make houses, boats, hunting and fishing equipment, cords, ropes, baskets, storage racks, wooden stools, and simple furniture. Women spin cotton, weave hammocks and baby slings, bead aprons, and make clay bowls and pots.

Trade. A traditional network of exchange relationships links the Akawaio with their neighbors and, via these, to more distant Amerindian groups. Notably, they obtain Yecuana cassava graters, blowpipes, and quivers; brewing pots from the Patomona; and curare from the Piaroa. They traveled to the coast to work and barter for metal tools, utensils, cloth, beads, guns, salt, and a great variety of exotic goods, which they also traded in the traditional network.

Division of Labor. A married couple is expected to be able to perform all necessary daily tasks and manufacture most equipment necessary to sustain themselves and their family. Work is strongly sex orientated and complementary, with some overlap and mutual assistance. Men cut and burn new gardens; women plant, tend, and harvest. Men hunt, fish, and engage in long-distance trade; women fetch firewood and water, care for the home and young children, and prepare and serve food and drink. Men are basket- and woodworkers; women work cotton and are potters. Men go mining and women engage in domestic work. Educated Akawaio of either sex take government employment as teachers and health workers.

Land Tenure. Members of a village and its surrounding settlements have a collective right to use of the land and resources of the neighborhood. Others use them only in collaboration or by paying. Vacant areas between villages, used for long-distance hunting and gathering, ensure that conflicting claims are rare. There is acute awareness of the need for a legal title to communal lands, but the government of Guyana intends to construct a hydroelectric dam that would render the upper Mazaruni uninhabitable. Coastal miners have increasingly worked in the area since 1959, but Akawaio believe that the resources of their ancestral land should be exploited only by Akawaio.


Kinship and Descent. The system is a cognatic one with self-focused symmetrical reference to both paternal and maternal kin. There is a concept of interlinked, three-generation cycles, each generation of grandchildren replicating the grandparental one. The spirit of a deceased grandparent may sometimes dwell in a grandchild. There is a strong notion of complementary lines of same-sex kin, a man being considered a replica of his father and grandfather, and a woman of her mother and grandmother.

Kinship Terminology. Most kinship terms indicate sex difference; sibling terms indicate relative age. Terminology is of the bifurcate-merging Iroquois type. A father and his brothers are addressed as father; a mother and her sisters as mother. They address each other's children as their own and the latter refer to each other as siblings. Opposite-sex cross cousins use terms inferring marriageability. One extends the kinship terminology to all genealogically traceable relatives and may incorporate strangers. The notion of a family (tomba ) is elastic, with recognition that, ultimately, all Akawaio are relatives (tombadong).

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The norm is real or classificatory cross-cousin marriage and the ideal is for two groups of siblings to marry each other. Sororal polygyny was common and a man generally espoused a brother's widow. Polyandry also occurred. A few practice sister's-daughter marriage, perceived as a way of avoiding an undesirable uxorilocality since a sister becomes the mother-in-law. Marriage with father's sister occasionally takes place. The use of teknonyms marks the transition to affinal status. The son-in-law is required to reside uxorilocally and to work for his parents-inlaw. He often gives them his possessions, now including purchased goods and cash. Marriage is confirmed on the birth of a child, and thereafter separation and divorce are deplored. Church marriage is now common.

Domestic Unit. A man, in uxorilocal residence, obtains status as head of family when he becomes a parent-in-law and grandparent. By allying himself with wife's sisters' husbands ("brothers") and sister's husbands ("brothers-inlaw"), a joint-family unity is created. Extended and joint families, which collaborate in garden places, share the same or adjacent houses in a village.

Inheritance. Valuables such as shotguns, brewing pots, manioc graters, and boats are inherited by close kin of the appropriate sex, usually siblings or children of the deceased. A few personal items may be buried with the deceased.

Socialization. Children are brought up to respect seniors and observe the norms of kinship relationships. They learn by imitation and participation. Physical punishment is rare. Children attend school and may leave to get salaried work or go mining. Young men who circumvent uxorilocal residence lack discipline and traditional skills.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Akawaio are a territorially based cultural unity, expressing interrelationships in the idiom of kinship and a conceptual and moral identity. There is no central indigenous institution; they conceive of themselves as a people against other, similarly organized peoples. They divide themselves internally by referring to river-valley settlements. Relations between river groups are marked by mutual suspicion, accusations of sorcery, and reference to former raiding, but marriage, exchange, and mutual feasting between families in different river groups also make for friendly relationships.

Social Organization. There is no class system. Status is relative to kinship position (with sex and age differentiation), individual competence, and prestige. Differences in possessions are slight and ephemeral and the society is an egalitarian one although, in the uxorilocal system, a son-in-law always retains a subordinate role with respect to his parents-in-law.

Political Organization. A village community consists of a number of allied extended and joint families, each family headed by the most active senior couple and autonomous in its own family settlement. Mutual aid, sharing, and frequent intermarriage characterize a village community. The traditional village leader (epuru ) is a prestigious man, skilled, generous, hospitable, and a good speaker. He summons the village families for consultations and feasts, represents them to outsiders, and, today, is responsible to the government. He is addressed as "Father" (Papai) and allied family heads are his "assistants" (poitorudong ). A formal elective system was introduced in 1958 whereby a captain, secretary, treasurer, and councilors are voted in every four years. Since councilors are often heads of families from the surrounding settlements, the traditional structure is maintained. Today's captain is a young, educated man able to cope with the government bureaucracy. Villages now have school teachers, a health officer, and party activists.

Social Control. Anger and violence are censored. The customary response to conflict is separation, and village conflicts are usually contained by the aggrieved parties dispersing to their family settlements. Village and Hallelujah church leaders (see "Religious Beliefs") lecture their followers on morality and remonstrate privately. Shamanic séances link illness to bad intentions and discordant behavior, focusing public attention on the source and consequences of dispute and bad behavior. This evokes declarations of good intent and ensures that the offender makes peace or leaves. Sickness and deaths in a village community are sometimes attributed to alienated and aggrieved families and, in rare instances, the deceased's kin may attempt assassination, both to avenge the dead and in self-defense. Mining activity has led to increased violence, owing to freedom from customary restraints and bouts of excessive drunkenness.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The conceptual system is founded on the belief that all material bodies are possessed by the sun's radiant light (akwa), which endows them with vitality, well-being, and knowledge. This possessed force (akwaru ) may transmigrate, entering different bodies (as in dreams and acts of sorcery). Every species, resource, and environmental sphere has akwaru, which is personified and in part anthropomorphic. All are ultimately classified as imawariton (environmental forces), which include deceased humans. A major category is the masters and mistresses (esak ) of species and resources, who figure in shamanic séances and dwell in special, privately owned stones. Offerings of tobacco, food, and beverages are made at the stones to propitiate the master or mistress so that a species or resource will be increased and released for human use. A series of prophet-led, enthusiastic movements, stimulated by mission contact, culminated in Hallelujah in about the 1870s. Adopted from the Makushi (Pemon) of the Rupununi-Rio Branco region, Hallelujah combines indigenous cosmolgy with basic Christian beliefs. Its sung and danced prayers are modeled on traditional forms.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans (piai'chang ) treat with the akwaru of the universe during night séances. Hallucinating through dieting and the use of tobacco, shamans are possessed and also detach their own vital force to search the cosmos for aid. They determine ultimate causes. Hallelujah prophets are noted for long periods of dreaming during which their vital force journeys upward to akwa. They hear God and receive songs, prayers, and injunctions that will strengthen life on earth.

Ceremonies. Traditional song-and-dance festivals are associated with animals, fish, and forest fruits and their availability. They have been superseded by Hallelujah sung and danced prayers, for communication with God and spirits in heaven (akwa) and to obtain an increase in akwaru, goodness, and well-being for all on earth. The shaman's séance is a skilled theatrical performance for curing sickness and misfortune. It is also a commentary on community affairs, with audience participation as each spirit character possessing the shaman talks and sings. Family ceremonies include the couvade, girls' puberty seclusion, and boys' rites to ensure successful economic enterprises.

Arts. Different categories of songs convey knowledge and power. They include songs of shamans, of Hallelujah prophets, and of the former dance festival, notably tukuik, parishara, and imawari. Numerous privately owned invocations (taling ) are usedthey are rhythmic recitations and poems with complex analogies and metaphors. Some men excel in basketry with red and black designs. Women make patterned bead aprons and fine cotton thread and weave comfortable cotton hammocks. Many traditional craft skills are disappearing.

Medicine. The objective of treatment is to restore the body's akwaru and a balanced harmony. Sick Akawaio rest, diet, and take plant remedies. Healing invocations (taling) and shamanic séances are used. Cold illness is cured when the shaman returns the lost or captured vital force to the body. To cure hot illness, he ejects malevolent forces possessing the patient and summons cold ones to effect a cooling down.

Death and Afterlife. Sudden death is attributed to sorcery (edodo), whereas death after a long illness is attributed to a curse (evil taling). Deep-seated envy is the stated reason for sorcery, which may be the work of a personal enemy but is usually attributed to other, hostile groups. The body, in its hammock, is interred in a space between two sheets of tree bark, the head of the grave being orientated toward the sunrise. The family leaves the house for three months. Death of a settlement owner may lead to definitive abandonment. A series of deaths of important people in a village formerly led to the formation of a new village. On death, the life-giving radiance departs to reenter the cosmos. In Hallelujah belief it returns to the light of heaven to reside there in happiness. A shade (akwarup ) is also detached and joins the environmental spirits (imawariton) who dwell inside the mountains feasting, drinking, dancing, and living a replica of life on earth, but without sunlight. Shamans visit there to feast, dance, and seek aid for the sick. The deceased may reincarnate, becoming a protective force within the body of a descendant. Death is a definitive separation of the properties of the two opposed forces of the cosmos, light (akwa) and darkness (ayan ), which material forms unify and embody. It is also a return to "long ago" (pena tai), when "all things were like people" (kapon-pe ) and "all spoke and understood each other."


Butt Colson, Audrey J. (1973). "Inter-Tribal Trade in the Guiana Highlands." Antropológica (Caracas) 34:1-70.

Butt Colson, Audrey J. (1976). "Binary Oppositions and the Treatment of Sickness among the Akawaio." In Social Anthropology and Medicine, 422-499. Monographs of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the Commonwealth, vol. 13, edited by J. Loudon. London: Academic Press.

Butt Colson, Audrey J. (1989). "La naturaleza del ser: Conceptos fundamentales de los Kapón y Pemón (area del Circum-Roraima de las Guyanas)." In Las religiones amerindias: 500 años después, edited by J. Bottaso, 53-90. Quito: Ediciones ABYA-YALA.

Butt Colson, Audrey J., and H. Dieter Heinen, eds. (1983-1984). Themes in Political Organization: The Caribs and Their Neighbours. Antropólogica (Caracas) 59-62.