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ETHNONYMS: Ayoreóde, Moro, Tsirakaua, Zamuco


Identification. The Ayoreo call themselves "Ayoreóde," which is the plural form of ayoréi (person ); the feminine form is ayoré. "Ayoréi" is also used to designate generically all beings of human appearance, including other native groups and criollos. Non-Ayoreo indigenous groups are generally called "Menenegóne" (i.e., "the poor ones" or "those who have nothing"). A different denomination and status is given neo-Americans (criollos and Europeans); they are referred to as "Konhióne," which may be translated as "foolish/stupid," "people who do things that make no sense or that are outside norms," such as marrying someone from the same family or addressing a woman they do not know.

Location. The extensive portion of the northern Chaco occupied by various bands of Ayoreo lies approximately between 16° and 22° S and 58° and 63° W, in Bolivia and Paraguay. Ayoreo territory exhibits a typical hinterland character since it is almost totally devoid of natural routes for internal circulation, such as rivers, groups of lakes, and Springs. Of greater importance for the life and movement of the group are the swamplands of Izozog and Otuquis. These hydric deposits determine the establishment of permanent camps in their surroundings. Given the wide distances they travel, however, bands of Ayoreo tend to become independent of these camps, up to a point, and subsist in the desert by extracting water from the tubers of the čipói. Orographical relief does not play a direct role in the lifeways of the Ayoreo as it is limited to three mountain chains in the extreme northern end of their habitat and some isolated hills in the central area. Salt mines, on the other hand, are important to the Ayoreo. The mines (ečoi ) are located almost in the center of their habitat. They were a traditional locus of conflict between northern and southern bands of Ayoreo.

As is the case throughout the Chaco, the seasonal cycle is characterized by two periodsthe dry season (May to November) and the rainy season (the rest of the year). In the latter, rainfall is abundant, with sudden downpours. In the dry season there is a noticeable wind pattern: winds alternate from the north and south, cold and warm, respectively.

Linguistic Affiliation. At present the Ayoreo and the Chamacoco or Ishír are the only ethnic groups in the northern Chaco that speak languages of the Zamuco Family.

Demography. The 2,500 Ayoreo live in a region with an area of about 333,000 square kilometersthe population density is 0.0075 inhabitants per square kilometer. This population sparsity is one of the reasons why, despite the habitat's relative lack of resources, the Ayoreo subsist within it in relative abundance. Except in rare cases, they do not suffer from either hunger or great want.


Information gleaned from sources that describe contacts with peoples of the northern Chaco can be divided into four time periods. The first includes information regarding contact up to 1691, a time marked by the beginning of Jesuit religious instruction. The second period, lasting from 1691 until the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767, corresponds to the period in which this instruction was carried out. The third period comprises the time from 1767 to approximately 1940, the beginning of the fourth period, marked by renewed Catholic and Protestant evangelization, which is ongoing.

Cultural Relations

The Ayoreo were geographically and socially isolated owing to natural obstacles, scarcity of roads, and their longtime hostile relationship with criollos. These prevented the Indians from being receptive to Western cultural ideas and material goods until recently.


The local Ayoreo group (gagé ) establishes a semipermanent camp (gidái ) near a stream during the planting season. The camp is made up of approximately six dome-shaped houses arranged more or less in a circle. Each house shelters up to ten occupants.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . The Ayoreo are a hardworking people. They divide the annual cycle into various time periods, according to astronomical and other considerations. These periods do not succeed each other in linear fashion but are determined according to a variety of criteria. From the mythico-religious standpoint, the annual cycle is divided into two periods: eápi-puyái, "forest" or "forbidden world" (from May to August), and eápi-uomí, "free world" (from September to April). The changeover from the first period to the second is marked by the festival dedicated to the asohsná (nightjar) bird. For agricultural activities, the Ayoreo distinguish between periods of sowing (putaningái ) and harvest (sekeré ). The putaningái begins around September and ends in December; the sekeré begins when the sowing period ends and lasts until April. From a metereological perspective, the months of May through December constitute the dry season (essóí ), which is interrupted by the rains that come in July and August. The two periods are called "punishing rain" (uhuia-todié ) and "punishment of the stars" (iyokisnáne uhuiatóh ), respectively.

During the months that correspond to the eápi-puyái period, the Ayoreo become nomads and live mainly from gathering, hunting, and the agricultural reserves left over from the previous harvest. After the nightjar festivalat the beginning of the putaningái perioda semipermanent village is established, which will be occupied until April. At this time agricultural tasks are begun, while gathering and hunting continue. At the end of the putaningái period, the first fruits of the field are harvested, and there is a gradual increase in agricultural production during the sekeré period until food crops constitute almost the only source of food. In April, when the eápi-puyái period begins, the semipermanent village is abandoned, and the annual economic cycle is begun once more.

Gathering plays a very important role in the economy of the Ayoreo; the yield from wild food is equal to or even greater than that derived from cultivars. Approximately thirty wild plant species are eatenthe roots or tubers of some, the fruits and seeds of others. From palms the Ayoreo extract the palmetto (palm cabbage). Of mammals, they eat only anteaters, armadillos, and white-lipped peccaries; they also eat four different kinds of turtle. Other animals are hunted in order to acquire raw materials: tapir for hides to make sandals, and jaguars, howler monkeys, ocelots, and other mammals for hides to make headdresses for men.

For agricultural work the Ayoreo use a digging stick (ogé ) and a wooden spade (kosnangé ). The ogé is also used in collecting wild-growing victuals. The Ayoreo plant maize, beans, gourds, calabashes, potatoes, and tobacco. All these crops are harvested once a year except for tobacco, which matures more often. Fishing is practiced only occasionally and only when the Ayoreo live in semipermanent settlements and the water conditions are right. Some ten different species of fish are caught, the most important being bagre, ventón, cayú, and two species of eel. Fish are caught with the bare hands or with a plunge basket (čménno ).

Industrial Arts. As regards weaponry, the Ayoreo have three kinds of lances, three varieties of sword-clubs, an elongated truncated conical club, and a bow with three kinds of arrows. The Ayoreo have a remarkable array of implements consisting of wooden spatulas, tubes for absorbing water, aribaloid pitchers (ceramic pots with a narrow opening on top, broad at the center, pointed at the bottom), calabash receptacles, axes made from scraps of iron, wire perforators, scalpels, graters made from rodents' teeth, bone and wooden needles, tassels of Bromelia for the extraction of wild honey, quartzite sharpeners, mortars made of hardwood, various kinds of carrying bags made from the caraguatá (B. argentina ) fiber, fire drills, cordage, pamói (resting bands unique to Ayoreo men, used for sitting with drawn-up legsthe band is strung around the lower back and behind the knees), pipes, and scissors of sheetmetal with which to cut hair. A man's customary dress consists of a simple pubic cover, made of a bunch of strings and feathers fastened to a waist string. Women wear skirts made of plaited string. Both sexes wear sandals made from tapir leather or wood.

Trade. Given the degree of bellicosity of Ayoreo bands, neighboring ethnic groups have not engaged in commercial exchange with them. This bellicosity arose mainly from their desire to obtain iron instruments through theft.

Division of Labor. Activities usually carried out by men are agriculture; hunting; fishing; those tasks that involve the use of stone, wood, and iron; and the manufacture of skin and feather ornaments. Other male activities include the manufacture of pipes and the only item woven by the Ayoreo, the pamói. Men do the felling, clearing, hoeing, sowing, and banking up of soil, which in rare cases may also be done by widows. Collecting honey is a task generally performed by men. Women, however, may collect it from tree hives they can reach from the ground. Hunting turtles and armadillos is also sometimes done by women. Activities usually carried out by women are cording, plaiting, sewing, food preparation, and the making of pottery (with the exception of tobacco pipes). Men occasionally prepare their own food if they are alone in the forest. Gathering plant foods, with the exception of palm sago, which requires very strenuous work, is done primarily by women. Men also occasionally collect fruit or wild roots.

Land Tenure. Ownership or tenure of a particular good is determined in the first place by the work that someone has done to obtain it. This also applies to work that has been done communally, which means that the product passes into collective ownership. So, for example, the product of a collective hunt is distributed among those who participated in it. There are various kinds of ownership, depending on the nature of the property. In the case of cultivated land, the man who works the field is the one who has control over it. This male ownership comes to an end at harvesttime, however, when the owner calls upon the women of the extended family to race toward the field to harvest its produce.

Kinship and Domestic Unit

With the expression ogasúi (pl., ogasuóde ), which is derived from the word ogadí ("place where one sleeps or lies down"), the Ayoreo indicate kinship ties, which are established according to more effective and realistic norms than agnatic or cognatic ones. Ogasúi is normally translated as "relative," independently of the clan relationship, which is called diosí. The definition of the ogasúi relationship takes into consideration kin ties and spatial proximity within the gidái. In terms that are no more than a schematization of a much more complex reality, ogasuóde, from the point of view of kinship, are all the members of an extended family consisting of several nuclear families that live with the wife's parents (in the case of an uxorilocal residence) or with the husband's parents (in the alternate case) and who may be termed "central couples." It is also made up of unmarried children who maintain with the members of the nuclear families a relationship of siblings-in-law (kin's spouses) or that of maternal or paternal uncles. The parents of a central couple are also considered to be ogasuóde if they live together in the same house or in the vicinity. The other aspect that defines the ogasuí relationship is, as mentioned earlier, spatial proximity, with ogasuóde living together in a single dwelling or in contiguous dwellings within the village. It is this spatial aspect of the ogasuóde complex that the Ayoreo translate with the word "neighbor," whereas kin relationship is expressed by the word "relative." Technonymy prevails throughout the kinship system. Kinship terminology is bifurcate generational in kind.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Ayoreo marriage takes place after adolescence and is contracted by the couple without any special ceremonies. Generally it is monogamous, but there are cases of polygynous unions. Residence is generally virilocal, and there is practically no divorce.

Inheritance. There is no real pattern of inheritance among the Ayoreo since they lack immovable goods as such and since movable possessions are abandoned as grave goods. Only items made of iron become the inheritance of the widow and remain in use as goods that belong to the extended family.

Socialization. The life cycle implies several stages that are characterized by various practices and are often strengthened by the songs of the igasitái. Infanticide is practiced for religious reasons. Women and children may be given as many as four names. Once children have reached adolescence they participate in the activities appropriate to their sex and engage in free and frequent amorous relationships until, at an adult age, they marry. Life for the Ayoreo is a constant struggle against adversity and illness; people often commit suicide when they reach old age. Prostitutes are especially persecuted and kept away from the community.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Ayoreo society is structured into seven exogamic patrilineal clans (kučiérane ; sing., kučierái ), which stand in a hierarchical relationship to one another. This ranking of the clans is related to the number of people and beings that belong to them. Each clan has a special sign (edopasáde ); these signs vary according to the material from which they are made, the techniques employed for their representation, and some of the colors and color combinations that characterize them. The basic function of the kučierái is to regulate exogamy and establish a classification of reality. However, a special kind of relationship exists between pairs of clans, which determines certain reciprocal obligations. These manifest themselves at funerals, in ceremonial gift-exchange after a killing, in the festival of the nightjar, and on other occasions. Each clan calls the other with which it maintains relations yakotéi (complementary opposite), which can be schematized as follows: čikenói/posonhái ; etakóri/dosapéi ; pikanerái/kutamuahái ; nuruminí, The situation of the nuruminí in the schema varies, according to the Ayoreo: some say they have no yakotéi; others think they have this type of relationship with the dosapéi. This position of the nuruminí is consistent with their condition as the clan of the lowest hierarchical rank.

Political Organization. Highest social status is accorded to the asuté or chief, the shaman or daihsnái (the "wise man" or man who knows myths and curing chants), and the dreamer or uritái. With the exception of the status of the chief, women can reach all other statuses and obtain the power each status implies. The "crazy man" (urosói ) is a special case. The social and political power within the community is invested in the asuté, the man who leads the young men into war or to a killing. His prestige is essentially based on the number of victims he has killed. The asuté is, first of all, a courageous individual who, because of the contamination from the blood of his slain enemies, possesses a special power that frightens or terrifies his adversaries. Although there is more than one asuté in a given gidái, there is a difference of importance among them, and only one may stand out who holds the statuses both of chief and shaman. A gagé frequently takes the name of its defender or most important asuté, but there are other cases in which the band's name is derived from a toponym. The shaman has perfectly defined social prerogatives and powers. He undergoes a process of initiation that requires him to ingest a strong dose of tobacco juice, implying his empowerment with a particular force (uhopié ).

Social Control. Because they have the highest status in Ayoreo society, the asutés exercise control over the community. However, women play a very active social role in religious matters.

Conflict. The primary and almost exclusive objective of Ayoreo military organization is to make war against other Ayoreo and against Konhióne. Warriors seek to obtain prestige and power by killing human beings. There does not appear to be any other purpose, since goods are obtained only occasionally and looting is not the principal aim of war expeditions. Similarly, it is very unusual for prisoners to be taken, except young men or women from another Ayoreo group. In wars against Konhióne, all captives were killed, irrespective of age or sex.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Ayoreo mythology is characterized by a superabundance of narratives. Every natural or cultural phenomenon has its origin and meaning explained in a special myth and sometimes in various parallel myths. The general schema of the etiological tales consists in the transformation of a (nanibahái ; pl., nanibaháde ), an ancestor of human or humanoid form, into an actual living being, either voluntarily or through the intervention of Dupáde, the Sun. It may also be that the ancestor owned a particular artifact that he later gave to others. Origin myths have a fixed structure consisting of episodal occurences followed by one or several therapeutic (sáude ) or precautionary (paragapidí ) songs. The complex of myths and songs is given the name kučáde kike uháidie, which can be translated as "tracing the return of all things." Myths and therapeutic songs have a damaging effect if they are used outside the context of an illness or misfortune, in which they can be beneficial. Despite their large number, the majority of Ayoreo myths fall into six groups that may be defined as "cycles." Ayoreo ethos, centering on violence and death, explains the world as consisting of a terrestrial plane (numí ), a celestial space (gate ) of various superimposed tiers, and a subterranean domain (naupié ) where the souls of the dead live.

In the Ayoreo world, power is omnipresent and has an essentially negative character. It produces a persistent fear of the malevolent power of the nanibaháde in reaction to taboo infractions. In effect, the tragic episode that generally determines the metamorphosis of the nanibaháde invests the entities that originate from them with maleficent powerthe more dangerous, the more powerful the nanibahái from which it originates. That is why, in the Ayoreo's world, the fear of Asohsná, the most powerful and malevolent of the čekebahědie (ancient women), predominates and why the pertaining mythic cycle is replete with death and tragedy. The figure of Asohsnáas ancestor, as an actual living bird (nightjar), and as regards the entities with which they were associated in mythical timesconstitutes the core of Ayoreo fear, within a world that, in its entirety, is already charged with negativity. This fear also derives from the fact that Asohsná is the only divinity to whom an organized cult is attributed, constituting the only formalized religious ceremony. The effects of Asohsná's malevolence, triggered by taboo infractions, include fainting, madness, and other illnesses and misfortunes that lead to death. Asohsná's power to do harm transcends the individual and is transferred to a cosmic plane, so that it can also negatively influence the procurement of food.

What has been said about Asohsná applies to a greater or lesser degree to the other nanibaháde and frequently to the entities to which they gave origin. Illness and all kinds of misfortune follow upon the infraction of taboos regarding these Ur-forms and their corresponding myths. In this world of fear and death, at least partial reprieve is obtainable through the various mechanisms the nanibaháde instituted themselves to counteract their original "curses." Such recourse leaves a wide margin of insecurity as regards its efficacy, however, and only diminishes the fear of the world without compensating for it entirely.

Religious Practitioners. The shaman and the wise man, who know myths and therapeutic songs, are primarily responsible for religious practices.

Ceremonies. The Aroyeo engage in pinčiakwá, a ritual practice to propitiate rain, and perform paragapidí, a rite to keep killers from falling prey to the harmful influence of the victim's soul and blood. Apart from these two practices, the sole ceremony held by the Ayoreo is the festival of Asohsná, which is essentially a ceremony related to the annual cycle.

Arts. The only artifacts that are always decorated are twine bags and plaited objects. The designs are inspired by clan insignia and executed in the appropriate combinations of naturally colored red and blue string. The remainder of Ayoreo output is poor in decorative motifs, which are only occasionally applied to wooden artifacts or utensils of calabash or ceramic.

Medicine. Therapeutic procedures are carried out by the ordinary individual and by the daihsnái. In the first instance, curing is essentially done through the use of chants provided by the various nanibaháde, that is, the already mentioned countermeasure songs that cure illnesses specific to a particular nanibahái that caused them. For example, possession, which stems from taboo infringments relating to the consumption of certain parts of the peccary, can be cured with songs that this animal's nanibahái left behind. Individuals who cure by therapeutic chanting do not go through a process of initiation, nor do they wear special garments. The only precondition is knowing many chants, a prerogative generally attached to the so-called wise men. Since the power of a particular curing chant comes directly from the nanibahái who composed it, the singer functions simply as its intermediary vehicle.

Death and Afterlife. The Ayoreo believe that a person is made up of three elements: ayipiyé (reason), which is destroyed at death; ayói ("skin"), which disintegrates; and oregaté ("external soul"). At the moment of death, the oregaté sets out on a voyage to the naupié (land of the dead, in the underworld). Access to it is by way of a heavily trodden road. Here souls lead an existence similar to that of the living. The soul is received by the deceased members of his extended family and integrated into it. The dead on occasion show a desire to rejoin their living relatives. This causes cave-ins of the soil or food to fall from the hand of the living to the ground.


Bernard-Muñoz, Carmen (1977). Les ayoré du Chaco Septentrional: Etude critique à partir des notes de Lucien Sebag. Paris: Mouton.

Bórmida, M. (1984). "Cómo una cultura arcaica concibe su propio mundo." Scripta Ethnologica (Buenos Aires) 8.

Bórmida, M., and M. Califano (1978). Los indios ayoreo del Chaco Boreal, 13-161. Buenos Aires: Fundación para la Educación, la Ciencia y la Cultura (FECIC).

Bugos, Paul E., Jr. (1985). An Evolutionary Ecological Analysis of the Social Organization of the Ayoreo of the Northern Gran Chaco. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms International.

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Wilbert, Johannes, and Karin Simoneau, eds. (1989). Folk Literature of the Ayoreo Indians, Los Angeles: University of California, Latin American Center.

MARIO CALIFANO (Translated by Ruth Gubler)