Barama River Carib

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Barama River Carib



Identification. The Barama River Carib bear the name of a waterway in Guyana's North West District. They refer to themselves as "all the men and women." They are aware that other Carib peoples live in Guyana and elsewhere, but have no contact with them.

Location. Since the late nineteenth century, Carib have lived in the tropical forest along the upper Barama and its tributary, the Baramita River. This is an area about 112 kilometers long and 40 kilometers wide, between 7° and 8° N and 59° and 61° W.

Demography. In the early 1930s the Barama River Carib numbered some 200 people. Beginning in the 1960s, the Guyanese government provided them malaria eradication and other health care. In 1970 the Barama River Carib numbered some 550 people, more than half being children. The population continues to grow because of a high fertility rate.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Barama River Carib speak a Carib language of the larger Cariban Phylum. In the 1970s they recognized two forms of their language. "Deep Carib" is less affected by modern borrowing and is more commonly used by older people and by women. "New Carib" is used by men and is modified particularly by creole English, which many Carib men also speak.

History and Cultural Relations

The Barama River Carib have faced a series of Western influences. Discovery of gold in the rivers of the North West District ushered in an international gold rush from 1890 until well into the 1910s. "Pork-knockers," as the men were called who came from the coastal villages settled by freed African slaves, were joined by Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, North American, and British gold seekers. In the 1930s Wellesley Baird and his father, both Guyanese, commenced their gold-mining enterprises in the Barama River area and continued until 1969. During that time the Bairds hired Carib men as miners.


In the 1930s the Barama River Carib were divided into two more or less autonomous groups of about equal size. One group lived in the upper reaches of the Barama River and its tributary, the Baramita, and a second group lived in the middle range of the river around Toakaima Falls. Each group had five to eight settlements. Within the same settlement, households were widely dispersed. Each household was set up in one or more open-sided, thatched houses in the midst of a cassava field of about 0.4 hectares in size. Households and, eventually, settlements would be relocated as farms lost their productivity. Baird's mining activities had the effect of centralizing the Carib population around Baramita Air Strip. By 1970 all but a small kin group lived permanently around the air strip or in two nearby settlements. The small kin group, which continued to maintain farms further in the forest, made lengthy visits to Baramita Air Strip.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Before gold mining, the Barama River Carib were adapting to the equatorial rain forest with an essentially lithic technology. They combined hunting, fishing, and collecting with a seminomadic form of horticulture. Before extensive regional trade and a cash economy were introduced concomitently with mining activities, dispersed settlements tended to be closed with regard to patterns of obtaining and sharing subsistence resources. The Barama River Carib have been increasingly involved in a regional economy. Employment was available in gold mining from about 1940 to 1969. At first, Carib men cleared fields, hunted, and transported equipment and supplies for the gold seekers. In time, these Carib men performed more skilled mining tasks and became familiar with the need to keep work schedules, particularly when water had to be pumped continuously from the mine shaft. The Carib faced hardship when the mine closed in 1969. Aided by government agricultural cooperative programs, they have returned to slas-hand-burn horticulture in the rain forest.

Industrial Arts. Carib men make bows and arrows and baskets. Women make pottery. A utilitarian principle is emphasized in all crafts.

Trade. Trading between people from different households takes the form of direct exchange. Labor, food, and craft items are bartered or exchanged for money. During the period of mining, most exchanges were made through the mine's trade store, which later was maintained as a government store.

Division of Labor. A separation of tasks is generally practiced in the adaptation to the tropical forest. Men hunt and clear fields, construct houses, build canoes, make baskets, and plant crops. Cooperation among households principally involves the men's activities of field clearing, hunting, canoe making, and the like. Cooperation is expedient rather than necessary. As a result, patterns of cooperation lack permanence and explicitness. Women harvest the crops, gather edibles from the forest, prepare all food, sew, and tend children. Men and women cooperate to plant fields and poison streams for fish. With the introduction of the mining economy, the women in miners' households left aside most of their gathering and cultivating. In the company of a coresident mother or mother-in-law, these wives concerned themselves with cooking, sewing, and child rearing in their separate households.

Land Tenure. There is no land tenure among the Barama River Carib and no accumulation of capital in any significant form. From time to time, there are government proposals to create a reservation for the Barama River Carib.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Barama River Carib tend to favor close consanguineal marriages and concentrated kinship relatedness. After a few generations of endogamous marriages, a pattern of fission tended to disperse segments of the population to new locations. The kinship system is designed for survival at a minimal size. Although mining jobs kept the Barama River Carib in one locale from the 1930s to the 1960s, their kinship system has not changed. A small, endogamous population, the Barama River Carib practice direct marriage exchange in a two-section kinship system. Two categories of brothers and sisters, between which there is a direct marriage-exchange relationship, are repeated in each generation.

Kinship Terminology. Categories of father and his brothers, mother and her sisters, father's sisters or mother-in-law, and mother's brothers or father-in-law are designated. Children are classified with terms for sonsincluding same-sex siblings' sonsand daughtersincluding same-sex siblings' daughters. The term for nephew covers opposite-sex siblings' sons, and eventually individuals from this group become sons-in-law. The term for niece covers opposite-sex siblings' daughters who likewise eventually may marry classificatory sons. A measure of flexibility in the designation of marriage sections is provided by the malleable status of young females. With sister's daughter marriage, which is uncommon, a daughter leaves her own generation and joins the marriage section of her father's sisters, who are married to her mother's brothers. Grandparents are not differentiated, nor are grandchildren.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Apprenticeship for marriage requires a number of years of bride-service. Each young man attaches himself to the household of a potential wife, usually any one of his bilateral cross cousins. Literally on the periphery of the household, the young man is socially isolated by taboos against talking to or looking at his prospective inlaws. The girlfriend serves as an intermediary in the youth's contribution to the hunting and other subsistence activities of the household. The period of isolation for the young man lasts until the birth of his child. He announces his new status as a father via the couvade. He remains in his hammock for several days and follows restrictions on activity and diet associated with pregnancy. Men would cut short the period of couvade in order to meet work schedules at the mines.

A daughter remains a highly regarded member of a household throughout her life. While in her natal household, she gives birth to her first and perhaps subsequent children as well. She does not leave her own mother until she is an experienced mother herself. Even then, she returns often to visit her parents. Later, she will include her dependent mother or father in her own household. During the years of mining, many adult daughters never left their parents.

The practice of polygyny continued into the mining days on a minor scale. Usually, a death or other contingency led to a plural marriage as a way of including everyone. Also, several men who aspire to the newly introduced position of headman have several wives. The Barama River Carib have no formal ceremony to mark marriage. It is accomplished by adhering to the social expectation of cooperation with a spouse on a day-to-day basis. Similarly, divorce is a de facto cessation of day-to-day cooperation.

Domestic Unit. Prior to mining, a household was composed of a man and his wife or wives and their unmarried children. These children included their own and those they had adopted. A relative from the older generation may also have been absorbed as a dependent. Divorce or death could dissolve a household, the remaining members joining existing households or forming new households with available partners. The family was temporarily extended with the expected marriage of a daughter. Her husband-to-be resided uxorilocally until shortly after the birth of his child, when he was free to establish a new household. In contrast, employment in mining promoted father-son and father-son-in-law cooperative bonds. As males secured jobs, they tended to disassociate from the pattern of sharing resources with a group of bilateral kinsmen. Employment of any duration acted to stabilize partnerships within households, and the family became extended. A son or son-in-law and his wife and children remained a part of the household.

Inheritance. There is no inheritance of any consequence among the Barama River Carib.

Socialization. Children are highly valued and indulged. Socialization takes place in the informal context of the household. Although mothers provide the primary care, fathers and older siblings regularly offer attention to children. Government schools have been opened for Barama River Carib children. Some adults also attend classes in hope of learning how to read and write English.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Traditionally, the Barama River Carib social organization consisted of groups of adult brothers who lived near each other, thus creating the impermanent settlements in the tropical forest.

Political Organization. A headman was recognized in each settlement, with his influence deriving from his personal qualities. The government has introduced the salaried position of headman, intended to be a liaison with development programs. The Barama River Carib continue to explore the meaning of this role; they are a people who do not tell others what to do lest they move their household.

Social Control and Conflict. Group action, usually ostracism, would be taken against individuals who threatened the pattern of sharing resources and giving assistance within the settlement. Of course, the laws of Guyana extend to the Barama River Carib.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Barama River Carib are acquainted with major Christian beliefs, but retain their own now minor spirits. They also have their own narratives about their origin and how their low status in the plural society of Guyana came about. The Barama River Carib reinterpret Christian stories. For example, they portray Noah as an average Carib woman who along with her husband was saved from the flood because she offered food to a stranger who turned out to be the Western paternal deity in disguise.

Religious Practitioners. A few elderly men among the Barama River Carib are known as shamans with expertise in magic and divination. These men have not participated in the new activities at the mines and the air strip. The shamans are both feared and ignored by different segments of the population at different times.

Ceremonies. The paramount Barama River Carib ceremony is the cassiri spree. In preparation, women make cassiri, a mildly alcoholic drink, by chewing cassava bread so that mouth enzymes change the cassava's carbohydrates to sugar. With this fermentation agent, the cassiri is ready in a few days. Singing and dancing continue as long as the cassiri lasts. A spree may be held at any time, and all national holidays are observed with a cassiri spree.

Arts. The development of arts is not marked among the Barama River Carib. When pregnant and yearning to have a healthy child, women occasionally fashion out of beeswax dolls that fit in the palm of their hands. These dolls are eventually discarded. The Barama River Carib also make small clay animals, which are children's toys as long as they last.

Medicine. The government provides malaria eradication, clinics, a medical ranger, and emergency air transportation to the hospital in the capital, Georgetown. The Barama River Carib intermittently use local medicaments prepared from flora and fauna for ailments and injuries.

Death and Afterlife. The Barama River Carib believe that after death a person's good half returns to the source of all life, whereas the remaining half lingers around and may cause harm to the living. Traditionally, the Barama River Carib would bury the dead in their household and leave the settlement before dark. In the more permanent, larger settlements around the airstrip, they retain their apprehension about those who have died but have found the remote graveyard is a modern solution.


Adams, Kathleen J. (1979). "Work Opportunities and Household Organization among the Barama River Caribs of Guyana." Anthropos 74:219-222.

Adams, Kathleen J. (1983-1984). "The Premise of Equality among the Barama River Caribs of Guyana." Antropológica (Caracas: Fundacíon La Salle de Ciencias Naturales, Instituto Caribe de Antropología y Sociología) 59-62:299-307.

Baird, Wellesley A. (1982). Guyana Gold. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press.

Gillin, John (1936). The Barama River Caribs of British Guiana. Papers of the Peabody Museum, 14. Cambridge, Mass.