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ETHNONYMS: Ishír ("person," "someone of human appearance and intelligence")


Identification. The name "Xamicoco" or "Xamacoco," recognized since the latter part of the 1700s among the probable ancestors of the present Chamacoco, is of obscure origin. Its degree of acceptance by the Indians is also unknown, although they prefer the name "Ishír." The designation "Chamacoco" is probably related to "Chamóc" or "Zamúc," the ethnonym of a group of the Zamuco Family.

Location. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Chamacoco occupied the northeastern corner of the Chaco Boreal, in the arid zone of Cerro San Miguel and the headwaters of the Río Verde in Paraguay. The retreat of the Mbayá-Kadiwéu to the eastern shores of the Río Paraguay allowed the Chamacoco to relocate up to the western shores of that river between Bahía Negra and Fuerte Olimpo (20° to 22° N); they retained the southern portion of the hinterlands from 40 to 50 kilometers to the coast.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Chamacoco language belongs to the Zamuco Language Family. As a consequence of sociopolitical factionalization and reciprocal hostility, four dialects can be distinguished: Ebidóso and Hório, in the Bahía Negra region; Héiwo, in the Fuerte Olimpo area; and Tomaráho, in the interior forested zones.

Demography. In 1970 it was estimated that the combined Hório- and Ebidóso-speaking groups numbered 800 persons, whereas the Tomaráho did not exceed 200. Around 1930, however, the total Chamacoco population is believed to have been more than 2,000.

History and Cultural Relations

In economic, sociological, and mythological terms the Chamacoco are a symbiosis of very primitive hunters and gathererssimilar to those of Tierra del Fuegobut hunters with a dual organization and incipient agriculture, resembling the Gê of eastern Brazil and Mato Grosso. Present in Chamacoco culture are possibly also certain influences of the somewhat more intensive agriculturists of the plains of Chiquitos. First contacts with the Europeans occurred about the end of the eighteenth century, but simultaneously the Chamacoco were strongly influenced by the Kadiwéu whom they met on their journey to the Río Paraguay. Aside from imposing a regular tribute of slavesand thus establishing a typical intertribal systemthe Kadiwéu imparted to them some features of their political style, which was strongly martial and based on endogamous castes. Consequently, in addition to waging wars against neighboring tribes to capture slaves for their masters, the Chamacoco quickly learned to use the slaves for their own benefit, and, with their own rules of clan organization slackening, they also accepted the rudiments of hierarchic stratification and intertribal marriage.

Around 1800, following the definitive occupation of their territory by Whites, the massive assimilation of the Chamacoco as salaried workers in the lumber industry and in ranching and the total overhaul of the Chamacoco tribal economy began. Although various social and political customs endured, albeit in a greatly altered form, the inception, in 1955, of the activities of the New Tribes Mission brought an end to the boys' initiation ritual and pertaining practices among the Hório-Ebidóso. Only among the Tomaráho subgroup are these still performed. Yet, at about the same time, the state of Paraguay ceded to the Chamacoco a reservation zone in Puerto Esperanza, an area more or less distant from Whites, where a major portion of the Ebidóso and almost the entire group of Tomaráho were concentrated. This important event had an invigorating effect on the faltering institution of youth initiation.


Prior to Western influence and in response to the alternating climatic changes in the region that necessitated the dispersion of the tribal groups during the dry season (March to August) and their concentration in rural villages during the wet season (September to February), the Chamacoco followed a threefold residential pattern that allowed them to renew their clan relationships and to celebrate their ritual cycles. Placed near good water sources, the settlement types included the oihyút, or temporary encampment of a band consisting of a single family or of multiple families; the dút, which assembled a group of up to 50 or 60 persons; and the diyét, a huge encampment of up to 600 individuals who gathered for ceremonial purposes. In all three types of residential arrangements, the precariously constructed huts of straw mats formed a circle around a small central plaza; it is not clear whether there existed any fixed clan locations. In addition, the dút and the diyét had within their vicinities a second small plaza hidden in the woods, where the men's secret society met to celebrate their initiation rites. These circular villages and their nearby ritual sites still exist among the Tomaráho. The Ebidóso, however, influenced by the New Tribes, adopted a rectangular village plan with "streets" at right angles and fenced lots in which individual families construct their houses of palm stems with saddle roofs.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Chamacoco were primarily gatherers of honey and wild vegetables. They hunted animals and birds to obtain meat, hides, and feathers. They also caught eels and fished for species that abound in freshwater lakes and small rivers. A very strict code of rules based on sex and age governed the quality and quantity of consumption. Taboos and restrictions were particularly numerous for younger people. The Chamacoco knew some simple techniques of food preservation (e.g., smoking meat, preparing flour from carob beans), which lessened the severity of the dry season. They lacked domesticated animals except dogs, of which there might have existed an autochthonous variety. Food-procuring activities other than honey collecting, hunting, and occasional fishing were of little importance to the native economy. Aside from salaried employment in Western establishments, an increasing number of Chamacoco have taken to farming for home consumption, breeding domesticated animals and some livestock, manufacturing handicrafts for the tourist trade, and hunting, often illegally, for marketable furs. The procurement of food and Western goods through barter, purchase, or donations from welfare-oriented agencies, government or private, is an important supplement to Chamacoco subsistence.

Industrial Arts. The Chamacoco do not manufacture stone implements, and their overall technology is little developed. In addition to very primitive pottery, they make weapons (bows and arrows, maces, spears) and gathering implements (digging sticks) of wood. Bags and sandals are made of leather; bags, shawls, ropes, and protective coats of Bromelia fiber; and beautiful ritual adornments of bird feathers.

Trade. Previously, the members of opposing clans conducted certain ritualized transactions in which the donor was considered of higher rank and prestige than the receiver. Presently, through barter or monetary transactions, the Chamacoco participate in most commercial networks in the region.

Division of Labor. Until recently, women were responsible for gathering vegetable food and turtles, activities that were possibly more important than hunting to the traditional Chamacoco diet. They still process Bromelia fiber, fetch and store water and firewood, and take care of the household equipment during migrations. Their artisanal activities have also become very important for the tourist trade. Men were hunters and gathers of honey. They had the monopoly on ritual activities and symbolic prestige and were the prime participants in curing and magical practices. Nowdays, men bear the brunt of wage labor and subsistence farming, and the traditional economic importance of women has diminished.

Land Tenure. The various Chamacoco subgroups used to own relatively unlimited stretches of land but each clearly recognized the others' rights to fishing, hunting, and gathering grounds. Disregard for such rights and disputes over them caused frequent wars. Nowadays, the Chamacoco own small reserves of land, the most important of which, Puerto Esperanza, covers an area of 21,000 hectares. Its legal title is in the hands of one of the subtribal chiefs, which causes continuous tension among the groups.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Ebidóso and Tomaráho were divided into seven exogamic-patrilineal clans. There existed, in addition, an endogamic clan that performed priestly functions and rites of ritual closure and impurity. At the same time, the exogamic clans were subdivided into moieties, which were responsible for matrimonial exchange and certain reciprocal economic and religious services. Internally, the clans were rigidly structured on the basis of sex and age. They were characterized by prestige rankings and functions and shaped the personality of their members in accordance to these characteristics. Their exogamic marriage rules and almost all of their norms and regulations were jeopardized as a result of contact, first with the Kadiwéu, and later with Whites. Interethnic marriages, illegitimate births, and, above all, changes in the upbringing of children, have relegated the previous tribal practices to memories and nostalgia.

Kinship Terminology. Chamacoco kinship terminology is markedly descriptive. It is characterized by an extensive nomenclature of terms of address and by a set of necronyms.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In the past, marriage was arranged by the man who had been responsible for the proper conduct and development of the bride's puberty initiation. He was always of the clan complementary to that of the initiate and had to have demonstrated superior personal qualities while looking after the girl. Rules of premarital courtship and nuptial etiquette were based on the exchange of goods between the families of the bride and the groom. Postmarital residence was uxorilocal; the groom rendered bride-service under strict observation of an avoidance taboo toward his mother-in-law. Marriages of very young couples or people widely separated by relative age were disallowed, and a deliberate restriction was imposed on birthrates. Nowadays, clan restrictions have been relaxed, marriages take place at an earlier age, the divorce rate has increased, and, as in Creole families, so has the number of children.

Domestic Unit. Although the autonomy of the nuclear family has been increasing, the extensive family bonds and coresidence of several generations persist. These generate extensive family networks, which regulate temporary migrations and periodic visits.

Inheritance. Traditionally, the personal belongings of the deceased that were not part of the funeral dowry accrued to the surviving spouse, the nearest relatives, and the gravedigger. Presently, all livestock and valuable belongings are inherited according to Western practices.

Socialization. Although rather permissive during early childhood, the traditional process of enculturation subjected the adolescent youth to ascetic nutritional and sexual discipline and a strict observance of hierarchic rituals. Respect and strict self-control toward people of their own kind were inculcated, whereas extreme aggressiveness in the face of the enemy was exalted. The influence of Paraguayan society is reflected today in harsher treatment of children, sexual permissiveness, and untabooed food consumption by postpuberty youth.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Formerly, the clan (which regulated incest, affiliation, and various interchanges) and the age groups (which governed enculturation, provision of food to the old by the young, and conjugal access of young men to the daughters of the old in compensation for their alimentary services) were the axes of the Chamacoco social system. Although maximum symbolic prestige was attributed to the men, especially the elderly, in practice the power of the women could not be ignored. Contact with the Kadiwéu introduced the serfdom of war captives, but mixed marriages tended to make the captives equal to the Chamacoco. Nor did the superabundance of mestizos born of irregular unions of indigenous women with White men generate a different class.

Political Organization. Aside from a "strong" chief and a "weak" chief whose attributes were largely symbolic, the villages had military leaders (mpolóta ), economic leaders (nehniúrt ) and religious leaders (ahnéert ). Their powers, derived from personal prestige, were not coactive. Sometimes paramount chiefs were recognized, thus loosely unifying the different dialectal groups that divided the Chamacoco. Later, political power was founded on connective mechanisms (linguistic and technical) established with Paraguayan authorities and colonists. In the late twentieth century, with the multiplication of economic, religious, Indianist, and political networks in conflict among themselves, group factionalism has increased together with its concomitant fission and fusion processes.

Social Control. Formerly, social control was an essential responsibility of the tobich (men's secret society), which penalized severely, frequently with the death penalty, the incorrigibles and the serious violators of tribal ethics (those who committed homicide or infractions of the dietary rules, showed disrespect to the elderly, or revealed the secret rituals to women). Lighter cases involved banishment, isolation of the guilty, or public mocking. Dread of sorcery and the pitfalls of giving in to women also influenced the regulation of conduct. The disappearance of the tobich opened a juridical hiatus, which has not been satisfactorily filled by Western institutions.

Conflict. Mythology and narratives reveal the existence of structural conflictsfor example those between men and women and between the elderly and the youngin traditional Chamacoco society. Factors involved in such conflicts include the asymmetry between the symbolic masculine role and the feminine economic role and the excessive rigor with which young men are treated during initiation. There is also evidence of the practice of ritual homicide of women and of the occurrence of rebellions and migrations of young people tired of maltreatment by the elderly. Hostility toward ethnic exogroups alternated with tendencies toward interchange and alliance, particularly with respect to Whites. At present, the principal lines of conflict, although related to the processes of acculturation, are all internal. Thus, a strong competition exists between a faction of modern agriculturists who nevertheless strive to revive traditional customs and values, and members of another faction who cling to traditional, albeit commercialized, hunting practices while at the same time demonstrating profound depreciation of the customs of their forebears.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The concretion of Chamacoco religious thought, including concepts of purity, impurity, and sacredness, divine beings, and mythological events, is derived from a vision of the world centered in the mystery of the contrast death/life, conceived of as asymmetric phases of a unitary process. Religious tenets are also grounded in the dichotomies disharmony/harmony and nonconditioning/conditioning, which shape the contours of many cognitive patterns prevailing in the culture. Apart from a now-otiose creator being, divinities of the hunt, and a profuse series of demonic entities, the characteristic deities of the Chamacoco are the Ahnábsero. Arising from the depths and initially revealed to the women, these gods form a complex pantheon headed by a feminine figure. The adventures of the Ahnábsero and their deaths at the hands of men form a rich mythological saga in which the gods become the original authors of the ethics code and the founders of cultural institutions. The evangelical influence of the New Tribes Mission has become very strong, but it is quietly resisted by the most traditionalist factions.

Religious Practitioners. In earlier times, aside from the diverse specialists in magic, the endogamic clan of the Carancho assumed a central sacerdotal role. Scorned in daily life, its members conducted the main purification rites of the ceremonial cycle. The White missionaries have failed to establish an Indian priesthood.

Ceremonies. The debilübe áhmich, or ritual celebration of the Ahnábsero, lasts the entire rainy season, coinciding with the initiatory seclusion period for boys. Whereas some ceremonial activities require the active participation of women, a good part of the almost thirty different ceremonies of the ritual is conducted exclusively by men. These consist of dramatizations of the drought and wet weather, of natural resources and economic practices that are linked with one another, of fundamental religious tenets, and of ceremonies for the expulsion of impurity. The actors wear masks, paint their bodies according to complex symbolic codes, and don exquisite feather decorations.

Arts. Apart from body painting and decorative featherwork, mention must be made of the manufacture of Bromelia -fiber cloth, the plaiting of palm fronds, and an extensive repertoire of religious, magic, and funerary music.

Medicine. Together with a complex cosmology of seven celestial and several subterranean planes inhabited by various distinct divinities who initiate shamans, there is a great diversity of specialists in magic. Besides healing and causing sickness, they are also responsible for rain and abundance in the natural world. Sickness is attributed to the interference of extraterrestrial beings, the violation of taboos, or soul loss. Curing is accomplished by means of massage techniques and suction, as well as by ecstatic flight in search of abducted souls. Western medicine, however, is gaining increasing acceptance.

Death and Afterlife. Death in advanced age is seen as an almost "natural" link between the mental weakening of the elderly and the lack of reason among the dead. The Chamacoco believe in a subterranean region, osépete, where the deceased live an existence without joy or appeal. Villages used to be abandoned following a death, and widowers remained in isolation until their hair, which had been shorn off, started to grow again. The interment of the cadaver created a fictitious kin relationship with the member of the complementary clan who performed this duty.


Súsnik, Branislava (1969). Chamacocos. Vol. 1, Cambio cultural Asunción: Museo A. Barbero.

Cordeu, Edgardo J. (1984). "Categorías básicas, principios lógicos y redes simbólicas de la cosmovisión de los indios ishír." Journal of Latin American Lore 10:189-275.

Wilbert, Johannes, and Karin Simoneau, eds. (1987). Folk Literature of the Chamacoco Indians, Los Angeles: Latin American Center, University of California.

EDGARDO JORGE CORDEU (Translated by Ruth Gubler)