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ETHNONYMS: Puquina, Uru


Identification. The Chipaya speak Chipaya and live on the high plains of Bolivia. Although their legends reflect that they have resided only in the same general area where they presently live, their linguistic affiliation points to their having migrated from Central America. The name "Chipaya" probably came from the Aymara ch'ipaña, "to tie up," referring to the netlike way they tie the roofs on their houses.

Location. The Chipaya form a small island in the midst of the Aymara. They live on wind-swept highlands at an elevation of about 3,800 meters, just northeast of a salt lake, the Salar de Coipasa, about 200 kilometers southwest of Oruro, in the department of Oruro and the province of Atahuallpa, approximately 13° N and 25° E, between the Barras and the Lauca rivers in an area about 35 kilometers by 13 kilometers. In the early 1980s a group of men migrated to a semitropical area about 100 kilometers east of Cochabamba in the Chapare (Canton Villa Tunari) and named it the Colonia Flor de San Pedro de Chipaya. They cleared land, planted crops, and built houses, but in 1985 it was still not certain if the new settlement would be maintained permanently.

Demography. La Barre mentions that in 1930 there were about 350 Chipaya. In spite of a high rate of infant and child mortality, by the early 1960s the population had increased to about 700. There was a serious measles epidemic in the fall of 1964 that resulted in the death of over 100, most of whom were children. Since the measles epidemic the population has increased and had surpassed 1,000 by 1985. The Chipaya area of the Bolivian altiplano is not fertile enough to maintain a growing population, so dispersion is inevitable.

Linguistic Affiliation. Chipaya belongs to the Macro-Mayan Language Family and is very closely related to Uru, a language spoken only by a few older people near where the Río Desaguadero flows out of Lake Titicaca. The Chipaya language consists of up to 20 percent loanwords from Aymara and/or Quechua, as well as loanwords from Spanish.

History and Cultural Relations

Evidence that the Chipaya migrated from Central America is seen in their orientation to the four cardinal directions, their yearly religious calendar, and their use of the corbeled arch in native architecture. Migrating southward, they were presumably forced up onto the highland plateau and gradually moved, and/or were moved, to their present location. They value their freedom more than they do better land. Documents dated as far back as 1722 show conflict with the surrounding Aymara. This conflict was finally settled in the 1970s when the Chipaya permanently lost more land to the Collana ayllu of Aymara. Because of close contact with the Aymara, the Chipaya have assimilated some of their cultural practices. The culture of the Inca Empire has also influenced the Chipaya. An old Inca burial ground is traditionally identified as the original Chipaya settlement, and there are some loanwords from Quechua that are not cognate with Aymara. A common belief in the area is that the Chipaya came from the Chullpa, an ancient people, probably Quechua, because the clothing on mummified Chullpa bodies is similar to Chipaya clothing.


Present-day Chipaya remember only three ayllus, although they recognize that at one time there must have been four because of the physical evidence (e.g., lines of altars). The four were Tuwanta ("of the east"), Ushata ("of the north"), Tajata ("of the west"), and Waruta ("of the south"), each with its corresponding temple, altars, and geographical area but all parts of a single Chipaya village. Today there are two main Chipaya villages, Chipaya and Ayparavi (23 kilometers east of the main village). All Chipaya households are located in one or the other of these two villages. Prior to 1965 Ayparavi was just one of the agricultural areas where some Chipaya had built homes, but in 1965 the town council decided they must occupy Ayparavi on a more permanent and formal basis in order to keep the land from being lost to the Collana Aymara. At that time there was a formal separation of some Chipaya households from legal residence in the main Chipaya village. Although everyone has a house in a village, many live most of the time in the agricultural areas outside of the two villages. These areas are still largely divided according to extended families.

A traditional Chipaya village house is round, constructed of sod blocks, with the door facing east. The roof is made by first forming a framework of intersecting hoops made from tola, a short, cedarlike shrub, tied together with straw rope. Pieces of matting made from fine straw and mud are laid over the framework. Then the house is roofed with handfuls of stiff straw and ichu grass dipped in a runny clay-mud mixture. The roof is sewed on around the bottom with straw rope and then further secured with a network of straw ropes to hold it when there are strong winds. A second type of house, found in the agricultural areas, is cone shaped and made entirely of sod blocks. Recently adobes have sometimes been used for housing blocks after an initial four or five courses of sod blocks are laid. The doors were traditionally of cactus wood from nearby mountains, laced together with leather thongs, but in recent years, the use of wood and/or metal has increased.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The major crop is quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa ), commonly known as pigweed or lamb's-quarters in the United States. Not enough quinoa can be grown for family food needs, so each family must supplement the food supply by trading woven sacks, cheese, wool, or meat for other grains and food. Also, family members may seek temporary employment outside the Chipaya area.

Because of the saltiness of the soil, water is diverted from the river each winter to wash the land to be used for planting the next spring. The land is community property; each year it is divided into portions, several of which are allotted to each family. Although every family is responsible for its own crops, several persons are chosen annually to carry out prescribed rituals on behalf of the community, as well as to protect the crops from domestic animals. In exchange for this community service the caretakers, muyucamanaca, are granted the privilege of planting in suitable spots not allotted to others. There is no plowing of the ground. Planting is by dibble stick, and harvesting is by hand. The heads are knocked off the stalks, pulverized with a wooden club, winnowed, washed, and dried. The grain is then toasted and a thin bitter hull is ground off in a large stone mortar, with a woman acting as a human pestle, grinding the grain with her feet.

Domestic animals include sheep, llamas, pigs, and a few chickens. Sheep are the most important. They provide wool for clothes and milk for cheese and were necessary for the traditional sacrifices. Llamas are mostly used as beasts of burden but are also important for their wool and as sacrifices. Pigs are usually trucked to Oruro, the state capital 200 kilometers away, and sold, but they are sacrificed on certain occasions. Although hunting and fishing are not a large part of Chipaya life today, there is evidence that the Chipaya were once a hunting and fishing people. Some still hunt flamingos, ducks, and snow geese with a small three-stringed bola, each string being less than a meter in length. In the winter some hunt flamingos in the Salar de Coipasa with the chalkawñi, a line of nooses. Some still hunt flamingo chicks to make charqui (dried meat) and extract the oil (for medicinal purposes and trading). During the winter they may hunt the quetwana, a small burrowing rodent.

Industrial Arts. Industrial arts play a limited part in Chipaya life and their economy. There is some weaving of sacks to trade for food, especially after a poor harvest. Other weaving is mostly for family use. Recently a Chipaya bought an acetylene welding unit and now sells his services to nearby Aymara as well as to Chipaya, Skill in vocational arts is evidenced by the Chipaya's creative and resourceful use of sod and straw in making dams, houses, and utensils.

Trade. Barter, both for food and other commodities, was traditionally an important means of supplying family needs. The men traveled west to Chile for food and cloth goods, east to the mountains and valleys for food and felted hats, south to the Llica area for food, and north to the towns for industrial manufactured goods. Outsiders also bring trade goods into Chipaya. During cheese season many Aymara come to exchange goods at a high price for cheese at a low price. Increasingly, the Chipaya themselves market their cheese in Oruro. As the Chipaya have entered the cash economy, some have begun to sell or trade goods in their homes or in square adobe buildings adjacent to their homes.

Division of Labor. Although most activities can be performed by both sexes, home tasks such as cooking and caring for the children are usually done by women, and men do most of the agricultural work and hunting. The women do the weaving on the ground loom, and the men knit the caps. A few men use an Aymara upright loom for weaving cloth for pants and shirts.

Land Tenure. From early Spanish times, the head of each household has had a land title, for which he pays an annual tax that gives him land rights. Family ownership is recognized by the Chipaya as well as the national government. Family land is identified by place-name more than by well-defined boundaries. Because of loss of land to the Aymara and a growing population, Chipaya land is insufficient to sustain everyone. Therefore, some dispersion is taking place, to the Chapare (foothills near Cochabamba), to major cities, and to Chile.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kin Groups and Descent. The closest social unit is the nuclear family, followed by the extended family, and then by the ayllu, of which there remain only threeTajata and Tuwanta in the main village, plus Ayparavi. Ayparavi is not an ayllu of extended families like the other two, but is a mixture of families. Descent is patrilineal.

Marriage. Marriages are monogamous and group endogamousvery few Chipaya adults marry non-Chipaya. Marriage was traditionally arranged by the families, but now the young people play the decisive role. Divorce is not common.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is the most important social unit and has its own household. It is now more common for families to take in aged parents, whereas previously they were generally expected to fend for themselves. Orphans or children of relatives who have more children than they can care for may be adopted by families with few or no children.

Inheritance. Property is divided among the surviving children, but usually that is very little. As people age, they usually have more needs than assets. Important religious objects are generally passed on to the oldest son for proper care.

Socialization. Children are cared for by the family, including older siblings. Children are expected to be independent and responsible for themselves. Chipaya life and ways are taught more by observation than by instruction. Only after marriage is a Chipaya able to participate fully in all aspects of community life.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The ayllu is the basic community social unit or organization. There is little social ranking among members.

Political Organization. Chipaya is a true democracy: participation is expected by all household units. Each year the ayllu chooses its chief mayor, alcanti jilacata, and its field mayor, alcanti campo, by casting lots between three candidates for each position. The chief mayor has general responsibility, whereas the field mayor is mainly responsible for fields and water. There are also civil authorities, such as the civil magistrate, curjitura (Spanish: corregidor), the civil agent, ajinti (Spanish: agente), and civil registrar, rejistru civil (Spanish: registro civil). Although the Bolivian government may consider them town authorities, these offices carry little inherent power. Another set of positions relates to community religious festivities. Despite the fact that the chief mayor is also a chief religious figure, each year the people choose those who will be responsible for the community festivals. Those festival leaders, in turn, choose two main helpers.

Social Control. To a large extent, social control is exercised by community and peer pressure. There is also a judicial system, however, that adjudicates between disputants. The state-appointed judges, always Chipaya, usually handle these disputes, but another Chipaya who is a civil authority may also be chosen to be the "judge" of a dispute.

Conflict. Most conflicts have been with adjacent Aymara over land and water rights. Being a small, hemmed-in group, however, the Chipaya have experienced a great deal of interayllu and interfamily conflict in the past.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Until very recently the chief religion was animism. Since the 1960s, worship of many gods and spiritsnature spirits, spirits associated with Catholic relics, etc.has largely been replaced by worship of the Christian God. Most Chipaya are now associated with the Catholic Oblate Fathers, the Unión Cristiana Evangélica (a Bolivian evangelical denomination), or a group of Chilean Pentecostals.

Religious Practitioners. In the Christian groups there are usually about three men who share the leadership, one being recognized as the main leader but with all regularly participating in leadership functions. In addition, any adult male may exercise some functions of leadership in the absence of the designated leaders. In the animistic religion, the leaders were chosen yearly. The muyucamanaca, those charged with the religious practices associated with the fields and assurance a good harvest, were also chosen yearly; they sacrificed animals from their own flocks. In addition, there were many who practiced shamanism, mediating between individuals and the spirit world.

Ceremonies. Apart from Christian ceremonies today, the traditional yearly cycle started at the end of July with major festivities and ceremonies. Other major times of ceremonies and festivities were around the end of the year (fertility rites) and just before Lent. It is possible that these times were originally governed by traditional astral lore. Each traditional community festival begins the previous evening with ceremonies and activities, and, for the general populace, concludes with a festival meal provided by the festival leaders. Traditionally, any sheep, llamas, and pigs were sacrificedmostly sheep. A major festival required sacrifices of each kind of animal. Dancing, processions, and religious practices were common parts of community festivals. Other ceremonies were part of family religious practices.

Arts. Religious art does not play a major role, although each year the Chipaya do make figurines of sheep, llamas, and pigs that are used in some ceremonies. Chipaya art is best seen in the weaving. Woven bags reveal a sensitivity to color harmony. The men's and women's woven "purses" and the knit caps of infants, boys, and men also show artistic ability.

Medicine. Traditionally, illness was always connected with the spirit world. Native healers used ceremonies and medicinal herbs in the healing process. From another perspective, "hot" and "cold" elements are important to health, and certain foods and herbs are classified as "hot" or "cold." In the early 1980s a Chipaya studied rural health and secured the government-funded position in the local health center.

Death and Afterlife. The wake and the funeral service are simple but important in avoiding offense to the spirit of the dead. Burial is aboveground, in a tomb of sod blocks, plastered over with mud. Traditionally, a triangular-shaped opening in the top structure on the front of the grave was made to receive the offerings for the spirit of the dead. When wind and rain erode the tomb and the bones are exposed, they are ceremoniously placed in the tshih khuya (bone house). The Chipaya were very concerned about pleasing the spirits of the dead because they were believed to have the power to inflict harm on the living. It was important to observe the proper ceremonies, especially during the first three years after death.


Condori Choque, Santiago (1975). "Los Chipayas." Publicaciones Especiales de Educación Popular (Oruro, Bolivia: Instituto de Investigación Cultural para Educación Popular [INDICEP]) 9:1-9.

La Barre, Weston (1946). "The Uru-Chipaya." In Handbook of South American Indians, edited by Julian H. Steward. Vol. 2, The Andean Civilizations, 575-585. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 143. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Métraux, Alfred. (1935). "Les indiens uro-chipaya de Carangas." Journal de Société des Américanistes 27:111128, 325-415.

Olson, Deborah S. (1983). "Life on the Altiplano: Ethnographic Notes on the Chipaya Indians of Bolivia." B.A. honors thesis, University of Texas at Arlington.

Olson, Ronald D. (1979). "Datos sobre la cultura chipaya: Instituto Boliviano de Cultura." La Paz. Unpublished manuscript. Also available in microfiche from the Summer Institute of Linguistics, Dallas.