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ETHNONYMS: Ava, Izoceño, Simba, Tapui, Tembeta


Identification. The name "Chiriguano" is of foreign origin, most commonly believed to be of Quechuan derivation. A more probable explanation, however, is that this term refers to the mixed ethnic origin of the Chiriguano. Historically, the Chiriguano referred to themselves as "Ava" (men).

Location. Before the Conquest the Chiriguano occupied a vast territory that ranged from the upper Río Pilcomayo to the upper Río Grande in Bolivia. Presently, the Chiriguano are settled in dozens of communities in the foothills of the Bolivian Andes, in the Izozo region of Bolivia, and in several communities near the city of Santa Cruz. Other groups have settled, since the beginning of the twentieth century and particularly during the Chaco War (1932-1935), in border towns of Paraguay and in the provinces of Salta and Jujuy in northwest Argentina.

Demography. In the eighteenth century the total Chiriguano population was between 100,000 and 200,000. Today in Bolivia it is estimated at 22,000, in Argentina at about 21,000, and in Paraguay at approximately 3,000.

linguistic Affiliation. The Chiriguano language belongs to the Tupí-Guaraní Family. All four Chiriguano ethnic groups (Ava, Izoceño, Simba, and Chane) speak the same language with slight differences in pronunciation and vocabulary.

History and Cultural Relations

Present-day Chiriguano are the descendants of Guaraní people who migrated from Brazil, and of the Chane, an Arawak group. The Guaraní initiated a series of massive migrations that are known to have begun at the end of the fifteenth century. These migrations were driven by the desire to acquire metal objects and by messianic motivesthe search for a mythical "land without evil"and augmented because of internal conflict. Upon entering Bolivian territory, the Guaraní encountered the peaceful Chane. They reduced them to slavery, took their wives, and thus initiated a process of intermarriage. The result of the fusion of the Guaraní with the Chane is what we know as the Chiriguano. The Chiriguano were fierce warriors who conquered other ethnic groups and were not subjugated by the Inca Empire. Their relations with the Spanish and the Creoles were marked by warfare and uprisings, some of these characterized by their messianic tradition. The encounter with Whites, however, led to a drastic decimation of the population through warfare, slavery, and disease. Chiriguano were employed by White settlers on their large estates.

In 1892 the last great uprising took place, conducted by a Chiriguano known as Apiaguaiqui Tumpa, who was believed to possess supernatural power. He decided to fight against the settlers and reinstall the traditional Chiriguano life-style, but the local government sent in troops from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Apiaguaiqui was killed, and the uprising was suppressed. The Chiriguano have been subjected to concerted efforts at conversion. Since colonial times the Jesuits and then the Franciscans have established missions throughout Chiriguano territory. At first the Chiriguano burned the missions, but eventually the Franciscans were successful in establishing a vast network of mission stations that lumped groups together and instituted schools and agricultural production. In the nineteenth century (as a result of the political and economic situation of Bolivia), the missions underwent a period of economic and organizational crisis and finally collapsed. Present-day Chiriguano are divided into two major groups: the Ava Guaraní, who inhabit the foothills of the Andes, and the Izoceño, who inhabit the Izozo region and are considered to have a greater Chane influence in their culture. The two minor groups include the traditional Simba, who inhabit a village in the Andean foothills, and the Chane of Argentina, who are completely Guaranítized. Chiriguano communities have few mestizo inhabitants; although permitted, intermarriage with Whites and mestizos is infrequent.


In aboriginal and early contact times Chiriguano settlements were villages along rivers. Each settlement was formed by one or several malocas (communal long houses), which could be inhabited by up to 300 people. Population density was high; villages ranged from 50 to up to 1,000 inhabitants. Towns had a large central plaza used for religious festivities and assemblies. The influence of Chane culture and contact with the missionaries and Whites changed the housing structure to small-household, extended-family units, which persist today. The traditional Chiriguano house was of wattle-and-daub construction, with a pitched roof of thatch reeds or poles. A storehouse for maize and other crops was built on piles near the dwelling. Currently, the same type of construction exists side by side with houses made of adobe brick and zinc roofs. Each village features a small primary school, a dispensary, and a grocery cooperative or several small grocery stores. In most Chiriguano villages there is neither running water nor electricity.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities, The Chiriguano were traditionally horticulturists and hunter-gatherers. They incorporated new methods of cultivation from the Chane. The Ava Chiriguano are settled in a rich agricultural area, although water is scarce. The Izoceño inhabit an arid region of the Gran Chaco, where strong winds, erosion, and a lack of water hinder agricultural production. The former inhabitants of the region, the Chane, developed a system of irrigation, digging canals up to 5 kilometers long from the river to the fields, thus providing a source of water to improve productivity. Nowadays the Chiriguano practice swidden agriculture and complement their diet with fishing during the rainy season and hunting. Fruit collecting, which was an important source of food, has diminished in certain communities as a result of cultural and ecological changes. The most important crops are maize, beans, and squash, which constitute the basis of the Chiriguano diet. Other plants, such as sweet potatoes and manioc, complement the diet. Vegetables such as tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce, and onions have been introduced through contact with the missionaries, White settlers, and development agencies. The Chiriguano also raise chickens, turkeys, sheep, and goats.

Since the beginning of the nineteenth century the Chiriguano have migrated in search of work, which they could not find in their homeland. Hundreds of Chiriguano families migrated to northern Argentina to work on the farms and sugarcane plantations. This migration, which constitutes an important aspect of their society, has produced numerous changes in the culture. Because of the economic crisis in Argentina, the Chiriguano do not migrate there anymore, but to the cotton and sugarcane harvest near Santa Cruz de la Sierra and to northern Bolivia for work in the timber mills. These temporary migrations, which in some cases last up to six months, have produced a deterioration in local agricultural production. Nongovernmental development agencies have been implementing development projects to revitalize agriculture and allow people to obtain a source of income in their communities without having to migrate or depend upon patrones (employers).

Industrial Arts. Aboriginal crafts included basket weaving, pottery, and loom weaving. Today, weaving of fishing nets and bags persists and loom weaving of hammocks, ponchos, and handbags constitutes an important source of income for many women. Chiriguano weaving, especially that in the Izozo region, is well known for its quality and designs.

Trade. Precolonial trade was maintained between the Chiriguano and other ethnic groups. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Chane served as intermediaries to the Guaraní, trading metal objects made in the highlands. Until the 1940s trade continued to take place between different groups. The Izoceño would trade their weavings to the Ava in exchange for corn. Cheese and salt were important tradegoods.

Division of Labor. Women attend to household chores; in the fields they do the harvesting and planting of beans, squash, and watermelon. Men are responsible for hunting, fishing (women also participate in fishing but to a smaller degree), and clearing, burning, and planting of the fields. Women prepare food, raise the children, and weave. In some Ava communities women participate more actively in agricultural tasks. When a Chiriguano family migrates, the men and the male children work the fields. Women usually stay at home engaging in household activities.

Land Tenure. After contact Chiriguano territory was reduced, and since then there has been constant conflict over the right to obtain land titles, which the Chiriguano have struggled for a long time to obtain. They have gone to the capital of Bolivia in epic walks, hoping to impel officials to initiate the paperwork. Land titles were obtained for some communitiesthe agrarian reform of 1952 helped to some degree, but it has been manipulated and incorrectly implemented. This, together with the difficult ecological conditions and reduced access to roads and transporation, has caused the Chiriguano to lose some of their good lands. Most Izoceño communities have obtained communal land titles, whereas the Ava and Simba communities are still struggling with government bureaucracies. In northern Argentina most communities are under the jurisdiction of the missions and are involved in obtaining land titles.


Kin Groups and Descent. Chiriguano society was based on the principle of an exogamous patrilineage living in a maloca (the smallest settlement unit). Each lineage held and allocated lands, maintained a system of alliances, regulated marriage, established reciprocity, and controlled conflict among lineage members. After colonial times uxorilocality replaced virilocality; patrilineality was maintained and villages continued to be constituted by extended-family groups.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is of the Hawaiian type.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In the traditional marriage system members of the mother's and father's lineage were forbidden as marriage partners. Marriages were monogamous with the exception of two leaders who had the right to several wives. Up to the beginning of the twentieth century, in order for a man to be accepted by a woman, he had to leave a log of firewood in front of her house. If she accepted him she would take the log into the house; if not, she would not touch the firewood. A welcome suitor had to talk with the woman's parents and provide them with game and crops. Uxorilocal residence was preferred; the young couple would build their house near that of the bride's parents. Nowadays, there is no specified residence pattern, marriage is by mutual accord of the couple, and divorce is common.

Domestic Unit. Extended families in three-generation households are still common.

Inheritance. In the 1980s property was passed to all of the sons and daughters. A will was written with specific instructions as to the inheritance of property and possessions. Preference was given to the last-born child.

Socialization. Children are raised permissively. Both parents participate actively in the raising of the children, as do the members of the extended-family group. Grandparents play an important role in the upbringing of children. Overt and direct expressions of hostility and aggression are discouraged. Children are rarely beaten. Modern children attain a better level of education than that of their parents and are learning to speak Spanish as a second language with a higher degree of fluency.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Chiriguano society was organized on the basis of the maloca, followed by the tenda (village) and the guara (a group of villages). Each local group was a homogenous entity, with no internal division, but there was specialization by sex, age, and kinship position. Some groups were wealthier and more powerful than others. The maloca was under the authority of a head of household or family group. Chiriguano society conferred status on a group of men known as the queremba, who were specialized warriors. They enjoyed greater privileges and prestige, as did shamans and leaders. As a rule, they did not participate in political affairs. Although some women are known to have been leaders, women in general were preoccupied with household and economic activities. Institutionalized slavery began with the domination of the Chane.

Political Organization. Chiriguano society continues to maintain a strong political organization based on the traditional system. Single Chiriguano towns were under the leadership of a mburuvicha or tubicha (chief), whereas a group of several villages was governed by a mburuvicha guasu or tubicha mburuvicha (paramount chief). The specific characteristic of this system is that the chiefs do not hold the power of coercion; they cannot give orders, make decisions, or compel people to obey. Instead, all the men of the village or group of villages must take decisions together in an assembly. The principal role of the chief was as peace mediator, gift giver, and orator. The present political system of the Chiriguano is known as the capitanía (capitán in Spanish means "captain"). The capitanía is a well-structured organization, composed of chiefs, advisers, and mayors. Chiriguano chiefs must acquiesce to the demands of the people, and they are well known in Chiriguano history for their struggle to obtain land titles and other benefits for the communities. The position of the mburuvicha guasu is patrilineally inherited. The local chiefs are democratically elected by the community. If a chief does not fulfill his obligations, he may be discharged from his position.

Social Control. Gossip, ostracism, social withdrawal, and eschewing face-to-face conflict have always been important forms of social control. Witchcraft continues to be practiced in Chiriguano society, and fear of witchcraft remains a powerful form of social control. The political organization of the Chiriguano acts as a judicial system: it judges and applies sanctions in cases of breach of the law (e.g., robbery, gossip, invasion of lands). Federal courts intervene in cases such as homicides.

Conflict. The major source of conflict in Chiriguano society has been their relations with White settlers. Some Chiriguano joined the missions and others worked for the White settlers, but another group waged a permanent war. Conflicts over land as well as labor exploitation persist. The introduction of evangelical sects in the Chiriguano communities since the beginning of the nineteenth century is a source of division between evangelists and Catholics. The Catholics are traditionalists and want to maintain the traditional beliefs and religious festivities and support the shamans. Conflicts regarding traditional and political matters are frequent.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Native beliefs in zootheistic deities were guided by a deep faith in supernatural forces. In spite of the persistent influence of Christian missionaries, the Chiriguano still hold on to the basic tenets of their beliefs; nevertheless, they do acknowledge a principal creator God. This belief in a Supreme Being is a result of early missionization; however, the traditional Chiriguano pantheon includes numerous spirit beings of various kinds. Spirits are believed to have created the world and to be the guardians of plants, animals, rivers, stars, and so on. Evangelical sects have a profound influence and have been able to replace some traditional beliefs, although the Chiriguano have maintained their large corpus of myths and tales.

Religious Practitioners. Chiriguano shamans were known to be powerful; they acted as intermediaries between humans and the deities and had the power to cure, attract the rain, or stop pestilence. They exercised influence on the chiefs and on the general decision-making process of a village. They had immense prestige and privileges. Today they continue to exert influence, although in villages where the majority is evangelical, their role is diminishing. Chiriguano evangelical pastors are an important factor in the evangelization of the Chiriguano. They are beginning to exert a political role.

Ceremonies. The arete, or feast, was a ceremony related to the maize harvest, among other things. This feast was transformed into the Carnival but maintained many of its traditional elements. Men wear wooden masks and costumes depicting the ancestors and animals spirits returning to meet with their relatives. Easter has been transformed by the Chiriguano, through the incorporation of dancing and singing.

Arts. Music and singing in the Guaraní language occurred during all the Chiriguano festivals; these genres persist, but with the influence of colonial music. Native instruments such as flutes and drums have been retained, but the violin and the guitar have been incorporated.

Medicine. Disease is understood as the result of natural forces (wind, heat, cold), supernatural forces (spirits of the forest or of the river), or witchcraft. Curing techniques consist of herbal medicines, sucking, massage, diagnosis by blowing tobacco, and long therapeutic séances to drive out the evil. Witchcraft is believed to be a basic cause of illness, death, or any other misfortune. The shaman is the only one who can counteract the evil power of the witch. Western medicine has been introduced, and both systems persist side by side.

Death and Afterlife. Death is believed to be the result of disease, spirits of nature, or witches. There is a belief in an afterworld, to which souls go. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the deceased were buried in funerary urns under the house. After death, the soul was believed to go to a heavenlike place after a hazardous journey. Present-day Chiriguano have incorporated Christian beliefs regarding the afterlife.


Métraux, Alfred (1948). "Tribes of the Eastern Slopes of the Bolivian Andes." Handbook of South American Indians, edited by Julian H. Steward. Vol. 3, The Tropical Forest Tribes, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 143. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Riester, Jürgen, Brigitte Simon Bárbara, and Schuchard Bárbara (1979). Los chiriguanos, Asunción: Suplemento Antropológico, vol. 14, nos. 1-2.

Susnik, Branislava (1968). Chiriguanos: Dimensiones etnosociales, Paraguay: Museo Etnografico Andrés Barbero.