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Identification. The Cubeo are an ethnic group of the Colombian Amazon. "Cubeo" is a generic name that is used in local Spanish and appears in the literature in reference to a social and linguistic group. Although the term does not have any meaning in their language, the Cubeo refer to themselves by that name in interactions with Whites. There is no common native name, aside from referring to themselves as "people" (pamiwa ) or more precisely, "my people" (jiwa). An individual's social identification is based on his or her adscription to a mythical clan forebear whose name is used as an eponym.

Location. The Cubeo live in the area of the Colombian Vaupés, near the center of the Northwestern Cultural Area of the Amazon. Their villages are distributed along the median course of the Vaupés and, above all, alongside its affluents the Cuduyari and Querari rivers.

Demography. Reports of the population vary between 3,000 and 5,000 individuals. The national census of 1985 established the number of inhabitants at 4,368.

Linguistic Affiliation. The language of the Cubeo has been classified as belonging to Eastern Tukano. Recently a reclassification has been suggested to Middle Tukano, a subdivision of a possible Proto-Tukano (Waltz and Wheeler 1972).

History and Cultural Relations

There has been no archaeological investigation of the Vaupés area. The first reports about this region are found in Pérez de Quesada (1536) and Von Hutten (1541), but systematic expeditions to the Río Negro were begun only toward the middle of the seventeenth century when the first mission villages and fortresses (S. José do Rio Negro, Taruma) were established. In the eighteenth century, in their aim to exert economic control over the area, both the Spanish and the Portuguese crowns sponsored expeditions and settlements to defend the border zones. At the end of that century and the beginning of the ninteenth, Luso-Brazilian expeditions reached as far as the Río Vaupés, promoting haciendas, animal farms, agricultural production, manufacturing, and handicrafts. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, centers of commerce have been encouraged. In reaction to abuse by missionaries and civilians, the Indians began to manifest their discontent and several messianic movements succeeded each other. From the end of the ninteenth to the middle of the twentieth century, the indigenous population was subjected to subhuman conditions as outsiders came to extract balata, chicle, and rubber.

Toward the middle of the twentieth century, the Colombian Amazon began to be invaded by colonists from the Andes; this was followed by the exploitation of cocaine and gold. The intervention of Protestant missions, the New Tribes Mission, and the Summer Institute of Linguistics was substantial, but their missionizing and catechizing have been rejected by the Cubeo. Part of Cubeo territory has been legally adjudicated to the Indians by the state, which is readjusting its health and education programs as well as other infrastructural enterprises. Because of Cubeo social and linguistic endogamy, trade with neighboring groups is probably recent. Some exchange is taking place with segments of the Guanano, Tukano, Desana, and other groups of the area. The Cubeo from the Río Querari, on the other hand, have tight links of economic, social, and cultural exchange with the Baniwa-Curripaco-Wakuenai, an Arawak-speaking indigenous group that has settled in the northern part of their territory. Their settlements on the riverine axis of the Vaupés, an important regional fluvial access route, has meant that the dominant society's exploitative and acculturative roles took a more dramatic form there than among other groups in the area. The strong tendency of the Cubeo to revindicate their sociocultural identity, however, offers resistance to miscegenation.


The settlement pattern, shaped by virilocality, is linear, spread out along the rivers. The traditional residence was the maloca a large communal house. Although no longer used as residences, such communal houses still serve as ceremonial centers and places to congregate and discuss community problems. The missionaries turned these gathering places into the present local unit. A village is a group of houses of nuclear or composite families, arranged around playing fields, at the head of which are located administrative buildings like the school and the health center. The social nucleus of a village, however, is made up of the descendants of a clan or founding lineage originating from the said territorial segment. To this are added affinal and consanguineal relatives who settle closely together within the village space.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Economic activities are based on shifting cultivation using slash-and-burn techniques for small plots of land (1 to 3 hectares) in which bitter manioc is planted, together with other tubers and fruit. This is complemented by hunting, fishing, and gathering of wild plant and animal products. The basic unit of production is the nuclear or composite family; crops are intended for autoconsumption. Any sporadic surplus is distributed among relatives.

Industrial Arts. Pottery and items made from the calabash tree and from tree bark are still made occasionally, but they are steadily being replaced by Western products. More persistent are basketry and woodworking; items such as baskets of various types, fishing traps, canoes, paddles, and textiles made of cumare -palm (Astrocaryum chambira ) fiber have no counterparts in Western merchandise. Because of missionary influence, the Cubeo no longer make ornaments and ritual paraphernalia, although some may still possess ancestral flutes and trumpets that pertain to the yurupari ritual (see "Ceremonies").

Trade. Internal trade is limited and confined to products the primary materials of which are not obtainable in the area, such as manioc graters obtained from the Baniwa-Curripaco-Wakue. A small portion of Cubeo productssuch as canoes, manioc flour, and smoked meatis traded on the White market for shotguns, machetes, axes, knives, aluminum pots, clothes, radio batteries, or watches. Many Cubeo have participated in the arduous tasks of processing coca leaves and, more recently, in the extraction of gold.

Division of Labor. Traditional production is organized according to the principles of division of labor by age and sex. Female activities include planting, caring for and harvesting the field, preparing food, making pottery, child care, and other domestic work. Male tasks include preparing fields, fishing, hunting, basketry and woodworking, as well as building canoes and houses. Gathering wild products is a task shared by men and women. There is no specialization, although it is recognized that some artisans are better than others. Collective teams are organized to construct houses, to clear land for planting, to hunt peccaries, and to fish with barbasco poison. In their dealings with the national society, only the men seek employment as workers and engage in commercial trade; the women stay at home. Communities are concentrated in river areas considered ancestral land.

Land Tenure. Communities are concentrated in river areas considered to be ancestral land. According to Cubeo mythology, their clan ancestors emerged in certain places along the river, where their descendants settled. Land possession is secured by preparing fields, the old fallow plots of which are recognized as being the property of a man or a lineage. The various family members must ask the elders of their local lineage for permission to cultivate their lands. Cubeo territory forms part of the Vaupés Reserve, a legal mechanism by which the state recognizes the collective territorial property of various Vaupés groups.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Cubeo consider themselves a unit identified by a specific economy, social organization, and ideology. They are made up of patrilineal clans of shallow genealogical depth, from older to younger, whose members cannot establish direct genealogical links to their respective founders. Each clan is made up of one or several patrilineages, arranged in turn from larger to smaller, members recognize one another by their filiation with a living or recently deceased ancestor, a descendant in turn from the clan ancestor. Finally, the lineage is composed of nuclear or composite families. The Cubeo clans are divided into three exogamic phratries whose groups mutually call each other older and younger "brothers." Because they share the same place of origin and descent from the ancestral Anaconda, phratries consider themselves to be "the same people." Certain segments of other phratries and even of other ethnic groups are recognized as uterine relatives ("mother's sons"), since they are sons of potential wives who were or are married to units different from Ego's, affecting the customary principle of traditional sister exchange. This group, which is called a pakoma, includes "brothers" of a phratry and uterine relatives and constitutes the exogamic unit among whom marriage is forbidden.

Kinship Terminology. Cubeo kinship terminology follows the principles of the Dravidian system. Genealogical depth does not exceed five generationsthe two older and two younger generations than Ego's. Alter's sex is marked with pertinent suffixes. There are referential and vocative differences in vocabulary, and individualized terms are used for each sex for certain categories of relatives. Consanguineal kin are differentiated terminologically according to the order of birth (before or after), but this is not the case with affines. Terminologically, consanguineal kin of Ego's generation are differentiated as older and younger. Besides differentiating cross and parallel cousins, a distinction is also made with regard to uterine relatives, who are called "mother's children."

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Postmarital residence is virilocal. Marriage is prescriptive; the kinship vocabulary designates the category of possible mates between lines of opposite filiation and implies the exchange of sisters among exogamic groups. There is a preference for marriage with a cross cousin; however, supplementary formulas permit marriage with more distant cross cousins, deferred marriage, and unions with new allies. Marriage is thus between members of different phratries and affines. Marriage with real and classificatory consanguineal relatives, with "mother's children" (persons related to Ego by virtue of a maternal aunt's marriage to a man of a group that is unrelated to Ego through either parental line), and between different generations is prohibited. Couples most frequently separate because of failure to produce offspring. The woman is considered to be at fault; she is returned to her parental home, and the man demands another woman. Repeated infidelity is another cause for divorce, in which case the man will claim paternity over the children.

Domestic Unit. Formerly, the domestic unit was made up of a group of nuclear families of a clan. Occasionally, consanguineal or affinal relatives lived in the same house. The new residential pattern is the mission village in which nuclear and composite families live in a house near those of other relatives, beside or around the school and other buildings such as the health center.

Inheritance. Land is the most important property and is passed on from father to son. Cultivation of a plot by a man and by his ancestors before him establishes ownership of the property. Paraphernalia and ritual flutes and trumpets are inherited by the lineage. Belongings that were exclusively used by a woman are passed on to her daughters, and those of a man are passed on to his sons.

Socialization. Traditional cultural learning is through observation, imitation, and comparison with the norms of behavior transmitted by the domestic unit. During infancy, children remain in the mother's care. Once they have reached the first stage of childhood, girls are bound even closer to their mother and other female relatives, whereas boys accompany their father and close relatives in the performance of male tasks. The permissive attitude and lack of physical mistreatment are noteworthy. Sanctions are related to cultural control, which is a product of the belief system. Nowadays, traditional informal socialization is complemented by Western schooling.

Sociopolitical Organization

Political, religious, and ritual life is dominated by the men of the group. People of highest status, like the elders of the lineage and the "elders" who operate as a sort of "council," are consulted and influence collective decisions. Although in communal work there is a leader who organizes collective labor, relations among the members of a group are egalitarian. Nowadays villages are organized into juntas de acción comunal (boards of communal action), headed by a chieftain, who frequently is also the person with the greatest traditional status. Other forms of Western organizations have also been introduced.

Political Organization. According to the order of birth, the adscription of relative rank among clans is assimilated to the sequence of body segments of the ancestral Anaconda. This adscription, which manifests itself only in ritual contexts and in the interrelationship of different ethnic groups, apparently corresponded to the internal distribution of territory, according to which the older members tended to live at the mouth of a river and the younger ones at its headwaters. In daily life, interpersonal relations mediated by respect between relatives are not expressive of subordination. More than exercising authority in the community, the chief has the role of organizer, master of ceremonies, and coordinator of daily activities. Organizations grouping together various communities of the same river axis have been superimposed on communities linked by kinship and marriage. These organizations, such as the Unión de Indígenas Cubeos del Cuduyari (Union of Cubeo Indians from the Cuduyari) and the Unión de Indígenas del Querary (Union of Indians from the Querary), are gremial in character and strive to readjust their relationship with the national society and the state.

Social Control. Religious and cultural beliefs about the order of society and the environment are the referents for legitimizing an individual's behavior. Rumor and scolding are direct mechanisms of social control. Occasional interpersonal disputes are mediated by the chief. Envy caused by another's inexplicable well-being, jealousy over material wealth, and disagreements over women's infidelity are resolved relatively quickly. In cases that are serious or occur repeatedly, death through "witchcraft" is frequent.

Conflict. According to presently stated opinion and mythical tradition, when the internal social order, territorial distribution, and the adscription of specialized functions were established, one segment usurped primogeniture. Since then disputes over traditional clan order have been frequent, but have not led to conflict. The Cubeo speak of intertribal wars with ethnic groups that occupied their territory and with neighboring groups that disputed their settlements. These wars later turned into battles of scorcery, which now have come to an end. The Cubeo remember cannibal warriors who came from Brazilian territory in historical times and whose fierceness forced the Cubeo to hide in the jungle for some time. Conflicts with Whites over the exploitation of indigenous labor during the rubber season still occur.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The origin of the universe is associated with the mythic cycle of the Kuwaiwa brothers, who created the cosmos, completing the Cubeo cultural legacy. It was the Kuwaiwa who left behind the ancestral flutes and trumpets, which symbolically represent the ancestors and which are played on important ritual occasions. The origin of humanity is associated with the mythical cycle of the ancestral Anaconda, which recounts the origin of humankind and the ordering of society. At the beginning, from the "Door of the Waters" at the far eastern end of the world, the Anaconda moved up the river axis of the universe to the center of the world, a rapid in the Río Vaupés. There it brought forth people, establishing the characteristic traits of Cubeo identity as it moved along.

Religious Practitioners. The shaman (jaguar) represents the most important institution of religious and secular life. He is the keeper of knowledge regarding the order of the cosmos and the environment, the beings and spirits of the forest, and the mythology and history of the community. In ritual, he is in charge of communicating with ancestral spirits. The baya is the person who leads the singing of ancestral ritual songs.

Ceremonies. Traditional collective ceremonies are limited today to those occasions that reenact the confraternity between members of a village or, less frequently, their relationship with consanguineal and sometimes affinal kin (dabukuri ) of other villages, and include offering harvested crops. The important ceremony of male initiation, known in the Vaupés area as yurupari, is no longer performed.

Arts. A large number of petroglyphs mark the rocks on the rapids of rivers in Cubeo territory; the Indians believe that they were created by their ancestors. Ritual paraphernalia has disappeared because of missionary influence, although sporadically one may see some ornaments, especially in connection with shamanism. On the other hand, secular or ritual body painting with vegetable dyes persists. Aside from ancestral flutes and trumpets, musical instruments are today limited to panpipes, animal shells, stamping tubes, maracas, and rattles of dried fruit seeds.

Medicine. Illness is a latent state that demands the constant attention of the shaman. It may be produced by seasonal changes or caused by events in an individual's life, the violation of norms governing social affairs or the environment, or the aggression and sorcery of third persons. Although each individual has an elemental knowledge of shamanism, only shamans carry out curing rituals, using prophylactic and therapeutic practices like exorcism and blowing on food or objects. Shamans have the ability to potentiate, reconstitute, or preserve the benevolent powers. The influence of Western medicine, implemented by health centers throughout Cubeo territory, is strongly felt.

Death and Afterlife. Traditionally, rites for the dead were associated with a complex ritual (Goldman 1979) that has now been abandoned. Presently, when a person dies he or she is buried near the center of the house, together with his or her utensils used in daily life. Women weep and, together with the men, recount the virtues of the deceased. The Cubeo still believe that a dead person's body will disintegrate in the underworld, whereas the spirit returns to the ancestral houses of its clan. The qualities of the deceased are reincarnated in the descendants who, every fourth generation, carry his or her name.


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Waltz, E. N., and A. Wheeler (1972). "Proto-Tucanoan." In Comparative Studies in Amerindian Languages, edited by Esther Matteson. The Hague: Mouton.

FRANÇOIS CORREA (Translated by Ruth Gubler)