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ETHNONYMS: Cuiba, Cuibos, Cuybas, Kuiba, Quiva


Identification. Although meaningless to the people to whom it refers, the name "Cuiva" is often found in the literature on the area and is commonly used in Colombia and Venezuela to designate some six groups of traditionally nomadic hunters and gatherers living near the border between the two countries. Each group or band sees itself as a unique and autonomous social entity that represents the largest group in society; members of each band call themselves "our people" and refer contrastingly to other bands as "other peoples." Often, each band is also identified in relation to the most important river within its territory.

Location. Situated near the center of the Orinoco plains, Cuiva territory is roughly bounded by parallels 5° and 6°34 N and meridians 69°40 W and 71°. Within Colombia, the three bands occupy the banks of the rivers Casanare, Ariporo, and Agua Clara; the other three bands, in Venezuela, are located on the Arauca, Capanaparo, and Cinaruco rivers. The territory consists mostly of grassy savannas dotted with palms and scattered shrubs, broken only by rivers and the gallery forest that fringes their banks. The climate is tropical, with a well-defined division of the year into a rainy season, between April and November, and the rest of the year, when any rainfall is exceptional.

Demography. There are no modern, accurate population data, but since each band normally has between 150 and 300 members, it is reasonable to estimate the total Cuiva population as somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500. The entire Guahibo cultural area has a population probably approaching 20,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Cuiva language belongs to the Guahibo Language Family, allowing them to communicate, with more or less effort, with nearly all the groups inhabiting the eastern plains of Colombia and southern Venezuela. Members of each Cuiva band are known by others, however, through specifically accented speech in their own "language."

History and Cultural Relations

Although the evidence remains scanty, nothing now known suggests that the Cuiva have occupied any territory other than their own. The region has most probably undergone many transformations, invasions, wars, conquests, appearances of cultural groups from elsewhere, and disappearances of some groups altogether. But this small group of hunter-gatherers seems to have survived largely unchanged.

The first known contact with European invaders came as early as 1533 and for the next century was limited to those crossing Cuiva territory in their relentless pursuit of the mythical El Dorado. Jesuit missionaries were the first to colonize the area, in the later part of the seventeenth century and the first half of the eighteenth century, but they seem to have had only limited success with the settled Guahibo horticulturists, whereas their contacts with the nomads remained distant and at times violent. After the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767, the following 200 years were apparently quiet.

In about 1950 pressure from the civil war in Colombia pushed cattle herders progressively into Cuiva territory. On the whole, relations with these settlers have been a disaster for the Cuiva, who have often been chased from many parts of their own land. Camps have been attacked by people with firearms, Indians have been deliberately killed, and the last thirty years of Cuiva history can be read as typical of the genocide of so many South American Indian populations. The traditional Cuiva strategy was to avoid contact with the invaders by seeking refuge near the smaller rivers, away from the main waterways, but now most of their territory is occupied. The Cuiva have nowhere to escape and possibly no choice but to settle on whatever piece of land remains and to survive by cultivating newly created gardens.

The Cuiva visit their neighbors mostly for the pleasure of meeting different people and breaking the routine. There is no significant trading between groups, intermarriages do occur but are rare, and there are no other social or political activities beyond the level of the band. It is worth noting that, from visiting neighboring horticulturists, the Cuiva have become fully aware of techniques of cultivation and of making pottery and a few other artifacts, which they themselves never use or make.


Each band lives and travels within an area of a few thousand square kilometers, which is recognized by all to be its own territory. Within this area, there are no permanent settlements and only a few sites that people occupy year after year. A camping site is essentially a small section of the forest where all can comfortably hang their hammocks. Since food resources are often localized, the choice of a particular site becomes a choice of what to eat and is thus a matter for debate within the group. On average, a camping site is abandoned after a week, with slight variations between the dry season, when moves are more frequent, and the rainy season, when each trip is usually longer because many parts of the forest are flooded and not suitable for occupation. During the rainy season, the Cuiva use palm leaves to build lean-to shelters, a task that normally requires less than thirty minutes and is unnecessary during the dry season.


Subsistence and Division of Labor. Unlike most modern hunter-gatherers, the Cuiva live in a rich environment, and, because of this, offer perhaps the best illustration of an economy that has been described as the "original affluent society." Women produce vegetables, which are gathered during the dry season on the edge of the savannas, and men hunt animals, which are mostly caught in or near the rivers; fruits can be collected by either sex in the forest during the rainy season. Food is shared among all in a camp. In return for a week of work that never exceeds twenty hours, each Cuiva eats a daily average of a pound of meat and a pound of either fruits or vegetables. Their technology is probably one of the simplest in the world, as it includes little more than hammocks, canoes, bows and arrows, digging sticks, baskets, bark cloth, and strings.


A Cuiva is born into a social world that is rigorously ordered: within the immediate community of the band, everyone is a relative who shares a specific kinship link with oneself. The classification even covers the entire social universe, as it extends to every known member of other bands; in fact, only non-Indians, who in any case are not part of humanity, are outside this classification system. The system is Dravidian in many of its main characteristics, and the terms are classificatory in the widest sense. The entire society is ordered into only twelve categories of kin (or even six categories, each subdivided by sex) and over only three successive generations, because the system also equates alternate generations, thus providing siblings and cousins with Ego's own generation but also within Ego's grandparents' and grandchildren's generations. As kinship defines and imposes rules of appropriate behavior, it identifies which goods to give or exchange, who gets respect, with whom to joke, and so on. Perhaps most important, there is within each generation a clear distinction between the cross cousins one can and must marry and the categories of siblings and parallel cousins with whom marriage is forbidden. In short, the system of kinship organizes the social world as a complete network of kin relations that ensures the maintenance and reproduction of society. But the system does not really extend beyond this network: the Cuiva never trace lines of descent, do not form social groups based on common descent, and generally demonstrate a remarkable lack of genealogical memory.

Every adult in society has a spouse, with only the rare exceptions of the recently divorced and elderly widowed. Men marry for the first time around the age of 26, whereas women should marry just before puberty. Residence after marriage follows the rule of uxorilocality; it is the young man who leaves the shelter of his parents to go and live with his new wife and her parents. The couple, "those who sleep in the same hammock," represent the minimal group in society. The next-larger unit is called "those who sleep under the same shelter" and is normally composed of a couple, their daughters with their husbands, and all unmarried children. These are the people who always live together, producing and sharing food as a unit, and who often literally share the same palm roof, use the same fire, and cook and eat together.

These groups are only rarely isolated from the rest of the society, however, and are normally joined to a larger unit (which can be called "local group" but for which the Cuiva themselves have no special name) that includes from ten to forty individuals and is formed by the lasting association of a few shelters. There is no jurally precise mode of affiliation, but shelters joining to form a local group usually include some very close relativestypically, brothers and sisters who have been separated by the rule of uxorilocal residence. The joining together of all local groups forms the band, or the union of what the Cuiva call "one people" or "our people." The rights of membership in the band are not well defined, and although they are at times expressed by the rather vague idea of a common origin, membership is in fact dependent on integration at the level of the smaller units (being married and part of a residential group) and on the general consensus within the band, which seems to be contingent mostly on the length of time a person has spent with the group.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The young man who leaves his own family for the shelter of his new wife finds himself living with parents-in-law with whom he must remain very formal. Often enough, at first, his wife will also become his only friend within the shelter. The relationship between husband and wife is very intense because they spend most hours of the day together and are almost never separated: they sleep, travel, eat, visit, and even hunt, fish, or pick fruit together. This intensity is probably helped by Cuiva ideas on divorceit is relatively easy for either spouse to cancel a marriage, especially if there are no children. The Cuiva also say that the intensity of the relationship ensures that a marriage will normally either succeed or fail within a very short time.

Domestic Unit. The people "who sleep under the same shelter" and the local group form a kind of extended family that becomes largely responsible for the socialization of children, the care of the aged, and the general welfare of all members. Many of the long hours of leisure are spent with members of one's shelter or local group, and these people are usually one's closest relatives and most intimate friends.

Socialization. Sexual distinction begins early: more or less from age 3, girls begin to learn from women, boys from men. By the time a man marries, he has become a competent hunter, but his wife is only reaching puberty and still has much to learn. This is the reason given for matrilocal residence at marriage. The Cuiva also say that learning is a lifelong process and that one should always remain intellectually curious: from the simplest botany to highly speculative astronomy, there is much to be learned and discovered.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The only distinctions in Cuiva society are based on sex and age. Men and women are said to be very different and fully complementary. The division of labor is strict and is accompanied by the sexual division of many other aspects of the social and cosmological order. The ideology of complementarity of the sexes translates into a broadly equal sharing in food production as well as in the running of social and political affairs. Power increases with age, however, and one should always pay respect and follow the advice of one's elders, regardless of sex. The basis for this division lies in the belief that knowledge is cumulative; elders know more about the world and the supernatural and this makes them more efficient and more powerful.

Political Organization. Within the group of "those who sleep in the same hammock," neither husband nor wife is supposed to be dominant; both partners are very much the masters of their own fields of activities. Within the shelter, the authority clearly rests with the parents, until age makes them more and more dependent on their daughters and sons-in-law. Within the local group and the band, there are no institutionalized forms of political power, but the opinions of older members of either sex usually carry more weight and will often be respected. However, the activities over which these people can exercise any form of authority are mostly limited to deciding whether and where the group should move next or trying to resolve a dispute between members of different shelters. The most important decisions in life are made by couples and by those who share the same shelter, and these are domains in which no outsider would ever interfere.

Social Control and Conflict. Since at every level each social group is largely autonomous, there is often no higher authority with the political power of settling disputes. Like other communities of hunter-gatherers that are said to "vote with their feet," the Cuiva tend to vote with their paddles: conflicting parties will simply part and travel to distant areas of the territory, where they will remain until a time when much is forgotten and the quarrel has turned trivial.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Cuiva cosmology provides a series of precepts on the order and general causes of things, which forms a system of explanation for human action and which in turn can be taken as a moral guide for conduct. In its simplest form, the logical ordering of the world resembles the yin/yang principle known from parts of Asia: a world made of differences and opposites with each element of a contrast existing in total dependence on and unison with its counterpart. The world is in a state of equilibrium between equal parts, an equilibrium that should never be broken. And as such, the world is eternal: consumed, animals and plants do return, and people are reincarnated. Society as a whole appeared at the beginning of time and has remained unchanged. These are the more fundamental notions of the cosmology, which, in practice, become sets of personal beliefs with considerable individual variations. There is no institutionalized religious authority in society, and no one is specifically responsible for preserving the doctrine.

Ceremonies. There are two communal rituals: one celebrating female puberty and the other organized whenever food is especially abundant and there are enough willing participants in camp. Both rituals are special occasions that can be deeply religious experiences but that also provide opportunities for communal feasting and rejoicing.

Arts. Cuiva expressive arts leave no material trace, as they take the form of body painting, communal dancing, and various types of singing ranging from set and highly repetitive patterns of dance songs to improvised and personal ballads usually performed in the calm of the evening. The Cuiva would add to this list the ability to converse, talk, discuss, and joke with others, which, to them, is very much an art.

Medicine. Without external interferences, the human body would neither age, suffer from disease, or die. These threatening interferences can come naturally from the malevolent forces of the world or may be sent by an enemy. The ability to control these malevolent forces, whether to harm or to cure, stems from knowledge of the world and is thus available to all but increases with age: anyone can curethis is not the role of any specialistbut the Cuiva say only someone older than the patient can really be effective (this explains why illness in older people is so often fatal).

Death and Afterlife. A corpse is incinerated and a part of the "soul" follows the smoke into the sky, where it can be seen at night in the Milky Way and where it awaits its return to society in the form of a new embryo.


Arcand, Bernard (1972). The Urgent Situation of the Cuiva Indians of Colombia. Document no. 7. Copenhagen: International Workgroup for Indigenous People.

Arcand, Bernard (1976). "Cuiva Food Production." Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology/Revue Canadienne de Sociologie et Anthropologie 13(4): 387-396.

Coppens, Walter (1975). Los Cuiva de San Esteban de Capanaparo. Caracas: Fundación La Salle de Ciencias Naturales, Instituto Caribe de Antropología y Sociología.

Hurtado, A. M., and K. R. Hill (1986). "The Cuiva, Hunter-Gatherers of Western Venezuela." AnthropoQuest, no. 36.

Wilbert, Johannes, and Karin Simoneau (1991). Folk Literature of the Cuiva Indians. Los Angeles: University of California, Latin American Center.