views updated


ETHNONYMS: Dätsana, Desâna, Desano, Papurí-uara, Wená, Wirá, Wirá-pora


Identification. The name "Desana" is of Tariana (Arawakan) origin. "Papurí-uara" means "Papurí River dwellers." Their traditional name is "Wirá" (wind, referring to flatulence), a derogatory term used by other Tukanoan groups; in myth and traditions the Desana refer to themselves as "Emëkóri mahsá" (Day people).

Location. The Desana occupy mainly the middle course of the Río Vaupés and the drainage of the Río Papurí, both in the northwestern Colombian Amazon; some scattered settlements are found on the Rio Tiquié and Rio Negro, in Brazilian territory.

Demography. No precise demographic information is available; the Desana number approximately 800.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Desana speak a language belonging to the Tukanoan Family but, like other Tukanoan groups of the Vaupés (Eastern Tukanoan), are multilingual.

History and Cultural Relations

According to ethnohistorical traditions, the Desana and many of their Tukanoan neighbors are newcomers in the Vaupés territory where they arrived several generations ago, proceeding from the east by ascending the Rio Negro. Originally the Desana were band-level hunter-foragers. In the Vaupés area they first established contact with local sedentary Arawakan groups, from whom they learned manioc cultivation. Following some initial conjugal unions with nomadic Makú bands, the Desana began to intermarry with the endogamous Arawakan population. After overcoming mutual hostility and, following the transformation from uxorilocal residence and matriliny to virilocal residence and patriliny, the Desana and their Tukanoan neighbors assimilated, displaced most of the local Arawak, and established Tukanoan dominance in much of the Vaupés area. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, Brazilian-Italian missionary influence was strong on the upper Rio Negro but eventually weakened, to be renewed during the second decade of the twentieth century, when Dutch Catholic missionaries entered the Papurí. The rubber boom had little effect upon the Vaupés Indians, but recent political upheavals in Colombia, notably the cocaine trade, the discovery of gold mines, and the missionary activities of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (a Protestant organization), are threatening the cultural identity and survival of the Indians.


The traditional from of settlement is the maloca, or longhouse, a self-contained unit of several nuclear families. Malocas are spaced along rivers and creeks at distances of one- or two-days' travel by canoe but occasionally are found in remote interfluvial regions. Nucleated settlements of square one-family houses are not traditional but were imposed by missionaries, government agencies, or rubber gatherers and have led to social and economic disruption, the spread of disease, alcoholism, and the breakdown of symbolic systems related to maloca life and ecology.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Swidden agriculture is the rule, and manioc cultivation provides the staple food in the form of coarse flour and large flat cassava cakes. Women spend most of their time performing the daily tasks of harvesting and processing the poisonous tubers. Palm fruits of many different species are important food items. Game and fish are fairly abundant, and the men spend much time in the forest or on the river. The most important game animals are large rodents, monkeys, peccaries, deer, tapir, as well as game birds such as guans, tinamous, and tucans. Honey, edible insects, and many wild-growing fruits are readily available. Garden crops include tobacco, coca, peppers, and cultivated fruit trees such as peach palms.

Industrial Arts. Native arts and crafts include canoe making, fish-trap construction, bark-cloth preparation, basketry, pottery, blowgun making, feather work, and the manufacture of ritual adornments.

Trade. The Desana traditionally trade with the northern Arawak, exchanging goods that symbolically represent women. Trade items acquired at mission stations include clothes, hammocks, cooking vessels, bush knives, fishhooks, and flashlights.

Division of Labor. The men cut clearings in the forest and then burn the trees and brush, but otherwise agriculture is a female activity; men and boys hunt and fish; both sexes are active in the gathering of insects, forest fruits, and wild honey. The daily food supply is prepared by women and girls, but only men smoke game or fish, manufacture ritual objects, and prepare coca, tobacco, and all hallucinogenic substances together with their apparatus.

Land Tenure. Fields and garden plots are privately owned, but hunting, fishing, and gathering territories are loosely defined as belonging to the inhabitants of nearby malocas. Tribal lands are delimited as such only in shamanic geographical terms based upon ethnohistorical tradition but are not coherent and do not correspond to reality.


Kin Groups and Descent. Desana society has a phratry organization that is divided into some twenty ranked and named exogamous sibs, each tracing its origin to a common mythical ancestor.

Kinship Terminology. Terminology follows the Dravidian model.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The main characteristic of Desana marriage is language-group exogamy; a person must always marry a spouse speaking a different language and, therefore, belonging to a different phratry. The Desana traditionally intermarry mainly with the Pira-Tapuya and the Tukano proper but marriages with other phratries are fairly common. This form of exogamy is combined with patrilineal descent and virilocal residence, cross-cousin marriage being the preferential form of union. Marriages are monogamous but polygyny does occur. Marriage is essentially a sister exchange between men of different but respectively preferential marriage groups. Formal divorce is unknown, but separation of spouses is not unusual.

Domestic Unit. Until recently the basic domestic unit was the longhouse inhabited by four to eight nuclear families, who formed a tightly organized cooperative.

Inheritance. Ritual objects, passed on from father to son, constitute the most valuable property. Fields or malocas are sometimes passed on to the youngest son.

Socialization. Infants and young children are raised permissively, but boys of 5 or 6 years of age are guided and controlled by their fathers. As boys approach puberty, they are severely disciplined by their fathers and elders. Emphasis is placed upon exogamy, the conservation of natural resources, and the acquisition of traditional values. Mission-educated Indians mostly become wage laborers, boatmen, or servants.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Since language groups do not occupy discrete territories, one cannot speak of "tribes" in the standard sense. The principal political unit is the maloca. During the 1800s there were chieftains, but since then authority has been vested mainly in shamans and elders of recognized esoteric knowledge. Some large communities may still have a headman, but he has limited authority. Women occupy a low status in society, although they carry the heaviest burden in food production and processing; on an idealized level, however, female-oriented imagery is strongly felt. Intermarriage with Hispanic rubber gatherers is infrequent, but temporary concubinage is common although often childless owing to native contraceptives used by the women. The Colombian government has recently established a large reserve for all Tukanoan groups of the Vaupés area, and consequently some semi-educated Indians, under the influence of Colombian national politics, have backed small numbers of self-styled native leaders.

Political Organization. Early Spanish contacts with Vaupés Indians go back to the sixteenth century, but no settlements were established. Until the early years of the twentieth century, the political status of the area was unclear. The Indians' orientation was toward Brazil; Tukanoan chiefs were appointed by the Brazilian authorities in Manaus, and all trade or missionary activities penetrated into the Vaupés by way of the Rio Negro. Midi, the present Colombian district capital, was founded only in 1936, when the international border was firmly delimited. When rubber became important for the war effort during the 1940s, additional settlements were founded and some roads were cut through. Since then, Mitú has become the center of political, administrative, missionary, and exploitative activities, with health services and schooling facilities for Indians located there. As political cohesion was weak, these recent developments have deeply affected most organizational features of Desana society and the neighboring societies.

Social Control. Shamans continue to exercise control over many family and community affairs and are important mediators in contacts with outsiders. The strict observance of hunting, fishing, and gathering rituals, expressed in dietary and sexual restrictions, constitutes an important body of socioecological management rules that are constantly being extolled by shamans and elders. Since the progressive breakdown of the maloca unit, brought about by missionary activity, these control systems are losing their strength.

Conflict. Warfare, cannibalism, the forceful abduction of women, and destruction of hostile settlements constitute frequent themes in ethnohistorical descriptions. The principal enemies were the Arawak of the central and southern Vaupés and the Carib on the western border. Magically induced aggression is a serious matter, and vengeance for inflicted harm may go on for years. Fights over women, adultery, abduction, or simple maloca gossip are everyday conflict situations. During recent years political unrest, the cocaine trade, and the gold rush have been new sources of conflict, the solution for which the aboriginal culture lacks all mechanisms.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The shamanic universe consists of three superimposed layers: the celestial vault, our earth, and the netherworld; each one can be subdivided into smaller units. The most important part of the heavens is the Milky Waya stream, a fissure, a calendar, a celestial anaconda. In shamanic language, the universe is an immense womb shaped like a hexagonal rock crystal, inside which is an abstract cosmic brain charged with energies. This brain is represented by the sun (Sun Father), the origin of all fertilizing forces. The entire universe is conceived as a circuit of energy flow of limited potential. The task of human beings is to maintain this flow by balancing all ecological aspects so that the interaction between humankind and the physical and social environment will not be upset. There is no sun cult but a strong awareness of human/nature interdependency, expressed in the control of all exploitative activities. Belief in the Master of Animals is widespread, and fear of his retaliations constitutes an effective control of overhunting. He is often associated or confused with other forest or river spirits, some of them appearing as cannibalistic monsters or doppelgängers. Small, koboldlike night spirits are considered frightening but rather harmless.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans tend to specialize in ritual dancing and singing, in reciting genealogies, divination, healing, casting spells, and other esoteric activities. All of them exercise control over hunting, fishing, and harvesting strategies and have a keen understanding of local ecological problems. Catholic and Protestant missionaries have had little influence upon shamanic beliefs and practices.

Ceremonies. The principal metaphysical experience is provided by collective rituals during which the men take hallucinogenic substances (Banisteriopsis, Virola ) under the guidance of shamans and elders. On their ecstatic flights the participants return to the cosmic womb and visit different dimensions in which they become witnesses to cosmogonic episodes. Male initiation rituals introduce the novices into the complex lore referring to the historical origins and importance of exogamy and male dominance. Periodic exchange rituals between complementary exogamic groups reaffirm lineage origins and alliances. In all these ceremonies, hallucinogenic substances play a major role.

Arts. Dancing, singing, and recitals are major art forms. Many objects, both for ritual and for everyday use, are decorated with design motifs derived from phosphenes perceived during hallucinatory trances. Since many of these motifs are culturally coded with reference to marriage rules and fertility concepts, this applied art constitutes a body of visual reminders of important cultural truths. The shamanic orchestration of multiple sensorial experiences in collective ceremonies during which hallucinogenic substances are consumed is an important artistic manifestation.

Medicine. Herbal lore is highly developed, and the Indians' knowledge of ethnobotany (pharmacology, toxicology, narcotica, etc.) is one of the least-known but most important aspects of Desana culture. Shamanic diagnostic practices include crystal gazing and the interpretation of dreams and hallucinations. Curing practices combine medicinal plants, dietary restrictions, chants, blowing of smoke, aspersing with water, and the sucking out of supposedly pathogenic substances.

Death and Afterlife. Death originated in mythical times as a result of incest and adultery. Canoe or pit burial is the rule, sometimes inside the maloca. The soul-stuff wanders over a perilous trial to a land of blissful annihilation or, in the case of a person who led a sinful life, he or she is transformed into an animal and thus enters the dark abodes of the Master of Animals, to replenish his charges. Funeral ceremonies are of little importance and consist mainly of shamanic spells and chants. Old people are sometimes abandoned on an uninhabited river island or in an isolated spot in the forest.


Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo (1971). Amazonian Cosmos: The Sexual Religious Symbolism of the Tukano Indians. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo (1978). "Desana Animal Categories, Food Restrictions, and the Concept of Color Energies." Journal of Latin American Lore 4(2): 243-291.

Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo (1989). "Desana Texts and Contexts: Origin Myths and Tales of a Tukanoan Tribe of the Colombian Northwest Amazon." Acta Ethnologica et Linguistica, no. 62, Series Americana 12 (Vienna-Föhrenau).