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ETHNONYMS: Chuncho, Eceeje, Ece'je, Echoja, Ese Ejja, Ese Éjas, Ese-Exa, Guarayo, Tiatinagua


Identification. The Huarayo are a South American Indian group in the Peruvian department of Madre de Dios and the Bolivian department of Pando. The name "Huarayo" or "Guarayo" probably dates to the time of Inca rule. Since the end of the nineteenth century, "Huarayo" has been a common name for all related groups and subgroups. The autodenomination "Ece'je" means "people."

Location. The Huarayo traditionally occupied the right side of the Madre de Dios River Basin to the Andean east slopes, the region demarcated by tributaries of the Inambari and Beni rivers. In the 1990s the Huarayo live only in a few scattered locales: on the banks of the Madre de Dios (the larger villages of Palmareal in Peru and Riberalta in Bolivia), on the Río Heath (a small camp), and on the Río Tambopata (Chonta and the settlement of Caserío de Infierno). Some individuals live near a Dominican mission, El Pilar. The lower flows of rivers are in the Selva Baja (lower forest) region; upper flows of the tributaries of Río Madre de Dios reach the Selva Ceja region (cloud forest), where there is increased precipitation.

Demography. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Huarayo population was roughly estimated at 3,000. Population reports from 1973 listed 510 individuals (97 in Palmareal, about 300 in Riberalta, 54 in Caserío de Infierno, 30 in Chonta, about 25 on the Rio Heath, 1 man at El Pilar, 1 man in Lago Valencia, and 2 persons in Puerto Maldonado).

linguistic Affiliation. The Huarayo language, together with its not-very-diverse dialects from the Tambopata and Heath regions, belongs to the Tacanan Family. The Huarayo language has morphological similarities to languages of the Panoan Family and genetic similarities to those of the Arawakan Family.

History and Cultural Relations

In the past, the Madre de Dios and Beni valleys were probably one of the migration routes for the Proto-Arawakan, the Proto-Maipuran, and possibly the Proto-Panoan tribes. No archaeological evidence of the Huarayo exists, but according to early chronicles, they were likely vassals of the Inca or perhaps their servants guarding the Anti-soyo, the forested eastern slopes of the Inca Empire. There are indications of intensive contacts between the Huarayo and the Inca via trade or tribute. It was said that the Huarayo were entitled to collect the tribute from other groups for the Inca and also to capture their youths for service in the Inca army. Their knowledge of weaving, raising maize, and the use of the sling is diffused from the Andean Indians. Juan Alvarez Maldonado, the first Spanish conqueror, who descended the Madre de Dios in 1567, used the names "Huarayo" and "Guarayo" in his Relación, but mainly the name "Chuncho."

Huarayo contacts with Westerners began in 1539, when Pedro Anzules de Camporedondo reached the Rio Beni. The expedition of Pedro Candia and Mercedian missionaries Diego de Porres and Diego Martínez came to the region of the upper Inambari from 1587 to 1588. In the seventeenth century missionaries of the Jesuit and Franciscan orders entered the area but were few in number. The reports of missionaries and travelers are confused. The Franciscan mission of La Concepción de Apolobamba was founded in 1690 on the left bank of the Beni; the missions of San José de Uchupiamonas and San Antonio de Ixiamas were established in 1713 and 1721 respectively. Under pressure to assimilate to Western ways, the Huarayo moved nearer to the Río Madre de Dios.

In the beginning of the twentieth century, Dominican missionaries started to operate in the Madre de Dios region. Later, the temporary missions of Lago Valencia (1933), El Pilar (1943), and Fundo Concepción (1950) were founded, and an Adventist mission opened in Palmareal (1972). The second wave of the rubber boom (1941-1945) had a harmful effect upon the Huarayo. After 1955 the remaining Huarayo families from the Tambopata and Inambari regions settled on the left bank of the Madre de Dios. In 1960 they chose a place on the opposite side of the river and built the village of Palmareal. The Huarayo living in the Caserío de Infierno, Chonta, and Riberaita are highly acculturated, whereas the Huarayo in Palmareal are less so.


Huarayo settlements have always been located on river banks. In the past, they were divided into many local groupsapparently lineages or extended families usually named themselves after the rivers they inhabited (e.g., Ybabianiji, Shanauajo, Na'o, Potoaja, Shamesó). In the 1950s about 150 Huarayo were living at the Fundo Concepción mission, but, after a series of epidemics, the mission stopped its activity. The village of Palmareal consists of two settlements 3 kilometers apart. The lower and larger settlement is a semicircle open toward the Madre de Dios shore. The upper settlement is on the high bank of the Río Madre de Dios, where the Huarayo from Río Tambopata dwell. In the past, the Huarayo lived in a communal house (maloca ), but today each family lives in its own rectangular pile house with a separate kitchen built close to it. Some of the houses still represent the intermediary type between maloca and rectangular pile house. In this kind of dwelling, the kitchen and the living space are not separated, the wooden floor of the living section is raised on piles, and the kitchen floor is earthen. This sort of residence also has separate gable roofs of yarina- or kisnei- palm-leaf thatch for the living area and the kitchen. The walls are made of inferior-quality boards obtained from lumberjacks working there some years ago.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Some of the Huarayo are mainly involved in hunting and fishing, although the number of those who practice slash-and-burn horticulture is increasing. The chacras (fields) in which they raise plantains, sweet manioc and some maize, sugarcane, and rice, are located on the opposite river bank. In the village, they grow guayaba- fruit trees. The traditional exchange relationships between kin still function. In order to marry, a young man has to serve his parents-in-law for several years and provide them food.

Industrial Arts. The Huarayo never manufactured pottery; vessels were made from calabashes, Brazil-nut shells, and reed paca (especially for cooking small fish), or aluminum wares brought by Whites were used. In the past, the Huarayo produced stone axes, wooden knives, and long sleeveless shirts (cushmas ). The fabric for cushmas consisted of bark beaten to the required shape with wooden clubs. The shirts were decorated with patterns such as zigzags, jaguar patches, and bird footprints using the red pigment achiote (Bixa orellana ). Today, however, all Huarayo wear ready-made clothes obtained in exchange for game and skins. Men still manufacture wooden objects such as mortars, paddles, rafts, canoes, cooking utensils, and bows and arrows. The women are skillful in making baskets, fans, and mats using different plaiting techniqueslattice weaving, twilling, wickerwork, and checkerwork. The materials mainly used are isliana tamische (Carludovica trigona ) and shapajá-palm (Sheelea werberbaueri ) leaves. Formerly, the production of cotton fabric (e.g., for hammocks) was also a woman's task.

Trade. The chronicles mention Huarayo trade with the Inca. Today the Huarayo in Palmareal occasionally exchange goods when frontier guards or traders visit their village. The Huarayo do not trade among themselves anymore because of the considerable distances between settlements. Only on rare occasions does a motorboat come with Huarayo visitors from Bolivian Riberalta.

Division of Labor. Hunting with bows and arrows or, rarely, with stolen shotguns is strictly a men's task, as is fishing, except in the case of fishing with barbasco poison (e.g., Tephrosia cinerea, Lonchocarpus nicu ), in which women also participate. Gathering wild fruits and catching small animals is women's activity, but men collect Brazil nuts and honey. In agriculture, men and women work together. Men do the heavier jobs (preparing chacras, felling and burning trees, carrying loads at harvesttime, and the like). Women take part in planting and harvesting. They also care for the small children, cook, wash, and do all the housework. For a fee, men roast and smoke meat or fish, manufacture weapons, and build houses and canoes.

Land Tenure. Men are responsible for preparing the chacra; it is then given to women for use as property.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Huarayo lineages or extended families named themselves after the rivers along which they dwelt. The name "Kwiñaji" (others' Huarayo), which is synonymous with the name "Hajipya," indicated a Huarayo outside his or her own group. "Na'okwiñaji" signified a Huarayo living on the Río Na'o (i.e., Malinowski), "Sonenekwiñaji" referred to a Huarayo living on the Río Sonene (i.e., Heath), "Bahuajakwiñaji" meant a Huarayo living on the Río Bahuaja (i.e., Tambopata), and "Kwekwiñaji" was the name of a Huarayo living on the Río Kwe (i.e., Madidi) in Bolivia. These groups no longer exist, but their descendants live in Palmareal. They are distinguishable from each other in appearance and complexion. Some information suggests a traditional pattern of bilateral descent. Most Huarayo believe that they derive from a mythical forefather, Gemasho.

Kinship Terminology. According to certain indications, we can assume that Huarayo kinship is Iroquoian. In Huarayo kinship terminology, the differences in the referential and appelative terms are preserved.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In the past, a young man had to work in the house of his parents-in-law for one or two years. He had to help his future father-in-law in hunting, cultivating the chacra, or building canoes. This tradition is partly maintained today. Polygyny was and still is the privilege of chiefs and shamans. Owing to exogamy, women were often kidnapped and raped, and women are sometimes obtained by rape today. In 1973 a case of sororal polygyny was observed. Marriageable age is between 17 and 18 for men and between 14 and 16 for women. The marriage ceremony no longer exists. The young couple simply moves to their new house, which is built with the help of their parents. According to a former custom, old men were to marry young women, and young men were supposed to marry old women. The common practice of placing children with childless families to be raised and educated gave men the possibility of taking small girls into their households, where they were then raised by their future husbands. Divorce is equally easy for men or women; one or the other leaves the house. There is also some evidence of levirate and sororate in the past.

Domestic Unit. In the past, a number of extended families occupied a single communal house, with each nuclear family assigned a place on the perimeter of the maloca. Now the Huarayo use separate dwellings for each extended or nuclear family. It seems that bilocal residence prevails.

Inheritance. Men and women "own" things that they need for their activities. In the past, when a man died, all his belongings were destroyed: his weapons were broken, his dog killed, his chacra destroyed, his house set afire. The corpse was wrapped up in his cushma, deposited in a canoe, and shipped down the river. Today, owing to missionary influence, the dead are buried. The corpse is wrapped in his cushma and put in a grave together with his diadem, food, and favorite animal (e.g., a monkey). The Huarayo no longer burn the deceased's house, but smaller articles such as utensils or weapons are still destroyed.

Socialization. Children are socialized at home and according to the situation (in the bilingual missionary school in Riberalta or in a Spanish Adventist school in Palmareal). Only babies are looked after by their mothers; other children are in the care of their older brothers and sisters, who teach them customary behavior and how to behave in the forest.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Huarayo society was traditionally egalitarian, with men serving as chiefs of separate local groups. A man's status was based on his knowledge of the environment and herbal medicine and his ability to narrate myths; today knowledge of Spanish is also necessary.

Political Organization. Communities are linked primarily by kinship and marriage. The Peruvian Huarayo participated in the Indian unification movement and became members of La Federación Nativa de Madre de Dios (FENAMAD), which was established in 1982. Only since 1987, however, when FENAMAD became a component of the Confederación de Nacionalidades Amazónicas del Perú (CONAP), have the Huarayo (on the Rio Tambopata) been represented on the committee and become active.

Social Control. In the past, masato-drinking bouts were common. They provided an opportunity for general release of suppressed aggression, especially between men, who settled their disputes with violence or combat. In cases of adultery or a rape inside a village, the matter is settled publicly. In such a case, nearly all adults give their opinions. The opinion expressed by the majority is used as a recommendation, not an order.

Conflict. In the past, raids and wars among the local Huarayo groups were very frequent. The main purpose was stealing women. The men were killed, and women and girls were raped. Huarayo also fought with Atsahuaea, Iñapari, Arasairi, Piro, Mashco, and Toyeri groups. Although Dominican missionaries worked in the Huarayo region in the twentieth century, their influence was meager; the Huarayo were warlike even in the 1920s and 1930s. The death of the missionary Manuel in 1926, caused by the Huarayo Shajaó, is often mentioned. In this case the Peruvian army intervened, and the offender was punished. Shajaó was imprisoned in Cuzco, where he died in 1942. Missionary activities eventually helped end raiding and alleged cannibalism. The Adventists began to operate in Palmareal in 1962 after an epidemic of smallpox and measles decreased the number of inhabitants from 250 to 80 people. Bolivian rubber tappers (caucheros ) have raided Huarayo territory.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The influence of Christianity in Palmareal is not especially strong. According to the accessible information, animism still prevails. A greater influence of Christianity is found in the combined settlements, at the El Pilar mission, and in Riberalta. The Huarayo feared several evil spirits. Practically every thing or class of things or beings is thought to have a spirit component. The most powerful spirits are Edosikiani and the water spirit Enashagua. The Huarayo believe that animals originated by metamorphosis from humans.

Religious Practitioners. The shaman (eyámitecua ) is an important personage: he mediates between living people and the souls of the dead and the spirit world, which most commonly is approached only through him. The shaman is primarily a healer and seer. He is the only person with an extensive and special knowledge of medicinal herbs and their uses. This knowledge is, as a rule, passed on to his eldest son. The shaman has a broad repertoire of curing practices. A form of surgery is used, and by means of very high-pitched whistling, the ulcers on the bodies of the patients open by themselves without being touched, and the worms jump out. In the past, the Huarayo, by drinking ayahuasca, reached a dream state in which they struggled with enormous animals. The shaman explained the dreams, interpreting who or what was responsible for illness, who was the enemy, and the way to win the battle.

Ceremonies. The Huarayo no longer drink fermented drinks from sweet manioc (masato) or from plantains. In the past, as part of their initiation rite, boys consumed these drinks to foresee their future. The boys were circumcised, and the girls were ritually deflowered. The drinking feasts of the fermented plantain drink eshaha poi were very frequent.

Arts. Huarayo art is limited to body and face painting. Red (achiote) and black (huito; i.e., Genipa americana ) pigments were used. Sometimes they also painted cushma and manufactured elaborate feather diadems and necklaces from animal teeth and from shells. Drinking bouts were accompanied by music (drums and flutes) and chants. The most important culture heroes are the deer Dokuel and forefather Gemasho. Mythology treats the origin of the Huarayo and the Flood, but its main emphasis is on the animals in the times when they used to live as people.

Medicine. The Huarayo believe that a supernatural cause of disease is the thorn of the chonta palm sent into victim's body by a malinga shaman or by the evil spirit Edosikiani. A cure may be accomplished with herbs or by shamanistic means: blowing tobacco fumes over the patient, singing, massaging the affected part of the body (biomagnetism), performing sleight-of-hand tricks, and sucking the painful place. On the third night the curing process ends. From the victim's body the shaman sucks the bloody thorn and then destroys it. Today, spraying alcohol from the shaman's mouth over the body of the patient is also part of the curing process.

Death and Afterlife. According to Huarayo belief, the deceased leaves the settlement in the guise of a peccary (huangana ) and proceeds to the River of the Dead (Kwei ay enama). With the help of Edosikiani, the peccary swims across the river. On the other side it transforms again into a human and settles there. Only in the guise of a huangana is it possible to visit people again; therefore the huangana is considered to be a dead relative. Contact with the huangana is secured by a shaman.

Every Huarayo posseses at least three souls. The first thinks and talks and after the death of the human being settles beyond the River of the Dead. The secondenashahus, the soul of riversleaves for the depths of waters, and the third, ekwikya, stays and looks after the dead body. The ekwikya is able to bite and even to kill; therefore food is buried with the corpse to keep the ekwikya with the deceased.


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Hissink, Karin, and Albert Hahn (1988). Chama Indianer: Daten zur Kulturgeschichte. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.

Verna, Maria Alejandra (1985). "Personajes que emplean la potencia en el cosmos ese'ejja." Scripta Ethnologica 9:53-59.

Zeleny, Mnislav (1976). Contribución a la etnografía huaraya (ece'je ). Prague: Univerzita Karlova Praha.