views updated


ETHNONYMS: Ajaju, Carijona, Guaque/Huaque, Mesaya, Murciélagos, Omaua/Umaua (and variants)


Identification. "Karihona" is the autodenomination. "Umaua" is the name applied by the Karihona's Eastern Tucanoan-speaking neighbors and means "toad" (not to be confounded with "Omagua," the Tupí from the Rio Solimôes); "Murciélago" (Spanish: bat) was applied to the Karihona because they were considered bloodthirsty. The names "Mesaya" and "Ajaju" derive from rivers of the Karihona territory. No explanation for "Guaque/Huaque" is available.

Location. The Karihona occupied the Rio Yarí and the upper Rio Apaporis and their affluents. The Yarí is an affluent of the Río Caquetá-Japurá in the Colombian part of the northwestern Amazon. Information concerning a considerably larger territory of the Karihona probably refers to the trading and raiding area. At present, the last few Karihona are living dispersed, mainly throughout the upper Rio Uaupés and the Colombian Río Caquetá near the border with Brazil.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Karihona language is one of the Carib languages.

Demography. Various thousands or even more than 10,000 Karihona are mentioned in the two preceding centuries; very few quite acculturated persons remain at the end of the twentieth century.

History and Cultural Relations

The Karihona probably migrated centuries ago from Guiana to the northwestern Amazon and adopted, in the course of time, cultural traitssuch as masks, bark trumpets, and patricians or patrisibsfrom the surrounding ethnic groups. The enemies of the Karihona were the Witoto to the south; the expression witoto refers likewise to foes and slaves or captives. Well into the nineteenth century, the Karihona were better protected than other groups from the harmful influences of the advancing White population because their territory was away from the main rivers. At least from the second half of the seventeenth century on, the Karihona traded with Spaniards of the Colombian area to the west and, later, also with Brazilians to the east. The Indians exchanged slaves and forest products like beeswax for iron tools and other manufactured objects. In the second half of the eighteenth century some Karihona settled in Franciscan missions on the upper Putumayo, although the attack against another mission (on the Rio Mecaya) was attributed to the Karihona. Beginning about 1900, some Karihona worked as rubber gatherers; probably from the 1920s on, a great number of the men did so for different employers. To this end, one group of the Karihona emigrated to the Caquetá, and another went to the middle Apaporis and from there to the upper Uaupés. A different group of Karihona escaped from persecution by the Witoto and allied with the Peruvian Casa Arana by moving to the Rio Orteguasa, where they were integrated with the Korewahe. Because of close contact with the nonindigenous population at these locations, various epidemics decimated the Karihona during the following decades. The few surviving Karihona are widely dispersed in southeastern Colombia.


The dozens of inhabitants of a village lived together in a large circular house with a conical roof, ordered internally according to nuclear families. The slash-and-burn fields were nearby. Houses were of pole construction with leafthatched roofs. Separate square family dwellings became usual after about 1900, most with elevated floors and internal partitions.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Karihona subsistence economy involves shifting cultivation, hunting, fishing, and collecting. The staple is cazabe bread made from bitter manioc, supplemented by cooked or roasted meat or fish. Crops include sweet manioc, maize, yams, bananas, pineapples, sugarcane, peppers, tobacco, and various tree fruits. Hunting was done with blowguns or bows and arrows before the introduction of guns. Nowadays fishing is mostly done with hook and line; fish poison or dams with traps are still used occasionally. Since about 1900 the Karihona have been wage laborers.

Industrial Arts. Karihona men constructed houses and canoes and fabricated equipment such as furniture, musical instruments, and weapons both for hunting and war. During the 1800s the Karihona were famous for their curare (made by the men during a time of diet restrictions) and their hammocks (made by women). Men wore a painted bark cloth wrapped tightly around the trunk below the armpits like a corset; women went naked.

Trade. Apart from trading with non-Indians the Karihona exchanged industrial goods, dogs, salt, and slaves with neighboring Indians, with allies like the Ka'wiari (Arawak, who offered blowguns among other items) or Andoke, as well as with foes like the Witoto.


The Karihona were divided into patrilineal, exogamous sibs. Various sibnamesChohone, Hianakoto, Kaikusana, Mahotoyana, Sahasaha, Werewereru, Yakauyanasometimes appear as tribal names in the literature. In Ego's and the first ascending and descending generations, the Karihona have a two-section relationship terminology (i.e., kin are bifurcated according to a parallel/cross distinction and terms for cross relatives and affines are the same). Most kinship terms indicate sex difference; sibling terms refer to relative age.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The norm was real or classificatory cross-cousin marriage; sister exchange was desirable. Intermarriage with other language groups, which is now so common, is said to be a new development (owing to population loss), although this practice is usual among neighboring Indians of the region. The practice is encouraged by the Catholic missionaries. While talking to the parents about marriage with their daughter, the fiancé is punched by his future father-in-law and insulted by his future mother-in-law to test his endurance. The son-in-law is required to reside uxorilocally and to work for his parents-in-law during their lifetime. According both to the recollections of the elders and the literary sources, localized patrisibs existed in former times; if true, this would mean that earlier on the bride-service lasted only for a restricted period. Polygynous marriage occurred among the Karihona. After the birth of a child, the father has to observe dietary restrictions and avoid all strenuous tasks for some time because of the interrelationship between him and the baby: every exertion made by the father means an analogous and dangerous exertion for the young child.

Socialization. Mothers devote much attention to small children; if a younger sibling is born, however, the previous child is quickly rejected and placed in the care of elder sisters or other persons. Girls start to help with household chores at an early age. Nowadays school attendance begins before the teens. At puberty, a girl was secluded in a hut apart from the communal house and had to live on a restricted diet. At the termination of this seclusion, she underwent an ordeal including the pulling out of her hair and whipping, among other things, in order to make her industrious. With the same intentions, young men were whipped after communal clearing of fields. For success in hunting and raiding, men had themselves stung by ants and wasps. Boys between about 12 and 15 to 17 years of age, before they started with lovemaking, were held to be the most successful hunters. Young people enjoyed their sexuality, restricted only by incest taboos. Married couples had to endure the jealousy of their partners. During menstruation and at childbirth (and for some weeks thereafter), women were secluded in a hut separated from the communal house in order not to harm the shamans.

Sociopolitical Organization

No reliable information about this subject is available. Open conflicts between the inhabitants of a village were avoided. In the twentieth century some shamans, accused of sorcery against their own people, were killed.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefe. Opposition between the Karihona and manakïnï (animals, demons, monsters, human antagonists, or enemies), is one of the most prominent themes in their mythology. Conflicts with manakïnï often result in open fighting wherein the Karihona outwit their foes. The culture heroes and apical ancestors of the Karihona, Tukuchimobë (meaning "out of the egg of a hummingbird") and his elder brother, are occupied in such conflicts with the manakïnï during most of their saga. At the end they transform to sun and moon; no worship is related to them. The Karihona compare Tamekemï or Kuyugu (king vulture) to the Christian God, but he seems to be a pale figure, perhaps of missionary influence. The culture hero Kuwai shows suprahuman knowledge in his dealings with his adversaries and his faithless wife. The essence of life of persons and manakïnï is called omore. An important personality in mythology and everyday life is Itutarï, the ugly and malicious master of the forest and its animals. Most of the useful plants except manioc originated from his cremated body. The father or master of the aquatic animals is called Ikuchayumu (father of the fishes), who is of less importance in the daily life of the Karihona than Itutatï. Karihona ascribe much importance to dreams and other omens, such as the singing of the small bird kuiminari.

Religious Practitioners. During his apprenticeship the future shaman (hiyachi ) becomes a seer by consuming hallucinogens (drinks made from Banisteriopsis and Virola ), supported by fasting and sexual abstinence and guided by an experienced shaman. In his visions he travels to other regions in order to enlist demons (manakïnï) and even God himself as advisers. By these means he acquires knowledge of hidden dimensions. His erudition is manifested by the acquisition of jaguars and other animals as helpers, by the memorization of effective songs and texts, and by the acquisition of quartz and various stones (mara ), some of which are mystically introduced into the body of the hiyachi. Mara are generated out of lightning, and, according to the Karihona, there is an association of shamans and thunder in different ways. The shamans were called on to fend off the attacks of hostile manakïnï and to protect people against them, to cure the sick, to attract game to the surroundings of the village, to ensure success in hunting, and, in earlier times, in warfare. Shamans are the protectors of ordinary Karihona against various kinds of menaces and misfortunes and are themselves continually endangered by the attacks of other shamans as well as by women in special conditions (menstruation, childbirth). That is the Karihona explanation of the sexual antagonism prevalent among many Indian groups of the area.

Ceremonies. The Karihona celebrated different kinds of communal dance festivals, for which village invited others. The hosts prepared the drinks (beer), and the visitors brought smoked meat or tree fruits. During the ritual reception, men played trumpetsamong them two bark trumpets called notihëimë (lit., "old women"), which the women were not allowed to see. Aquatic animals (caimans, anacondas, tortoises) were painted on the soil with pounded ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi ) and ritually destroyed. The hiding of the trumpets and the "killing" of the paintings were effectuated to protect the women from harm. Ritual whipping of the men and song duels between participants took place. Another kind of festival was the mask dance, usually or always celebrated at funerals. They were performed during the daytime while the shaman guarded the village against dangers from manakïnï. The mask dancers demonstrated by songs and pantomime the peculiarities of the manakïnï represented by them. According to the literature and the reports of informants, the Karihona celebrated anthropophagic festivals in the past. A Witoto was made drunk before he was killed and finally ceremonially consumed.

Arts. Masks, similar to those of other ethnicities of the area, were adopted from the neighboring Ka'wiari.

Medicine. Sick Karihona rest and diet. In former days they used herbal medicine but nowadays rely mostly pharmaceutical products. Certain afflictions were cured by a shaman in a séance. He took hallucinogens and sought the support of his mystical advisers in order to find the cause of the malady. Afflictions were often attributed to the attacks of hostile shamans who sent manakïnï to do harm, to the introduction of noxious objects into the body, or to loss of omore. Healing practices included blowing tobacco smoke over the body, sucking out noxious objects, and bringing back the omore to the body.

Death and Afterlife. After the death of a person, his or her house is burned down. Death is usually attributed to the machinations of malevolent shamans. After death, the omore of Karihona men goes to one region in heaven, the omore of women to another. The deceased resemble humans and live in houses just as on the earth, in a beautiful surrounding. There are no illnesses nor any other difficulties or problems, and therefore all live peacefully. Shamans inhabit yet another region, where they enjoy hallucinogens. After the death of a person, a dangerous ghost (iwo ) originates. Riding around on a night swallow, it is much dreaded by the living.


Friede, Juan (1948). "Algunos apuntes sobre los karijonahuaque del Cacueta." In Actes du XXVIIIème Congrès International des Américanistes, 255-263. Paris.

Koch-Grünberg, Theodor (1908). "Die Hianákoto-Umáua." Anthropos 3:83-124.

Llanos Vargas, Hector, and Roberto Pineda Camacho (1982). Ethnohistoria del Gran Caquetá. Bogotá: Banco de la República.

Robayo, Camilo Alberto (1986). "La flexión verbal del carijona." Master's thesis, University of the Andes, Bogota.

Robayo, Camilo Alberto (1989a). "En faisant une rame." Amerindia 14.

Robayo, Camilo Alberto (1989b). Lingüística y Literatura (Universidad de Antioquia).

Robayo, Camilo Alberto (1990). "Avances de morfología carijona." In Atlas etnolingüístico de Colombia. Bogotá: Instituto Caro y Cuervo.

Schindler, Helmut (1973). "Warum kann man den Iturari mit dem Gwaruma erschlagen." Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 98(2): 246-276.

Schindler, Helmut (1977a). "Carihona and Manakïnï: An Opposition in the Mythology of a Carib Tribe." In Carib-Speaking Indians: Culture, Society, and Language, edited by Eleen B. Basso, 66-75. Anthropological Papers of the University of Arizona, 28. Tucson.

Schindler, Helmut (1977b). "La etnohistoria de los carijona en el siglo XX." Montalban (Caracas: Universidad Católica Andres Bello) 6:551-557.

Schindler, Helmut (1979). Karihona-Erzählungen aus Manacaro. Collectanea Instituti Anthropos 18. St. Augustin: Anthropos Institut.