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ETHNONYMS: Cabiyari, Cabiyary, Kabillary, Kabiyari, Kauiyari, Kawillary


Identification. The listed ethnonyms are generalized names given the Ka'wiari by Whites. Although there is no translation for it in their own language, "Ka'wiari" is the name by which they refer to themselves. In the language of their Taiwano neighbors, however, a possibly pejorative translation designates them "children of the crab." Apart from using the generic "our people" ("Ichumari"), the Ka'wiari use the ritual name "people of the anaconda A'sha," stemming from the belief that they are descendants of the water snake. The social identifiction of an individual is established by the adscription of mythical descent from a clan, the name of which is used as an eponym. The toponym of the clan ancestor's place of origin could also be used to designate a social group sharing this filiation. Every individual has a ritual name and a nickname. Ritual names are inherited every fourth generation and are secret.

Location. In the region of the Colombian Vaupés, the Ka'wiari live along the Río Cananari (an affluent of the Río Apaporis), as well as near its mouththat is, at approximately 1o N and 71° W. There are also some members of the group scattered along the Río Miriti-Paraná, a tributary of the Rio Caqueta, in the territory of the Yucuna. According to the Köppen system, this area has an Af climate. It is characterized by humid tropical forest with abundant rainfall (350 centimeters annually) and a relatively high temperature (26° C). Rains decrease somewhat in the dry seasons from December to February and from July to August.

Demography. In 1976 the Ka'wiari population was estimated to be approximately 100 individuals, exclusive of the small segments on the Miriti-Paraná, who moved there in former times.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Ka'wiari speak a language of Arawakan affiliation, that is, a variety of Eastern Proto-Newiki (Waltz and Wheeler 1972). In contrast to various neighboring groups that are multilingual, the Ka'wiari speak only their own language.

History and Cultural Relations

The Uaupés or Vaupés region, first mentioned by Perez de Quesada (1538) and Pérez von Hutten (1541), was at the time virtually inhabited by the "Boape" Indians. Systematic expeditions to the Rio Negro in Brazil were only begun toward the middle of the seventeenth century, a time when the first mission villages and fortresses were established (S. José do Rio Negro, Taruma). In the eighteenth century the eagerness of the Spanish and Portuguese crowns to establish economic control over the area encouraged 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 Uaupés, fostering the establishment of haciendas, animal farms, agricultural production, manufacturing, and handicrafts. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, centers of trade have grown. Because of abuses by missionaries and civilians, the Indians began to manifest discontent, and several messianic movements succeeded one another. From the end of the ninteenth to the middle of the twentieth centuries, the extractors of balata, chicle, and rubber treated the indigenous population ruthlessly. Toward the middle of the twentieth century, the Amazon area began to be settled by Andean colonists. The cultivation of coca and the extraction of gold have also had considerable impact on the Indians in the area. Only recently have efforts been made to legally recognize ethnic territories, and health and education programs have been gradually implemented by the Colombian government in the Vaupés region.

There is daily exchange of goods, women, and rituals between the Ka'wairi and their neighbors: the Barasana to the southwest, the Taiwano to the west, and the Tatuyo to the northwest. Horticultural groups of the Colombian Vaupés area share common structural elements (e.g., horticulture, fishing, hunting, gathering, segmentary social organization, partilineality, virilocality, Dravidian kinship terminology, and prescriptive symmetrical marriage alliances). Social distance between ethnic groups is based on descent from a particular Anaconda, traversing a specific ancestral river, and having a particular territory, language, mythology, type of shamanic exorcism, and repertoire of songs and dances.


The settlements are dispersed along the rivers. The traditional residence unit was the maloca, a large rectangular communal house (about 10 by 15 meters) covered with a two-sided thatched roof. The interior space is divided in halfthat is, a feminine part toward the back and a masculine part toward the front. "Residents" occupy the former and "visitors" the latter. Ideally, the hut is oriented according to the movement of the sun. In 1976 the average number of people living in a residence unit was ten. When gathering wild fruit or on prolonged hunting excursions, temporary camps are built in the forest. Since 1982, when a school for Indians was built at the mouth of the Río Cananari, houses of nuclear or composite families have tended to be concentrated in the village of Villa Gladis, although a communal house still functions as the center of daily life and ceremonial gatherings.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Economic activity is based on shifting cultivation and the slash-and-burn system. Small plots of land (1 to 3 hectares) are planted with bitter manioc as well as other tubers and fruit. This crop cultivation is complemented by hunting, fishing, and gathering. Surplus that sporadically accrues is redistributed among relatives.

Industrial Arts. Items of material culture are made of basketry, wood, bark, ceramics, and calabashes, although the latter tend to be replaced by Western products. Blowguns, bows, arrows, and wooden fish traps are also produced.

Trade. Intergroup trade is limited and restricted to products the primary material of which is not obtainable in the area, for example manioc graters. A few products are traded in the White market for shotguns, machetes, axes, knives, hammocks, aluminum pots, clothes, battery radios, and watches.

Division of Labor. The division of labor is according to age and sex. Women's tasks include planting, tending, and harvesting the field; gathering wild foods; processing food; and making pottery. Men's tasks include felling and burning the land for planting, fishing, hunting, basketry, and woodworking. There is no specialization of crafts, although it is recognized that some artisans are better than others. Tree cutting in preparation of fields, peccary drives, and fishing with barbasco poison are collective male activities.

Land Tenure. Communities are concentrated around places from which their ancestors emerged. According to the Ka'wiari, the Cananari and part of the Apaporis were bequeathed to them by their ancestral father; this is the river axis of their present-day territory, although they are not its exclusive occupants. Toward the headwaters of the river there are new Cubeo settlements, and in the village of Villa Gladis the Ka'wiari share space with Taiwano, Barasana, and Tatuyo. The area forms part of the Vaupés Reserve, a legal mechanism by which the state recognizes the right of several Vaupés groups to collective territorial ownership of the Comisaría.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Ka'wiari are composed of clans of shallow genealogical depth. Each clan is made up of one or several patrilineages whose members recognize one another by their filiation with a living or recently deceased ancestor. The lineage is made up of nuclear families, which function as the basic units of production. The Ka'wiari include themselves in a phratry that includes the Bara, sometimes the Tukano proper, and the Yuruti, whom they call "brothers." They consider the Yukuna uterine relatives ("mother's children"). This set of groups forms an exogamic unit. Among their allies, the Ka'wiari distinguish segments of the Taiwano and the Barasana as long-term affines. Together, this set of consanguineal relatives, uterine relatives, customary allies, and actual allies constitutes the kinship universe. Filiation is patrilineal. Among phratric relatives, kinship terms differentiate the Bara as "older brothers" and the Yuruti and Tukano as "younger brothers." Clans relate to each other through their respective ancestors as "older brothers" and "younger brothers" and according to their identification with certain bodily parts and segments of the ancestral Anaconda (head, body, intestines, tail), which gives them the right to exercise certain specialized functions.

Kinship Terminology. Ka'wiari kinship terminology is of the Dravidian type. Genealogical depth does not exceed five generationsEgo's generation and those of two ascending and two descending generations. Sex is marked by relevant suffixes. There are variations in kin terms of address and reference, and individualized terms are used by each sex for certain categories of relatives. Terminologically consanguineal kin are differentiated according to the order of birth (anterior or posterior), but this is not the case with affines. Terminologically consanguineal kin in Ego's generation are divided into older and younger. Besides differentiating between cross cousins and parallel cousins, a terminological distinction is also made between certain uterine kin called "mother's children," who are children of potential wives and who have married or will marry members of groups different from Ego's.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Postmarital residence is virilocal. Marriage is prescriptive. Kinship vocabulary designates the category of possible mates within opposite lines of filiation and implies sister exchange among affinal groups. There is a preference for marrying bilateral cross cousins; however, supplementary formulas also present the possibility of marriage between more distant cross cousins, deferred marriage, and marriage with allies. Marriage is prohibited with real and classificatory consanguineal relatives, "mother's children," and between different generations. Couples separate most frequently because of the lack of progeny. Infidelity is also a cause for divorce, in which case the man claims paternity over his children.

Domestic Unit . The traditional domestic unit was constituted by a group of nuclear families of a patrilineage and, possibly, a number of other consanguineal and affinal relatives living in the house. Presently the nuclear family is the key domestic unit. Where communal houses still exist, they are distributed around their respective family hearths along lateral sides of the building. The new residential pattern is the mission village, in which nuclear or composite families live in houses of close proximity.

Inheritance. Land is the society's basic form of property. It is passed on from father to son, along with the knowledge of ancestral places and the origin myths that legitimize it. Landownership is made evident through its cultivation by a man and his ancestors before him. Items of paraphernalia and ancestral flutes and trumpets are the ritual heirlooms of the lineage.

Socialization. Cultural learning takes place through observation, imitation, and comparison, with norms of behavior transmitted within the domestic unit. At about the age of puberty, acquiring knowledge of myths and ancestral narratives, which exemplify, in denotative or metaphorical ways, forms of relating to the society and the environment, becomes an important aspect of the process of enculturation.

Sociopolitical Organization

Political Organization. According to the sequential order of birth, adscription of rank among clans is associated with the corporal segmentation of the ancestral Anaconda. Each segment considers itself affiliated to a specific role: chiefs, singers/dancers, shamans, warriors, or "workers." This adscription, which can be observed only in ritual and in the relationship between different ethnic groups, apparently corresponded to the internal distribution of the territory in which the older members lived at the mouth of a river and the younger ones lived at its headwaters. In daily life, interpersonal relations, mediated by signs of respect between relatives, do not express subordination. In the community it is the "owner of the house" or the "captain" of the village who, more than exercising real authority, organizes, animates, and coordinates daily activities.

Social Control. Religious and cultural beliefs regarding the order of society and the environment, as recorded in myth, are the referents that legitimize individual behavior. Rumor and scolding are direct mechanisms of social control. Interpersonal disputes, grudges about material goods, and quarrels concerning a woman's infidelity are solved relatively quickly. In serious cases or in instances of repeated offenses, the use of "witchcraft" may end in the illness and death of one of the antagonists.

Conflict. According to both myth and current lore, when the Anaconda established the internal social order, territorial distribution, and adscription of specialized functions, one segment of people usurped primogeniture and had itself recognized as "older" than two earlier-born segments. The usurpers thereby initiated a sociopolitical dispute that runs counter to the ideal order. Although myths record intertribal wars, these are not waged today. Conflicts with Whites, because of the overexploitation of the indigenous labor force, are latent.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The ordering of the universe is associated with the mythical cycle of the Mujnuyi and Kua, primordial ancestors who ordered the cosmos and appropiated the natural world. The origin of human beings is related to the mythical cycle of the ancestral Anaconda, which recounts the origin of humankind and the structuring of society. At the beginning, from the base at the eastern end of the world, the Anaconda went up the fluvial axis of the universe. It moved to the center of the world, the Río Apaporis, where it gave birth to humanity.

Religious Practitioners. The shaman (jaguar) is the most important religious practitioner in the sacred life of the Ka'wiari. He is the keeper of knowledge about the order of the cosmos, the environment, beings and spirits of the jungle, and of the community's treasure of myths and history. In ritual, he is in charge of communicating with ancestral spirits. Other functions, like that of the singer-dancer, still exist.

Ceremonies. Collective ceremonies may be held at the beginning of the gathering of jungle products, the foraging for animals or plants, the harvesting of cultivated products, or, on occasion, the clearing of the forest for new fields. The most important ceremony was associated with male initiation, known in the Vaupés area as yurupari. In the course of the event, initiates were introduced for the first time to the ancestral flutes and trumpets. Females and uninitiated boys were excluded from this ceremony.

Arts. Ritual paraphernalia combines elaborate feather headdresses, a necklace with a cylindrical quartz pendant, a belt with wildcat teeth, a loincloth exquisitely ornamented with red vegetable dye, and pendants on arms and legs tied to ribbons woven with cumare fiber. Musical instruments include wind and percussion instruments such as ancestral flutes, trumpets, panpipes, ocarinas, animal shells, stamping tubes, rattles, and rattles of dried seeds. Body painting is done with black and red vegetal dyes.

Medicine. Illness is a latent state that demands constant shamanic intervention. It may be caused by seasonal conditions, events in a person's life cycle, violation of social or environmental norms, or aggression and sorcery by third persons. Although each individual has elemental knowledge of shamanism, shamanic curing is the prerogative of the practitioner whose prophylactic and therapuetic practices include exorcisms and blowing on food and objects. Shamans have the ability to potentiate, reconstitute, and preserve benevolent powers.

Death and Afterlife. Disposing of the dead is a secular act; there is no special ritual associated with it. The deceased is brought to the house and buried under his or her hammock, together with the utensils of his or her daily use. Women weep and join the men in recounting the virtues of the deceased. Dead members of the group are reincarnated in their descendants, who every fourth generation carry their names.


Correa, François (1983). "Características socio-lingüísticas en la región del Vaupés colombiano." Revista Colombiana de Lingüística (Bogotá) 11(2-3): 175-186.

Correa, François (1987a). "Coca y cocaína en Amazonia." In Texto y Contexto (Bogota: Universidad de los Andes), no. 9:91-111.

Correa, François (1987b). "Denominaciones y autodenominaciones entre grupos indígenas de la región del Vaupés." Ponencia al Seminario sobre las Denominaciones de Etnias y Lenguas en Colombia. Yerbabuena: Instituto Caro y Cuervo.

Correa, François (1987c). "Indígenas horticultores del Vaupés." In Introducción a la Colombia amerindia, edited by François Correa and Ximena Pachón, 109-122. Bogotá: Instituto Colombiano de Antropología (ICAN).

Correa, François (1989). Relatos míticos kabiyari. Bogotá: SCC.

Dumont, L. (1953). "The Dravidian Kinship Terminology as an Expression of Marriage." Man 53-54:34-39.

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

FRANÇOIS CORREA (Translated by Ruth Gubler)


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