ETHNONYMS: Adole, Ature, De'arua, Dearuwa, De'athhã, Huo, Mako, Th hã, Ttö,ja, Uwotjuja, Wõthhã, Wóthuha
Identification. "Piaroa" is not an aboriginal name, and its etymology is open to speculation. The native terms "De'arua" (owners of the forest), "Wõthhã" (knowing people), "De'athhã" (forest people), and "Thhã" (people) are all self-designations, the form used varying according to audience and situation.
Location. The traditional territory of the Piaroa lies on the right bank of the Río Orinoco within the geographical coordinates of 4° to 6° N and 66° to 68° W in what is today the Territorio Federal Amazonas, Venezuela. The approximate boundaries correspond to the middle Río Parguaza in the north, the lower Rio Ventuari in the south, the Orinoco in the west, and the Rio Manapiari in the east. The area is predominantly tropical forest habitat, with the terrain broken by abrupt sandstone mountain formations in the interfluves and headwaters. The major river basins settled were those of the Autana, Sipapo, Cuao, Samariapo, Guayapo, Cataniapo, Manapiari, Parguaza, and Marieta. Out-migration since the 1950s has extended the geographic frontiers in all directions: west into Colombia, up the Mataveni and Zama rivers; south, up the Orinoco as far as the evangelical mission station of Tamatama; and north to the lower Parguaza, upper Suapure, and Guaniamo rivers.
Demography. The official Indian Census of 1982 counted 7,030 Piaroa in Venezuela, although several hundred Mako were lumped in with this figure. Another 300 to 600 Piaroa are estimated to be living in Colombia. Population size in past eras is unknown but was probably smaller than that of today. Recent geographic expansion—the takeover of lands occupied by neighbors, the neardefunct Mapoyo and Yabarana—suggests that the Piaroa population is increasing.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Piaroa language belongs to the small Salivan Family. Dialectal differences are considerable and have a regional basis, but they have not been systematically documented. Variations in pronunciation distinguish speakers of at least three regions: Sipapo-middle Orinoco, upper Cuao-Parguaza, and Ventuari-Manapiari.
History and Cultural Relations
Historical and ethnographic records indicate that the Piaroa have occupied much of their present territory since pre-Conquest days but also may have mixed with other populations. One hypothesis states that the extinct Adoles, who inhabited the Orinoco floodplain until they disappeared in the nineteenth century, became Piaroa after being pushed off the main river channel. The relationship between Piaroa and Mako (or Wiru) is also intimate and murky, showing close linguistic, cultural, and genealogical ties still to be sorted out by investigators. On the ethnic frontiers were Carib peoples—Yecuana, Panare, Mapoyo, Yabarana—surrounding the Piaroa on the north and east, the nomadic Guahibo and settled Saliva of the Colombian savannas on the opposite Orinoco shore, and Arawakan groups—Piapoco, Puinave, Baniwa, Bare—in the southwest Guaviare-Inírida zone. Extensive interethnic contacts involving trade, intermarriage, and cultural borrowing characterized the region in pre- and early contact times. In view of the evidence of interethnic contacts, as well as the great similarity of cultural traits regionwide, some investigators hypothesize that the middle Orinoco region, perhaps the entire Guiana region, comprised a culturally and ethnically interdependent system. By contrast, interaction between Piaroa and White society was infrequent and short-lived prior to the 1970s.
First contacts were with Jesuit missions founded along the middle Orinoco in the late seventeenth century, but the Piaroa quickly gained a reputation for being aloof and unattracted to the mission life-style. They insulated themselves deep in the forest, far upriver from the main river corridors, and avoided exposure to Whites, who they thought to be cannibals. Except for brief contacts with explorers and traders, the relative isolation of the Piaroa from White society persisted until the 1950s, when they came under the acculturative influence of a new wave of missionaries as well as agents of the Venezuelan government. Large numbers of Piaroa youth began to attend the Salesian Catholic mission school at Isla Ratón in the middle Orinoco, learning the Spanish language and White customs. Meanwhile, the North American-based New Tribes Mission converted many Piaroa to born-again evangelical Christianity. They attracted Piaroa converts to the Tamatama mission center, where they were trained as disciples before returning to their home communities to proselytize relatives and neighbors. Contemporaneous with and possibly related to these developments, epidemics of foreign diseases such as measles, malaria, and venereal disease ravaged the Piaroa population, compelling many to leave the interior in search of modern medical attention. A number of them came into contact with Dr. Hans Baumgartner (1954) and other personnel of the Malaria Service, who provided modern medicines and studied the health status of the population. Many Piaroa were thus persuaded to relocate nearer to the White centers, where Western health care was available.
Contact and acculturation to White society have intensified greatly since 1970. An estimated 80 percent of the population has converted to Christianity, and rural schools run by Piaroa teachers are found in over twenty communities. Advances in means of transportation, including roads, outboard motors, and airstrips, have given a major boost to cultural and economic integration. Regular contact with White society, including frequent trips to White towns to sell manioc flour or other cultivated or forest products and to buy Western goods, has become the norm for most Piaroa. Only 5 percent of the Piaroa—mostly those in the upper Cuao-Parguaza-Cataniapo watershed—remain largely isolated from White society and still conform to a traditional life-style.
The traditional Piaroa settlement pattern was interfluvial, dispersed, and seminomadic. Communities consisted of a single communal house, the isode. A traditional-style house has a conical or rectangular wooden pole frame completely covered with palm-leaf thatching from crest to ground level. The household ranges from five to sixty or more people, comprising a simple nuclear unit or a large extended family of up to four generations. House membership is always fluctuating because of long periods spent visiting relatives in other communities and the constantly shifting allegiances of families and individuals. Indeed, an independent-minded minority maintains active membership in two or more different communities. Houses are typically spaced from a few-hours' to a two-days' journey apart. The strength and frequency of trade, marriage, kinship, and ceremonial ties between the households of a given region point to the existence of informal neighborhoods or territories of interlinked houses.
The ideal location for a Piaroa house is next to a small headwater stream, away from the larger river courses, often in the middle of an open garden clearing cut at the foot of a hill. The occupation of a house site is usually short-lived, major moves coming at intervals of one to five years. Related to this pattern of mobility is the practice of owning from two to four separate house-garden sites differing in age and maturity of crops and occupied in different seasons. The contemporary settlement pattern is much changed following the widespread migrations around the middle of the twentieth century of former headwater dwellers to downriver locations close to the White urban centers or points of access to the outside world. The majority of the population now lives in nucleated and permanent multihouse communities ranging in population from 40 to 300 inhabitants. These modern towns have been heavily subsidized by Venezuelan government programs, including funds for construction of rural schools, medical dispensaries, electric and running-water plants, and, in some places, matchbox-style cement-block housing.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. As is typical of other Amazonian peoples, Piaroa subsistence is based on the varied mix of shifting cultivation, hunting, fishing, and collection. Cultivation provides the bulk of calories in the diet. The major food crops are bitter manioc—the carbohydrate staple—followed by maize, root crops like sweet potatoes and yams, and fruits such as bananas and pineapples. A quick rotation of gardens is the traditional practice, with plantations being actively harvested and weeded through the first manioc crop, which lasts about two years. With more sedentary settlements have come prolonged cropping periods and more intensive management, such as the replanting of up to three successive manioc crops and the staggered cropping of late-maturing orchard crops to follow the initial manioc phases.
Most of the protein and fats in the diet derive from hunting or fishing of a wide range of species. The indigenous hunting technology consists of the blowgun, lance, and several kinds of traps (snares, cones, gummed sticks), but the shotgun has come to be the main tool. Fishing is done with hook and line, cone traps, suffocants, dams, scoop baskets, and bows and arrows. The relative importance of each differs according to the local ecology: hunting is dominant in the headwater zones, fishing is more prominent in the downriver sites. Significant seasonal or daily nutrition also comes from collecting wild forest plant and animal foods, among them palm fruits, frogs, honey, ants, termites, caterpillars, spiders, earthworms, and grubs. The diversified resource-exploitation system permits all houses to be virtually self-sufficient in the direct acquisition of food, but they still depend on trade to obtain certain tools, for instance manioc-grater boards, pots, blowguns, and steel cutting tools.
The traditional resource system and the economic autonomy that goes with it are being lost in the modern nucleated and sedentary towns. Current economic trends include reduced importance of hunting and gathering for subsistence; loss of native ethnobotanical and zoological knowledge; increased emphasis on agriculture and cash cropping; adoption of new crops and domesticated animals, especially cattle; increased time given to wage labor or extractive enterprises such as gold mining or vine collecting for sale to makers of rattan furniture; increased use of cash in economic exchanges; increased purchase of packaged foods; increased consumption of Western luxury goods such as watches, radio-cassette players, and tennis shoes; and the establishment of communitywide businesses to market agricultural produce. Additionally, a new economic upper class is being formed by Piaroa professionals (schoolteachers, nurses, commissaries, and electric-plant Operators, who draw government salaries) and businessmen—bodega owners and motor-boat operators.
Industrial Arts. The traditional craft items are baskets, unpainted pottery, hammocks and loincloths (woven on looms), braided string, benches and mortars (carved from wood), bark cloth, feathered crowns, and painted ceremonial masks. Some of these skills, especially loom weaving, are being lost in the more acculturated communities.
Trade. The Piaroa have a reputation as consummate traders and are famous for the high-quality curare they produce and sell to other ethnic groups. Other indigenous products traded, both intra- and interethnically, include grater boards, blowguns, canoes, pots, magical plants, peraman wax, carraña (a minty resin), red dye, baskets, cotton hammocks and loincloths, religious fetish items, feathered head bonnets, and dogs. Important Western goods incorporated into the trade network are beads, fishhooks, and steel tools. The traditional trade system has declined both inter- and intraethnically in recent years as the Piaroa have become more oriented to the urban markets and goods of the White society.
Division of Labor. Many tasks are assigned by gender; for example, men cut garden clearings and plant maize, tobacco, and magical plants, whereas women plant the manioc and other root crops, weed, and do most harvesting. With the recent trend to cash cropping, men are assuming a greater role in the planting, weeding, and harvesting of the gardens. Women also perform the nonstop chore of processing the manioc into edible form—peeling, washing, grating, pressing, and baking into bread. Meanwhile, men do the hunting and most of the fishing, build the houses, and perform religious labor. Men are the basket makers and principal potters, whereas women are the experts at loom weaving.
Land Tenure. There is no formal conception of land ownership among the Piaroa. Land is transformed into property through the input of labor, as in the case of making a garden, and exists as property only as long as it bears resources resulting from that labor. In this sense, communal gardens are owned in individual sections according to who put in the work of clearing and planting a particular area. Likewise, secondary forests containing resources are considered the privilege of their makers. In a larger sense, land is controlled by the community that occupies and uses it. Rights to occupy a place are enhanced by having known ancestors who once lived there. With permanent, nucleated settlement have come changing attitudes toward landownership. Over thirty communities have now received collective land titles from the government, but most of these grants are small.
Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is cognatic, shallow, and flexibly figured so as to allow for relationship of a wide circle of kin. A major distinction is made between "close kin" (tiki awarua ) and "distant kin" (ot h o awarua ), where closeness is often equated with coresidence. In this sense, the basis of Piaroa social organization is the cognatic kindreds that reside together. The residential groups are temporary and fluid; they have no true corporate status. Continuity of the residential kindred is founded on a rule of preferential endogamy. This causes the local group to be characterized by multiple overlapping ties, blurring the distinction between consanguine and affine.
Kinship Terminology. The terminological system is of the Dravidian type, which establishes a two-line structure contrasting consanguine from affine in the 1, 0, and —1 generational levels. By way of teknonyms, affinal kin are referred to as consanguines in a show of local group unity.
Marriage. The ideal marriage is between bilateral cross cousins who reside in the same house. An endogamous match cannot always be made, however, and marriages between distant classificatory cross cousins are sometimes arranged to form political alliances between families. A rule of initial uxorilocality obligates a groom to pay bride-service to his father-in-law until at least the birth of the first child, although this requirement may be waived in the case of a groom who is the son (and apprentice) of a prominent religious leader. In the past polygyny and divorce occurred occasionally; polygyny has almost disappeared today under Christian influence, but the incidence of divorce is increasing.
Domestic Unit. Extended families typically comprise the households, but the main unit of productive and reproductive importance is the nuclear family. Within the house each nuclear family has its own cooking fire and designated space along the house wall. A man may also move his family to another community.
Inheritance. Favorite personal possessions were traditionally buried with the deceased owners, but nowadays close relatives often divide the belongings of their dead among themselves.
Socialization. Children are disciplined verbally but rarely with physical punishment. Posttoddlers play in packs until the age of 8 or 9 years, when they begin to accompany older youth and adults in daily rounds. In the acculturated communities, youths from 8 to 15 years of age attend a rural school (ranging from the first to the sixth grades) for half-day sessions. They learn Spanish-language literacy skills and Venezuelan culture.
Social Organization. The highest mark of status in traditional society is conferred on the curing shamans. It is an office based on the acquired ability to sing the sacred songs or chants and show good results in curing sickness or protecting one's close kin from supernatural danger. In the acculturated communities a leadership role falls more to those who have a strategic relationship with White society—schoolteachers, nurses, and other salaried government employees. The major difference between past and present conceptions of rank is that the high status once reserved for the elderly bearers of cultural tradition is now given to the young and acculturated.
Political Organization. All house groups have a leader or chief, the isoderua, who also must be a capable shaman. Under his leadership the local group is largely autonomous in economic and political affairs. Interhouse alliances do form temporarily within a limited territory, however, usually linking a neighborhood of households in trade, marriage, and religious matters. Such alliances center around a highly respected shaman who provides curing and spiritual protection and sponsors the semiannual sãr (fermented manioc beverage) ceremonies that bring together members of all the territory. The modern nucleated communities are also basically autonomous, each having their capitán (captain) and/or commissary. Following the first Piaroa congress of 1984, a tribewide political body has been taking shape, consisting of a council of consensually elected representatives from seven districts: Parguaza, Cataniapo, Sipapo, middle Orinoco, upper Orinoco, Ventuari, and Manapiari.
Social Control. Control of temperament is considered the mark of a powerful man. In general, the Piaroa are very pacific in all aspects of life. Fear of black witchcraft and magical revenge as well as easy migration are the principal mechanisms regulating asocial behavior. Other means of control include gossip and avoidance. In the acculturated towns, alcohol consumption combined with underemployment and erosion of traditional values is the source of problematic behavior by young men, including domestic quarrels or even suicides.
Conflict. Personal conflicts between individuals or families within a community are defused by fission from the local group. A modern wedge of greater social impact is the virtual segregation of the tribe into evangelical Christian and traditional, non-Christian sectors. Most communities tend to follow one or the other faith, with little mixing between them.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. Native religion can be considered biotheistic, including belief in mythical culture heroprogenitors, good and evil spirits associated with environmental elements that control human destiny, and the hallucinogenic experience as the vehicle for communicating with the spirit world. A pantheon of culture heroes or gods lived in mythical times and created the world, bringing the gift of culture and knowledge of agriculture, fishing, and hunting to humankind. The hero Wahari, who was incarnated as the tapir, is considered the benevolent creator of the Piaroa. A complex of harmful, sickness-causing spirits is associated with various animals, the most dangerous being that of the jaguar. Counteracting these is a set of human-aiding spirits, associated with both animals and plants, that are invoked by shamans through songs and other ritual language.
Religious Practitioners. Although many adult men are shamans to a varying degree, each household has only one or two highly regarded curers or spiritual leaders. Their function is to cure sickness and give spiritual protection. There are two grades of shaman, the meñerua (master of song) and the more accomplished ñ œwœrua (master of hallucinogen). The constant aid of the shaman is the hallucinogenic snuff (nuce ) derived from the seeds of Anadanthera peregrina. Taking it enables him to sing superlatively all night long in order to contact the spirits of good will.
Ceremonies. The most prominent ceremony is the sãr - drinking and dancing festival held in the rainy season and attended by visitors of neighboring households. Other group rituals are the manhood tests given yearly at the end of the rainy season and the exorcism rites upon the death of a community member. Individual rites usually imply food taboos during different life-cycle stages.
Arts. Singing is the art of the shaman. The songs are composed of an archaic language form stylized by metaphor and set to musical cadence and pitch.
Medicine. All sickness is believed to be brought by evil spirits (mœr ) and caused by violating taboos and norms, failing to placate the spirit of killed game animals, or being the target of an enemy sorcerer. Shamans sing to their special spirit helpers among the pantheon of good spirits to defeat the evil spirit and cure the patient. Plant medicines are also used alone or in combination with songs to cure ailments. Western medicine is highly valued, however, and is replacing many of the native remedies.
Death and Afterlife. In traditional culture the dead are mummified and placed with personal items in a cave in the rocky hilltops. Among the Christian Piaroa, corpses are buried in the ground. No matter what the circumstances, death is always attributed to mær . The soul or ghost (aweti ) of the deceased wanders on earth until the killer spirits are exorcised (warawœ ) by ritual acts. The soul then returns to the spirit world and the spirit clan (hœdõk w œt'ï ) whence it originated.
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Baumgartner, Hans (1954). "Apuntes de un médico indigenista sobre los piaroa de Venezuela." Boletín Indigenísta Venezolano 2(1-4): 111-124.
Kaplan, Joanna Overing (1975). The Piaroa: A People of the Orinoco Basin: A Study in Kinship and Marriage. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
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