Identification. The Piro refer to themselves as "Yine" (people) or "Wumolene" (our kinfolk). Identification is based on recognition of kinship and on the use of the Piro language, since the people are of mixed blood through intermarriage with surrounding tribes.
Location. At present the principal territory of the Piro extends for about 150 kilometers along both sides of the Río Urubamba in the rain forests east of the Andes Mountains in Peru. The southernmost village is Huau, upstream from the Spanish-speaking village of Atalaya. There are smaller communities of Piro on the Río Cushabatay, which empties into the Río Ucayali above Pucallpa, and on the Río Madre de Dios near its confluence with the Rio Manu, not far from the borders with Bolivia and Brazil; there are isolated families living in White communities. Closely related Manchineri (an endogamous division of the Piro tribe, represented also on the Urubamba) are found on the Yaco and Acre rivers in Brazil.
Demography. The Piro of the Urubamba numbered 400 or 500 in 1953. By the end of 1981, the population of the Urubamba Piro was 1,263. Piro married to Whites are included in the census, but their spouses or children are not unless they primarily speak Piro. A dozen or more of the Manchineri brought from the Yaco to the Urubamba were included in the 1981 census. The total number of Piro in the villages of the Madre de Dios and Cushabatay probably does not exceed 100. The near tripling of the Urubamba population was probably the result of a decrease in the use of fermented beverages (and the consequent decrease in poverty) as well as the introduction of additional plants and livestock, health education, and the limited service of medical doctors.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Piro language belongs to the Arawakan Family. It is almost mutually intelligible with the language of the Manchineri of Brazil.
History and Cultural Relations
Early contacts between the Piro and Whites are mentioned by missionaries and travelers—E. Richter in 1685, Francisco Carrasco in 1846, and P. Agustín Alemany, 1879-1881. In the early twentieth century rubber dealers attempted to enslave the Piro, resulting in violence on both sides and a significant reduction in the Piro population. After that the Piro were virtually slaves because of debts incurred on receipt of trade goods from patrones until direct contact with the Peruvian government was established in 1953. Peruvian Seventh-Day Adventists maintained a school in Huau. There were also Franciscan and Dominican Catholic schools. In all, some twenty-four of the Piro had learned to read and write Spanish, although most of them understood little of what they read. By that time a scientific alphabet for the Piro language had been provided by the Summer Institute of Linguistics (a Protestant organization), and the New Testament was being translated. This provided strong motivation for literacy. In 1953 the government established a highly successful system of bilingual schools. In 1981 nearly all the village Piro old enough to read and up to about the age of 40 were included in the bilingual school system; they were literate in Piro and able to hold simple conversations in Spanish. One young Piro woman had graduated from the University of San Marcos with a degree in medicine. In 1989 the Piro reported that eighty-eight of their young people, their secondary education completed, were in Pucallpa seeking degrees.
Until at least 1950 there was continual fear of raids from surrounding tribes. The Piro themselves had taken children of their neighbors into slavery. No intertribal attacks have been reported during the past five decades, however, except that two young Piro men returned with arrow wounds after lumbering alone. Beginning in the late 1940s intertribal relationships became increasingly cordial, as did relationships with Whites. One factor was the training of teachers for the bilingual schools, which brought the Piro into close contact with other jungle communities and with educators and government officials. During the 1950s the Peruvian government established a penal colony on the Urubamba. Some former prisoners have married Piro women of downstream villages, and a mixed population is developing there.
At the time of the 1953 census, the Piro of the Urubamba were seminomadic, and their thirteen villages ranged in population from 4 to 125. The 1981 census showed sixteen villages with populations ranging from 6 to 259 inhabitants each; village life had become stabilized. Usually Piro villages extend along the rivers. Sites are chosen with highwater season in view, since the level of the Urubamba varies as much as 8 meters from dry season to rainy season. All of the large trees are cleared from a village site, and the areas immediately surrounding the houses are periodically scraped clean with machetes. Houses are typically rectangular with woven palm-thatch roofs and palm-bark sleeping platforms. Formerly the houses were without walls, but with the increase of population and of visits from outsiders, some families now build walls of cane, palm bark, or undressed boards. Tools, nails, and boards are not uncommon now, whereas the jungle formerly supplied all materials used in the construction of the house and its furnishings. Nearly every village has one structure that serves as a church. The larger villages have well-kept soccer fields. Plantings surround the village. Acquisition of land titles has made it necessary to extend the duration of villages beyond the ten to fifteen years characteristic of slashand-burn agriculture.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Piro had been hunters and gatherers, but by the late 1940s their principal foods were fish and ripe plantains. Manioc was next in importance, and they raised more than sixty other kinds of produce. Agricultural courses introduced concepts of reforestation, grafting of fruit trees, crop rotation, breeding of livestock, and much more. These courses were timely because the influx of White settlers into Piro territory was depleting the supply of fish and game and diminishing the available arable land. By 1984 the Piro were raising cattle in the larger villages, had bred better livestock in general, and were able to maintain a sufficient yield from their plantings without the accustomed migrations. Commercial crops had greatly increased in profit, and the Piro were selling their own lumber. Outboard motors have replaced poles and paddles, making it possible to spend nights in the villages even when crops need tending on distant beaches or when trips are necessary for hunting, fishing, gathering, or business. Hunting and gathering are still popular, but the gun has replaced the bow and arrow.
Industrial Arts. Until quite late in the twentieth century homegrown cotton was seeded, carded, and spun by hand, woven on a girdle loom, and painted with geometric designs for men's robes and hunting bags and women's wrap-around skirts. Women's blouses were made of material bought from the Whites. Now, because of economic pressure, homespun is rarely seen, even on festal occasions; metal pots and pans have largely replaced clay cooking pots; enamelware has superseded painted clay bowls and platters; bark cloth is rare. Mats are still woven for straining the plantain beverage and for beds. Crude benches are made instead of turtle-shaped seats.
Trade. There is informal communal interchange of food and possessions among the Piro. Indians of other tribes help themselves to Piro produce for immediate needs, and freely supply the needs of traveling Piro. Crops, livestock, lumber, and artifacts are sold to Whites.
Division of Labor. Women are generally responsible for the upkeep of the home and care of the children, for meals, clothing, the supply of coiled pottery and mats, and the routine care of livestock and pets. Men hunt and fish; make weapons, rope, canoes, paddles, and fishing gear; build houses and furnish them; slash and burn for new clearings; carry heavy loads; take responsibility for the protection of the family and for travel; make baskets; and provide holiday regalia, apart from clothing. There is still a trace of the former matriarchal authority, usually limited to verbal expression. The entire family participates in planting, harvesting, and gathering from the forest.
Land Tenure. Formerly, lacking legal right to their land, the Piro feared that planting fruit trees or otherwise increasing the value of their land would lead directly to its seizure. As of the 1980s they have titles to the areas surrounding the larger villages, but still lack titles to much of the land they are cultivating.
Kin Groups and Descent. Legends indicate that there were previously at least six endogamous divisions of Piro. Today the names of those divisions function primarily in establishing relationships among the Piro and in providing surnames for dealing with Spanish speakers. When members of different clans are married, children usually receive the father's clan name or surname, and occasionally also that of the mother. This corresponds to the practice of Spanish speakers.
Kinship Terminology. Kinship is assumed and kinship terminology is employed among all members of the Piro community. Use of proper names is avoided.
Marriage. Restriction to marriage within the obsolete endogamous clan is not observed, but marriage of parallel cousins is strictly avoided. Suit is traditionally made to the prospective mother-in-law, and after the wedding feast uxorilocal residence and bride-service are expected. Formerly, marriage might be respectably consummated as early as the bride's 12th year, although 14 was considered a more proper age. Divorce was frequent and informal: either party might "throw out" the other. However, marriage has become comparatively stable since the late 1940s. Desire for education has discouraged early teenage marriages.
Domestic Unit. The extended family may occupy one large house with separate mosquito nets, or separate houses in the same clearing. There have been a few polygynous marriages; the wives lived in the same house. Meals are shared by all, the men forming a separate circle.
Inheritance. The personal property of a deceased person is usually burned, thrown into the river, or buried. Occupants of his or her house continue to live in it.
Socialization. Since kinship among all Piro is assumed, routine activities are often communal. Parents are held responsible for the behavior of their children. Discipline is lax until a child is spanked severely with nettles at the age of 2 or 3. For several years thereafter, the threat of nettles is sufficient correction.
Social Organization. Awareness that their society was once matriarchal is usually enough to secure equality of authority for a woman. Age prestige is general.
Political Organization. Each village has a chief, whose role is one of leadership rather than authority, although he might lead the men in beating an offender for a serious crime. Murder is referred to White civil authorities. Prior to contact with Whites, the husband of an adulterous wife was expected to kill his rival, thus initiating a series of revenge killings. Now a man may beat his wife, and an adulterous man's wife may publicly pull her rival's hair.
Social Control. In the small, isolated Piro villages, where avoidance is impossible, unhappy relationships are intolerable. Grudges are rarely nursed. It is the custom to "forget" offenses or to move away from the village.
Conflict. The only suggestion of major conflict among the Piro is the former fissioning of some communities, along with mention of hostile separations in legends.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The traditional religion is polytheistic and does not completely distinguish between gods and demons. Roman Catholicism, introduced in the seventeenth century, has never been fully accepted. Seventh-Day Adventists contacted the Piro around 1930. Much of their practice of Levitical law was temporarily added to the Piro system of taboos. Beginning in 1949 the Piro have had their own translation of the New Testament and have developed a Piro hymnody.
The chief hero-trickster god is named Tsla. Three brothers called "the First Ones" assist him. Woods, air, and rivers are considered to be inhabited by demons. Individual creatures such as jaguars, manatees, boas, lizards, and certain birds are often thought to be embodied demons.
Religious Practitioners. The term kahonchi refers to a man with supernatural power to heal or to cause sickness. There is a different term for one specializing in malignant practice. Supernatural power is said to be acquired by drinking ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi ) or by contacting satanasyo, Christian services are led by lay members of the community.
Ceremonies. There was no worship of gods, but an individual might drink ayahuasca or another drug or fast to induce a god to appear to him. Shamans and medicine men practiced magic formulas. Present-day Christian worship is quite informal; the service is in part copied from Whites, and in part a Piro development.
Arts. Basketry, beadwork, and painting of geometric designs on cloth, pottery, and occasional figurines are the only formal art. Artistic ability is often displayed, however, in the graceful form of a carved paddle, turtle-shaped seat, or even a dugout canoe, as well as in the form of pottery utensils.
Medicine. Apart from the kahonchi, there are many herbalists, both male and female, with knowledge of a great variety of herbs, some wild, some cultivated.
Death and Afterlife. Bodies are usually wrapped in mats and buried in graves about 2 meters deep. Two ghosts were traditionally feared: the ghost of the soul and a rattling ghost of the bones. Powerful witch doctors and others whose sins were comparatively few were thought to go to heaven and become gods. For a while after death other souls haunt familiar areas and eat papaya.
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Matteson, Esther (1954). The Piro of the Urubamba. Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers, no. 10. Berkeley, Calif.
Matteson, Esther (1972). Proto Arawakan. Comparative Studies in Amerindian Languages. The Hague: Mouton.