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ETHNONYMS: Épined, Guaipujinave, Guaipuño, Puinabe, Puinabi, Puinabo, Puinahua, Uaipí, Winave

At present, most Puinave Indians live along the frontier between Colombia and Venezuela. They are especially concentrated in the Guainía territory of Colombia and in the Venezuelan State of Amazonas, although some have moved to the Orinoco River, and even into Brazil. Estimates of their population range from 1,800 to 3,491. Many live on government reservations in Colombia. In 1988 these reservations and their Puinave populations were as follows: Remanzo-Chorro Bocón (490), Coayare-El Choco (184), Caranacoa-Yuri-Laguna Morocoto (326), Almikdon-La Gelba (138), Bachaco Buena Vista (186), Guaco Bajo y Guaco Alto (265), and Cano Bocón Brazo Amanaven (103).

The Puinave speak an isolated language related to Máku, although they differ from the Máku tribe in material culture and mythology, both of which indicate a strong Arawak influence.

In the early records of their history, the Puinave were found along the Nooquéne and Inirida rivers, living near a culturally related people, the Caberre. The Puinave have moved many times in the past to avoid White colonizers. In the sixteenth century, they moved to the Macuco to escape from Jesuit missionaries who had attempted to settle them on missions. More recently, their lives have been affected by rubber tappers, settlers, cattle ranchers, and evangelical missionaries. The Puinave population has been decimated by introduced diseases, and at present they have a high incidence of tuberculosis.

Puinave food production depends primarily on slashand-burn agriculture and fishing and secondarily on hunting and collecting. Their traditional belief system included the use of applied astronomy to track environmental changes; the movement of the constellations across the sky signaled to them the start of the rains, the rise and fall of the rivers, and the reproductive cycle of animals and fishes.

The Puinave habitat is transitional between the tropical forest and savanna, with a dry season lasting about two months. In March, at the end of the dry season, the Puinave burn over their fields in preparation for planting at the first rains. Only bitter manioc is planted in the same field for two seasons. A Puinave family clears a new field every year and normally has three fields in different stages of the production cycle: a field recently cleared and planted, a field producing its first crop, and a field that was harvested the previous season and that will soon be abandoned except for fruit trees. The Puinave recognize many different soil types and their appropriate uses. Village territory is collectively owned, but households have individual rights to the produce of the fields they cultivate and to the wild fruits and fishing sites in the same area.

Fishing is economically important because of the rich resources that the rivers provide. Fishing sites and techniques vary with the season: in the dry season, when the rivers are low, the Puinave fish with hooks and lines, bows and arrows, and harpoons. Collective fishing parties of men, women, and children use barbasco poison. In the rainy season the Puinave set fish traps at spots to which they hold individual rights. Fishing has recently become less productive because of settlement and population pressure. The use of the shotgun and commercial hunting for skins has also affected the abundance of game. Previously, the blowgun was a common hunting weapon; darts were tipped with curare poison obtained through intertribal trade.

Puinave kinship terminology distinguishes cross cousins from parallel cousins. Preferred marriage is between cross cousins, and marriage between parallel cousins is prohibited. Newly married couples live with the wife's family for a period of bride-service. Later they move to the husband's village, where they make their permanent home. The tribal territory was formerly occupied by a number of small mobile groups of five or six families linked by patrilateral ties. The large sedentary villages of the present day are heterogeneous, and often the headman is also a native evangelical pastor. The Puinave are beginning to intermarry with other linguistic groups, most frequently with the Curripaco but also with groups from the Vaupés who have moved into Puinave territory.

In Puinave cosmology, mythic time is divided into several stages. In the beginning there were four siblings; the eldest brother began to create the universe with the sun, moon, and stars, but did not finish the earth. Another brother was murdered, and from his bones was born Dukjin, the culture hero who made mountains and rivers, animals, birds, fishes, and wild fruits and taught men to hunt and fish; he established clans and rituals and proper rules of marriage. It was left to Dukjin's successor, Tudon, however, to complete the world by teaching people how to grow crops.

The Puinave social system formerly included a ritual hierarchy that young men entered through training and initiation characterized by periods of fasting and sexual abstinence and the taking of hallucinogenic drugs. As part of their training, they learned the mythology they would recite during rituals. Since evangelical missionaries have suppressed the native religion, these traditions, which regulated Puinave relations to their environment, are no longer transmitted to younger generations.

The Puinave suffered greatly at the time of the rubber boom in the early 1900s, when their territory was invaded by rubber traders who brought with them epidemic diseases. Although some Puinave worked in rubber tapping, their traditional social and belief systems were largely intact until 1943. In that year a charismatic evangelical missionary, Sofia Müller, came to live among the Puinave, initiating what has been described as a messianic movement. She brought the Puinave back to claim their traditional territory, settled them in large sedentary villages, and discouraged them from working for the rubber traders who exploited their labor. Later, with the establishment of a New Tribes mission, Puinave children were taught the New Testament in their native language. The aim of the missionaries has been to eradicate all aspects of the native belief system and to train native pastors to carry on their work. Young people have been taught to reject their own cultural traditions, but nothing has effectively replaced them. Like many other Amazonian groups, the Puinave have lost more than they have gained from the "civilizing" process.


Koch-Grünberg, Theodor (1928). Vom Roroima zum Orinoco: Ergebnisse einer Reise in Nordbrasilien und Venezuela in den Jahren 1911-1913. Berlin and Stuttgart: Dietrich Reimer; Strecker und Schröder.

Nimuendajú, Curt (1955). "Reconhecimento dos ríos Içána, Avari, e Uaupés, março a julho de 1927. Apontamentos lingüísticos." Journal de la Société des Américanistes, n.s. 44:149-178.

Triana, Gloria (1987). "Puinave." In Introducción a la Colombia amerindia, edited by François Correa and Ximena Pachón. Bogotá: Instituto Colombiano de Antropología. (ICAN)