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ETHNONYMS: Chama, Chipeo, Conibo, Cunibo, Pisquibo, Setebo, Shipiwo, Sipibo, Ssipipo, Xipibo


Identification. The Shipibo are a South American Indian group in Peru. The name "Shipibo" is derived from the Shipibo word shipi, their name for a marmoset (Cebuella pygmaea ). Hence, they have been referred to as the "little monkey people."

Location. The Shipibo occupy the central Río Ucayali region of eastern Peru and its major western tributaries from Bolognesi to Contamana, with Pucallpa in its geographical center. Among the most significant of these rivers are the Sheshea, Pachitea, Tamayo, Aguaytía, Pisqui, and Cushabatay.

Demography. Population reports for the Shipibo vary, with estimates as high as 20,000 to 30,000. A census in 1974 reported the existence of 9,000 Shipibo and another 6,000 Conibo.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Shipibo language belongs to the Panoan Family. Dialectic differences exist between those who live along the Río Ucayali and others who occupy its tributaries, such as the Pisqui.

History and Cultural Relations

Archaeological evidence suggests that the origins of Shipibo culture lie in the Cumancaya tradition of the ninth century AD., meaning that Shipibo culture, or something similar to it, has existed in the region for over 1,000 years. There are indications (the presence of head binding, panpipes, raised beds, and fire fans) that some Shipibo may have experienced contact with the Inca. Contact with Westerners began in the seventeenth century, when Franciscan missionaries entered the region. During this time, the Shipibo and Tupí-speaking Cocama/Cocamilla tribes were resettled in neighboring missionary-created villages. Because of their contact with Spanish colonists and their strategic location on the Río Ucayali, the Shipibo had access to guns and, in the nineteenth century, raided other Panoan and Arawakan tribes who lived nearby along "backwoods" interfluves. Shipibo were employed as wage laborers during the rubber boom of the nineteenth century and as peones (laborers) in agriculture and timber extraction for mestizo patrones (bosses) during this century. Other contacts with Whites have come from physicians and nurses, Protestant missionaries, and representatives of the Peruvian government. Today, the Shipibo range from the well-acculturated, such as those living near the frontier city of Pucallpa, to moderately acculturated groups who reside in remote areas downriver.


In the past the Shipibo lived in dispersed extended-family homesteads along rivers. Today they reside in villages with houses distributed along one side of a street, opposite cocinas (kitchens) and roughly parallel to the water. Villages are usually located on a beach alongside a river or a large ox-bow (i.e., crescent-shaped) lake. Some small households have their own cocina, whereas larger extended or polygynous family households may share a cocina, with each married woman maintaining her own earthen hearth. Today there are about 120 Shipibo settlements ranging in size from 100 to 500 inhabitants. Houses and cocinas are constructed entirely of materials extracted from the surrounding forest. Houses have raised floors of split palm wood and palm-thatched roofs; some are enclosed by bamboo walls. Cocinas are constructed of the same materials, but without elevated floors or walls.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Shipibo practice slash-and-burn agriculture and subsist primarily on plantains and bananas, together with some sweet manioc, potatoes, and maize. These crops are supplemented with fish, game, and other wild foods collected from the forest. Now that some Shipibo are producing rice to sell in regional markets, they are hunting and fishing less. Moreover, greater participation in a cash economy seems to be affecting traditional exchange relationships between kinsmen. For example, whereas in the past it was a man's responsibility "to serve" his parents-in-law by supplying food and labor, men are now refusing to lend their fathers-inlaw money.

Industrial Arts. The Shipibo are known worldwide for the complicated geometrical motifs with which they decorate objects. Women make ceramics, cotton textiles, baskets, and bead work, both for personal use and for sale to tourists. Men still manufacture wooden articles such as canoes and paddles, tobacco pipes, cooking utensils, animal figures, and clubs, although clubs are made only for sale to tourists.

Trade. Historically, Shipibo traded with each other for items that were not locally available. For example, Shipibo on the Pisqui traded salt, vines for making houses and baskets, palm fiber for bow strings, whetstones, baskets, and fish; in exchange they received white earthen pigments used to decorate ceramics and wild cane used for arrow shafts, brought by Ucayali Shipibo. This activity has been discontinued; trade is now restricted to exchanges of food among matrilineal kin living in close proximity within the village.

Division of Labor. Both men and women traditionally performed all aspects of agricultural work with the exception that men did the arduous task of felling trees. Both men and women fish and collect wild foods, although the latter is more often done by women. Hunting with shotgun or bow and arrow is strictly men's work. Women also cook, care for children, perform most of the housework, and manufacture ceramics, textiles, and bead work. Men build houses, make canoes, manufacture weapons, and carve wooden artifacts but more typically work as wage laborers and may be away from their families for weeks at a time.

Land Tenure. Others' claims to land are ascertained before one establishes a garden on fallow garden land. As long as a garden is still producing crops, a man must ask permission of its owner before he can clear it. Permission to use old fallow garden land is not necessary, however. Men often mark valuable trees on their trips through the forest, and another must ask permission from its "owner" to cut and sell a tree that has been marked. In principle, all have equal access to hunting and fishing grounds, but certain men are recognized as being more knowledgeable than others about the animals in particular regions of the forest. Also, the owner of fish poison can regulate the number of participants on fish-poisoning expeditions by limiting the number of invitations he extends to others. In the 1970s Shipibo communities petitioned the Peruvian government for titles to land, but few titles have actually been acquired.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Shipibo term for "people" is jonibo, and they divide their social world among noa jonibo (we people) and nahua jonibo (less than people). Rarëbo includes kin, whereas huëtsabo are "others (like us)" Shipibo who live a long distance away. Although some have claimed the possible earlier existence of Shipibo clans, there currently exists no evidence to support the existence of any descent or corporate groups based on relation to a common ancestor, fictive or real.

Kinship Terminology. Shipibo kinship terminology has been classified as being Hawaiian in one's own generation and Sudanese in the first ascending and descending generations. No distinction of others in one's own generation is made other than whether the sex of the other is the same or different (i.e., Hawaiian cousin terms). Separate reference terms are used for mother, father, and their siblings. Great-great grandparents/grandchildren are referred to by the same terms as great-grandparents/grandchildren.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Rules stipulate that one should not marry descendants of grandparents, who are distinguished as kikín rárëbo (true family) rather than ochó rárëbo (distant family). In the past Shipibo marriages were arranged by both sets of parents. The future bride was expected to deliver beverages to her future husband's family each day, and he to contribute fish and game to her family and sleep with her each night. This trial period usually lasted six to twelve months, after which time the two were married. Although young men and women seem to enjoy more freedom to select their own mates, marriage has never had an elaborate ceremony; a man, or his mother, merely moves his mosquito net to the house of his wife's mother and he assumes residence there. Marriages dissolve just as unceremoniously when men simply leave their wives and return to their own families.

Men traditionally tended to marry between the ages of 19 and 25, whereas women usually married when 14 to 16 years of age, after completing the female initiation ritual. Girls are no longer initiated, and there is a trend for men to marry at a younger age (15 to 20 years); thus they are marrying women closer to their own age. Polygynous marriages are not as common as they once were, possibly because of the influences of missionaries and resident government officials. There is also some evidence of levirate and sororate in the past. Marriage is most common among people living in villages located along the same river.

Domestic Unit. In the past, large extended families lived together in the same house. In the early 1980s, smaller extended families were becoming more common, and some men were establishing nuclear-family households, albeit in the vicinity of their wife's family.

Inheritance. Men and women each "own" those things that they tend to use most. In the past, when a man or woman died, he or she was buried under his or her house and then the house was set afire. AU articles that belonged to the deceased were disposed of, usually by burning them or immersing them in the river. This was done so that relatives would not suffer the heartbreak of thinking of the deceased one so often. Now that adults accumulate money and objects purchased with it, items are left to one's spouse and children, which, according to some informants, has caused disputes. These days, the scarcity of building materials prevents many from burning the deceased's house, and some corpses are even buried in cemeteries.

Socialization. Children are socialized at home and in their bilingual school. Infants are always in the company of their mother or matrilineal kin, whereas fathers have less direct physical contact with their children. By Western standards, parents tend to raise their children in a permissive fashion. Social codes of behavior, particularly between certain classes of kin, are well recognized among the Shipiboa child learns these early in his or her life. Corporal punishment is rarely administered; when it is, it is usually by those who have spent more time with mestizos and Whites. Most Shipibo place a high value on formal education, and at about age 5 children begin school.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Traditionally, Shipibo society was egalitarian, with the male heads of the largest families exercising the most influence. The men with the highest status were the ones with the most wives or those who were respected for their oratorical skills, knowledge of herbal medicines, or hunting and fishing abilities. Although men are more active in political matters, women often exercise their will in private by influencing the opinions of their fathers and husbands. The Peruvian government has imposed a political structure on the Shipibo, but these elected positions carry little authority. These tend to be filled by younger men who speak Spanish, and this has begun to undermine the status and influence traditionally wielded by elders.

Political Organization. Communities are linked primarily by kinship and marriage, although the establishment of bilingual schools in many communities has linked them to administrative centers. Some attempts have been made to organize communities at a tribal level by creating artisan guilds and a Shipibo federation. Distance and lack of communication between villages, however, have made these organizations largely ineffective.

Social Control. Rules for proper conduct between classes of kin are recognized. One such relationship that demands extreme respect is that between a man and his in-laws. Tempers sometimes flare but kin usually intervene before disputes escalate to violence. Acts of infidelity and wife abuse occur; however, such behavior is met with social disapproval and the offender comes to know the power of public censorship. In the past grievances between men were often aired in public drinking ceremonies and settled with duels. Although these rarely resulted in fatal injury, the use of knives and clubs has all but disappeared under the influence of missionaries and government officials. Sometimes those who become ill after social misconduct are thought to have become the targets of male or female witches acting on behalf of the offended person.

Conflict. Wars and raids on neighboring Cashibo and Shipibo for wives and slaves were common, and placenames often refer to great battles that were fought there. First contacts with soldiers and Catholic missionaries created tensions that resulted in numerous attacks on missions in the seventeenth century, sometimes after the Shipibo formed alliances with other groups like the Cocama. After several massacres, missionaries ceased activities in the area until the mid-eighteenth century when, once again, Shipibo insurrection resulted in the destruction of a mission. It was not until almost the beginning of the nineteenth century that Catholic missionaries were able to establish a permanent presence; Protestant missionaries entered the region around 1930.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. It is difficult to separate traditional from Christian-influenced beliefs among the Shipibo; there is a blend of animism with Christianity. Moreover, accounts of religious concepts are often vague and vary among villages. Generally, it is believed that spirits and "gods" reside in the sky, and there is a stairway that joins the sky and earth along which spirits pass. Under the influence of ayahuasca, a vegetalista (herbalist) may climb this stairway and enter the spirit world. The Shipibo refer to supernatural beings as yoshinbo. These are spirits that reside in animals and plants and against which one must constantly be on guard. Those who have undergone religious instruction at nearby missions have adopted Christianity and its supernaturals.

Religious Practitioners. Vegetalistas traditionally possessed the most esoteric knowledge about the spirit world and the use of medicinal plants. To become a vegetalista, a man served an apprenticeship and observed strict dietary prohibitions. Some men who have worked for Protestant missionaries have established churches in their communities and function as self-ordained pastors.

Ceremonies. In the past, the ani shrëati (big drinking) was the most important ceremony, a time when young women were initiated into society and men settled disputes. This ceremony often lasted for three or four days and involved much drinking, fighting, dancing, and singing. It has all but disappeared and has been replaced by national fiestas.

Arts. The Shipibo are known for their intricate rectilinear designs on pottery, clothes, paddles, and the human body. Old men and women still tell vivid stories about the discovery of fire and crops and of legendary "great" floods. Traditional line and circle dances are gradually being replaced by more modern forms. Many old men and women are known for their songs, and the power of a vegetalista is, in part, determined by the "force" of his chants. Flutes and drums are still played during fiestas, but these, too, are gradually being replaced by modern recorded music.

Medicine. According to the Shipibo, there are two categories of diseasethose of the "flesh" and others caused by yoshinbo. Although Western medicines are recognized as being effective for treating the former, one seeks the curing powers of a vegetalista to treat the latter. To effect his cure, a vegetalista must travel to the spirit world, where he can divine the cause of his patient's illness. The vegetalista's techniques include chanting, blowing tobacco smoke, and massaging. It is believed that one becomes sick when a foreign object has entered the body; by applying the above treatments, the object can be moved to an appendage where the vegetalista can "suck it out" and throw it away.

Death and Afterlife. After one dies, his or her soul passes into a spirit world, but this spirit may frequent a family's house for some time afterward. If a spirit is thought to be malignant, one may seek the assistance of a vegetalista to drive it away.


Behrens, Clifford A. (1989). Shipibo Time Allocation, Cross-Cultural Studies in Time Allocation, vol. 4. New Haven: Human Relations Area Files.

Bergman, Roland (1980). Amazon Economics: The Simplicity of Shipibo Indian Wealth. Syracuse, N.Y.: Dellplain Latin American Studies.

Roe, Peter G. (1982). The Cosmic Zygote: Cosmology in the Amazon Basin. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.