ETHNONYMS: Chori, Miá, Ñiose, Qurungua, Sirionó, Tirinié, Yande
Identification. The name "Sirionó" is of foreign origin and comes from síri, tucum palm—hence designating these Indians as "Tucum-palm people." The Sirionó refer to themselves as "Miá," which may be translated as "the people." Besides using this name to identify themselves, the various bands of the society received their names from their respective chiefs or from the places they frequented most.
Location. The Sirionó inhabit a territory of considerable size (from 12° to 16° S and from 62° to 65° W) in Bolivia. The climate is tropical, with a rainy and a dry season. There is precipitation from October until May, and the dry season extends over the remaining months. The annual rainfall is around 160 centimeters, and there is a high degree of humidity. The dry season is short, and humidity decreases markedly. During the rainy season, precipitation is torrential and temperatures are high. The average annual temperature is 26° C, with a minimum of 24° C and a maximum of 28° C. Winds from the east and north predominate, although in the southern area, cold winds from the south make themselves felt.
Demography. Sirionó territory extends over some 2,400 square kilometers and is occupied by some 1,800 individuals: population density is 0.75 inhabitants per square kilometer.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Sirionó language is of TupíGuaraní affiliation, but it features certain archaic elements that distance it from the core languages of the family.
History and Cultural Relations
The Jesuits were influential from 1580 to 1767, and the Franciscans from 1767 on. Sirionó narratives and historical consciousness are very limited. There is some information about raids by their southern neighbors, the Ayoreo.
A Sirionó community consists of a band that, during certain times of the year, settles in a specific area to which it periodically returns. Settlements of this kind are relatively fixed and consist of several huts arranged around a central dwelling for the chief—this arrangement protects him from enemy attacks. The huts vary in size; each hut is occupied by five or six families. They are lean-tos made of palm fronds, frequently secured to trees that serve as posts.
Subsistence and Commercial Activites. The main economic activity of the Sirionó is hunting. The jaguar is highly valued as food because its meat confers physical power. Other animals hunted are tapir, several kinds of monkeys, deer, white-lipped peccaries, turtles, and several kinds of bird.
Fishing is an important economic activity of the dry season. Fish are caught with bows and arrows, barbasco, and weirs. Fishing with bows and arrows is a distinctly male activity and involves the capture of large fish like the pacú, the bagre (catfish), the bocachico, and others. Fishing with bows and arrows may be combined with weir fishing when large numbers of fish are trapped. Barbasco is extracted from a wild-growing plant (Hura crepitans ); palometa, ventón, and simbado are the most coveted species taken using this poison.
Gathering is next in importance to fishing and involves collecting fruits and plants, rhea and turtle eggs, and honey. The oldest sources disagree on whether or not the Sirionó practiced agriculture at the time of contact. Some authors have suggested that they represent a deculturated society that gave up cultivation at some time in the past. There are some cultigens, however, that appear to be original with the Sirionó, that is, tobacco, cotton, chuchío cane, manioc, and maize. It is interesting to point out that of these five cultivars, three are not grown for food, which suggests that the Sirionó did not pay too much attention to horticulture. Nowadays, the crop assemblage has increased and includes calabashes, urucú, pumpkins, rice, sweet potatoes, plantains, and sundry minor plants. In order to prepare a plot of land for cultivation, the Sirionó chose a high and sandy place with sparse vegetation. There are community and family plots, and before the introduction of iron tools, clearing was done with a shaft of chonta- palm wood.
Industrial Arts. The material culture of the Sirionó is little developed and features cordage, baskets, cotton hammocks, spindles, chisels made from rodent teeth, ceramic vessels or gourds, fans, mats, clay pipes, digging sticks, bows and various kinds of arrows, fire drills, and feather ornaments.
Trade. Commercial relations with other ethnic groups and rural inhabitants have been practically nonexistent. At some time there may have been reciprocal gift exchange.
Division of Labor. Men dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to hunting—their social status depends on their effectiveness. They also collect honey and palm shoots. Horticultural work is performed by men and women. Women make hammocks, baskets, and clay pipes and do domestic work.
Land Tenure. Land is informally owned by the family and the group.
Kin Groups and Descent. The basic socioeconomic unit of the Sirionó is the monogamous nuclear family; only chiefs could have several wives. Extended families are exogamous, and the chief of the band chooses the bride. Postmaritial residence is uxorilocal until the birth of the first children. There is no concept of lineage or unilineal descent.
Kinship Terminology. On the basis of a terminological equivalence between father's sister's daughter and father's sister, the Sirionó kinship system has sometimes been regarded as being of the Crow type. In several other crucial respects, however, the system does not conform to the Crow pattern or to its underlying logic. Traces of parallel transmission of certain statuses have been noted. Terminological equivalence of a wife's siblings with mother's brother's children and of husband's siblings with father's sister's children are consistent with potential asymmetric cross-cousin marriage.
Marriage. Marriage is most commonly monogamous. Polygyny is primarily the prerogative of chiefs. Only some men who put up a fight succeed in marrying two wives. Chiefs may have up to five wives, who place their hammocks around that of their husband, according to a specific order. In some instances, because of a lack of women or simply because of friendship, two men share the same woman, who practically has the status of a wife of both men. Wife lending occurs in the case of an elderly man incapable of hunting for himself. A younger man who hunts for him is given sexual access to the old man's wife. This often ends in the divorce of the woman from her old husband. Niemondomóndo entails wife swapping for extended periods of time. Of forty families in Eviato, twenty have engaged in this kind of exchange, some ending in lasting, rather than transient, arrangements.
Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is the most important social group.
Inheritance. The only item that kin traditionally inherited were the fleshless bones of their ancestors, particularly their craniums.
Socialization. Young women between 10 and 15 years of age undergo an initiation ritual called iratóse. Married men around the age of 18 submitted to the dshyarási initiation ritual under the tutelage of the chief and the old men of the group. The initiants have their arms pierced with a stingray point and their legs are scarified.
Social Organization. The chief of a local group enjoys high social status. He is elected to office during a drinking feast and is chosen because of his virtues as a hunter and as a fighter against Ayoreo and Whites. During hunting parties, he has to distinguish himself as a man of stamina and of excellent knowledge of the forest and the savanna, of animals and their habits, of the directions to be followed, and a whole complex of attaining practices. The status of the chief was formerly transferable, as was that of his wife, who performed the chiefly functions among the women.
Political Organization. The Sirionó distinguish between different groups of members of the local community. The first group is comprised of the children of both sexes. Then there are the young adolescents, the young people of marriageable age, and the adults. There are special terms for mothers with families and old people of both sexes. Only men and women who have gone through the initiation ceremony and have several children are exempt from food taboos and various other prohibitions.
Social Control. Carrying out justice and imposing sanctions on criminals are the responsibilities of the chief or some older person designated by him. Punishment is actually meted out by old men and women before all the members of the community. Actions that are considered criminal include homicide, adultery, the violation of food taboos, slander, and gossip.
Conflict. Among the Sirionó, war took on a different character depending on the adversary. With the much-feared Ayoreo, conflict was limited to defense, which in many cases ended with the Sirionó fleeing. Some chiefs fought the invaders until they either vanquished them or died under their clubs. Conflict with Whites was limited to surprise attacks carried out for the purpose of appropriating some of their iron tools.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The central myth of the Sirionó is about Dshyási, the Moon, who, after confiding his son to the care of the primordial ancestors of the Sirionó, discovered that they had not taken care of the little boy and that the jaguar had killed him. Full of indignation, he decided to leave them and to no longer give them the animals he hunted. Before leaving he became a culture hero by establishing the institutions of Sirionó society and by becoming the model of ethical hunting behavior.
In the mythical universe there are four entities that, although defined to a certain extent—mainly by their names—tend to blend into each other. They are the éinge (soul); the abatshyekwáya (lit., "who is it that remains unseen?"), a primarily evil being; the etshiróke ("the peeled one"); and the kurúkwa ("he lunges forward with blows"), referring to the Ayoreo whom in the past they perceived as having a mythical aura. As in the case of important game animals, it is important not to destroy or leave behind the bones of a deceased person, especially not the all-important cranium. The body used to be exposed on a platform until the flesh had decomposed; then the bones were recovered and brought back to the village.
Religious Practitioners. Initiation ceremonies for young people of both sexes and separate scarification rites are conducted by old men and women.
Ceremonies. There is a circular dance, which men perform either alone or with women. Embracing one another, the dancers sing monotonously as they look up to the moon. One objective of the dance is to keep illness away and to make people "lighter." The dance also recalls the mythical age when Moon walked on earth and protected the first people.
Arts. Artistic expression is extremely limited. The most distinctive items are feather ornaments worn on the head.
Medicine. The Sirionó believe that an individual is healthy when he has "strength." Health is maintained by morning baths during the cold season, by avoiding the sun's rays and heat, and by performing periodic scarification. Illness is attributed to violations of food taboos, as well as to sun and heat, moon and cold, insects, wind, and shade. In a society without shamanism, illness is treated with scarification and a limited pharmacopoeia.
Death and Afterlife. Death was instituted by Moon after he left the primordial people. There is no land of the dead, and a "fleshless soul" wanders through the forest demanding that its bones receive proper care. A traditional complex funerary ritual involved a series of preventive measures prior to expiring, mourning, placement of the body on a mortuary platform, recovery of the bones, and readjustments after death. The influence of the Catholic church and Evangelical missions has modified the traditional funerary ritual in many ways, the most notable being the imposition of earth burial.
Califano, Mario (1986-1987). "Fuentes históricas y bibliográficas sirionó (Parte I)"; "Etnografía de los sirionó (Parte II)." Scripta Ethnologica (Buenos Aires) 11(1): 1140; (2): 41-73.
Fernández, Distel, A. A. (19844985). "Hábitos funarios de los sirionó (oriente de Bolivia)." Acta Praehistorica et Archaeologica (Berlin, Federal Republic of Germany) 16-17.
Holmberg, A. R. (1969). Nomads of the Long Bow: The Siriono of Eastern Bolivia. New York: American Museum Science Books.
Kelm, H. (1983). Gejagte Jäger, die Mbía in Ostbolivien. Frankfurt: Museum für Völkerkunde.
Scheffler, Howard A., and Floyd G. Lounsbury (1971). A Study in Structural Semantics: The Siriono Kinship System. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
MARIO CALIFANO (Translated by Ruth Gubler)