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ETHNONYMS: Jaunas, Tekuna, Tikuna, Tipuna, Tocunas, Tokuna, Tucuna, Tukuna


Identification. The name "Ticuna" is apparently of foreign origin; perhaps it comes from the Tupí, "Taco-una," which means "men painted black" or "black skins." This name was given them by their neighbors because formerly the Ticuna often painted their bodies black with genipapo (Genipa americana ) juice. In their daily conversations the Ticuna call themselves "Due'e," which means "people."

Location. Formerly, the Ticuna occupied the headwaters and central courses of small tributaries on the left side of the Amazon River and its headwaters, which flow into the Putumayo, from 71° 15 to 68° 40 W. Today their territory covers areas of Peru, Colombia, and Brazil. Most of the Ticuna live near the Amazon. In Peru, they have settled in the northeastern part of the department of Loreto in the province of Maynas; in Colombia, they inhabit the Amazon Trapeze in the Amazonas Commissariat; in Brazil, they live in the state of Amazonas, in the municipalities of San Pablo do Olivença, San Antonio do Iça, Benjamín Constant, and Fonte Boa.

Linguistic Affiliation. Ticuna is believed to be an independent language.

Demography. In 1981 the Ticuna population in Brazil and Peru was estimated to be 15,900. There were an estimated 18,421 Ticuna in Brazil in 1984 and 5,635 in Colombia in 1986.

History and Cultural Relations

According to their creation myth, the Ticuna originated in the Eware ravine, near the Colombian-Brazilian border. Formerly the left bank of the Amazon, as well as its islands, were occupied by the Omagua, who were the enemies of the Ticuna. The banks of the Río Putumayo were inhabited by Arawak, Mariaté, Yumana, and Pasé Indians, who had become almost completely extinct by the middle of the ninteenth century. To the west of the Ticuna lived the Peba and the Yagua; the latter are still their neighbors. When the Europeans arrived in the area, the Omagua were decimated by wars between Portuguese and Spanish missionaries and by epidemics. The population of the Mayoróna also decreased. This enabled the Ticuna to expand their territory toward that of the Omagua and Mayoróna. Between 1864 and 1870 Brazil was at war with Paraguay; the involvement of the Ticuna in this war led to a decrease in their population. At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, intensive rubber tapping was instigated, with natives as the main source of labor. Of the Ticuna, the most seriously affected were those living on Brazilian soil; they were forcibly relocated. Former rubber tappers are now the owners of the land and the Ticuna's "bosses," a situation that has generated still-unresolved conflicts. In 1932 a war between Colombia and Peru erupted, causing the Ticuna to emigrate from the left to the right bank of the Amazon. In the 1940s farmers and city dwellers began to colonize the Amazon Trapeze. A significant development of the 1950s was a bonanza in the export of hides and animals; the physical presence of the church was also affirmed by the Apostolic Prefecture of Leticia. Besides preaching, the church began to build schools in the area in the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s and is still in charge of the education that is imparted to the Indians. In the 1970s there were two important trends that affected the Ticuna of Brazil as well as those of Colombia: a considerable population increase and the concentration of people in villages all along the Amazon. In the 1980s an incipient messianic movement, founded and propagated by Brother José Francisco da Cruz, involved almost the entire Ticuna population in Brazil and Peru and, to a lesser degree, of Colombia.


Formerly, the Ticuna lived in communal houses that were removed from each other and located in the middle of the jungle, in the area called terra firme, that is, on land above the flood line. The houses were large, had an oval floor plan, and a central section in which ceremonies were held. They accommodated various nuclear families. Communication between the houses was by way of foot trails. River navigation was of little significance. Later the communal houses were gradually replaced by rectangular houses with two-sided roofs and no walls. The new houses stood dispersed in the periodically innundated Amazon River area and were occupied by nuclear families. Both the change in settlement, from terra firme to land subject to flooding, and the substitution of one-family houses for communal houses, have substantially transformed the Ticuna way of life. The Indians have learned how to make good canoes, have adopted new techniques for fishing in large rivers, and have acquired new cultivation practices. Contact with Whites has intensified. In the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, the Ticuna adopted yet a different settlement pattern in the form of villages. Concomitant with this innovation was the increasing number of settlers in the area and the establishment of more cattle ranches, which diminished the land available for hunting and cultivation. Nowadays the majority of Ticuna live in villages whose population varies between 70 and 1,500. The most populous villages are located on Brazilian soil.

Ticuna houses have two well defined spaces: the living quarters and the kitchen. The former is subdivided into three areas. The first is a raised platform on pillars, which protects the residents from possible flooding and from animals; the second is defined by the floor of the platform and the cross beams of the roof. Here the two occupants sleep under mosquito nets, since hammocks are now used only for resting during the day. In the third section, the Ticuna place boards over the transverse roof beams, where children occasionally sleep and special items are kept. The kitchen can be a prolongation of the house or form a small shed.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . The Ticuna are horticulturists, fishermen, hunters, gatherers, and traders. Which activities are more important for their diet depends in great measure on the location of their settlements. The subsistence of those who live in the middle of the forest is based on horticulture, fishing, and gathering, whereas the others depend more on horticulture, fishing, and trade. Shifting horticulture is practiced by the slash-and-burn method. The main products are sweet and bitter manioc, maize, various kinds of bananas and plantains, and fruit trees. For hunting, firearms and, to a lesser degree, blowguns are used. Mammals are more important sources of food than birds or reptiles because of the amount of meat they supply. Fishing is the main source of animal protein, and surplus fish are sold to the non-Indian population. Most of the fruit gathered is consumed by the children. The Ticuna also collect beetle larvae and ants. The main goal of trade is to obtain money to buy clothes, school supplies, salt, sugar, ammunition, batteries, petroleum, and kitchen utensils. The Ticuna sell bananas, fish, manioc flour, and fruit. Tourists, who visit the Ticuna periodically, buy various handicraft items, especially bark cloth, which is ornately painted.

Industrial Arts . The Ticuna are considered excellent artisans. Their arts include woodworking, cordage making, basketry, and pottery, and they make numerous decorated objects from plant materials such as bark, husks, and seeds. Cotton weaving disappeared with the introduction of commercial clothes. The art of featherwork is being lost, in part because there are fewer birds. Traditional instruments for huntingblowguns and dartsare also being manufactured less often.

Trade. Formerly, the Ticuna were famous for their 3-meter-long blowguns as well as for their most effective dart poison for hunting. Other Indians visited them to acquire their poison. Nowadays local groups generally exchange manioc or bananas for fish when floods damage their crops.

Division of Labor. Men are in charge of getting animal protein (fish and game) and clearing the forest for cultivation. Women gather wild fruit, plant, and prepare the food and drink. Construction of houses and the production of hunting and fishing gear and musical instruments are male activities. Men also make wooden sculptures and ritual masks, whereas women make cordage, baskets, and pots. Some young men work as lumberjacks and ranch hands, and some women work as domestic servants.

Land Tenure. Formerly, the Ticuna had control over their land and occupied it according to alliances they made with each other. In the eighteenth and part of the nineteenth centuries, they extended their territory to the right bank of the Amazon. Nowadays ownership over land is based on work done to acquire it. This custom is strongly observed; even after the land has been abandoned, people recognize that it has an owner. During the 1980s the governments of Brazil and Colombia demarcated and gave title of some areas to the Ticuna.


Kinship Groups and Descent. Ticuna society is organized in clans and moieties that govern daily behavior. Clans are identified by specific names of birds, insects, mammals, and plants. Clans that are identified by a bird's name constitute one moiety, the Feather people, and all the others form the second moiety, the Non-Feather people. Previously the personal names of Ticuna were emblematic of the clan to which they belonged. This custom is weakening. Today relations between Ticuna women and White men have resulted in individuals who do not have a clan. Despite the effects of contact, however, clan and moiety are still the basis of Ticuna identity.

Kinship Terminology. According to Roberto Cardoso de Oliveira (1961, 22), the Ticuna have Dakota-type social organization.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The basic rule governing moieties is based on moiety exogamy. Marriage must take place between members of different moieties. Formerly, the preferred form of marriage was for the maternal uncle to marry his niece. The most common form of marriage today is between people of the same generation. Cross-cousin marriage, which was permissible under traditional rules, is considered incestuous by the Catholic missionaries. Also, polygyny, which was practiced frequently in former times (a man could be married to several women, who were generally sisters), has now given way to monogamy. Children belong to their father's clan. In times past, residence tended to be uxorilocal; now it is neolocal. Divorce is infrequent among the Ticuna.

Domestic Unit. Nuclear families tend to live near others to whom they are related, either on the maternal or paternal side, and there is economic exchange and cooperation between them.

Inheritance. According to Nimuendajú (1952, 64), inheritance is from father to son and from mother to daughters.

Socialization. The care and education of a child are in the hands of his or her parents. Education is imparted through activities related to practical situations. Children are raised permissively. Unacceptable behavior elicits scolding, or in exceptional cases, corporal punishment. Nowadays children go to school, where they learn how to speak the language of the country, either Spanish or Portuguese, and the Catholic doctrine.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Now as in the past, the Ticuna form a social unit of one culture, one language, and one territory. They are structured in local groups that make up a network of kin relations both internally within the local group and externally with neighboring local groups. Because of certain governmental policies, associations and leadership positions that do not pertain to traditional Ticuna culture are forming within local groups.

Political Organization. In the past, the chiefs of local groups were the heads of large families and were endowed with magical powers, intelligence, and ability to deal with strangers. One of their roles was that of counselor. These traditional chiefs were replaced, through contact with the Whites, by taxáuas in Brazil and by curacas in Peru and Colombia. They became mere figureheads who were manipulated by the group. Now village chiefs are called "captain" in Brazil and "curaca" in the other two countries. Their role is that of spokesmen vis-à-vis official authorities, mediators between their own community and others, and organizers of collective work. Efforts are being made to establish paramount authorities, one in Brazil and one in Colombia.

Social Control. The most important forms of social control are gossip, social alienation, and sorcery. The shamanic institution among the Ticuna is disappearing because of interference of Catholics and Protestants. The greatest fear, however, lies in the possible retaliation by supernatural powers against those who break the law, especially the rules against incest. Until the middle of the twentieth century, the punishment for incest was death. If there is a homicide by sorcery and the guilty party has been identified, it will be incumbent upon the dead person's relatives to avenge the murder. The Ticuna judicial system has been modified in many ways, and in certain cases its operation is left to others.

Conflict. The first contact with Europeans did not directly affect the Ticuna. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, although contact intensified, bloodshed was minimal because of the pacific disposition of the Indians. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the population was redistributed according to the interests of the outside "bosses." This change led to the rupture of old alliances and the opening of new frontiers. Gradual colonization, emphasized since the 1950s, has generated intercultural contact, which precipitated, among other repercussions, the gradual introduction of a market economy, a decrease in natural resources, the overpopulation of some areas, and ethnic mixing. Serious conflicts over land have led to bloodshed. Internally, conflicts occur in local groups between Catholic and evangelical Ticuna: the former want to retain their traditional rituals, which the latter consider sinful. Another point of conflict concerns unions between White men and Ticuna women, because the former tend to impose their social norms on their in-laws.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Ancient religion, some portion of which remains, teaches that the world is controlled by spirits and forces that determine the course of events. Both Portuguese and Spanish missionaries began their evangelical work during the first centuries of discovery and conquest, so the majority of Ticuna are now Catholic. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, there have been various messianic movements. Ta'e is the divinity who inhabits the World Above, and who gives the Ticuna their souls. The most important mythical beings are the Yo'i and Ipi, two brothers who function as culture heroes and who confront several demons of the Intermediate World and the World Below. Nutapa was the first man, from whom the mythical brothers and their sisters were born. Me'tare was a powerful shaman who conducted the first female initiation ceremony.

Religious Practitioners. Formerly there were many more shamans than there are today, and they were believed to be more powerful than their contemporary counterparts. Magical power is derived from the shaman's relationship with the spirits of certain trees. Curing is done by means of sucking and tobacco smoking. Some shamans also cause harm by emitting invisible thorns.

Ceremonies. The most important ceremony is la pelazón (Spanish: "hair cropping") or môça nova (Portuguese: "new girl"). During her first menstruation, a young woman is isolated so that men will not see her. A festival is organized, at which there is dancing to continuous drum playing. Indians from various local groups come together for three days. Some of the guests disguise themselves with masks that personify different beings. Then, the girl is brought out of seclusion; she is adorned, and her hair is cut. Following this ritual the initiate begins her adult life.

Arts. Songs, sung exclusively during the female initiation ceremony, are very special because of the vocal technique in which they are performed. Both men and women sing them, and the topics can either be freely chosen or deal with mythical passages.

Medicine. The practice of traditional medicine has diminished considerably as Western medical practices have become prevalent. Medicinal plants are still used, however, and purification rituals are performed.

Death and Afterlife. For the Ticuna there are two kinds of beings: mortal and immortal. Immortals do not die because of any inherent qualities of theirs, but because they go to enchanted places where life is eternal. Although the location of these places is known to the living, nobody can reach them because of their inaccessibility. The souls of the mortals, of which there are two, just as in the case of the immortals, set out in different directions at the moment of death: one goes to the World Above, while the other one remains roaming around the place where the dead person lived.


Cardoso de Oliveira, Roberto (1961). "Aliança interclañica na sociedade tukúna." Revista de Antropologia 9(1-2).

De Oliveira Filho, João Pacheco (1977). As facções e a ordem política em uma reserva tükuna. Brasília: Universidade de Brasília.

Fajardo Reyes, Gloria Myriam (1986). Visión etnográfica de los ticuna de San Martín de Amacayacu. Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia.

Fajardo Reyes, Gloria Myriam (1989). Mitos de los hombres de Negro. Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia.

Nimuendajú, Curt (1952). The Tukuna. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

GLORIA MYRIAM FAJARDO REYES (Translated by Ruth Gubler)