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LOCATION: Colombia (along the Vaupés River)
LANGUAGE: A variety of Amerindian or mixed languages and dialects, including Tukano and Lingua Geral; Spanish; Portuguese
RELIGION: Indigenous beliefs


The Vaupés Indians of Colombia comprise several major tribes, including the Caribs, the Cubeos, the Uananas, the Karapanas, the Tucanos, and the Macús. Another tribe, the Arawaks, live further north along the Isana river. All of these groups share certain important features that relate directly to the lifestyle in a region consisting of tropical jungle and areas of savanna, along a major river, the Vaupés, and its tributaries. For example, it is now clear that conservation methods practiced in these areas of northwest Amazonia have been successful for thousands of years. It is also evident to historians and anthropologists that the trade along the rivers of the Vaupés among the varying tribal groups has been going on for a very long time. It is assumed that the origins of the Amerindians of this region lie in Central Asia. All of these groups share certain religious aspects, including shamanic practices, which are also found in Asia.

When Colombia was first colonized by the Spanish, the Vaupés region, because of its large expanses of dense jungle, remained remote and often inaccessible. Nevertheless, missionaries and traders made contact with the various tribes over the centuries, and rubber-tapping in particular brought more commerce to the region. After gaining independence from Spain, between 1821 and 1830, Vaupés regions became part of the first version of the Boyaca Department. Afterwards, between 1831 and 1857, the territory became part of the National Territory of Caquetá to later be part of the Sovereign State of Cauca. With the expansion of the rubber industry and the industrial revolution, exploration for rubber reached the area bringing colonizers that altered and, in some cases, extinguished the majority of the indigenous population. In 1910, the town of Clamar (meaning squid in English) functioned as the capital, and the rest of the territory was sectioned into commissaries. Later, and for security reasons, the capital was moved to the town of Mitú near the frontier with Brazil. The Department of Vaupé was constitutionally created in 1991.

Eventually, during the 20th century, the regional capital of the Vaupés (called Mitú) became a point of contact between the tribes of the Vaupés and regional government officials and traders. Although many Amerindians of the Vaupés, particularly the Cubeos, have resisted the efforts of White missionaries to Christianize them and to persuade them to adopt Western norms, some groups of Amerindians from many of these tribes have begun a process of cultural adaptation that is painful and, initially, at least, often plunges them into a type of dependence and poverty that is quite different from the rather magnificent self-sufficiency of which some of the Vaupés Indians are still capable.

In 1998 this remote locality achieved national and international popularity. In November of that year, a group of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) attempted to take control over the capital town of Mitú. The Colombian Air Force sent aerial and ground forces to support the national troops in its clash against the more than 1,000 guerrilla combatants. The fight left the town and the region severely damaged and more than 50 policemen and 10 civilians lost their lives.


The Vaupés region with its major rivers, such as the Vaupés and its tributaries, the Cuduyarí and the Querarí, forms part of the extensive Amazon basin that continues into Brazil. The Amerindian tribes of the Vaupés relate themselves geographically more to the Vaupés River and its tributaries, rather than to the boundaries of a particular municipality, department, or country. The Vaupés River itself flows into Brazil, and trade along this river system, which eventually flows into the Amazon River, has existed between the various tribes for centuries.

The Cubeos live between the Vaupés River and its tributary the Cuduyarí, whereas another major tribe, the Tukanos, live in the area between the Tiquié and the Poporí, which are both tributaries of the Vaupés. The Macús are scattered in several areas and also live among some of the other tribes, but some of their settlements lie in the area between the Apoporis and the Poco River, while other Macús live to the east of the Desanas, near the Negro River. The Karapanas and the Uananas live to the north of the Tukanos. In all cases, the Amerindians of the Vaupés divide the rivers and their banks into specific locations, some of which are, in effect, farming, hunting, or fishing areas belonging to particular clans, families, or individuals, whereas certain large rocks and other areas are considered sacred grounds.


The Vaupés Indians speak a variety of languages and dialects. It is not unusual for a single large home or maloca, which houses several nuclear families that together form the extended family unit, to include four or five languages. This is because there are strict rules governing suitable partners for marriage. In a maloca where several brothers live, there may be a number of wives, therefore, who speak other languages. One of the major languages of the Vaupés that, in effect, is understood by many is the Tukano language.

Those who have had contact with missionaries, traders, and government officials also speak some Spanish and Portuguese. There is also a dialect or language that has developed over time, containing a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese, and Amer-indian, known as Lingua Geral, which means, in Portuguese, a "general language" that enables different types of people in this region and in the bordering areas between Colombia and Brazil to communicate with each other.

The Vaupés Indians often have a Spanish name, but among many of them, particularly the Cubeos, the name must be given to them by a White person. This confers an immense advantage, in their view, because it may be used without restrictions. Their Amerindian names are never used casually but are instead closely guarded. When they refer to each other publicly, among themselves, they will use a name relating to their position as a relative. For example, among the Cubeos, a woman may refer to her grandchild or to a young person as Teumi, which means "little one" and is used affectionately.


One of the most important characters of Vaupés folklore, shared by several of the tribes, is Vaí Mahse, the Master of the Animals. His name is pronounced Vaeeh Mahsuh. He can appear in a variety of forms, including that of a red dwarf, and he watches over the balance of nature so that humans, as hunters, do not exceed themselves when hunting animals. He also is said to wander over the Milky Way, which is a pathway for him, where he watches over the activities of animals and humans. He is a guardian of all the animals.

A hero shared by several tribes is Kúwai. He is a mythical figure and is regarded as "the one who has the power to transform, to change." Kúwai is not perceived as a god in the strict sense but rather as a teacher who taught the mysteries of creation, the use and manufacture of tools, and the practical arts such as fishing and farming. He is also seen as the creator of rivers.

Early travelers to the Vaupés region refer to a god called Yuruparí, but several anthropologists think this is a term used by all the Amerindians of the Vaupés region to refer to any sacred or taboo element or thing.


In general, most of the Vaupés Indians see the earth as midway between the underworld and the sky, and they generally accept the existence of spirits and ghosts, as well as entities relating to nature. They have a concept of the body as separate from the person's spirit or soul, and there is among some groups a cult of their ancestors, who are not only figures from the past but whose presence can be invoked in the present, through the appropriate rituals, to accompany their descendants. There are a great variety of colorful myths to explain the origins of the various peoples of the region, but their very color and variety, indicative of a rich imagination, can sometimes veil a deeper, metaphysical way of thinking that links the proper conduct of humans and society to a genuinely spiritual purpose in life.

The Tukano peoples of the Vaupés believe there is a balance in nature that must be maintained, and everything humans take from nature must be replaced. Humans themselves have access to two worlds: the outer, or what we might call objective reality; and the inner, psychic, or mental reality. To fulfill the principle of restitution in nature, humans must come to understand that everything that can be perceived through the senses in the physical world also has a fundamental meaning in the mental or psychological world. To know and to understand these significances or meanings is the main aim in life for the Tukanos.

All the Amerindians of the Vaupés have shamans who mediate between this world and the spirit world. The Cubeos have a division between shamans who are essentially healers and the much rarer shaman known as the yaví, or "jaguar," who is supremely powerful and who can, it is believed, take the form of a jaguar.


Many of the Vaupés Indians do not observe the major national holidays of Colombia, including Independence Day, or the arrival of Christopher Columbus on American shores, or major Catholic holidays. They still live within their own cultural and religious norms, and their festivals coincide with major life events, such as initiation rites, naming rites, or marriage rites.In the capital of the Vaupés region, the town of Mitú, there has been a gradual process of adaptation carried on in part by some Vaupés Indian women who have married townsmen and have begun over the last few decades to participate in the national holidays.


When a child is born, a Vaupés woman will retire to a special place to give birth, outside the large hut where she lives with her extended family. Quite often she will give birth outdoors, in her own field where she grows manioc (cassava). She will reenter the hut or maloca through a special entrance, usually at the back of the house. Among some groups, the baby and the parents will be ritually painted, and this paint will last for a few days.

Childhood is somewhat different for boys and girls. The girls remain close to their mother and learn a wide array of skills that are considered appropriate for women, whereas boys essentially form groups and are allowed to play collectively until they reach adolescence.

Young children are treated with great tolerance and permissiveness, but the upbringing becomes much stricter when they become teenagers. After boys have reached puberty they are eventually initiated in a group, in secret rites well away from the gaze of girls and women. They are assisted by shamans, and they have to take special substances that will give them visions of the spirit world. Afterwards, they are entitled to wear special ritual jewelry and ornaments, as well as a headband decorated with feathers. They can also look for a suitable wife.

Among many Vaupés Indians, when a person dies, he or she is wrapped in his or her hammock and buried in his or her canoe. All the Amerindians of this region believe that a person's spirit leaves the body when he or she dies.


The Amerindians of the Vaupés region who continue to live in the traditional manner have particular orders and levels of importance governing their relations. The men have a greater status than the women, and young men who have been initiated have a greater standing than younger boys. These societies have been evolving, and chieftains have been replaced in importance by shamans and people with secret or hidden knowledge.

Among the Cubeos, the strongest bonds are between brothers. Their settlements are usually sparsely populated and include extended family units of about 35 or 40 members, including brothers, their wives, and their children. The Tukanos also live in extended family units consisting of up to seven or eight nuclear families (husbands, wives, and children). Strict rules govern marriage. Among the Tukanos, men must choose wives who speak a different language and therefore belong to a different group known as a phratry (derived from the Latin word for "brother"). Each phratry is composed of about 20 smaller groups called sibs. Each sib shares a common mythical ancestor. Groups defined in this way do not occupy particular areas and so cannot be called tribes.

The notion of a language group as a particular type of phratry also includes mental and psychological elements (the common mythical ancestor that unites each subgroup or sib). This is close to the idea of other types of Amerindian groups organized as clans with particular totems, which are sometimes symbolized by animals and the virtues of the particular animals. These totems or clan symbols form part of the inner landscape of a person and contribute to his or her identity.

The peoples of the Vaupés often gather for drinking parties and social occasions during which fermented drinks called chicha and mihí are consumed. This is a way of cementing relationships between groups or sibs that make up the larger phratries. Among these groups, those who live "down river" have a higher standing than those who live "up river." This means that the "up river" groups will often prepare the chicha for the "down river" groups.

The most important factor governing any occasion is the right inner mood of the person or persons taking part, and this applies both to work-related activities and to social or ceremonial occasions. Among the Tukanos and the Arawaks, the chicha is served in an elaborate, formal manner by hosts carrying the chicha-laden gourds, who dance towards the guests in single file in a crouching position. During these social occasions young men and women are provided with an opportunity to dance together. The dances usually begin quite formally, first with only the male dancers, and as the evening progresses the girls gather courage and join them, overcoming their initial shyness.


Some travelers to the Vaupés have observed that the Amerindians who have managed to preserve their lifestyle and resist the pressures of the missionaries to abandon their spacious, communal longhouses in favor of smaller, rather miserable, single- family huts are in better health than the groups who are in a state of transition, attempting to adapt to White society. This may well be because the Amerindians who continue to live in the traditional manner have not lost their knowledge of medicinal herbs and plants. It is also possible that the stresses of adaptation may contribute to illness. Nevertheless, some groups are not averse to seeking the help of White doctors, who live in the town of Mitú, the capital of the Vaupés region.

The attitude to consumption is interesting in the Vaupés, since ritual objects and handicrafts created by the different tribes are highly valued, and there has been a form of barter in existence for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years. A good fishing area along the river is an important possession and may be given as a gift even to a child. At the same time, the Vaupés peoples display an amazing detachment, even in relation to highly prized ritual objects that are considered irreplaceable, in the case of children who take these objects without permission or destroy them. There is a calm acceptance and an equanimity that is part of a tolerant attitude to young children.

The traditional longhouses, or malocas, are about 18 m (60 ft) long and almost 12 m (40 ft) wide, built with sloping palm-thatched roofs. Up to seven or eight nuclear families live together, usually brothers, their wives, and children. Inside there are communal spaces, nuclear-family spaces, spaces for young men at the front of the house, and special spaces at the back reserved for women and young children. The front entrance is reserved for males, the back entrance for females. The outer front walls are often painted with geometric motifs related to the views of these cultures about the life-giving forces of the universe. In recent years, nucleated villages have replaced traditional settlements consisting of a single longhouse with four or eight nuclear families. Today, town sizes range from 15 individuals in a single household unit to 300 people in a town.

The attitude that what is consumed must be replaced in some way is essentially a successful attitude of conserving resources in the environment. This makes for a standard of living sufficient for the basic needs of life, without excesses that are seen to be harmful if they create imbalances in nature.

The most important form of transport in the Vaupés is the canoe, although hunters can trek on foot for days in the jungle or the savanna if necessary.


The role of women is significant as bearers of children and cultivators of food. They are also skilled in various handicrafts, such as pottery and some types of weaving, and are expected to prepare the food. Women usually own their own small fields where they grow manioc (cassava). This field is not simply an economically productive unit, but also a private space. An interesting and important aspect of a woman's life is her role as a trader. She often has less contact with White society than some of the men and has continued to engage in the traditional form of barter in use among the Vaupés for centuries. This is not just a form of trade, but a pattern of social relationships that becomes established through this type of barter and that imposes a series of obligations. Among many groups, people take great care in what they ask for, because merely asking for a particular object imposes an obligation to surrender it. Every object has a history (where it was obtained, from whom, and under what circumstances) that invests the object with less impersonal meanings than those of objects obtained in a Western-style, mass-consumption society where only certain things may keep these associations in the mind of the consumer.

Among the Tukanos, when a man wishes to take a wife, his father and some male relatives have to kidnap the girl and take her to the house where the prospective groom awaits her. Among the Cubeos, it is the groom himself who has to kidnap the girl, take her to his canoe, and then to his home. If the girl is unhappy, she can escape back to her parental home, and her parents will respect her if she wants to stay with them. Even after the marriage rites, this situation may arise, and the family of the girl will never force her to stay with her husband if she is unhappy. The "kidnap" must be understood as a ritual that always precedes marriage.

Some Amerindians of the Vaupés, particularly the Cubeos, have been known to keep dangerous animals as pets, even anaconda snakes.


The Vaupés Indians wear a type of loincloth and some forms of feathered headbands and arm bracelets, as well as body paint. Women who live in the traditional manner also use body paint, but some have adopted skirts or even loose cotton dresses as a result of contacts with White society, including missionaries and traders.


The staple food of the Vaupés is manioc, also called cassava, which is made into flour and cakes. Wild fruits and nuts are also eaten, and an important source of protein is fish. Sometimes the peccary and the tapir are hunted, as well as some species of monkey.

Some cooking utensils have the advantage not only of being made locally, but also of being multifunctional and graceful: a circular mat woven from the mirití palm serves as a cooking-pot cover and a plate.

Men grow tobacco and some plants that provide the ingredients used in initiation rites, and women grow manioc. Girls and boys help women gather wild fruits and nuts.


Some children in the Vaupés have attended mission schools, and their traditional way of life has been altered in favor of the single-family unit preferred by missionaries. For many others, a traditional Amerindian education includes learning a number of tribal languages, as well as all the survival skills necessary for their traditional lifestyle, including hunting, fishing, farming, weaving, tool-making, and house-building. These are accompanied by instruction in correct understanding of the principles of conservation and a view of nature and the cosmos as an interplay of forces and energies where a balance has to be maintained.

Moreover, during the last years the Colombian government through the Ministry of Health has executed a healthcare program that genuinely attempts to preserve and support the Vaupés culture by creating the so-called "shaman school." In this educational centers traditional shamans are in charge of teaching to younger members of their communities their ancestral rituals and therapeutic approaches. The shaman school project, as well as other grassroots blueprints, reflects the influence of large number of pressure groups that have argued that top-down programs and polices often result in tremendous cultural losses. Along with the shaman school project, many successful struggles have been highly useful to ameliorate the Vaupés' condition. For instance, today Colombian indigenous have the following rights: to be educated in their own languages, to be taught their own history and cosmology, and to have their own healing system incorporated into public programs of health. Moreover, Amerindians in Colombia enjoy advantages not grated to other citizens such as the exemption of paying taxes and to serve in the military. Among their rights stands out their privilege of having accesses to free education and to receive free healthcare.


Music can be either sacred or secular. Sacred instruments are prepared and stored with care and used on ceremonial occasions. They include flutes, rattles, and drums. Both singing and dancing are important to the Amerindians of the Vaupés. These activities can occur in a religious and ceremonial context, such as initiation rites or the invocation of ancestor or burial ceremonies, or they can occur in a secular context such as social drinking parties to celebrate the completion of a house. Certain melodies played by young men on reed flutes are courtship songs well known in the area, suggesting unsung words meaning: "If the women from these parts do not want us, we will go somewhere else!"

The literature of the Vaupés Indians is oral, although some petroglyphs (symbolic designs and drawings on large stones along the river suggesting written hieroglyphic messages) have been found. This suggests that these cultures may be very old.

The myths and legends of the Vaupés represent a rich body of oral literature. There are stories of the origin of the world and of the peoples and all the natural elements, as well as of the plants and animals. The Desanas, a branch of the Tukanos, refer not only to the physical sun, but also to the invisible Sun Father who sent Pamurí Mahse, who carried his staff and searched everywhere in the Vaupés for a place to establish humanity. He stood in his canoe and probed the riverbank to find fertile ground. He had to find a place where his staff would cast no shadow. Finally, he found this place, and seed fell from his staff into a deep pool in the river, and from this seed the first Desana was born.


Some Vaupés Indians have worked in the past in the rubber-tapping industry, although others who do not participate in the cash economy and live in more remote areas, relying on barter and exchange, have regarded this as a calamity, a type of slave-labor that destroys the culture. Trade among tribes is an important activity, although trade with White people is becoming more common, and some Indian traders have become adept at bargaining. Hunting, fishing, and farming are major activities. The Vaupés Indians make beautiful fish traps along the riverbanks out of delicately woven reeds, and they also use blowpipes and spears for hunting. The fine arrows or darts used in the blowpipes are dipped in a specially prepared curare poison that paralyzes the prey.


The Vaupés Indians are remarkable boaters. This is due to the large number of rapids along the Vaupés River, which they navigate with marvelous skill in their canoes. While this activity is not, strictly speaking, conceived by them as a sport, much of the thrill and the intense concentration experienced by the sportsperson are present during this activity, even when it is linked to the necessity of travel rather than sport.


Children play a game relating to jungle demons and the tem tem bird. Girls and boys play the demons who surround a boy who is the tem tem bird and who has to try to break out of the circle. In another game, a girl builds a thatched palm shelter and waits inside for a boy hunter to free her. Some travelers to the area have described a game of catch where the ball is made out of corn.

A main form of recreation, which is enjoyed mainly by young adults but which also includes whole families, is the social drinking party where vast quantities of fermented manioc (cassava) beer or chicha is consumed, and people dance and sing all night, or until they drop! This type of reunion occurs between groups organized as sibs, a type of kinship that relies on a common mythical ancestor and is a type of clan.


The arts and crafts of the Vaupés include jewelry-making, particularly delicately beaded necklaces, as well as basket-weav- ing. The Makú Indians are particularly skilled basket-weavers, and their baskets are deep and pleasingly shaped, as well as lightweight and strong. Makú baskets are an easily traded item along the Vaupés River. Body-painting is practiced by all the Indians of the region, and the attractive geometric motifs are also repeated on the walls of their spacious longhouses. The motifs refer to fertility, creation, and various entities from the spirit world, or animals that have counterparts in the spirit world, such as jaguars. The jaguar is a symbol of power, and very often jaguar spots are painted on people or on particular places as a form of protection.

The Vaupés Indians also make musical instruments such as reed flutes and larger flutes known as chirimías. Pottery, made mainly by women, takes a variety of pleasing shapes.


The social problems of the Vaupés Indians relate mainly to the incursions of missionaries, traders, people involved in the rubber industry, and government officials, as well as, on occasion, curious but unsympathetic travelers who have disturbed the delicately balanced lifestyle that survived for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years. Missionaries over the years have disapproved of the extended family households and have tried to persuade the Vaupés Indians to live in single-family units. For this, they have been heavily criticized by anthropologists who point out that the extended household is a form of social organization that, once it is broken up, impoverishes the families both physically and psychologically because they are deprived of important support systems well-suited to their environment.


Opposition and complementarities mark gender relations in Vaupés society. Even though women are excluded from religious rites, female attributes and values form a major element of the ritual symbolism. Typical Vaupés males display their virility openly in front of women. In addition, males are vigilant over women so that they carry out their daily responsibilities and duties, which communicate the fact that women are inferior (or at least subordinate) to males.

Women play a much more important role in the provision of dietary components (especially carbohydrates through the cultivation of manioc) than the relatively smaller contribution of men (mostly protein through fishing and hunting). However, the salience and significance of women in this respect is not acknowledged either in myth or reality. While only products of fishing and hunting are called "food," the more abundant commodities supplied mostly by women are considered "side dishes."

In terms of marriage relations, while male infidelity is accepted, women's infidelity can be punished by death. Man's economic position is related to polygamy in that women are a very important economic factor in the prosperity of the male, since women are major producers. Therefore, women are net economic assets or gain for the males.


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Goldman, Irving. Los Cubeo. Mexico: Instituto Indigenista Interamericano, 1968.

Hugh-Jones, Stephen. The Palm and the Pleiades. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Jackson, Jean E. "Culture, Genuine and Spurious: The Politics of Indianness in the Vaupés, Colombia." American Ethnolo-gist, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Feb., 1995), pp. 3-27

___. "Preserving Indian Culture: Shaman Schools and Ethno-Education in the Vaupés, Colombia" Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Aug., 1995), pp. 302-329

Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo. Indios de Colombia. Bogotá: Villegas Editores, 1991.

___. The Forest Within. London and Colombia: Themis Books in association with the COAMA Programme, and the Gaia Foundation, 1996.

—revised by C. Vergara