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ETHNONYMS: Caguachi, Cahunari, Caumari, Cauwachi, Cavachi, Jawa, Llawa, Nihamwo, Peba, Pehua, Peva, Yahua, Zawa


Identification. The name "Yagua" is of unknown but definitely foreign origin and first appears in Jesuit sources of the eighteenth century. The Yagua call themselves "Nihamwo" (people).

Location. The Yagua live scattered in the tropical rain forest of the northwestern Amazon, between 2° and 5° S and 70° and 75° W, mainly in the northeast of the present-day department of Loreto, Peru, bordering Colombia and Brazil.

Demography. In 1982 the Yagua population was estimated at 3,300 living in about sixty villages of 10 to 180 inhabitants.

Linguistic Affiliation, Yagua is the only extant member of the Peba-Yaguan Language Family of the Gê-Pano-Carib Phylum. At least three dialects are spoken today.

History and Cultural Relations

Archaeological and historical evidence indicate that the Yagua originally inhabited the northern hinterland of the Amazon, the banks of the river being settled by their enemies, the Tupí-speaking Omagua. Only when the latter were weakened by European diseases and intrusions did the Yagua move closer to the main river in order to acquire highly coveted iron goods. The first documented contact with Whites was with the Jesuit Father Samuel Fritz in 1693, when he settled some Pega-Yagua in his missionary station. Until 1768, the date of their expulsion, the Jesuits tried to "settle" the Yagua, mainly on the Amazon or on its main tributaries. They basically failed either because European diseases led the survivors to hide in the inaccessible hinterland or because of Portuguese slave raids on the Spanish missions, but also because of intertribal conflicts with neighboring groups such as the Ticuna, Bora, and Witoto and even between different local Yagua groups. By the nineteenth century, most Yagua had abandoned the riverine settlements and settled again in their homeland.

The situation changed dramatically when rubber extraction reached its peak between 1880 and 1914, and many Indians were deported and forced to work for the rubber gatherers. The Yagua tried to escape the raids by hiding in the least accessible areas. Even there they again were threatened during the Peruvian-Colombian border conflict of 1932-1933. The "conquest of the Amazon" ensued, together with the establishment of extractive activitieslumbering, trade in skins, cattle raising, mining, etc.that continue today, as does the exploitation of the Yagua and their neighbors as cheap labor. The contractors or patrones (sing., patrón; anyone who buys the services of others by advancing them goods or credit) have achieved over the last fifty years what the missionaries failed to dothe settlement of the majority of the Yagua on the Amazon.


Yagua settlements, which were widely scattered over their habitat, traditionally consisted of one large, oval, beehive-shaped communal house inhabited by several related families, a patriline or one of its segments. These houses were usually built near the headwaters of small rivers on high ground that did not flood. The roof of a characteristic house extended to the ground, which served as the floor. Houses were often separated by considerable distances but were linked by a network of jungle trails. As a result of missionary influence, and later of the pressure from the dominant society to settle along the main rivers, the Yagua communal houses gave way to individual huts of neo-Amazonian style built on stilts to avoid the seasonal flooding of the rivers. Since the palm-leaf thatching of the now gabled roof does not reach the ground, mosquito nets are a must at night.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Yagua consider themselves hunters, but actually they rely more and more on swidden horticulture today since the majority no longer inhabits the hinterland, which is rich in game. Usually a family works two or more fields in different stages of growth, thus securing a continuous supply of food. The main cultigens are a variety of nonbitter manioc, several varieties of plantain and banana, and, to a lesser extent, pineapples, sugarcane, sweet potatoes, maize, and a selection of domesticated jungle fruits. Usually a field yields well for two years, and a family will clear a new one each year. Hunting is still considered a highly prestigious activity. Formerly, blowguns and spears were used; nowadays most men hunt with shotguns, although blowguns have not been completely abandoned. The primary game are tapir, peccaries, monkeys, large birds, and small rodents. Fishingoriginally not very important in the interfluvial settlement periodhas become an increasing source of protein for the riverine Yagua. Various palm and other jungle fruits are gathered in season, and palm-beetle larvae and honey collected in the woods are also consumed. Occasionally chickens, ducks, or pigs are raised but rarely eaten by the Yagua, who instead sell them to the mestizos. Cash income plays a minor role since loggers, hunters, rubber tappers, rice and jute planters, maids, and workers in the tourist industry are greatly underpaid because of the system of debt servitude.

Industrial Arts. The Yagua are quite well known for their excellent hammocks and bags made from palm fiber. Other crafts include weaving sieves and baskets, pottery, and making blowguns, but the latter two are rapidly disappearing. The manufacturing of fiber clothing for the male dressan innovation from the turn of this centuryhas also declined owing to ridicule by mestizos. It is maintained only as a tourist attraction or in very remote areas by older men.

Trade. Aboriginally, trade between different Yagua local groups as well as with neighboring tribes played an important role. Yagua traded mainly curare poison and hammocks. From the mestizos they obtained salt and iron goods. Today, other basic necessities (e.g., kerosene, gasoline, matches, firearms, soap, and cloth) are purchased by working for a patrón or by selling animal hides and other products of the forest to the riverine population.

Division of Labor. Men clear the gardens and hunt; women do almost all of the planting; and both sexes participate in fishing. The fabrication of palm-fiber yarn, hammocks, and carrying and ammunition bags, as well as pottery are female activities, but men do most of the plaiting, carving, and house construction. The fabrication of musical instruments and the preparation of curare are also male specialties. Ritual and medicinal activities are mainly executed by men. Today a few Yagua communities are used as tourist attractions, and there is a tendency among younger Yagua women near the urban centers of Iquitos and Caballo Cocha to work as maids.

Land Tenure. There is no individual ownership of land or fields. Only the products of the latter are regarded as personal property. All land, whether cultivated or hunting ground, is the property of the community, although each hunter tends to choose his own hunting territory. Increasing pressure from the landless mestizo population, the government policy of peopling the border areas in order to guarantee national sovereignty, and the invasion of cattle ranchers and miners threaten Yagua territory. There is an urgent need for land demarcation and land titles. Unfortunately, only a few communities hold such titles and even then they are not granted so as to be respected by outsiders.


Kin Groups and Descent. Yagua society is divided into sixteen patrilineal, exogamous clans bearing animal or plant names. There is much evidence that formerly the lineages formed local groups, and probably a moiety division also existed. Between two local groups there was a strong relationship cemented by intermarriage. These groups also cooperated during raids against their traditional enemies, such as the Witoto, Ticuna, and Mayoruna, and in warlike activities against other Yagua clans. Today, because of the changing settlement patterns, the clans no longer form local units. The communities are instead formed by several lineage segments, although the preference for certain allied clans is still apparent.

Kinship Terminology. Yagua kinship terminology is of the Dravidian type. There is a joking relationship between both actual and potential brothers-in-law and between actual and potential sisters-in-law.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is clan-exogamous. Cross-cousin marriage was once the rule and is still preferred by members of certain clans. Marriage is monogamous; both sororal polygyny and levirate were practiced. Intermarriage with members of other tribes or with mestizos is still quite rare. Descent is patrilineal and residence was patrilocal, although because of an initial period of bride-service by the groom, residence might have appeared matrilocal. Today patrilocality exists side by side with matrilocal and neolocal residence. There is no special marriage ceremony other than a drinking party. Marriages usually last, but if they do not work out partners are free to separate. The woman, with or without children, simply returns to her family.

Domestic Unit. Small extended families were formerly common, but today the nuclear family tends to predominate.

Inheritance. Personal belongingseven those of great value like axes, machetes, or shotgunswere traditionally dumped in a deep area of the river or destroyed after their owner's death; houses and fields were abandoned. Now these valuable items, as well as dogs and pets, are inherited by the children.

Socialization. Children are raised permissively and almost never punished. "Education" emphasizes cooperation, responsibility, and generosity. Boys get most of their training in the manly arts from a maternal uncle, whereas girls are trained in household chores and female crafts by their mothers. Today, parents seek to send their children to a public school, thinking they will be better able to confront mestizo culture.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Formerly, Yagua society was divided into different groups according to sex and age. Today, the age groups are devoid of particular duties and only their names survive. Women occupy a position of equality with men. The biggest change in the social structure began with the introduction of debt slavery to a patrón in the nineteenth century. From then on the Yagua even adopted their master's surname, changing it every time they changed patrones. In order to counter the effect of this one-way relationship, Yagua families try to tie the patron to them through compadrazgo the godparent (i.e., fictive) kinship system with its mutual obligations.

Political Organization. Political organization among the Yagua seems to have been weakened during early contact times, and, as a result, each local group formed an independent unit. Within a local group one man, usually the oldest, was regarded as a kind of political chiefthe leader of a lineage or lineage segmentand called "master of the communal house." A chief is also sometimes referred to as "the one having two wives"which might have added to his prestige. In fact, Yagua society underwent such radical changes that our knowledge of traditional leadership is rather scanty. Today, leadership is intimately associated with the system of patronage. The chief is usually bilingual and may even act as an intermediate patron, redistributing goods and representing his group vis-à-vis neighboring groups and governmental institutions. In 1984 some of the Yagua communities joined the neighboring Payawá (Orejón) in a common federation to defend their interests.

Social Control. Gossip, ostracism, ridicule, and social withdrawal have worked as forms of social control. Fear of divine retribution is still an important form of social control among conservative Yagua. Witchcraft and shamanism played an important role, and because of the loss of warlike solutions to aggression, have become even more important.

Conflict. The Yagua were quite warlike in the past. Traditional enemies included the Omagua, the Ticuna, the Mayoruna, and the Witoto. There is evidence of past aggression between Yagua local groups and nonallied clans. The reason for conflict was usually witchcraft or the rape of women. Today, although the Yagua are very peaceful, conflict within the group still occurs because of sorcery and jealousy. Conflicts with the outside world increasingly stem from problems of land tenure, since the Yagualike other Amazonian nativesare under increasing pressure from the national society.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Yagua believe in supernatural forces animating all manifestations of nature. These forces have to be considered and respected by human beings in everyday life. The Yagua consider a small number of mythical beings or mythical ancestors to be Supreme Beings who created the world. These beings are surrounded by numerous spirits animating the visible and invisible worlds and residing in the forest, in the water, and on earth as well as on different levels of the heavens and underworlds. These spirits are considered either benevolent (hunting spirits), malevolent (stars), or both, according to specific circumstances. The shaman is the principal mediator between humans and the spiritual world.

Since the eighteenth century, beginning with the Jesuits, missionariesfirst Catholic, later also Protestanthave tried to evangelize the Yagua, more or less successfully. Today, even under cover of Christian beliefs, the traditional religion survives or prevails among more isolated groups.

Religious Practitioners. Any individual can become a shaman through training by a master. This training lasts several months and includes the use of mind-altering drugs and the imparting of knowledge of the spirtual world and the techniques of diagnosis and healing of illness. Although shamans receive only limited material rewards, they exercise considerable influence as a result of their divinatory and healing roles and under special conditions can even become political leaders. A Yagua community without a shaman is still considered very vulnerable.

Ceremonies. Social life revolves around the drinking of native manioc beer. These parties are held on the occasion of clearing the forest for a garden, house building, marriage, initiation, safe return from a tripand now also on Christian holidays. Formerly, the "Big Feast" was the centerpiece of Yagua ceremonial life. It took place only every few years, when the young male members of a clan got their names and were initiated to the powerful hunting spirits. The feast lasted several days and was usually given in the months when game and fruits were abundant (February to April).

Arts. Singing was an important part of traditional ceremonial life, and there were professional singers. Pantomimes, the repertoire of which differed from clan to clan, were also performed at the Big Feast, at which wrestling was another featured event.

Medicine. Disease is thought to be caused by spiritual malevolence brought on by violating taboos and by sorcery. Curing techniques consist of extracting the foreign "element" by sucking it out and blowing tobacco smoke over the patient. Medicinal plants might be used later on and by anyone, but do not belong to the shaman's practice. Today, Western medicine is applied side by side with indigenous treatment.

Death and Afterlife. Death is ascribed to the same origins as disease. Death is feared and so are the evil spirits connected with it. Formerly, the corpse was buried in the center of the communal house, whereupon the house was burned down and the site abandoned. This is still practiced in more remote areas, but in more Western-oriented settlements the dead are now buried in cemeteries. Dying means that the different souls that resided in different parts of the body travel to their respective levels in the mythological universe.


Chaumeil, Jean-Pierre (1983). Voir, savoir, pouvoir: Le chamanisme chez les yagua du nord-est péruvien. Recherches d'Histoire et de Sciences Sociales, 8. Paris: Éditions de l'École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.

Chaumeil, Jean-Pierre (1987). Nihamwo: Los yagua del nororiente peruano. Lima: Centro Amazónico de Antropología y Aplicación Práctica.

Fejos, Paul (1943). Ethnography of the Yagua. Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology, 1. New York: Viking Foundation.

Powlison, Paul S. (1969). Yagua Mythology and Its Epic Tendencies. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms.

Seiler-Baldinger, Annemarie (1984). Indianische Migrationen am Beispiel der Yagua Nordwest-Amazoniens. Ethnologica Helvetica, no. 8. Bern: Schweizerische Ethnologische Gesellschaft.