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ETHNONYMS: Chakes, Motilones, Yuko, Yupa, Yu'pa


Identification. The autodenomination "Yukpa" (or, depending on dialect, "Yupa" or "Yu'pa") means "tame people," which contrasts with "Yuko" (enemy or wild person), the name used by Yukpa in Venezuela for their culturally and linguistically related neighbors in Colombia. Yukpa subtribes include Irapa, Macoas, Tukukos, Pariri, Sapriria, Rionegrinos, Shaparu, Viakshi, and Wasama. Subtribal names refer to geographical features of the separate river valley locations or to founding ancestors. Those who are not Indians (foreigners, Spaniards, criollos) are called "Watia."

Location. The Yukpa Indians currently inhabit the mountains forming the natural border between Venezuela and Colombia. Within these mountains, three parallel ranges of a north-northeast to south-southwest direction can be distinguished: La Serranía de los Motilones, La Serranía de Valledupar, and the Sierra de Perija. The present Yukpa habitat extends from the northern section of the Serranía de los Motilones, through all of the Sierra de Perija and into the northern portion of the Serranía de Valledupar. The coordinates of their territory are 9°45 and 11°N and 72o40 and 73°10 W.

Demography. Preliminary analysis of the 1982 Yukpa census indicates a total population of 3,408, which includes 1,749 males (51 percent) and 1,659 females (49 percent). A total of forty-nine communities or settlements were identified, ranging in size from a few households to as many as 500 residents. The exact size and demographic characteristics of precontact Yukpa society are unknown.

Linguistic Affiliation. Yukpan belongs to the Carib Language Family. Various dialects of Yukpan are spoken. Dialects of the most geographically distant subtribes are almost mutually unintelligible.

History and Cultural Relations

Since prehistoric times the Yukpa have inhabited the Sierra de Perija. Centuries prior to European arrival in the Americas, ancestors of the Yukpa formed part of a Carib Indian migration across much of northern South America and the Lesser Antilles. Limited information on prehistoric indigenous migration precludes any exact dating of the Yukpa arrival in western Venezuela, but linguistic analysis indicates that the Cariban language began to diverge around 4500 B.P., culminating at approximately 1000 B.P. It is believed that the ancestors of the present-day Yukpa separated from Carib groups in either eastern or southern Venezuela or from Coastal Carib groups. Lexicostatistical research indicates that internal divergence within Yukpan does not exceed ten centuries, a fact that has led some researchers to suggest that the Yukpa reached their present homeland by 1000 B.P. Marked differences from other Yukpa subgroups suggest that the Irapa subgroup reached their present homeland approximately 600-700 B.P.

Although exact dates for the Yukpa arrival in Perija are difficult to determine, the Yukpa have preserved the events of this arrival in their oral literature. Folktales recount how the Yukpa encountered and defeated the Wanapsa, the original inhabitants of the mountains. It is believed that the Yukpa were first contacted by Westerners during the early sixteenth century when conquistadores looking for El Dorado, the fabled city of gold, crossed the Sierra de Perija. The encounter was brief and violent, and the Yukpa consequently moved farther up into the mountains. Spanish missionaries followed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and attempted to establish mission stations where the Yukpa and other Indians of the area could live, but missionary efforts were intermittent and only marginally successful. By the twentieth century the Yukpa were in more or less continuous contact with settlers. By 1945 the Capuchin missionaries had established a permanent presence in the region.


Each Yukpa subtribe has traditionally occupied a distinct territory, usually a particular river valley. Within each river valley, the subtribal population was divided into smaller settlements, the majority of which were located on the terraces of the valley or near tributary streams. The settlement pattern consisted of a mixture of single houses, hamlets composed of two or three houses, and larger communities that might contain up to twenty houses. In the last thirty to forty years, fundamental changes have occurred in the Yukpa settlement pattern. Under the influence of Capuchin missionaries and in response to increasing economic activities beyond the steep river valleys, Yukpa communities have moved closer to the rolling hills and plains adjoining the mountains. In extreme cases, Yukpa have moved either to local towns or large settlements adjacent to mission stations. Many Yukpa men and a few women now work outside of the mountains on large dairy ranches, where they spend weeks before returning to their families in the mountains.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . When the Yukpa occupied the Sierra de Perija, they apparently brought along a lowland-forest subsistence economy. In this economic system, shifting cultivation, hunting, fishing, and gathering all contributed equally to the group's subsistence. But this integral subsistence system underwent changes in the mountainous environment. Resource depletion and increased population density in the circumscribed river valleys most likely forced the Yukpa to become predominantly subsistence agriculturists. The cultivation of bitter manioc was abandoned, and the planting of maize, beans, and squashes was added to the existing crop assemblage. Unfortunately, the increased emphasis on slash-and-burn agriculture proved deleterious to the natural forest. Today the Yukpa continue to rely on slash-and-burn agriculture for much of their food. There is a growing interest, however, in a newly introduced economic activitythe growing of coffee for sale in local markets. Practiced in conjunction with subsistence agriculture, coffee cultivation is being promoted by the Venezuelan government through a local cooperative. As a subsistence/cash-crop system of agriculture develops, the Yukpa rely less on gathering, hunting, and fishing, ancillary activities that, because of resource depletion, are no longer very productive.

Industrial Arts. The Yukpa work neither stone nor leather but do weave and work clay. Both men and women are good basket weavers and fashion satchels, telescoping boxes, quivers, and fire fans in twilled and hexagonal weaves. A traditional coiling technique was used to make crude cooking pots, but today metal pots have replaced these traditional wares. Men continue, however, to use clay for making pipes used in the smoking of locally grown tobacco. Until well into the twentieth century, the Yukpa spun cotton and used a vertical loom to weave tuniclike garments for men and skirts for women. Older men continue to manufacture palm bows and cane arrows, which are now used more for ceremony than for hunting. Shotguns have replaced the use of these traditional hunting implements.

Trade. It is believed that in precontact times Yukpa (Yuko) living in Colombia traded with Arawakan tribes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. In earlier times, there was some trading of subsistence and material goods between both communities and subtribes; this trade continues to a small degree today. Communities closer to Watia settlements occasionally exchange food crops for clothing, processed foods, and metal tools.

Division of Labor. Labor is divided according to age and sex. Both men and women share the subsistence-agricultural tasks, although men do more of the heavy labor and women do more processing and food preparation. Although men undertake domestic activities, women predominate in this area. Cash cropping of coffee is undertaken by both men and women, although the former do more of the marketing and the field clearing; women work more in harvesting and weeding. Some Yukpa women in more acculturated communities work as domestic servants; the men in these same communities often enter into wage labor as cattle herders and milkers for local dairy farmers. The clearest division of labor occurs in hunting, which is exclusively undertaken by men.

Land Tenure. The pattern of land tenure among the Yukpa is the result of generations of passing ownership to male and female siblings. Each community or settlement maintains rights to use surrounding tracts of land, which are in turn divided among particular households. Both men and women own land, and both may borrow or rent if they need additional land for gardens. The boundaries of the Yukpa territory have been established by the Venezuelan government. The southern section of the Sierra de Perija is a zona indígena a territory reserved for the sole use of indigenous inhabitants. Much of the remainder of the Sierra de Perija is a parque nacional, a designated area where it is unlawful to alter the natural flora and fauna. Both these land classifications help prevent the expropriation of Yukpa territory by settlers and large landowners.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Yukpa practice the principle of bilateral descent which, in contrast to the more restrictive forms of patrilineal and matrilineal descent, forms an extensive consanguineal kindred. The Yukpa partition this kindred by terminologically classifying individuals related through distant ties of collaterality with lineal relatives, siblings, and descendants of same-sex siblings. This principle of merging provides individuals with a large classificatory kin group.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology traditionally followed the Iroquois system of classification.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The relations between an individual and his or her classificatory kin contain many of the rights and obligations expected between primary relatives and their descendants. These relatives are close kin, with whom marriage is prohibited. Men must marry pahte; women must marry awo. These two reciprocal kin terms refer, for men, to cross cousins, the daughters of male cross cousins, sister's daughters, and patrilateral cross aunts once removed; women may marry mother's brother, cross cousins, sons of cross cousins, and patrilateral cross uncles once removed. The immediate postmarital rule is uxorilocality: a young man resides in his father-in-law's household. During this period, reportedly lasting for only a few years, young men pay a bride-price with labor or money. Once the bride-price is paid, young families may elect to stay with the wife's father, return to the husband's community or settlement, or begin a new residence elsewhere within the subtribal territory. Polygyny was once practiced with some frequency, although the custom is today only rarely observed.

Domestic Unit. The principal domestic units among the Yukpa are the nuclear and extended families. The former are increasing in importance today, whereas in earlier times the latter was the dominant family unit.

Inheritance. In Yukpa society, both men and women are entitled to inheritance from their parents. A decision is made within each household on how land and possessions should be passed on to the children. Seniority is a decisive criterion; other criteria are an individual's long-term contribution to family production activities and continued residence in the community.

Socialization. Yukpa children learn the appropriate values and behaviors of their society primarily from parents and other close relatives. This socialization process encourages curiosity, innovation, and exploration while developing the necessary work skills and a sense of responsibility. Oral folktales recounted by elders play an important role in the enculturation of young children. Physical punishment is infrequent. In Yukpa communities located at a distance from missions and local towns, children do not attend any formal educational institution.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The various Yukpa subtribes are independent bands consisting of a number of extended and nuclear families; these families form settlements and small communities linked by bonds of kinship. A number of Yukpa are now living outside subtribal territories and residing in local towns. Each band is largely endogamous and, in earlier times, lived in a state of almost perpetual hostility toward each other.

Political Organization. Each subtribe traditionally enjoyed political autonomy, and each community recognized, to varying degrees, the authority of a headman who played a major role in guiding the community toward consensus. Today a more institutionalized form of political leader is appearing in the form of a village or community chief. This is particularly true in the larger, more acculturated settlements, where the legitimacy of this position is reinforced by missionaries and the Venezuelan state.

Social Control. Rights and obligations defined along kinship lines, gossip, and fear of ostracism are important forms of social control in less acculturated Yukpa communities. In more acculturated settlements, these mechanisms are less strong and are very quickly being replaced by institutional processes. The emerging office of chief brings with it some authority to establish Yukpa laws and regulations. An appointed Yukpa police force has been organized to enforce the decisions of the chief. Although these formal mechanisms of control, including the presence of the Venezuelan police and judicial systems, are becoming more significant, traditional forms of social control, including fear of witchcraft, remain very important for most Yukpa.

Conflict. Before contact with Western society, intertribal hostilities were believed to be widespread among the Yukpa. With the increased involvement with missionaries and settlers, conflicts decreased between subtribes and increased between Yukpa and Watia. Today conflict over land is increasingly a problem among the Yukpa. There is growing land pressure and privatization of what was once considered land owned by the community. With contact, there has been an increase in violence stemming from greater alcohol consumption by men. Conflict among Yukpa today is more at the individual than the group level.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Religion among the Yukpa was, until recently, exclusively animistic in nature, articulated by beliefs in the presence of supernatural powers in the surrounding plant and animal world. A creator, sometimes referred to as "God," was helped by various animals in creating the primordial Yukpa couple. All Yukpa are descendants of this couple. Mythical animals (e.g., frog, woodpecker, caiman, armadillo) and celestial bodies (sun and moon) are responsible, along with a mythical creator, for the existence and characteristics of the world. The world consists of two flat disks around which circulate two suns, one of which is now the moon. There is also in Yukpa cosmology an underground populated by a race of dwarfs (a few Yukpa are very short in stature and are said to be descendants of this race of dwarfs). By the middle of the twentieth century, Catholicism was introduced and the Yukpa began to integrate this new religion into the traditional belief system. In the 1990s almost all Yukpa settled outside of the mountainous Perija region profess to be Catholics, although the degree to which they practice and actually understand the religion tends to be limited.

Religious Practitioners. In a few traditional Yukpa settlements there continue to be priest-shamans (tomayra ) who, through dream interpretation and songs, guide communities through the important rituals and ceremonies.

Ceremonies. The principal ceremonies marking life and changes in social status include birth, naming, marriage, and burial. In addition, the Yukpa celebrate harvest ceremonies of thanksgiving, which also function to strengthen social exchange. At these and other ceremonies the tomayra plays a major role by singing specific songs and leading the dancing.

Arts. Singing and dancing are important to Yukpa in religious as well as secular activities. These songs can become complex enough to require that they be recorded using mnemonic symbols and rehearsed before important ceremonies. The Yukpa practice some facial and arm tattooing and weave simple designs into their baskets. A few elder Yukpa men embellish their clay smoking pipes with artistic designs.

Medicine. Sickness is explained by reference to the supernatural, although today many Yukpa also understand parts of the Western model of disease causation. Among the Yukpa, individuals having knowledge of medicinal plants are known as tuanos. These shamans possess a superb familiarity with botanical remedies and, through metaphysical connections, are able to control the effect of these remedies.

Death and Afterlife. At death, the soul leaves the body through the right hand. The corpse is wrapped in mats and removed from the village. In earlier days it was set on a platform, but today it is buried immediately in a burial hut. The deceased's possessions are buried as well, since they will be necessary for the journey to the other world. To reach the afterworld, Yukpa must be guided to the path of the righteous by Kopecho, the mythical frog. Life in the Land of the Dead is very similar to life in the Perija.


Paolisso, Michael (1985). "Subsistence and Coffee Cultivation among the Irapa-Yukpa of Venezuela." Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles.

Ruddle, Kenneth (1974). Yukpa Cultivation System: A Study of Shifting Cultivation in Colombia and Venezuela. Iberoamericana, 52. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Wilbert, Johannes (1974). Yukpa Folktales. Latin American Studies, vol. 24. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.