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ETHNONYMS: Chori, Kurukwa, Mbia, Yuki


Identification. Until they were contacted in the late 1960s, the Yuqui were thought to be a disjunct group of Siriono, a lowland Bolivian indigenous people with whom they share many cultural traits. It was not until a Siriono speaker was asked to try to communicate with the Yuqui that it was discovered that they are a distant ethnic group.

The origin of the name "Yuqui" is unknown but has been used since the colonial period by the Spanish-speaking local population, along with "Siriono," to designate the Yuqui people. It may be a Hispanicized approximation of the Yuqui word "Yaqui," which means "younger relative," and is a frequently heard term of address. The Yuqui refer to themselves as "Mbia," a widespread TupíGuaraní word meaning "the people." Like the Siriono, the Yuqui are now aware that outsiders refer to them by a name formerly unknown and meaningless to them and have come to accept this as their designation by "Aba" (outsiders).

Location. As foragers practicing no horticulture whatsoever, the Yuqui ranged over a large territory in the western regions of lowland Bolivia in the departments of Santa Cruz and Cochabamba. Sightings of Yuqui over many years indicate that their territory originally formed a large crescent beginning east of the old mission town of Santa Rosa del Sara, running south beyond the town of Buenavista, and then extending north and west into the Chapare region near the base of the Andes Mountains. Today what are probably the last remaining three bands of Yuqui are settled at a mission station on the Río Chimore (64°56 W, 16°47 S). The original home range of the Yuqui consisted of varied habitats including savanna, deciduous tropical forest, and multistratal rain forest. Their present environment is multistratal forest and is located near the base of the Andes at an elevation of 250 meters. It includes riverine and interfluvial areas marked by rainfall averaging 300 to 500 centimeters per year. There is a dry season during the months of July and August, which is marked by cold fronts (surazos ); the temperature may briefly drop to as low as 5° C. Otherwise, annual temperatures for the area normally range between 15° and 35° C. The Yuqui at the Chimore settlement forage over an area of approximately 315 square kilometers.

Demography. There is scant knowledge as to what size the Yuqui population might have been at the time prior to or immediately following the European Conquest because little was known about them until the mid-twentieth century. According to their own reports, the Yuqui have experienced severe depopulation owing to disease and hostile encounters with local Bolivians. As of 1990, the entire known population of Yuqui consisted of about 130 people. Although not out of the realm of possibility, it is now unlikely that uncontacted bands of Yuqui are still living in the forests of eastern Bolivia.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Yuqui speak a Tupí-Guaraní language that is closely related to other Tupí-Guaraní languages in lowland Bolivia such as Chiriguano, Guarayo, and Siriono. It appears to be most closely related to Siriono, with which Yuqui shares a large vocabulary, but the two languages are not mutually intelligible. Recent linguistic analysis indicates that the two languages may have diverged in the 1600s, coinciding with the movement of Europeans into the area.

History and Cultural Relations

Not long before the European Conquest, Guaraní raids were being conducted into what is now eastern Bolivia for the purpose of capturing women and slaves. In particular, groups of warriors from the Río Itatin region were making frequent forays into southern Bolivia. They gradually defeated local peoples like the Chane, whose land they occupied and whose people they enslaved. Eventually, these new arrivals became known locally as the "Chiriguanos." With the arrival of the Spanish from Asunción, Paraguay, in the late 1500s, the Chiriguanos unsuccessfully waged war on these new intruders. Once defeated, Chiriguano survivors were relocated at mission outposts (reducciones ) established by Jesuit and Franciscan friars. It is probable, however, that several bands of Chiriguano escaped detection by fleeing into remote areas of heavy forest, where they were able to live in relative isolation.

The Yuqui are very likely a remnant population of these people. Even today, they are culturally and linguistically similar to many northern Paraguayan groups such as the Ache, giving credence to their recent shared origins. Their cultural as well as biological proximity to the Siriono is attested by the unusual congenital ear notches that are evident among both groups. Generations of living as fugitives and infrequent encounters with a growing mestizo population, which resulted in the spread of disease or outright killing, gradually took their toll on the Yuqui, reducing their numbers significantly. This process would also account for the degree of deculturation that has occurred among the Yuqui.

In spite of earlier suppositions that the Yuqui as well as their Siriono cohorts represented the simplest form of adaptation to the lowland South American environment, further study points to a loss of culture content as a more likely explanation for the lack of cultural complexity among both groups. Vestiges of Yuqui deculturation from a more complex level of cultural organization include leadership rights that are inherited through the male line, the existence of hereditary slavery reminiscent of a slave class or caste, and the presence in the Yuqui language of common Tupí-Guaraní words for cultivated crops (maize, ibachi; manioc, ndio ).

Relations with all outsiders (Aba) were traditionally hostile. Whites or mestizos were thought to be the spirits of dead Yuqui and were greatly feared. The word "Aba" probably derives from a term used by Guaraní invaders, whom the Yuqui consider to be their own progenitors (there are still Guaraní people known as "Ava"). Nevertheless, because these outsiders, or Aba, are not known Yuqui and therefore must be spirits of dead ancestors, they are regarded as enemies to be destroyed. This reaction is consistent with the belief held by the Yuqui until peaceful contact occurred that they were the only living beings on earth. In the mid-1950s increasing hostilities with settlers moving into Yuqui territory resulted in the arrival of missionary contact teams organized by the New Tribes Mission, a group of North American Protestant fundamentalists. Following more than ten years' of cutting gift trails, leaving gifts for the Yuqui along these trails, and gradually establishing peaceful relationships with a band of fortythree individuals, the mission convinced the group to give up its nomadic existence and hostilities with the outside world. They were settled at a camp on the Río Chimore. In late 1986 and 1989, what were probably the last two remaining bands of forest Yuqui were successfully contacted and encouraged to relocate to the Chimore camp. With natural increase and the addition of the two new bands, both closely related to the original band contacted, the population had reached 130 by 1990.


The Yuqui were true foragers and as such moved frequently over a large home range. According to their own accounts, prior to contact individual bands of thirty to fifty individuals hunted and gathered on a continual basis. The Yuqui commonly moved their camps daily. If a particular resource were present in abundance, a campsite was used for a maximum of three to five days. Both the need to exploit forest resources and a fear of attack by Bolivian woodsmen kept the group moving constantly. Since the Yuqui built no structures, their camp consisted of a tight circle of fiber hammocks strung to available trees. In order to reduce the dispersement of the group, the Yuqui frequently tied their hammocks in tiers up a single pair of trees. Nuclear families had separate cooking fires. Men kept their bows and arrows at arm's length in bundles stacked against trees. Each hammock was occupied by a man, woman, and their youngest child if still an infant. In times of cold or rain, the Yuqui broke off palm fronds to form a crude tipi as a cover for the hammock. By the mid-twentieth century, it is likely that Yuqui bands had been reduced to only four or five in number, their existence known mostly as a result of colonist sightings. Three of these bands are now permanently settled at the mission station on the Río Chimore. Since there have been no new sightings of forest Yuqui for several years now, it may be assumed that the remainder succumbed to disease or attack.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. In their traditional state, the Yuqui subsisted entirely on game, fish, and food plants gathered from the tropical forests and savannas. They had no known trading relationships with other people, including other bands of Yuqui with whom they often had antagonistic encounters. All outsiders, indigenous or otherwise, were considered enemies. Although their system of food taboos may have been more elaborate at some earlier period in their history, at the time of contact the Yuqui would eat any animal that had "feet or wings." Thus they excluded only insects (with the exception of bee larvae) and snakes from their diet. Although virtually all wildlife was considered acceptable, the Yuqui preferred and still pursue the larger mammals (tapir, collared and white-lipped peccaries, capybaras, pacas, and spider and howler monkeys) and birds (curassows, guans, toucans, and macaws). Fishing was of minor importance and highly seasonal since Yuqui technology was limited to bow fishing and the use of barbasco vine as a fish poison. Because of their fear of being sighted on open waterways, most fishing was done in shallow, seasonal forest ponds, or oxbow lakes.

The Yuqui gathered a wide variety of fruit, particularly that of several species of palm, in addition to hearts of palm. Honey was also an important part of the diet and was consumed in enormous quantities when available. The Yuqui collected fiber from the imbai tree (Cecropia sp.) for use in making hammocks, baby slings, and bow string. Two vegetable dyes were important as body paints to ward off sickness and misfortune: urucú (Bixa orellana ), a red dye, and dija (Genipa americana ), a blue-black dye, both widely used by native Amazonians.

Since contact and the adoption of a sedentary existence, the Yuqui have begun to cultivate a few crops on a small scale. They are not enthusiastic farmers, however, and still prefer to devote their time to subsistence activities in the foresttraditional hunting and gathering. They have also become increasingly dependent on plantains, which do not require a great deal of attention and are easy to harvest (actually an activity similar to gathering). They also plant sweet manioc, maize, upland rice, squashes, peanuts, sugarcane, papayas, and other minor crops that have been introduced by missionaries or colonists. The mission provides the Yuqui with surplus food donated by the United States, and they are beginning to develop trade relationships with colonists moving into their area. The presence of settlers and subsequent deforestation is beginning to severely affect Yuqui hunting and fishing success as these sources of meat are depleted by overexploitation and habitat alteration.

Industrial Arts. Both a nomadic existence and the effects of deculturation have contributed to a paucity of artifacts in Yuqui culture. The cultural inventory is virtually complete with bow and arrows, hammock, baby sling, an agouti-incisor notching tool, rudimentary pottery, and a few basket products made from palm fronds.

The Yuqui bow is over 2 meters in length and fabricated with black palm wood (Bactris sp.). The string, made by the women from twined imbai bark, is attached to the sharpened bow tips with a loop, and the excess bowstring is coiled around the lower third of the stave. The arrows, often mistaken for spears, are of equal length and are of only two types: the "bleeder arrow" made with a large bamboo lanceolate point and used for large animals such as the tapir, and the barbed, black-palm point used for smaller animals. Arrow shafts are made from arrow cane (Gynerium saggittatum ), and the arrow is fletched using the Peruvian cemented technique. Curassow feathers were typically used prior to contact, but with a growing trade in bows and arrows developed by the mission, any large bird feathers are now employed, particularly those from the colorful macaw.

Baby slings and hammocks are also made from imbai twine and are fabricated by using similar techniques. In the case of a hammock, twine is wrapped around two posts set in the ground until the proper width is achieved. Then a single tie strand is run down the middle to separate and secure each individual cord. A rope, also made from imbai, is run through the end loops to secure them, and the completed hammock is removed from the two posts. The baby sling is made in the same manner except that instead of posts, the fiber is wrapped around a woman's spread knees while she is in a sitting position. Several tie strands complete the circular band of fiber that is worn diagonally across the woman's upper torso. The Yuqui do not use any form of upper arm or leg bands, waist ornaments, or penis strings. Body painting done with Genipa and Bixa is not particularly decorative and follows no set pattern. Dye is simply applied somewhat haphazardly to specific body areas to treat wounds, to encourage pubic hair growth among adolescents, or to prevent animal bites or other untoward events while hunting.

Basketry consists of quickly made receptacles of various sizes, all made with a double-herringbone weave common throughout Amazonia. Baskets are undecorated and rudimentary in style. They are not considered art objects and are often discarded after use. The Yuqui first weave a mat from the soft, pliable center stalk of a palm, fold it in half, and braid the sides to form a container. A type of palm-frond backpack is also woven to transport game and fruit, but this is also discarded after use. Pottery was not being made by the Yuqui at the time of contact, but one or two of the older women could still remember how to produce a small coiled pot. Finally, men produce a small tool used to make a nocking plug for the ends of arrows. This consists of an animal bone, usually a femur, into which is glued (using black beeswax) an agouti incisor. These notching tools tend to be kept by the owner until they break or are lost.

Division of Labor. As foragers, Yuqui men and women shared most tasks, giving the group greater flexibility in terms of survival strategies. The great majority of daily activities centered around the procuring of food. Both men and women engaged in fruit and honey gathering, fishing using barbasco (chimbo ) vine or by hand in drying ponds, and the collection of fiber. There were women who knew how to use smaller bows for fishing, but hunting was, and continues to be, a male activity, particularly with the introduction of firearms. Women, however, accompany men on hunts, participate in tracking and calling animals, engage in hand kills, and assist in the transport of game back to camp. Men make bows and arrows and help collect firewood. Women make string, may assist in the cleaning of game, and share cooking tasks with men. Child care is also shared, although women spend many more hours than men in this activity, particularly when children are still nursing. While on trek, women transported infants as well as all household items such as arrow-making supplies, hammocks, fiber, and leftover food. Men hunted ahead of the group and watched for possible ambushes by Bolivians who frequented the forest. All camp tasks, particularly those requiring hard labor, were typically performed by or done with the assistance of slaves. Now that former slaves refuse to perform many of these tasks unless compensated, upper-caste (saya ) men and women must meet these needs themselves.


Kin Groups and Descent. The band, a collection of interrelated nuclear families, is the basic unit of Yuqui social organization. There are no recognized groups larger than the band and no ceremonial occasions when all Yuqui gather. As noted earlier, even bands of related individuals may have hostile relations with one another as a result of quarrels that may have caused fissioning earlier. In tracing lines of kinship, it is apparent that the three extant bands of Yuqui now living at the Chimore are all directly related to each other through consanguineal ties. All three bands, then, can be traced to a larger, parent group that fissioned in the 1930s and then again in the 1950s as a result of internal stresses. Patrilineal descent may have been the normative rule, and vestiges of this are seen in the patterns of inherited leadership and the inheritance of slave status through the male line.

Kinship Terminology. Again, signs of an earlier, more complex and perhaps more typically Tupí form of social organization are apparent among the Yuqui. They may have had a Dravidian form of kinship terminology with preferential cross-cousin marriage in that they still recognize that "it is good" for a man to marry his sister's daughter. Because of severe depopulation, however, the Yuqui have for some time simply married anyone who does not specifically violate incest taboos. Incest is defined as sexual intercourse with one's parents, full siblings, and children of women with whom one has had sexual relations. In the latter case, the Yuqui have been less rigorous in enforcing this taboo, creating a situation where a man potentially could be married to his biological daughter. Kinship terminology falls into no specific category but is highly classificatory, with terms reflecting primarily differences in sex and relative age. The Yuqui differentiate terms of address from terms of reference.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The Yuqui are monogamous, but marriage can be unstable and it is common for both men and women to have pre- and extramarital affairs. In the past a marriage occurred when a man asked a woman's mother to make him a hammock. If she accepted, the completion of the hammock and its occupancy by the new couple signified that they were married. While the hammock was being made, the future mother-in-law could request meat and other favors from her future son-in-law, thus protracting the completion of the marriage hammock. Divorce was effected by one or the other spouse abandoning the conjugal hammock and taking up residence with someone else. As a result of mission influence, marriages are now much more stable, and there is somewhat less sexual activity outside of marriage.

Domestic Unit. The tendency was for a man to hang the conjugal hammock near his father's, suggesting patrilocality; in reality, this pattern varied a great deal since everyone slept in a single compact group, and social relations were constantly shifting, resulting in different arrangements of hammocks.

Missionary influence and sedentarism has created separate, nuclear-family households with permanent structures for individual families and marriages that are formally acknowledged with a Christian ceremony. Premarital sex is still common and usually precedes a marriage announcement. If a newlywed couple has not constructed a house before marriage, they will reside with either the bride's or groom's parents or other family members until they have their own home. Again, the man will prefer to live with his family or orientation; but since the Yuqui are all closely related, virtually any household offers residence with close kin.

Inheritance. Prior to contact, inheritance had little meaning to the Yuqui because there was virtually no property involved. At death, a person's belongings were discarded or destroyed. A young man might at most ask to keep an arrow or some other possession to remember his deceased father. Generally, possessions of the dead were avoided out of respect and fear of the deceased's spirit, including even hunting trails or fishing ponds that may have been frequented by the deceased. Today the Yuqui have many more items of value: clothing, knives, axes, shotguns, and other purchased articles. There is consequently less willingness among relatives to destroy these items; they are usually kept and then distributed by close family members to other kin who may request them.

Socialization. Children are indulged when very young and then given much less attention as they grow older and other children are born. By about age 4, they are expected to take on adult responsibility and may be left for long periods, two or three days at a time, to fend for themselves while their parents are off on a hunting trip. They begin to hunt, fish, and gather early, and not to expect to share their take with anyone. When children misbehave they are frequently struck by a parent or relative, with the hand or with any object within close range. A sharp word will also curb unacceptable behavior. It is not uncommon for Yuqui children to talk back to their parents or to tell them exactly how they feel at any given moment. This may be ignored, laughed at, or punished, depending on the mood of the parent.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. As a band society with greatly reduced numbers, the Yuqui were organized in what appears to have been groups of individuals related through some original founding male or set of brothers and their slaves. Groups that fissioned in later years, events still recollected by the Yuqui, appear to have been formed along these lines. As the band became smaller and more isolated, intermarriage with close relatives became necessary, and even members of the uppercaste (saya) were forced to marry slaves (enembaco ) in order to have partners. Within the band, households maintained discrete nuclear-family units. The husband was the dominant force in the family, but women also were able to exercise a certain amount of control through the withholding of sex, the threat of killing male children at birth, public humiliation, or by simply moving from the conjugal hammock to that of another male. The band generally traveled together, although at times individual families might separate for a few days to forage on their own. This type of separation occurred most commonly as the result of some dispute in camp.

Political Organization. The Yuqui show many of the egalitarian qualities of a band society in that leadership is, to a marked degree, consensual, at least for members of the upper caste. Slaves did not have the freedom to make their own decisions and their behavior was rigidly controlled. Moreover, the apparent tradition of having hereditary leadership pass through the male line gave these leaders (papa ) somewhat greater power and influence than might normally be expected in a band-level society. At the time of contact and the death of the leader several months later, the missionaries selected and trained a new Yuqui leader. His power has not been successfully consolidated, and at least two additional potential leaders have emerged as the result of their abilities to deal with the outside world.

Social Control. Social control follows typical band-level organization in that it is fluid and informal. Gossip, humiliation, verbal and physical coercion, and withholding of food, sex, or other forms of gratification all enter into Yuqui forms of social control. Slaves were dominated from birth, and had little recourse but to accept their status in life. They performed most of the distasteful tasks around camp and were fed last and least. Slaves were reprimanded both verbally and physically. Wrestling by males and females remains an activity engaged in both for play and as a means of asserting dominance over an individual.

Conflict. Much of the daily existence of the Yuqui is marked by conflict, which as one Yuqui observed, in addition to resulting from stressed relations, may also be a source of entertainment. The Yuqui seem to delight in causing trouble for others of their group, often initiating problems by creating rumors about a person and then adding to the uproar as it spreads through camp. As a people who openly display emotion, the Yuqui usually confront an antagonist, guilty or not, with a great deal of arguing (with most of the remainder of the Yuqui standing by or taking sides), shouting, and crying, often culminating this display with a physical attack. These fights, in which both sexes may participate, may escalate to hair pulling, choking, scratching, and biting, frequently resulting in injury and profuse bleeding. The participants may ignore and avoid each other for days or even weeks, but eventually the propinquity of the group and the need to continue reciprocal obligations will bring the offenders together. In order to speed the process of returning the group to normalcy, a Yuqui may act as an intermediary, proposing an indemnity, usually food, to the wronged individual on behalf of the aggressor, which terminates the hostilities.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Again, as a result of probable deculturation, the Yuqui have only a rudimentary belief system. They are animists who practice sympathetic magic, which is reflected in most of their taboos, and concentrate many of their beliefs in supernatural beings on the spirits of the dead.

The Yuqui perceive the world as consisting of the earth, where the living reside, and the sky, where the dead live. The dead can also return to the earth, however, in the form of animals such as a small red bird, the gurai. At death, the Yuqui spirit divides into two entities, the biague ("used-to-be person"), which is greatly feared since it becomes an Aba (White) and can cause sickness and death, and the yirogue ("used-to-be breath"), which is an ambivalent spirit that can heal or cause sickness.

In addition to the spirits of the dead, the Yuqui believe in two malevolent beings that inhabit the forest and can steal children or cause sickness and death, the iguanda and the chochoi. Both are considered to be invisible or to take the form of animals and are most likely to be encountered in the forest at night.

Taboos center around the age and condition of an individual. Pregnant women should not eat certain foods because they are likely to have a negative effect on the unborn child (i.e., eating any animal with "turned" feetan anteater, a slothwill cause a child to have club-feet). Small children are prohibited from eating certain game animals such as peccaries, whose meat leaves a greasy film on the inside of the mouth and which is therefore associated with a fungal infection, thrush. Older women who still menstrue may have a difficult time finding someone to provide meat while they are "behind leaves" (a screen of palm leaves erected for menstruating women) because no man who is younger than a menstruating woman is allowed to hunt for her.

Religious Practitioners. The Yuqui have no religious practitioners or keepers of specialized knowledge.

Ceremonies. There are few ceremonies among the Yuqui, and even these are not elaborate. Prior to contact, at the time of a girl's first menses, the hair from her eyebrows and forehead was plucked and she was painted with Genipa juice to encourage the growth of pubic hair. If she had a mate at that time, he also was painted.

Chanting also occurred as group behavior during storms and at the time of death. The chant consisted of a high and a low note repeated continually over an extended period. The death chant is known as jirase and is the only chant still in use. The others, the iyusumano and amayaquia, which were used to ward off wind and rain, are seldom heard now. These latter chants were also accompanied by striking arrows against the bow stave in rhythm with the chant. A type of dance in which men and women grasped each other's arms behind the back and chanted was also known prior to contact, as was a mournful type of singing used during drinking bouts, when the Yuqui consumed mead. Because these activities are seen to conflict with their teachings, the missionaries have discouraged their continuation.

Arts. Other than those articles manufactured for daily use, the Yuqui practice no arts.

Medicine. All sicknesses and deaths are believed to have some supernatural cause, usually attributed to the wandering spirits of dead Yuqui. These adverse events were usually dealt with by some attempt to propitiate the spirits through chanting. The Yuqui have knowledge of approximately ninety useful plant taxa (not a great many when compared to other Amazonian peoples), but very few are used for medicinal purposes. The Yuqui do not appear to have a well-developed pharmacopoeia, and no one in the group has any specialized knowledge concerning the use of herbal remedies. The two principal plants used are urucú and dija, both of which have ritual as well as medical uses. Modern pharmaceuticals dispensed at the mission have replaced virtually all traditional medicine.

Death and Afterlife. The Yuqui believe that the spirit or soul escapes through the mouth. Thus, when someone is gravely ill or at the time of impending death, the Yuqui will blow on a person or suck up his or her saliva to prevent the soul from leaving the body. The jirase is chanted as a means of warding off death, but will be continued if death occurs. Upon death, the Yuqui destroy personal items of the deceased, there is a great deal of crying, mucus streams from the nose of mourners and is wiped on their hair, and fasting by close relatives begins. Prior to missionary presence, the Yuqui wrapped the body in large palm mats and constructed a palm-frond tipi over the corpse, then the group moved on. Later, when the body had completely decomposed, perhaps the skull and a few long bones would be collected, painted red with urucú, and carried around in a small basket for a period of time to prevent sickness and supernatural harm.

With missionary instruction, the Yuqui now bury the dead, placing banana leaves above and below the corpse. Graves are unmarkedthe Yuqui do not wish to be reminded of the dead. The name of the deceased must not be mentioned. If a child is born who greatly resembles someone who has died, however, it is thought to be that person's reincarnation. Thus, the infant will receive the name of the deceased Yuqui. Grave-side prayers conducted by the missionaries and the religious leader trained by them typically accompany burial.


Holmberg, Allan (1969). Nomads of the Long Bow. Garden City, N.Y.: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

New Tribes Mission (NTM) (1955-1976). "A History of the New Tribes Mission Project to Evangelize the Yuqui Indians." Typescript.

New Tribes Mission (NTM) (n.d.). "Culture File." Typescript.

Stearman, Allyn MacLean (1984). "The Yuqui Connection: Another Look at Siriono Deculturation." American Anthropologist 86:630-650.

Stearnman, Allyn McLean (1987). "No Longer Nomads: The Siriono Revisited." Lanham, Md.: Hamilton Press.

Stearman, Allyn McLean (1989). Yuqui: Forest Nomads in a Changing World. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winson.