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ETHNONYMS: Callagaes, Frentones, L'añagashik, Ntocoit, Qom, Qoml'ek, Qompi, Suris or Juríes, Takshik


Identification. "Toba" is probably the Guaraní translation of the name "Frentones" (Large-browed people), which is found in colonial sources. It refers to the Toba custom of shaving their foreheads. The Toba call themselves "Qom," indicating a special meaning of the ethnic "we." In general, it refers to native villages linked together in opposition to the Whites, who are called "Doqshi."

Location. In precontact times the Toba lived between the Pilcomayo and Bermejo rivers in an eastern and a western area. Nowadays these two groups continue to exist, but there are additional important contingents of Toba in the east-central areas of Chaco Province in El Cerrito (Paraguay), in several enclaves of southeastern Bolivia, and in migrant settlements in Argentina, in the cities of Santa Fe, Rosario (province of Santa Fe), and Buenos Aires. The Chaco, the area where the main Toba settlements are located, is a level and depressed plain with a decrease in relief from northwest to southeast. The climate is dry, especially in the west, and very hot. Annual average precipitation is 60 centimeters in the west and 120 centimeters in the east. Summer temperatures fluctuate between 35° C and 40° C. In winter, freezing weather is common.

Demography. In 1987 around 20,000 Toba lived in Chaco Province, whereas in Formosa Province, Argentina, the Toba population numbered around 6,000. Contingents that migrated to Rosario and Buenos Aires totaled around 3,000 individuals.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Toba language belongs to the Guaycurú Family. Existing dialectical variants have not been described as yet.

History and Cultural Relations

At the time of the arrival of the Spaniards in the latter part of the sixteenth century, the Chaco was inhabited by the Toba and the linguistically related Pilagá, Mocoví, and Abipon, as well as by the Mataco and Vilela (later called Chunupí). Traditionally there was animosity among the Toba, Mocoví, and Abipon, although they later formed alliances for the purpose of attacking Spanish settlements. It took the Spaniards more than 300 years to conquer and colonize this region. Initially, they may not have been sufficiently interested in the forests and the semitropical swamps of the Chaco except as a means of access to the treasures of gold and silver that were purported to exist toward the northwest (the mythical city of the Césares, for example.) Thus, the Spaniards tried to consolidate roads rather than to dominate the territory. Also, once the Indians of the Chaco had begun to use horses it became very difficult to conquer them by force of arms. Projects were initiated in Tucumán, as well as in Asuncón and Corrientes, to establish encomiendas and cities, but there was no actual occupation of the Chaco until the end of the nineteenth century. The Jesuits, until their expulsion in 1767, founded some reductions as part of a program to contain and civilize the Chaco Indians. These, especially the Mocoví, Abipon, and Toba, conducted surprise attacks to steal goods (livestock, arms, and captives) from the cattle ranches and the villages of Santa Fe and Buenos Aires.

Beginning in 1870 the military tried to consolidate the Chaco territory and bring it under the control of the national government. This resulted in repeated fighting with the Toba and the Mocoví. After General Victorica's expedition in 1884, however, the Indians did not renew their armed struggle. Around that time settlers, lumber mills, and cattle ranching were introduced in Toba territory. The mills at Salta, Tucumán, Jujuy, and Chaco attracted the natives as temporary wage earners and brought about significant seasonal migration. The cities of Formosa and Resistencia were founded and became points of attraction for White settlers. Cotton became the monoculture that determined the area's economy, and the Toba and the Movocí came to be an exceptional labor force.

Agricultural economic activity, the pressures brought to bear by ranchers and provincial authorities, and hostility among the Toba and the Mocoví triggered confrontations with the police in Napalpí in 1924. The friction was caused by attempts to force the natives to work in settlements where they had been congregated in reductions, obliging them to refrain from roaming freely about the province. In 1947 in Las Lomitas (Formosa), Toba, and Pilagá natives faced off with the police when they congregated to join the indigenous leader of a nativistic religious movement. Furthermore, the Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia in 1933 modified the geopolitical map of the area. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Anglican influence made itself felt in the northwestern part of Formosa and on the Saltenian side of the Pilcomayo. Franciscan missionaries arrived at the beginning of the twentieth century and founded missions in the eastern part of Formosa. The sedentary and secular influences of these missions are evident in many of the settlements that have persisted, for example at the La Paz Mission (Anglican) and the Tacaaglé and Laishí missions (Franciscan). The wave of evangelical missions of the 1940s was a key factor in the appearance of syncretic indigenous religious organizations, like the Toba United Evangelical Church, which was organized at the beginning of 1960 in Chaco Province.


In pre-Conquest times, bands settled near river courses in dry areas. Extended families of between thirty and eighty individuals were grouped together. They owned a predetermined territory over which they migrated in order to avoid overexploitation. Nowadays Toba settlements are divided into rural and periurban. The former are areas of fiscal landsome with titles of communal propertywhere each extended family occupies a piece of land by general consensus. The dwellings are similar to the ranches of neighboring Whites, with thatched roofs and walls of adobe and wood. There are also houses with zinc roofs and brick walls. Usually there is one room or, at the most, two. Dwellings are quite some distance from one another, surrounded by each family's fields. Periurban settlements can consist of groups of cheap living quarters made of zinc and brick, or else look like typical shanty towns that spring up in large coastal cities like Rosario and Buenos Aires. Houses are built from any available material, and there is no special spatial arrangement or agricultural exploitation except for some domestic horticulture.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Toba were hunters and gatherers. Through Western influence they adopted agriculture, raising, for example, manioc, sweet potatoes, pigeon peas, watermelons, and cotton. The most desirable game animals were rheas, wild boars, and deer, among others. The Toba collected honey and berries and the fruit of various trees, especially the carob and the jujube. Once introduced between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the horse became a prized commodity both for use and trade. Contemporary economic activities combine farming with hunting and gathering, rural manual labor, and jobs related to the provincial bureaucracies. In periurban zones Toba work in handicrafts or occasionally as porters.

Industrial Arts. The Toba traditionally made baskets, bags, leather objects, and pottery. Nowadays they make items of unfired clay that they decorate with artificial dyes. Such pieces include representations of animals, objects of Western domestic use, and masks. The decorations include motifs that are reminiscent of the archaeological art of northwestern Argentina. In some areas such as El Colchón (Chaco), the wood of the carob tree is utilized for carpentry and the furniture is sold in large cities. Handicrafts are traded either directly or indirectly in towns of the Chaco or in tourist shops in Resistencia, Formosa, and Buenos Aires; cooperatives have been set up for this purpose. Rhea feathers are usually sold directly to non-Indian neighbors, although the Toba also use them to make fans.

Trade. In pre-Hispanic times there was trade with tribes from the Amazon and the Chaco. Today the sale of iguana, alligator, and armadillo skins is a source of income for many natives in rural areas.

Division of Labor. Formerly, men hunted, fished, warred, and built houses. Women gathered wild fruit, searched for firewood, prepared the food, and took care of the children. They also did work in basketry and pottery. Medicinal practices were generally, but not exclusively, carried out by men. Beginning with the latter part of the nineteenth century, women were incorporated into the rural manual labor force. Leaders of the indigenous churches are usually men even though there are women pastors. Positions in the provincial bureaucracy are mostly monopolized by men.

Land Tenure. Each band used to have the right of occupation and usufruct of the entire territory through which it roamed. With the rise of sedentary communties, land rights were modified. Each extended family owns land that is prorated on the basis of a communal agreement. When new members are born into the band and later need a plot of land, the old terrain is subdivided. Laws regarding indigenous affairs voted on by the legislatures of Formosa (Law 426 in 1985) and Chaco (Law 3,258 in 1987) established the legal right of native claims on lands that they had occupied from time immemorial. However, this process of legal recognition has not yet been satisfactorily completed.


Kin Groups and Descent. The basic kinship unit was the extended family, the aggregate of which formed the local band. Groups of bands made up tribes (parcialidades ), which were sometimes known by particular names such as L'añagashik ("people from terra firma") or Takshik ("people from the southeast, from below, from the east"). Band exogamy and tribal endogamy prevailed. Bands observed rules of bilateral descent and were organized into matridemes.

Kinship Terminology. Toba kinship terminology is of the Hawaiian type for Ego's generation and lineal for the first ascending and first descending generations. There is a special terminology for mourning.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Norms regarding marriage are lax; it is an uxorilocal system in which the men circulate. The marriage ceremony formerly implied that the bride's parents accepted the groom. A festive meeting sealed the union, and for a period of time the new couple lived in the home of the bride's father. Tribal endogamy gives way nowadays to marriages between individuals from different tribes and even to unions between Toba women and White men. Marriages are usually monogamous but there is an institutionalized practice of using small packets of love magic, called iyagaik, which facilitate the formation of temporary alliances. Both sororate and levirate are observed to this day. There is a tendency toward neolocal residence. When a couple divorces, the extended family usually takes charge of raising and educating the children.

Domestic Unit. Until the middle of the twentieth century the basic domestic unit was the extended family. Since then however, as a consequence of new forms of land tenure and the reorganization of social relations, there has been a process of nuclearization.

Inheritance. There are no rigid norms regarding inheritance. Inheritable items are limited to objects of daily use, livestock, and the area of agricultural exploitation belonging to the extended family. Property is usually communal, even though there are individuals who live in villages and cities outside of their original communities.

Socialization. Education is provided by the parents and extended kin and is permissive and nonauthoritarian. Children learn rules of behavior through imitation, play, and the advice of adults, as standardized in oral tradition. Solidarity and sharing of goods are emphasized, whereas hoarding and egotism are detested. Provincial primary schools integrate a large number of native students, where they are taught the norms of White socialization and the written codes of cultural transmission. There are some cases in which schools tend to use an intercultural and bilingual approach, but these are still in an initial phase. It is almost always difficult to make values and norms of the house compatible with those that children are taught in school.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Until the campaigns of military conquest of the 1980s, the Toba had a system of political alliances that formed a confederation of tribes in the event of war. It was led by one or more chiefs of renown. In times of peace these structures were subsumed, and there was a return to traditional horizontalism. Leadership was based on the adscription to a parental line of leaders and the possession of power from a supernatural being. This power conferred knowledge relevant to finding sources of food and anticipating hostilities. Chieftainship was a male prerogative and in some cases could be assumed by a council of elderly men. Today, besides focusing on intracommunal decisions, leaders must enter into negotiations with the nonindigenous society. Knowledge of Spanish and familiarity with bureaucracy are indispensable. Consensus is still the norm for collective decision makingleaders articulate the general opinion. The roles of priests in indigenous churches take on a relevant political dimension, and in general one can observe a process of superpositioning of functions. Just as shamans were formerly required to possess supernatural power, today's leaders find this power in their relationship with the Christian God. In the area of the Chaco there are provincial administrative bodies in charge of indigenous affairs: in Formosa, the Instituto de Comunidades Aborígenes (Institute of Native Communities) and in Chaco the Instituto del Aborigen Chaqueño (Institute of the Chaco Indians). These organs represent the ethnic groups inhabiting these provinces and articulate the community's interests in government projects that concern indigenous groups.

Social Control. Ridiculing egotistical conduct acts as a means of preserving social and economic egalitarianism. Interpersonal tensions express themselves dramatically in the actions of shamans and sorcerers. In some cases, an individual accused of murder through sorcery is ostracized from the community. Indians tend to recur to the police to put a stop to the activities of shamans and sorcerers, something that causes astonishment and incomprehension on the part of the forces of law and order.

Conflict. Contact with White settlers produced great changes in the ecology of the Chaco and in indigenous societies. Regional systems of production, schools, provincial administrative bodies, and military service force the Toba to find viable responses to preserve their collective identity: new leaders, indigenous churches, interethnic marriages, and migration to the cities. Migration, which intensified with the economic crisis of the Chaco of the 1950s, took the form of a modified nomadism that occurs in the context of an extremely hostile coastal urban environment. Interethnic friction seems to be neutralized by syncretic religious ideology, which on a representational level, nullifies or dissembles the distinction between Qom and Doqshi. In settlements around cities there is an ongoing loss of ethnic identity, of language, and of rules of social Organization, which leads to a fusion with the lowest urban socioeconomic level.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Indigenous religion is animistic. Nonhuman or supernatural beings govern all existence. Formerly, there was a close link between humans and these beings. Any change in the natural or human condition was because of difficulties in this relationship and was generally the mistake of humans. The power of supernatural beings is ambivalent and their present-day interpretation has been influenced by Christianity. They are now identified with demoniacal powers as opposed to the benevolent nature of the Christian God and other supernatural personages of Christian origin. The universe is a structure of various superimposed levels. Three main levels are differentiated: the sky (with various skies on top), the earth, and the deep. Specific supernatural beings live on each level, dominating empirical phenomena and all living beings. There was no belief in a Supreme Being, although there are indications of the preeminence of a Uranian deity who was lord of the entire world. The world was not created, but preexisted, and its present form was produced by a series of acts by powerful mythical beings, like Caracara and Fox, and catastrophes of fire and water. Time is cyclical, and conflagrations are believed to return to renew the world, mainly by fire and water.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans (pi'ogonaq ) were the main traditional intermediaries between humans and the supernatural. They were endowed with various degrees of power, depending on the kind of supernatural being with whom they maintained a relationship. Shamans continue to practice their art, although pastors of indigenous churches have encroached on the shaman's role.

Ceremonies. The ritual cycle used to be governed by the seasons and the daily cycle. The carob festival coincided with the ripening of the fruit, between November and December, and brought together several bands. Intoxicating drinks made from carob fruit were imbibed, and the ritual was of profound meaning with regard to the cyclical renovation of nature. In winter, collective prayers were directed to the Pleiades to assure an abundance of food and animal offspring. Male and female initiation rites were of consequence. Men were scarified with needles made from the bones of fierce and courageous animals. Women were temporarily confined to fast or keep to a strictly vegetarian diet. A general feast indicated the end of the ceremony. Presently the cult of indigenous churches is the ritual focus of Toba life. Prayer, curing, and political practice are synthesized. Within the ritual calendar, the main ceremonies are of Western origin: the Eucharist, birthdays, Christmas, and the New Year.

Arts. Until the middle of the twentieth century, there was much music making among the Toba on instruments such as the one-stringed violin, Jew's harp, reed flute, gourd rattle, and drum. These were played solo or accompanied by song. Nowadays the Toba use guitars and bass drums, especially when conducting rituals of the indigenous church. Of the old instruments, one can occasionally still hear the violin, the Jew's harp, and the flute. Games using string figures continue to be played and reflect an important artistic ability of the Toba to represent social and environmental realities.

Medicine . Illness is believed to be caused by humans or by supernatural beings who send out invisible agents that penetrate the body. In instances of the first kind, shamans cause illness by dispatching their auxiliary spirits. Male or female sorcerers can also cause illness by manipulating objects or bodily secretions of their victims. In the second sort, illness is caused by failure to observe food and/or sexual taboos. Transgressions of this kind provoke the masters of animal species or natural phenomena that have been compromised by these actions to send out their spiritual agents and cause harm. Shamanic therapy includes prayer, chanting, blowing, sucking, and sometimes dancing. Shamans diagnose the illness and extract it from the patient. In cases of sorcery, it is possible to learn the identity of the pathogen through revelations received by the victims before they die. Shamanic therapy cures illness caused by the master spirits.

Death and Afterlife. Death is considered unnatural and the result of actions by humans or nonhuman beings that cause illness in people. The dead are feared because they belong to the nonhuman realm. The soul-image of the deceased lives in a world located in the west, similar to the world of the living except that its cycles are reversed. That is why soul-images can return when the living are asleep.

When a person dies, his or her possessions are burned, including the house. Relatives of the deceased will construct a new house nearby. This destruction of personal property is intended to keep the dead from recognizing their homes when they come back at night. Formerly placed on an elevated platform, the dead are now buried in community cemeteries. Care is taken to orient the head of the corpse toward the west, for this is the side that belongs to the dead.


Braunstein, José A. (1983). "Algunos rasgos de la organización social de los indígenas del Gran Chaco." Trabajos de Etnología (Universidad de Buenos Aires, Instituto de Ciencias Antropólogicas) 2.

Cordeu, Edgardo J. (1969-1970). "Aproximación al horizonte mítico de los tobas." Runa 12:67-176.

Mendoza, Marcela, and Pablo G. Wright (1989). "Sociocultural and Economic Elements of the Adaptation Systems of the Argentine Toba: The Ñachilamolek and Takshek Cases of Formosa Province." In Archaeological Approaches to Cultural Identity, edited by Stephen J. Shennan, 242-257. London: Unwin Hyman.

Miller, Elmer S. (1979). Los tobas argentinos: Armonía y disonancia en una sociedad. Mexico City: Siglo XXI Editores.

Wilbert, Johannes, and Karin Simoneau, eds. (19821989). Folic Literature of the Toba Indians. 2 vols. Los Angeles: University of California, Latin American Center.

PABLO G. WRIGHT (Translated by Ruth Gubler)