ETHNONYMS: Chikito, Churapa, Cikitano, Manasi, Paica, Paumuca, Penoquiquia, Piñoca, Tamacoci, Tao, Tarapecosi, Zúbaca

The Chiquitano live in the eastern portion of the department of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, primarily in the provinces of Velasco, Ñuflo de Chávez, Chiquitos, and Sandoval. Some live across the border in Brazil as well. This is an ecologically transitional zone between the arid plains of the Chaco and the tropical forest.

Estimates of the Chiquitano population range from 15,000 to 45,000. They are divided into the following subgroups: Chirrapa, Paunaca, Napeca, Kitemoca, and Moncoca. The Chiquitano language is unclassified with respect to language family.

The Chiquitano were first contacted in 1542 by Domingo Martínez de Irala, and by 1560 had been defeated by Ñuflo de Chávez. There were attempts to concentrate them in missions at this time, but by the end of the sixteenth century many had fled these missions and were raiding Spanish settlements. It was only after 1692, when the Jesuits founded the first mission in Chiquitano territory, that the Chiquitano went through radical social and economic changes. In the following years the Jesuits built ten missions, and by 1767, when the Jesuits were expelled, there were 37,000 Indians in these missions, of whom 23,780 were baptized. Different tribes were mixed in the missions, but because the Chiquitano were in the majority, the Jesuits used Chiquitano as the language of conversion, and it became the lingua franca in which the missionaries preached and into which they translated religious texts. Following the model of the reducciones of Paraguay, the Jesuits imposed a strict regime of work and prayer on the Indians, while they protected them from slavers who, by the end of the seventeenth century, were crossing the border from Brazil. Trained and led by the Jesuits, the Indians of the missions were able to resist many of these raids.

After the Jesuits were forced to leave, the missions became towns controlled by mestizos exploiting the labor of the Chiquitano who had become accustomed under the missionaries to disciplined work and economic dependency. The mestizos controlled the land and established farms and cattle ranches on which the Chiquitano lived and worked. Some Chiquitano abandoned the mission towns, however, and founded independent villages where many still live as subsistence farmers.

Beginning in the 1880s, rubber traders took thousands of Chiquitano north to tap rubber in the tropical forests under conditions of forced labor. By 1945, many who were trapped into debt peonage from which they could not escape had died from malaria, beriberi, overwork, and abuse. From 1945 to 1955 many of the Chiquitano were recruited to build the railway line from Santa Cruz to Corumbá in Brazil, and some still work on the railway. For this reason, the Chiquitano who live in the province of Chiquitos, where the railway runs, are the most assimilated.

Once largely dependent on foraging, the Chiquitano are now subsistence swidden horticulturists, wage laborers, and domestic servants. Those who live in all-Chiquitano villages and engage in subsistence horticulture (and who sell ocelot skins, rice, chickens, eggs, pigs, and hammocks) are far better off materially than those who work tapping rubber or as farm or cattle-ranch laborers. They still gather wild fruits and honey, but hunting is no longer important because most of the land is fenced for farms or cattle ranches, and the game has largely disappeared.

Traditionally, the Chiquitano raised sweet manioc, which was their staple crop, as well as maize, bitter manioc, peanuts, gourds, pumpkins, pineapples, and tobacco. They adopted rice and cacao from Whites. They used wooden digging sticks to till the soil. The hunting and fishing season began after the harvest and ended in August when work on the fields began.

The Chiquitano lived in small beehive-shaped huts that had very low doorways to restrict mosquito entrance; men slept on cotton hammocks, and women slept on the floor on mats or branches. Young men lived in special men's huts.

The Chiquitano used thorny hedges and poisoned caltrops to protect their villages. They also used palisades to defend themselves against the Spanish. The Chiquitano fought with bows and poisoned arrows and clubs, and they integrated prisoners into their society.

Chiefs were strong warriors who were counseled by older men. The Chiquitano practiced sororal polygyny, and chiefs were obliged to marry more than one wife because they had to have help to give the great feasts that the people expected of them.

Men who wished to marry had to prove that they could hunt well. Husbands could give their wives to other men. When a child was born, the father observed the couvade, and hunting certain animals was tabooed. A woman did not resume sexual relations until after her child was weaned. The dead were buried with their food and weapons, and widows remarried.

Present-day Chiquitano villages are, to a great extent, self-governing communities. Each one has a chief and a council elected by the villagers for a term of three to five years. Those elected are often younger men, chosen for their ability to speak Spanish and deal with outsiders; however, they have little authority in village affairs. Chiquitano society is organized into sibs distinguished by having the same family name. Each sib is headed by its oldest member, whose authority is limited to the sib. Each coresident extended family also has a recognized head. When a young man marries, he moves into his wife's household and works for his father-in-law. Later the young couple may set up an independent household, but the relationship with the wife's family continues to be close. In broad terms, this political organization is that which prevailed under the Jesuits, with the outside civil authorities taking the place of the missionary fathers.

Labor exchange is an important element in community life. Work parties participate in building houses, clearing fields, and harvesting. The beneficiary of collective labor has the obligation to reciprocate when asked. Hosting a festival, which involves providing food and drink to the whole community, gives great prestige to the host family but functions as a leveling mechanism since it involves a great deal of expense. In their villages the Chiquitano hold religious processions and venerate the Catholic saints. The Catholicism practiced by the Chiquitano, however, is basically that which they acquired over 200 years ago from the Jesuits, modified by syncretism with their ancient religion. The Chiquitano memorized the religious texts that the Jesuits translated into their language and have transmitted them orally down to the present. In one folk tale, the Virgin Mary, with the infant Jesus, is fleeing from her enemies when she comes upon a Chiquitano village where the harvest has failed and the people are hungry. When they appeal to her for help, she takes from her robes a kernel of maize and plants it in the earth, where it grows miraculously to feed the people. Thus the Virgin becomes the culture hero who teaches the people to grow maize.

Shamans are powerful and respected figures who exercise a great deal of social control in Chiquitano society. The same individual may be regarded as a curing shaman by the members of his own sib or faction and as an evil sorcerer by members of opposing factions. Shamans derive their power by contact with spirits representing the forces of nature, demonstrating the continued strength of ancient beliefs. Both men and women can become shamans. For the Chiquitano, there are no natural causes of illness; rather it is brought about by the malevolence of a sorcerer who can make himself invisible or take on the form of an animal like a snake or a jaguar. Shamans have a great deal of empirical medical knowledge. They are experts in the use of medicinal herbs and management of childbirth. The most powerful method of curing is sucking from the patient's body the "cause of illness"—bits of bamboo, pebbles, ants, frogs, small snakes, or other noxious matter that the sorcerer has placed there.

According to Chiquitano belief, each element of nature has a master. There is a master of the waters, a master of the mountains, a master of the plains, and a master of the forest. When a man goes fishing to assure success he must make an offering of tobacco leaves to the master of the waters. The Chiquitano interpret the lunar eclipse as the pursuit of the moon, which they also call "our mother," by peccaries. To frighten away the peccaries, they fire shot-guns and release arrows into the air, otherwise the moon might be devoured. There is also a master of the animals who rides through the forest on the back of a tapir. He looks after the well-being of all the animals and attends to their souls when they die. The master of animals becomes angry if the hunter kills more animals than he needs to feed his family. The Chiquitano believe that if they take more than immediate necessity requires, the master of animals will send them no more game.

The Chiquitano, in spite of their long experience of contact with Bolivian mestizo society, resist assimilation and up to the present have preserved a strong ethnic identity.


Métraux, Alfred (1942). The Native Tribes of Eastern Bolivia and Western Mato Grosso. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 134. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Orbigny, Alcide Dessalines d' (1835-1847). Voyage dans l' Amérique méridionale. Paris.

Riester, Jürgen (1972). Indians of Eastern Bolivia: Aspects of Their Present Situation. Copenhagen: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA).

Riester, Jürgen (1976). En busca de la Loma Santa. La Paz: Editorial Los Amigos del Libro.


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