ETHNONYMS: Cuipoco, Deja, Dzase, Dzaze, Enagua, Piadoco, Piapóko, Tsase, Yapaco
The 3,640 Piapoco live in the region of the Meta, Guaviare, and Vichada rivers of the Llanos Orientales of Colombia and also on the Venezuelan side of the border. They were originally concentrated on the midsection of the Río Guaviare (3° N, 70° W). They dispersed in the eighteenth century to escape Jesuit missionaries and later to avoid rubber tappers, settlers, and cattle ranchers.
Approximately 3,000 speak Piapoco, a language of the Arawakan Family, although most of these also speak Spanish.
Like other peoples of the Llanos, the Piapoco plant their crops in fields cleared from the gallery forest. They plant in March—at the beginning of the rainy season—and may plant a second crop in August. They traditionally observed the constellations of Orion and the Pleiades to regulate the agricultural cycle. Manioc, both bitter and sweet, is by far the most important staple food. The Piapoco grow many different varieties, interplanting up to a dozen in a field, to assure a long harvest period. A new manioc field begins to yield eight months after planting, and, because each family has several fields in different stages of production, manioc is always available. Women process the tubers to make manioc cakes and tapioca, and an additional manioc field is often planted to assure a supply to make manioc beer.
Although the Piapoco also grow maize, it is less important than manioc. They plant bananas in low or humid areas. Pineapples, beans, sweet potatoes, and yams are grown in small extensions of the manioc fields. Citrus fruit trees, mangoes, papayas, and medicinal herbs are planted near the homestead.
Native groups of the Llanos, even those who were expert horticulturists like the Piapoco, depended greatly on hunting, fishing, and gathering, especially in the dry season. Using gorget hooks and lines, poisoning, traps, nets, and bows and arrows, the Piapoco made good use of the many rivers and streams in their territory. They also collected wild fruits, honey, insects, and reptiles. Palm fruits and palm cabbage were especially important; the buriti palm supplied fiber for textiles and cordage. Hunting was practiced with bows and arrows, dogs, and drives, although it was common for men to hunt alone or in pairs. Deer, monkeys, and peccaries were the favored game animals, but virtually all species were hunted.
In precontact times, Piapoco fields were probably smaller than they are today. Using stone axes, men working in groups girdled trees to kill them, waited for them to dry, and then burned them. Probably because food-production technology was not particularly efficient, Piapoco villages tended to be well under 200 inhabitants in size.
Among the Piapoco, family organization is based on the authority of the father-in-law. Postmarital residence is matrilocal, and a young man works for his father-in-law for a number of years, although as the young family grows he usually builds a separate house in the vicinity. Kin terminology divides the tribe into two groups from the viewpoint of each individual: "the group one belongs to" (siblings, parents, and father's brothers and mother's sisters and their children) and "the group one marries into" (father's sister and mother's brother and their children). The Piapoco have totemic clans, and the clan system is more inclusive than the tribe; for example, a member of the Tapir clan may be Piapoco, Sikuani (Guahibo), or Achagua. The Piapoco often intermarry with these tribes.
Among the Piapoco, adult men and older women may become shamans after a period of apprenticeship that includes fasting and taking hallucinogenic drugs. During training, the Piapoco shaman develops a special organ in his or her throat that allows him or her to grasp and spit out the agents of disease—small particles that are sucked from the body of the patient. Drugs and paraphernalia used in rituals, as well as shamanic knowledge, are exchanged within and between groups.
At the time of the European Conquest, the larger river valleys of the Llanos were occupied by horticultural peoples, but in the interfluvial regions groups depended more on hunting and gathering. There was active trade in products of different ecological zones among these groups, using the medium of shell money. In colonial times, trade was expanded to include iron tools and other European products. The more powerful groups sold war captives as slaves to the Europeans. The slave trade and epidemics among populations concentrated at missions led to the collapse of the vast network of trade and intertribal marriage that supported the socioeconomic system of the Llanos.
In more recent times, cattle ranching and the migration of peasants from the Andes have increased pressure on the land. Most Piapoco today work as hunters, subsistence swidden horticulturists, or laborers.
Cardozo, Lubio (1968). Cuentas indígenas venezolanos. Mérida, Venezuela: Universidad de las Andes, Centro de Investigaciones Literarias.
Crevaux, Jules Nicolas (1883). Voyages dans l'Amérique du Sud. Paris.
Dussan, Elizabeth Reichel (1987). "Etnografía de los grupos indígenas contemporáneos." In Colombia amazònica, edited by Giraldo Samper, 237-273. Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia; Fondo FEN Colombia.
Ministerio de Gobierno (1979). Aspetos de la cultura material de los grupos étnicos de Colombia. Bogotá: Ministerio de Gobierno de Colombia.
NANCY M. FLOWERS