ETHNONYMS: Chimere, Chimero, Saliba, Saliua

The 2,000 Saliva people today live primarily in the department of Meta and in the territories of Vichada, Guianía and Vaupés in Colombia; a small population also lives in southwestern Venezuela, near the Colombian border. Many of those living in Colombia are on government reservations. About 500 Saliva live in several small settlements near Orocué on the upper Rio Meta.

Before the nineteenth century the Saliva lived along the middle reaches of the Orinoco. Little is known about their history before the expansion of Jesuit missions along the Orinoco in the late seventeenth century. The Saliva were settled in a number of missions at this time, but they suffered greatly from epidemics and Carib slave raids. The Jesuits found the Saliva to be a docile group that willingly accepted settlement in the missions, perhaps seeking protection from the warlike Caribs with whom the Saliva maintained an ambiguous relationship—they traded with them and even intermarried, although they were often the victims of Carib raids. At the end of the seventeenth century, some of the Saliva left the missions and migrated to the upper Meta region. In the eighteenth century the Jesuits attracted most of these to the missions they founded in the new Saliva territory. A new wave of epidemics hit the Orinoco area in the 1750s, which, more than the force of government arms, put an end to Carib raiding but decimated all native populations. At the time of the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767, few Saliva remained, and these lived in two missions, one on the Orinoco and one on the upper Meta. The Saliva were well known for their allegiance to the church and for their skill, taught them by the Jesuits, at playing instrumental music. With the decline of the missions in the nineteenth century, the Saliva returned to seminomadic life, settling among other groups of the region.

The Saliva habitat is the Llanos, a vast savanna region of eastern Colombia and western Venezuela. There are pronounced wet and dry seasons; in the rainy season the plains are flooded. Early observers reported an abundance of game as well as fish and amphibians.

The Saliva were primarily an agricultural people, among the most diligent of the region. They preferred to settle along minor watercourses where water was available, and the gallery forests provided the best agricultural land. Originally they lived in large communal houses, but later, as Carib raids increased, dwellings were dispersed to facilitate flight.

The Saliva grew maize, sweet and bitter manioc, and a number of different fruits, especially pineapples and papayas. They probably grew such introduced crops as sugarcane and rice since early colonial times. Chili peppers were their preferred condiment. Among nonfood crops were tobacco, cotton, carguate (a kind of agave) for fiber, gourds, and various dye plants. Fields were cleared in the gallery forest, generally by male work groups. For better drainage, manioc was planted in raised mounds; other crops were simply planted among the charred tree trunks and stumps. Except for clearing and burning, women did most of the agricultural work. The Saliva did little weeding; when a field became choked with weeds, they abandoned it and opened a new one.

Hunting and fishing were important secondary activities. Game included deer, peccaries, tapir, armadillos, anteaters, tortoises, and iguanas. Iguanas were a favorite food, and so abundant it was reported that hundreds could be captured in a single hour. The Saliva fished the rivers and, in the rainy season, flooded areas of the savanna. Many different fishing techniques were used; one of the most ingenious was for catching fruit-eating fish. Two fishermen would cooperate, one dropping a piece of fruit into the water. When a fish rose to the bait, the other fisherman was ready with bow and arrow.

Collecting turtle eggs was an important seasonal activity, as hundreds of thousands of turtles laid their eggs on the beaches of the Orinoco and its tributaries. The Saliva extracted oil from the eggs that they used in cooking, as a base for body paint, and as an article of trade.

Women spun cotton and used a primitive loom. Basketry was the exclusive work of men, whereas only women made pottery. Women also processed manioc tubers and made manioc bread. The Saliva were expert makers of dugout canoes, and some were large enough to carry ten or twelve people.

There is very little information about traditional Saliva social Organization. The earliest reports come from eighteenth-century Jesuit missionaries when Saliva society had already been altered by mission life. Communities were probably independent, and local headmen gained their position through a combination of personal qualities and patrilineal descent. Polygyny was common and divorce frequent. There is ample evidence that the Saliva often intermarried with the Achagua and with Carib groups. The Saliva practiced the couvade, which imposed a period of inactivity and fasting on both parents of a newborn child. Young men were frequently submitted to flagellation rituals, perhaps as part of an initiation ceremony. Funerals were elaborate, and secondary burial was practiced.

The Saliva made a favorable impression on early European observers as a clean, peaceful, and hardworking people. The men were found to be somewhat effeminate and vain of their appearance, and the women spent a great deal of time grooming and applying body paint to their husbands and other male family members. On ceremonial occasions both sexes wore necklaces and pendants of animal teeth and shell money obtained through trade. The Saliva participated actively in the trade networks of the Llanos, even after contact. They manufactured manioc graters and made paints and dyes for body decoration, specifically for trade.

Little is known about Saliva cosmology. Puru was the creator, living in heaven with his son. When a great serpent devastated the Orinoco region, Puru sent his son to kill it. From the serpent's decomposed body emerged worms, which turned into the feared and hated Carib peoples. The sun, moon, and stars were also supernatural beings. Shamans were the religious specialists who fasted and used hallucinogenic drugs to make contact with the spirits.

The Saliva who now live near Orocué are survivors of the missions of that region. They are subsistence farmers, selling their surplus crops to buy necessities. They keep chickens and pigs and occasionally a few head of cattle. Neighborhoods are formed of two to a dozen homesteads. Men often work as wage laborers on surrounding farms and ranches. At present, their lands are under pressure from settlers.

Modern Saliva are nominal Christians, but their religious beliefs and practices are an amalgam of Catholicism and the native system. They practice trial marriage: a young couple first lives with the wife's family and only if the trial is concluded successfully (usually with the birth of a child) do they have a church marriage and form an independent household. The shaman is still the principal religious specialist, and Saliva shamans are renowned for their knowledge of medicinal herbs.

Over 300 years of contact the Saliva have maintained their ethnic and cultural identity. Most are bilingual in Saliva and Spanish, using their own language in daily life and speaking Spanish only to outsiders.


Elis de Walter, Leah B., and Linda Criswell, eds. (1984). Estudiemos las culturas indígenas de Colombia . Loma Linda: Editorial Townsend.

Morey, Nancy (1975). "Ethnohistory of the Colombian and Venezuelan Llanos." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Utah.

Morey, Nancy, and Robert V. Morey (1980). "Los sáliva." In Etnología contemporanéa. Vol. 1, edited by Audrey Butt Colson, 245-306. Los aborígenes de Venezuela, edited by Walter Coppens and Bernarda Escalante. Monograph no. 29. Caracas: Fundación La Salle de Ciencas Naturales, Instituto Caribe de Antropología y Sociología.

Morey, Robert V. (1972). "Notes on the Saliva of Eastern Colombia." Current Anthropology 13:144-147.


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