ETHNONYMS: Opaina, Tanimboka, Tanimuco, Tanimuka, Tanimuko, Ufaina, Yahuna, Yaúna, Yayuna

The Tanimuka Indians, several hundred in number, live along the lower Caqueta and Apaporis rivers in Amazonas, Colombia. They speak an Eastern Tukanoan language and are closely related to the neighboring Letuana and Yauna, with whom they sometimes exchange spouses.

The native peoples in this region, who escaped the decimating effects of the rubber boom, had little contact with Whites until the twentieth century. Although Jesuits established missions in the seventeenth century, Indian rebellions in the mid-eighteenth century put an end to missionary activity in the area for more than a century. Efforts at conversion to Christianity recommenced in 1914 when Catholic missionaries arrived; after World War II Protestant missionaries also attempted to convert the Tanimuka.

Most Tanimuka subsistence is gained through fishing, the production and sale of manioc, and foraging. The Tanimuka have grown dependent upon imported fishhooks, shotguns, and machetes. Today some live in the mestizo town of La Pedrera, where they work for wages and are subject to social disintegration.

The Tanimuka rely heavily on swidden horticulture and especially on the bitter manioc they raise to make manioc cakes, tapioca porridge, and beer. The soils of this region are relatively infertile, and in such soils bitter manioc is the most productive crop. Since there are no pronounced wet and dry seasons, manioc is planted in any season and harvested eight months later. Not all the manioc produced is consumed; some is processed into manioc flour for sale. A fairly wide variety of other crops is grown, some recently introduced, including sweet potatoes, bananas, plantains, squashes, pineapples, yams, mangoes, sugarcane, and a limited amount of maize. Tobacco, coca, chili peppers, and the pupunha palm appear to be traditional crops. Following a year or two of cultivation, the land must be left fallow to regenerate, but to extend the useful life of the gardens, fruit trees are planted that continue to produce for years. Women, who are responsible for growing and processing manioc, usually have several fields in different stages of production; they return to the fallow fields to gather fruit and firewood and occasionally to hunt with their dogs.

Although it provides a starch of high caloric content, the bitter manioc grown in this region is highly toxic, and it requires elaborate processing methods to remove the poisonous prussic acid. Women harvest manioc tubers every day. After being washed, the tubers are peeled and then grated on a board set with sharp flints. The mash is pounded through a tightly woven basket sieve set on a tripod; this separates out the liquid starch, which flows through and is left to dry, losing its volatile prussic acid. The thickened mash is put into a basketry squeezer, or tipiti, from which it emerges almost completely dry. It is then spread on a griddle to make flat manioc cakes or stirred and toasted into manioc flour. Fish are usually boiled with chili peppers, but may be barbecued or smoked; smoking preserves dried fish for more than a week. Coca leaves are chewed after being ground into a fine powder and mixed with leaf ash. Beer is brewed from manioc and consumed at all ceremonial and social gatherings.

Men hunt and fish, although hunting is of very limited importance to the Tanimuka. Fishing is a man's chief occupation and provides the group with most of its protein. The best seasons for fishing are the dry season, when rivers are low and the fish are confined to the deeper spots, and at the beginning of the rainy season, when the fish run upstream. Techniques include poisoning (when the water is low) and the use of bows and arrows, hand nets, and steel hooks and lines. The most successful methods of fishing, however, involve large fixed weirs requiring significant investment in construction and maintenance. Villages claim exclusive use rights over fishing spots in their traditional territory. Women also gather insects, roots, and wild fruits in season.

Settlements usually consist of a single multifamily house. The Tanimuka house has great cultural significance because its architecture is a symbolic representation of the universe. The social system based on the multifamily house persists in spite of pressure from the dominant society to break down the system and involve the native population in the regional and national economy. The house is built on a circular base 16 to 20 meters in diameter and has a conical thatched roof that rises to 20 meters at the apex. The top of the roof has two triangular openings oriented in an east-west direction. These have astronomical significance because, as the patch of sunlight that falls through the roof openings moves across the interior of the house, it serves as a sundial marking the time of day. The seasons are also marked, for as the sun moves south in summer the ray of sunlight moves toward the north wall of the house interior, and in winter toward the south. The position of the stars is also observed as they move across the roof opening. The Tanimuka use their astronomical knowledge to calculate the ceremonial and ecological cycles by which they regulate interaction with their environment.

The central area of the house interior is considered sacred and few everyday activities take place there. Surrounding the center is public space for ceremonies; the periphery is domestic space for cooking, eating, and sleeping—and burying the dead. Each family has its appointed place: the family of the house "owner" on the western side, his eldest son on the north, the next born on the south, and so on. The construction of a house may take several months owing to the time needed to assemble the materials which, besides the tree trunks for supporting posts and the roof poles, may include as many as 500 bundles of thatch. A house lasts three to five years, the average time to exhaust garden sites in the vicinity. The house is then rebuilt at a new site, usually not far from the former one.

The Tanimuka are divided into patrilineages, each descended from a named ancestor and with its own place of origin. There is a hierarchy of lineages ascribed in accordance with the origin myth. In a group of coresident brothers, hierarchy follows birth order, with the eldest the "owner of the house." Younger brothers have the roles of "singer," "defensive shaman," and "aggressive shaman." The "owner of the house" must have extensive knowledge of the local habitat and the history of his own and other groups, because such knowledge validates the territorial rights of his lineage over fishing spots, building sites, and agricultural land. Postmarital residence is patrilocal, each group of coresident married brothers constituting a "minimal lineage"; these are linked with allied groups to form "medium lineages." The "major lineage," headed by a chief, is a confederation of lineages.

Marriage is generally monogamous, but heads of communal houses may be married to several women. Although a man may marry any woman of his generation other than his sisters and bilateral parallel cousins, sister-exchange marriages are desirable, and bilateral cross cousins are preferred marriage partners.

Before contact, women wore no clothes but were painted in elaborate designs. Men wore only a bark-cloth breechclout. Festival costumes, which are still worn, include multicolored feather headdresses, animal-tooth necklaces, and bark-cloth masks representing the spirits of nature.

Besides manioc production, which occupies most of their time, women make pottery. Men build houses and canoes and make baskets, musical instruments, and most household tools.

In former times, warfare was waged for revenge and to capture women and children as slaves. Trespasses by a distant group or tribe might precipitate hostilities that could continue for generations. The preferred weapon of war was a heavy club. Dead enemy warriors were eaten at a cannibalistic feast celebrating the victory.

The Tanimuka conception of the world is reflected in the multifamily house. Thus the levels of the roof represent the six levels of the upper world, and the four center posts are the four culture heroes and/or the spirit "owners" of the four elements: air, water, forest, and earth. For the Tanimuka, the year begins with the September equinox. Ceremonies are held to chase away the sicknesses of winter and welcome the season of fertility, agriculture, and fishing. From December to February the chontaduro dances are held. More than twenty men dance for forty-eight hours, representing different animals and symbolizing dominant social tensions. At the March equinox, the Yurupari rituals are held to "cool off" the earth and human minds and to bring in the "masculine" winter season of hunting, fishing, and gathering. The Tanimuka say that plants and animals have their own houses, with "house owners" and rights of use over their territories. The Tanimuka concept is that the spirit world is structurally similar to the human one, and, through the shamans, they visit, interact, and "negotiate" with the spirits that control it. Shamans can turn themselves into the dominant predator of each habitat—a jaguar, a boa, an alligator, or a hawk—and thus can associate with their "owners."


Goldman, Irving (1958). "Tribes of the Vaupés-Caquetá Region." In Handbook of South American Indians, edited by Julian Steward. Vol. 3, The Tropical Forest Tribes, 763-798. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 143. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Hildebrand, Martin von, and Elizabeth Reichel (1987). "Indígenas del Mirití-Paraná." In Introducción a la Colombia amerindia, edited by François Correa and Ximena Pachón, 135-150. Bogotá: Instituto Colombiano de Antropología (ICAN).

Koch-Grünberg, Theodor (1909-1910). Zwei Jahre unter den Indianern: Reisen in Nordwest-Brasilien, 1903-1905. 2 vols. Berlin: E. Wasmuth.

Reichel Dussán, Elizabeth (1987). "Etnografía de los grupos indígenas contemporáneos." In Colombia amazónica, edited by Benjamín Villegas Jiménez, 237-273. Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia; Fondo FEN Colombia.

Telban, Blaz (1988). Grupos étnicos de Colombia: Etnografía y bibliografía. Quito: Ediciones ABYA-YALA.


User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: