ETHNONYMS: Covari, Luna, Manare, Tame, Tunevo, Uua, U'wa

The approximately 2,700 Tunebo live in the forests of the eastern slopes and plains of the Andes in northeastern Colombia (7° N, 72° W). Their various regional groups speak dialects of a common Chibchan language (Uw'aka; lit., "people's soul") and refer to themselves as U'wa, "people." In addition to a small group of some 60 individuals on the Angostura reservation there exist three regional groups of Tunebo. The Eastern Tunebo (Barro Negro) live on the edge of the eastern plains in the Andes foothills above Paz de Ariporo, in Barro Negro, San Lope, and Tabías, south of Tame; they number about 400 individuals. The Central Tunebo (Cobaría), comprised of approximately 1,500 individuals, inhabit the northern slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Cocuy of the Boyacá and Arauca regions, with settlements in Satocá, Calafita, Tegría, and Cobaría. There is also a small group of Central Tunebo at San Camilo, Venezuela. The Western Tunebo (Agua Blanca) live in Santander and number about 700 persons.

Much of the early postcontact history of the Tunebo consists of repeated relocations to avoid the turbulence of the colonial era. Sustained missionary activities began in 1910, and Colombian settlers have been penetrating into Tunebo territory in increasing numbers. The Summer Institute of Linguistics has been in permanent contact with Tunebo subgroups since 1961, and evangelical Protestants began proselytizing in more recent decades. Throughout this time of contact, Tunebo culture has been strongly affected by Western ways, yet despite increasing missionary influence and ever-intensifying pressures to acculturate, the Tunebo continue to cling to their aboriginal culture, including their language.

Traditional Tunebo dwellings are of two kinds: large elliptical communal houses with thatched roofs extending to the ground and small semielliptical single-family houses with thatched roofs extending to the ground on both sides and in the rounded rear. The upper part of the flat facade consists of thatch; the lower part is a wall of vertically placed palm stems. A third type, a small rectangular gabled dwelling with a thatched roof and walls of stakes set in the ground, mimics in style the houses of non-Indian settlers except that its roof overhangs the side walls to protect them from the rain. The elliptical communal dwellings are ceremonial men's houses, the semielliptical houses shelter the women and the children, and the rectangular dwellings house nuclear families.

Tunebo houses are oriented in an east-west direction, with the front toward the sunrise. The principal door is set into the eastern facade and the secondary door into the western end of the house; this back door is rarely used, and then usually by women. Inside their windowless houses people sleep on leaves covering the ground or on platform beds; men sometimes sleep in hammocks. Tunebo houses are sanctuaries, and each family owns two or more houses in different altitudinal zones of its clan's territory. Visitors, even those of people belonging to the same residential group, are not invited in.

The Tunebo economy depends on horticulture, hunting, fishing, and gathering. Gardens of 4 to 6 hectares are prepared by recultivating agricultural land that has lain fallow. Trees are felled and their branches saved for firewood and raw material; small branches, shrubs, and plants are chopped up. Useful trees and palms are freed of undergrowth and pruned. Tunebo farmers do not burn their fields before cultivation but sow and plant their crops among the fallen tree trunks and boulders, in the mould of chopped-up stems and leaves. After four years of cultivation, fields are left fallow for about twelve years. In a few lowland and foothill areas some fields are kept under semipermanent cultivation.

House gardens provide peppers, tobacco, maize, and, in the upper mountain zone, beans. Maize is the first crop grown in a newly prepared garden. Particularly fertile tracts are resown with maize, but roots, tubers, and leaf vegetables are planted in less productive patches. Motivated by economic and religious factors, clans migrate seasonally up and down their respective mountain valleys, attending fields at levels of altitude ranging between 400 and 3,000 meters. Sweet manioc, sweet potatoes, yams, avocados, pineapples, peach palms ( Guilielma gasipaes ), coca, cacao, yopo ( Anadenanthera macrocarpa ), and sisal are produced principally in foothill gardens. Staples grown in foothill and upper-mountain gardens include various roots and tubers such as khethuma ( Canna sp.), torona ( Xanthsoma cordifolia ), thara ( Oxalis sp.); edible leaf plants such as guasca, unta ( Galinsoga parviflora ), stinging nettles, kayshtara ( Urea baccifera ), and ukara ( Erythrina sp.); and several varieties of bananas.

Women are responsible for most of the planting, weeding, and harvesting. Men cut trees to clear the land and tend the sisal plants. They also build deep storage tanks in the ground in which leaf-wrapped packages of maize and other victuals are preserved for weeks and months under running water.

Hunting takes place primarily at night. Each man owns a particular hunting tract he has inherited from his great-grandfather, whose name he bears. Hunters go alone or accompanied by a brother or a son; peccaries are hunted in groups of men. Land animals are caught in snares or in log-fall and spring-snare traps; arboreal animals are shot with bows and arrows. Women capture small rodents in deadfall stone traps. Traditional hunters will not use firearms. Game animals include tapir, peccaries, deer, anteaters, armadillos, pacas, squirrels, monkeys, toucans, macaws, and turkeys. Carnivorous animals such as bears, jaguars, and some snakes and birds are not hunted. Some regional groups are reluctant hunters of large mammals like tapir and peccaries; they prefer rodents, iguanas, frogs, snails, grubs, caterpillars, and birds that are eaten throughout the region.

Fishing is mainly women's work, although men fish occasionally. Fish are scarce in local rivers and mostly of small size. Women fish with weirs, nets, and several species of barbasco . Men, women, and children fish with hooks and lines.

Women, children, and sometimes men supplement the garden products by gathering a large variety of wild-plant foods—roots, seeds, fruits of trees and palms, and mushrooms. The honey of several species of stingless bees is avidly collected.

Food is prepared on kitchen fires near the center of the house. Men toast coca leaves on a separate interior fireplace. Some foods are also cooked on the porch and on open or covered fireplaces in the house garden. Meat is cooked in earthen pots or roasted on a spit. Small birds, snails, and frogs are roasted whole on live coals or in hot ashes. Vegetables are cooked in water or on hot coals. Eggs are boiled, wrapped in leaves, and broiled whole or scrambled. Alcoholic beverages are prepared from maize, platano , and manioc.

Tunebo wives and unmarried daughters wear a dark brown woolen poncho, which their husbands and fathers obtain for them through trade. Rather than wearing the poncho with their head stuck through a central hole, women drape it over their right shoulder, pinning two of its corners together with bone pins. They also wear it hanging down like a skirt, holding it in place with a red belt around the waist. Shoulder-held ponchos are worn against the cold or, in the presence of non-Indians, out of modesty. Weaving the 2-meter-long and 2-centimeter-wide women's belt is the responsibility of the men. Men also trade for the material from which they make white cotton loincloths for themselves. Traditionally, this was their sole item of clothing; nowadays, on cold days or when around strangers, they may wear them under trousers. From twisted sisal cordage men make string bags of varying sizes, measuring from 10 by 15 to 50 by 70 centimeters. The bags, which are hung from tumplines, are destined for domestic use or trading purposes. Men, who sometimes sleep in hammocks in the domestic houses of their wives, use sisal string to manufacture sleeping nets. They much prefer making hammocks of softer tree-bark fiber, however, whenever their wives, who alone work tree bark, provide them the necessary amount of fiber string. Finally, men make plaited baskets in which they keep such possessions as ceremonial crowns and valuable toucan feathers.

From twisted string of tree bast, women manufacture carrying and storage bags for themselves and coca and lime bags for their husbands. Women make earthen cooking pots, eating bowls, and water containers and have them fired by their men, who are responsible for firewood and fire making.

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, Tunebo society was organized into eight so-called clans that were geographically dispersed in mountain valleys around the permanently snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada of Cocuy and Güicán. The subtribal divisions of Tunebo society are clans only in the sense that they claim descent from a particular ancestor and are socially integrated groups. They lack, however, a specific unilinear rule of descent and a postmarital residential unity consistent with the definition of a true clan. Today, only three clans continue in their traditional ways; members of the other clans are dispersed in local family clusters.

The central community of each of the enduring traditional clans consists of three segmental groups: eastern (upper, masculine), western (lower, feminine), and middle (mixed) that inhabit adjacent plateaus separated by ravines. Each segment is comprised of a number of scattered domestic houses and a ceremonial house. The residents of the eastern and western segments are unrelated to one another, whereas those in the middle can have relatives in either of the other two groups. The clans are governed by four principal shamans; they have no political chiefs and no paramount chief.

Traditionally, clans were exogamous and considered themselves related to the two neighboring clans that flanked them on either side of their territory. This interrelationship governed marriage alliances, trade, ritual exchange, and other institutions. The women of the eastern segment of a particular clan married men of the western segment of the neighboring clan to the east, and the women of the western segment of a given clan married men of the eastern segment of the neighboring clan to the west. This practice is still followed by the three existing clans. Under the prevailing Dravidian kinship system cross-cousin marriage, especially with a mother's brother's daughter, is preferred. Interclan marriage with a spouse of the mother's brother's category is subject to the prescription that a child resulting from the union be returned in the following generation to the spouse's siblings' group of origin. Today, weakening alliances between the remaining clans, population decline, and social dissolution are causing a decline in clan-exogamous marriages and hastening their gradual replacement by clan-endogamous unions. Marriage is predominantly monogamous, but polygyny, frequently of the sororal type, is permitted, and remarrying widows appear to be subject to levirate marriage rules. Postmarital residence may be uxorilocal or virilocal, according to the rules governing the exchange of women between allied clans or between segmental groups of the same clan. It may also fluctuate between uxorilocality and virilocality according to whether a man, during his seasonal residency in the foothill region of his and his wife's clans, works for his own father or for his father-in-law (at lower elevations members of adjacent clans can meet more freely than can those at higher elevations, where their respective territories are separated by high mountain ridges).

Tunebo clans see themselves both as an entire house and as the posts of the semielliptic house. As the house posts support the roof, so do the clans brace the structure of the Tunebo universe. House and clan are models of a three-tiered universe that consist of complementary upper, middle, and lower worlds. The universe is occupied by a large pantheon of name-changing and shape-shifting deities. Tobacco- and yopo-using shamans keep these complementary worlds and their perpetual interactions in balance and adhere with their communities to a fixed ceremonial calendar of ritual blowing, chanting, and sacrifice. Ceremonies of ritual blowing also punctuate individual life cycles, ending with a person's death, when the shaman's blowing accompanies the departed into the grave. Burial takes place either in a special cemetery or in the house, and the house of the deceased is sealed and abandoned.


Marquéz, Maria V. (1979). Los tunebo. Medellín: Editorial Copy Mundo.

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

Osborn, Ann (1982). "Mythology and Social Structure among the U'wa of Colombia." Ph.D. dissertation, Oxford University.

Osborn, Ann (1985). El vuelo de las tijeretas. Bogotá: Banco de la Republica, Fundación de Investigaciones Arqueológicas Nacionales.

Rochereau, Henri J. (1962). "Los tunebos: Grupo unkasia." Revista Colombiana de Antropología 10:37-119.

Stoddart, D. R. (1959). "Observations on the Tunebo of Eastern Colombia." Cambridge Colombian Expedition, 1959. Cambridge. Mimeographed.


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