Witoto

ETHNONYMS: Fitita, Guitoto, Hitote, Huitata, Huito, Huitoto, Murui Huitoto


The Witotoan groups, now composed of around 8,500 individuals, live along the middle courses of the Caquetá and the Putumayo rivers, in the Amazon region of Colombia. There are also some in adjoining areas of Peru and Brazil. Approximately 4,500 to 5,300 Witoto, referred to as the "Witoto proper," speak the Witoto language, which belongs to the Witotoan Family, as do the 380 Okaina and 380 N anuya. They live mostly on the Orteguaza and Caquetá rivers and on the Putumayo and its tributaries, the Cara-Paraná and the Igara-Paraná. The Murui and the Muinane are subgroups of the Witoto proper who speak slightly different dialects. They express their complementarity symbolically as the opposition between, on the one hand, "up," "black," and "male" and, on the other hand, "down," "white," and "female."

Other Witotoans are the Bora (population 1,640) and the Miraña (population 300), who speak similar Witotoan languages and live at the mouth of the Cahuinari as well as on the Igara-Paraná. Other speakers of Witotoan languages are the 250 Andoke and the 500 Muinane, who live mostly along the Caquetá.

Until the early part of the twentieth century, the Witoto numbered 50,000. Observers reported that, besides the major divisions, the Witoto were separated into more than 100 subgroups; these categorizations were probably based on the names of villages. During the rubber boom in the second half of the twentieth century, as a result of diseases, forced labor, and migration, the population rapidly fell to between 7,000 and 10,000. The survivors fled to marginal interfluvial areas. Some have returned to their traditional homelands, but others have settled in different regions and lost their ethnic identity.

All Witoto groups have similar subsistence practices. They move every few years to find areas in which to make new swidden gardens. Their staples are sweet and bitter manioc, of which they grow over twenty varieties; they intersperse pineapples, fruit trees, and minor annual crops with the manioc. They plant a wide variety of other crops, including plantains, bananas, yams, papayas, sweet potatoes, mangoes, peach palms and other palms, peanuts, cacao, sugarcane, maize, tobacco, and coca. Men clear the fields, and women do the planting. They consider two replantings of manioc the maximum possible, but the fallow fields are still useful, as fruit from planted trees continues to be harvested. A family may have six or more fields of different ages and crop mixtures, so a supply of varied crops is assured. A plot is fallowed for ten to twenty years before it is reused. Ethnobotanists have been studying the managed fallows of a group of Witotoan Bora living in Peru as an efficient land-use system for the humid tropics.

The Witoto process manioc using two different kinds of manioc presses, one cylindrical and the other a kind of mat that they roll around the mass of grated manioc to squeeze out the poisonous juice. The squeezed manioc is used to make tapioca as well as manioc cakes baked on flat ceramic griddles. They also ferment both sweet and bitter manioc in water and toast it as manioc flour.

Men hunt with shotguns and also use blowguns with poisoned darts for small game. They make traps and pitfalls of various kinds and formerly hunted with spears, but never used the bow and arrow. They bring home such game as peccaries, tapir, capybaras, agoutis, anteaters, armadillos, deer, sloths, parrots, frogs, and turtles, but the most important game is monkeys. Fish are caught in nets, speared, and poisoned; fishhooks are now also used. Men often hunt and fish at night with flashlights.

The center of Witoto family, social, and ceremonial life is the communal house. Houses are octagonal with a conical roof, usually with the entrance facing east. Beside the communal house, there are outbuildings and small houses within the complex that the communal house dominates. Witoto communal houses are of the Murui ("masculine") type with closed roofs or of the Muinane ("feminine") type with an opening at the apex of the roof. These structures are symbolically complementary like earth and sky, man and woman, thought and substance. In households that are politically and ceremonially prominent, there is a "xylophone" made of hollow logs of various sizes, suspended from a wooden frame, that produce different notes when they are beaten to announce the beginning of a ceremony or the arrival of an honored visitor. Certain individuals are specialists in building and playing these instruments. Others specialize in the production and use of tobacco or coca, and in certain songs, dances, and kinds of ritual knowledge.

Witoto social organization is based on patrilineages. Minimal patrilineages live together and consist of patrilocal residential units that women, as wives, join from other groups according to the rule of local exogamy. Together these units make up a village, which typically consists of a single multifamily dwelling, although in some areas one village may have several large communal houses. In principle, each village is an independent, patrilocal, and exogamous community. Villages may consist of as few as 25 persons in some subgroups and up to 500 in others. Village territory ranges from 80 to 1,600 square kilometers. The authority of the village headman extends only as far as the village boundaries, except in time of large-scale emergency, as when village groups came together to fight White invaders. The headman inherits his office from his father or brother, subject to the approval of the council of elders. A number of villages are linked in a federation led by a chief.

Historically, Witoto groups and even villages have often been at war with each other; one purpose of these wars was to take prisoners. Young captives were incorporated into the group as members, and the old were ritually eaten during a ceremony. Another purpose of warfare was to exact revenge against shamans believed to have caused illness.

Traces of what was once a complex and hierarchically structured society remain. Among present-day patrilineages, some are "dominant," and others consist of "subordinates" or "commoners." Each group is associated with a certain color, animal, or plant. The group must "care for" its totem; thus, together, the society "cares for" its total environment. Commoners, as people of low social status, are assigned arduous and monotonous tasks such as collecting firewood and pounding coca leaves, and they usually live in small houses outside the central communal dwelling. The hierarchy of lineages and of groups of brothers is expressed in terms of birth order. Among lineages, "elder" and "younger" is predetermined by mythology. In a group of brothers, actual birth order defines the role assigned to each. In principle, the eldest is the hereditary headman or "owner of the house."

A Witoto origin myth tells how the "talking pole" of the primal tree was invaded by Worms sent by the "People of the Mouth of the River." The Worms mocked and defied the "People of the Center" and sent them sicknesses until the People of the Center became angry, and a great war ensued. With the help of Thunder and Lightning, the People of the Center won the war and from that time established the cultural pattern that distinguishes the Witotoan groups.

Historically, the Witoto wore little clothing. Men wore a breechclout of bark cloth, and women only body paint to which flecks of cotton were glued. Ceremonial regalia was specific to the occasion and to individual status; people emphasized their rank by wearing certain kinds of plumage and jaguar-tooth necklaces, and chiefs carried ceremonial axes. Today the Witoto wear Western-style clothing.

For the Witoto, the yearly round of economic activities is closely linked to ceremonial events. Dozens of different rituals are enacted every year to regulate the relationships of humans with their environment and with one another. The purpose of ritual dancing is to promote growth and reproduction and ward off sickness and death. The Dance of the Chontaduro is held in December to provide good fishing and a bountiful harvest. This ceremony, which lasts several days, brings together up to 100 people to form or reaffirm alliances and exchange information.

Witoto shamans carefully observe plants and animals to instruct people how properly to collect and consume them. An important part of shamanic curing is prescribing appropriate behavior, but shamans may be held responsible for deaths, which are always considered to have supernatural causes. The accused shaman, however, is usually from another group.

In the 1990s, many Witoto are threatened with the loss of their culture and their economic base as the frontier advances. Cattle raising and commercial agriculture have resulted in deforestation, soil exhaustion, and the pollution of rivers and streams. Some Witoto, however, have begun to organize to reaffirm their cultural identity and reclaim their traditional territory. The Colombian land-reform agency has demarcated several reservations for the Witoto and is considering the establishment of others.


Bibliography

Denevan, William M., and Christine Padoch (1987). Swidden-Fallow Agroforestry in the Peruvian Amazon. New York: New York Botanical Garden.


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


Eden, Michael J., and Angela Andrade (1987). "Ecological Aspects of Swidden Cultivation among the Andoke and Witoto Indians of the Colombian Amazon." Human Ecology 15:339-359.

Murdock, George P. (1934). "The Witotos of Northwestern Amazonia." In Our Primitive Contemporaries, edited by George Peter Murdock, 451-474. New York: Macmillan.


Whiffen, Thomas W. (1915). The North-West Amazons: Notes of Some Months Spent among Cannibal Tribes. London and New York: Constable & Co.

NANCY M. FLOWERS

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