Approximately 3,100 Yekuana inhabit a region of the Guiana highlands north of the upper Orinoco in Venezuela. Their territory is crossed by five major tributaries of the Orinoco—the Cunucunuma, Iguapo, Padamo, upper Ventuari, and upper Caura—and the area is mostly covered by tropical-forest growth with intermittent savannas. Three main subgroups of Makiritare can be distinguished, according to their geographic distribution along several of the major rivers of their habitat; they speak dialects of the same language, a member of the Carib Family. The various subgroups remain in more or less close contact with one another and connect with a wider interethnic trade network of the general Guiana region.
Because of the relative inaccessibility of their territory, the Yekuana came into contact with Spaniards and Portuguese only in the second half of the eighteenth century. Subsequently they rebelled against Christian proselytizing and exploitation by Whites and maintained only sporadic trade contacts with Europeans and criollos in the Guiana colonies and on the lower Orinoco.
The Yekuana prefer to locate their settlements at the lower elevations in close proximity to the rivers. The village consists of a large communal round house for all residents and one or more rectangular and wall-less work sheds with saddle roofs of palm thatch for visitors, especially non-Indians. The communal house consists of a circular wall of wattle and daub and a conical thatched roof. The internal space includes a circular central room that is reserved for ceremonial and ritual occasions. Men talk, eat, and work here, and shamans seated on carved benches hold curing séances near the central pole in the middle of the room. Unmarried men between puberty and marriage pass the night in this interior space. Women generally do not enter the room except to clean it and to serve the men their meals. The central room is separated from a concentric living space between it and the outer wall of the house by a wall of palm fronds, bark planks, or wattle and daub. This space is compartmentalized into several sections separated from each other by bark panels, each housing an extended family. The family compartments have a door that connects them with the central area. The floor plan of the communal house conforms to a concentric image of the terrestrial plain, and the overall architectural design of the structure is a replica of the original prototype built by Wanadi, the Supreme Being and culture hero of the Yekuana, in the likeness of a tiered celestial world.
Yekuana subsistence is based on shifting cultivation. Bitter manioc is the staple crop, but sweet manioc, taro, yams, maize, bananas, squashes, sweet potatoes, peppers, sugarcane, pineapples, papayas, peppers, and tobacco are also grown. Cultivated cotton, arrow grass, and calabash trees provide important raw materials. Hunting by tracking or communal drive is an important subsistence activity and tapir, deer, peccaries, anteaters, male alligators, armadillos, and turtles are preferred game animals. Fishing is of decidedly lesser significance. Men may use harpoon arrows or join their women in fishing with hook and line or barbasco. Food gathering is of little economic importance, but earthworms, leafcutter ants, palm-borer larvae, turtle eggs, frogs, and several wild fruits and vegetables constitute much-appreciated seasonal fare.
Today many Yekuana men and women wear Western clothes. In earlier times they wore loincloths. Women wear small aprons or more elaborate rectangular or trapezoidal ones of red, white, and blue glass beads and tassels of dried seed pods. Necklaces of glass beads and strings crossing the male and female torso are made of glass beads interspersed with seeds, animal teeth, claws, and deer hoofs. Both sexes, but especially women, wear wristlets and firmly tied bands around the upper arm, ankle, and below the knee so that biceps and calf muscles become permanently pronounced. Triangular silver plates are worn by women, and men wear similar ones of a crescent shape. Men insert pieces of arrow reed decorated with colorful bird feathers through holes in their earlobes. Men and women cut their hair short around the head, and red and dark blue body paint is very important to them.
Division of labor is by sex and age. Men cut the forest and burn the trees and underbrush in preparation for a new garden. They also hunt, weave outstanding pieces of monochrome and decorative multicolored basketry, and make cotton hammocks, ropes of plant fibers, crude pottery, excellent dugout canoes, ritual benches carved from a single piece of wood in the shape of a stylized jaguar, blowguns, and other hunting and fishing gear as well as a large variety of musical instruments. Women spin cotton, cultivate and harvest the gardens, and make wicker carrying baskets, manioc graters, and aesthetically pleasing beaded-glass aprons. Women spend much time in the processing of manioc and general food preparation. Nowadays old women may also be seen making pottery, and both sexes collaborate in barbasco fishing.
Yekuana society is based on autonomous villages consisting of a number of extended families. Cousin kinship terminology has characteristic features of the Hawaiian and the Iroquois systems. Marriages between cross cousins, especially first-degree cross cousins, or classificatory grandparents and grandchildren are preferred. Polygynous unions between a man and consanguineally related or unrelated women are not infrequent. Local endogamy prevails, postmarital residence is uxorilocal, and descent is bilateral. As domestic units, Yekuana villages pass through three stages of maturation, including an incipient stage involving a single three-generation family of eight to twenty-seven people, a stage of achieving stability consisting of thirty to forty people, and a mature stage consisting of forty to eighty inhabitants or more. Political authority within the local group rests with the village headman and a circle of elders composed mainly of household heads. Internal conflict between individuals or extended families is handled by the aggrieved party supported by his or her extended family. Minor offenses are handled through gossip, indirect complaints, and temporary isolation of the aggrieved person. Major offenses may result in the fission of the village Community.
Both sexes traditionally underwent initiation ceremonies. A boy was whipped and subjected to an ant ordeal. A girl, at the time of her first menstruation, is secluded in the family quarters of the communal house. Six months after the seclusion period, her hair is cropped and she becomes eligible for marriage once her hair has regrown.
Yekuana cosmology is complex and distinguishes the three levels of heaven, earth, and underworld. The earth is connected with eight strata of heaven via the central pole of the communal house. Each stratum represents an important cosmological station, and the uppermost region is inhabited by Wanadi (the Supreme Being and son of the sun), his family, and a select group of ancestral spirits. Shamans can visit with Wanadi to receive their paraphernalia, including a jaguar bench, a sacred rattle, and celestial quartz crystals. As curers, they confront illnesses caused by spirit intrusion, transgression, and soul loss. They chant and rattle, fumigate with tobacco smoke, and massage, blow, and suck the sickness out of the patient. If death occurs outside the house, the dead are buried in a canoe at some distance from the village. People who die within the house are buried beneath their hammocks. Chiefs and the victims of multiple deaths, as during an epidemic, are buried inside the house, and the structure is burned to the ground. Shamans may be given a secondary burial. During the past several decades the Yekuana have been in closer contact with missionaries and criollos and their culture is increasingly being influenced by these contacts.