Cuiva - History and Cultural Relations

Although the evidence remains scanty, nothing now known suggests that the Cuiva have occupied any territory other than their own. The region has most probably undergone many transformations, invasions, wars, conquests, appearances of cultural groups from elsewhere, and disappearances of some groups altogether. But this small group of hunter-gatherers seems to have survived largely unchanged.

The first known contact with European invaders came as early as 1533 and for the next century was limited to those crossing Cuiva territory in their relentless pursuit of the mythical El Dorado. Jesuit missionaries were the first to colonize the area, in the later part of the seventeenth century and the first half of the eighteenth century, but they seem to have had only limited success with the settled Guahibo horticulturists, whereas their contacts with the nomads remained distant and at times violent. After the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767, the following 200 years were apparently quiet.

In about 1950 pressure from the civil war in Colombia pushed cattle herders progressively into Cuiva territory. On the whole, relations with these settlers have been a disaster for the Cuiva, who have often been chased from many parts of their own land. Camps have been attacked by people with firearms, Indians have been deliberately killed, and the last thirty years of Cuiva history can be read as typical of the genocide of so many South American Indian populations. The traditional Cuiva strategy was to avoid contact with the invaders by seeking refuge near the smaller rivers, away from the main waterways, but now most of their territory is occupied. The Cuiva have nowhere to escape and possibly no choice but to settle on whatever piece of land remains and to survive by cultivating newly created gardens.

The Cuiva visit their neighbors mostly for the pleasure of meeting different people and breaking the routine. There is no significant trading between groups, intermarriages do occur but are rare, and there are no other social or political activities beyond the level of the band. It is worth noting that, from visiting neighboring horticulturists, the Cuiva have become fully aware of techniques of cultivation and of making pottery and a few other artifacts, which they themselves never use or make.

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