ETHNONYMS: Araibayba, Carabere, Chiriguano, Guaraniete, Guarayo, Itatin, Moperequoa, Nyandeva, Oréva, Pirataguari

The Guarayu of northeastern Bolivia are probably descendants of the Guaraní-Itatines of Paraguay. They were brought to this region 400 years ago by the Spanish explorer Ñuflo de Chavez, who led an expedition of 150 Spaniards and 1,500 Guaraní Indians across the Chaco and founded the town of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

In the eighteenth century Jesuit missionaries brought a group of Guarayu to their mission of San Javier, but the Indians soon left the mission. In 1840 Franciscan missionaries assumed responsibility for settling the Guarayu and over the years founded five mission villages: Yotau, Ascención, Urubichá, Yaguarú, and San Pablo, where most of the Guarayu still live. Nowadays, however, many migrate to work on surrounding ranches and plantations.

Under the tutelage of the Franciscans, the Guarayu led regimented and protected lives. Every morning the community was gathered in the mission church to hear Mass and sacred music played by an orchestra of Guarayu musicians. The "Misa Guarayu," which is still performed, is the only complete Mass in a native South American language that has survived from early mission times to the present. After Mass men and women went to work in the fields or at the various crafts taught by the missionaries, and the children attended school to learn Spanish and catechism. The Indians worked three days a week for the mission, but on the other three non-Sabbath days they were free to work in their own fields or to hunt and fish. Periodically the padres distributed tools and clothing made in the mission workshops or purchased from the sale of mission produce. The missionaries set up native authorities, whose role was indicated by decorated staffs, to assist in keeping order. Transgressions were punished either by the pillory or by the lash.

In early days the Guarayu found life in the missions, which involved giving up their religion and ceremonials, hard to tolerate. In particular, they were reluctant to abandon polygyny and accept marriage by the Church. One of the most notable features of Guarayu religion is the cult of Tamoi, who taught humans agriculture and the preparation of chicha. Tamoi was invoked in an early nineteenth-century revivalistic movement that involved resistance to mission settlement; men danced and sang, hoping that Tamoi would take them to his celestial home.

In 1939 the missions were secularized, and the administration of the villages was taken over by civic authorities, but Franciscan priests and nuns of the Apostolic Vicariate of Ñuflo de Chavez still work in the villages.

Estimates of the Guarayu population range from 1,000 to 5,000. Guarayu is a daughter language of Guaraní and belongs to the Tupí Family. At present most Guarayu speakers speak Spanish as well.

The Guarayu are agriculturists who raise subsistence crops in small fields using only hand tools. The principal crops grown are maize, sweet manioc, upland rice, sugarcane, bananas, and peanuts. They grow tree cotton of good quality, which was an article of trade in the nineteenth century. The Guarayu clear and prepare fields in groups; men sow maize, and women plant manioc and assist in harvesting. Their main hunting weapon was formerly the bow and arrow, but at present they use shotguns obtained from the missionaries. They fish with bows and arrows, with poisonous drugs, with spears, and with nets. The women make chicha from maize or manioc, which the Guarayu drink in large quantities at every celebration.

The Guarayu make a variety of baskets, pottery, cotton cloth, gourd containers, and bark cloth. The women are skilled spinners and weavers and make colorful hammocks for sale.

The Guarayu are very fond of music and dancing. The native violin, on a European model but made by Guarayu craftsmen, is played at dances and religious ceremonies. The Guarayu celebrate Carnival with great enthusiasm.

In the mission villages there are two types of houses. Along the streets of the town, long buildings of wattle and daub have tile roofs and wide eaves. Interior partitions divide these buildings into separate family dwellings. Single-family houses on the outskirts of the town have palm-leaf roofs and walls. Houses are furnished with food storage platforms, cotton hammocks, benches for men, and mats for women.

Before the missionaries came, the Guarayu wore no clothing except abundant feather ornaments and paint. Later the men adopted long bark-cloth tunics, but women wore only a skirt. At present the men dress like other lowland Bolivians, and the women wear long dresses, often made from cloth woven in the village.

Most of what is known about traditional Guarayu customs comes from accounts of the early missionaries, since the Guarayu have been so heavily proselytized that most of these customs have died out. Informants can recount the ancient myths, however, and underneath a veneer of Catholicism, the Guarayu probably retain many of their traditional beliefs.

Guarayu boys were named by their grandfathers or other male relatives. Boys were often scarified and bled in order to make them strong. Girls were secluded for a month at puberty, fed a restricted diet, and tattooed on their arms and breasts. Cross-cousin marriages were preferred, as well as those between a man and his sister's daughter; polygyny was common. A girl or woman could not marry without the consent of her father and brother. Postmarital residence was matrilocal at first, and then neolocal. Pregnant women had to observe certain food taboos. The couvade was practiced: a father idled in his hammock for three days following the birth of his child in accordance with the belief that a child's soul follows its father and may be injured if it exerts itself immediately after birth.

The dead were buried in their huts wearing their paint and ornaments. It was believed that after death the soul travels a long distance to the land of Tamoi, the Great Ancestor. The road is fraught with dangers and temptations, including the crossing of a dangerous river on the back of a caiman, looking at colored grasses without being blinded, and being tickled by a monkey without laughing. At the end of the journey, Tamoi washes the soul and causes it to look young and attractive.


Métraux, Alfred (1928). "Un ancien document peu connu sur les guarayú de la Bolivie orientale." Anthropos 24:913-941.

Perasso, José Antonio (1988). Los guarayu: Guaraníes del oriente boliviano. Asunción: RP Ediciones.

Riester, Jürgen (1975). Indians of Eastern Bolivia: Aspects of Their Present Situation. Copenhagen: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA).

Schmidt, Max (1936). "Los guarayú." Revista de la Sociedad Científica de Paraguay 3(6): 158-194.

Virreira, Walter Hermosa (1972). Los pueblos garayos. Publicación no. 27. La Paz: Academia Nacional de Ciencias de Bolivia.


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