ETHNONYMS: Machoto, Saramo

The Itonama live primarily on the Río Iténez and Iténez Lake, but also on the Baures and San Simón rivers, all of which are in the department of Beni in Bolivia. Itonama may also be found in the towns of Magdalena, San Ramón, and Huacaraje. Estimates of their population range from 2,000 to 5,000. Only 110 speak the Itonama language, which is a language isolate. In 1700 the Itonama population stood at 6,000 people; it has decreased owing to the effects of contact and assimilation. The Itonama also lost many people to slavery—in 1720 mestizos captured and enslaved 2,000 of them. For many decades in the eighteenth century, most Itonama lived at the Mission of Santa Magdalena. Today, they live and work in much the same manner as do their mestizo neighbors. The Itonama raise cattle or live as subsistence farmers, growing maize, manioc, rice, and tobacco.

Traditionally, children went naked until puberty, at which time young women began to wear loincloths, and young men cotton or bark-cloth shirts. The women were famous in the Mojos area for their spinning and weaving of cotton. They spun cotton by putting one end of the spindle in a notched stick and by rolling the other end on a log. The weapons of the Itonama were bows and arrows, double-edged clubs, bolas, and slings. Men supported their wives on the basis of the number of children born. Fathers still observe several taboos, including a prohibition on swimming in deep water. The Itonama tie the feet of their infants, in the belief that they would follow their fathers if they were not bound. Even though they are now Christians, the Itonama still affiance their children soon after they are born.

Until 1900 or so, the Itonama respected their deceased ancestors by fallowing forever the land that they had tilled and by not using the trees that had belonged to them. They were animists who believed that ghosts could appear as hummingbirds, butterflies, or snakes. Ghosts are believed capable of capturing the souls of people, thus causing illness and death. This belief sometimes led the Itonama to close the nose and mouth of a mortally ill person so as to prevent the soul from escaping to injure or kill another; as a result, many sick people suffocated to death. Shamans, who could be men or women, cured by rescuing souls; this involved the shaman going into a drug-induced trance, which in the twentieth century was purportedly caused by opium.


Key, Harold, and Mary Key (1967). Bolivian Indian Tribes: Classification, Bibliography, and Map of Present Language Distribution. Norman: Summer Institute of Linguistics of the University of Oklahoma.

Métraux, Alfred (1948). "Tribes of Eastern Bolivia and the Madeira Headwaters: The Itonama." In Handbook of South American Indians, edited by Julian H. Steward. Vol. 3, The Tropical Forest Tribes, 428-430. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 143. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Nordenskiöld, Erland (1924). Forschungen und Abenteuer in Südamerika. Stuttgart: Strecker und Schröder.

Orbigny, Alcide Dessalines d' (1835-1847). Voyage dans l'Amérique méridionale. Vol. 2. Paris.

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