ETHNONYMS: Enelhit, Enlhit, Lengua-Maskoi, Lengua-Sur

The 10,000 Lengua Indians live in the Gran Chaco area of Paraguay (23° S and 58° W) and constitute the largest Indian group in that region. They speak a language belonging to the Maskoyan Family. Although they were a large and powerful tribe at contact, the Spanish Conquest had almost extinguished them by 1800. The Chaco War (19321935) between Paraguay and Bolivia also cost many Lengua lives.

Major developments in the Lengua region have accelerated the processes of their acculturation and assimilation: as the Chaco was opened up to settlement by the construction of the Trans-Chaco Highway, large cattle ranches and Mennonite farms occupied the traditional Lengua hunting grounds. By the early 1900s the presence of Anglican missionaries attracted Lengua from different regions—breaking up territorial divisions, mixing members of different subtribes, and precipitating a period of acute culture change. Many Lengua now work as cowhands or laborers on ranches and farms, as migrant workers, and as wage laborers. Lengua families are dispersed according to the availability of work, although 2,000 to 2,500 may assemble at the mission for Christmas and Easter festivals.

Nowadays, the Lengua build houses with palm-leaf thatch and walls according to the general Paraguayan rural model. Sparse household furniture includes plank benches and tables. Abandoning their earlier custom of sleeping on hides or in hammocks, the Lengua have adopted the use of wooden bedsteads with supporting strips of cowhide. Traditional house types included three kinds of structures consisting of frames of sticks tied together with the bast of the bottle tree ( Chorisia insignis ) and covered with bulrush mats. Animal hides, especially of vicuña, were frequently used as walls and separations. Oval or semilunar-cupulate communal houses without interior subdivisions sheltered the members of extended families, and beehive huts or windscreens provided housing for nuclear families. Beehive huts were usually constructed in juxtaposed pairs, featuring a division between the two units. With their frontal sides oriented toward the north, three to five communal or a larger number of single-family houses were arranged in a semicircular line to form a settlement that faced a plaza for ceremonial or secular activities.

Traditionally, the Lengua led migratory lives as hunters, gatherers, and fishers. Hunting, the prerogative of men, was the principal food-quest activity, and a pronounced hunting ethos pervaded the entire culture. On individual and collective hunts, on foot or on horseback, larger animals such as tapir, peccaries, deer, and rheas were killed with bows and arrows, spears, bolas, or clubs and by applying methods such as chasing, corralling, smoke and fire drives, and camouflage. Smaller game—armadillos, coatis, iguanas, turtles, a variety of rodents, and different birds—was also eagerly sought. For two to three months during the rainy season, waterfowl became abundant, and birds were hunted with sticks or, at night, by blinding torchlight. Even today, depending on their location, regional groups try to supplement their diet by exploiting what is left of the once rich and variegated fauna of their territory. During the nineteenth century the Lengua hunted for skins and rhea feathers. Although this practice boosted trade with the Paraguayans, commercial exploitation soon led to a decline in large game. Today individual hunting, with hunting dogs, has replaced collective hunting with bows and arrows.

Women contributed significantly to Lengua subsistence by gathering algaroba pods and a large variety of fruits, roots, and palm shoots; it was men, however, who collected honey.

Fishing played a minor role in Lengua subsistence and was carried out in the rainy season with the bare hand or by means of special gear such as fiber gorges, hooks, bows and arrows, spears, gill and barring nets, weirs, and plunge baskets. Whereas fishing was primarily a male occupation, women did assist in basket, weir, and gill-net fishing or by capturing fish with their bare hands. Fishing was done from the shore, by wading into shallow waters, or, during the rainy season, from canoes.

Agriculture was traditionally of little importance to the Lengua. Missionaries and colonists, however, have contributed to the present sedentary life-style of the Indians and the concomitant intensification of subsistence and cash-crop agriculture. Crops include maize, sweet manioc, beans, pumpkins, anco (squashes), watermelons, sweet potatoes, tobacco, and cotton.

During the dry season the lack of potable water often becomes acute. Whereas sedentary groups rely on deep wells, roaming bands of hunters and gatherers turned to the water accumulating in wild plants and trees to quench their thirst. Prior to the introduction of commercial containers, water was carried and stored in calabash bottles or crude pottery vessels manufactured by the women; utensils such as cups, plates, ladles, and spoons were made of gourd sections ( Lagenaria siceraria ). Meat was roasted, and tubers were baked in the ashes of the fire, but all households now have an iron cooking pot.

Domesticated animals other than the alreadymentioned horses and dogs include sheep, goats, and chickens. In the nineteenth century sheepherding became important as a source of wool from which women wove ponchos and sashes for trade. Cattle ranching has now supplanted sheep raising, and women who weave today must buy their wool.

Cordage from bast fiber, especially caraguatá ( Deinacanthon urbanianum ), was twisted by elderly women. Besides tumpline carrying bags for females, women manufactured shoulder bags for males, protective vests for men who distinguished themselves in combat, carrying nets, net strainers, and ropes for hauling heavy loads. Fishing nets were made by men. Twisted fibers were often dyed to produce articles of red, black-bluish, and black on natural color decorations. The Lengua did not make baskets for carrying or storing goods.

Lengua society was composed of exogamous bands, each consisting of an extended uxorilocal family. Several bands were traditionally allied to form an endogamous subtribal unit whose members congregated periodically for social and ritual purposes. The headmen of a band could not impose unpopular decisions, and many held their positions as a result of their power as shamans. They provided for their people and shared their personal property with them. They also served as contact men and speakers with foreigners. The subtribal chief spoke on behalf of his constituent bands and held his position on the strength of his personality.

The kinship system of western Lengua groups appears to differ from that of eastern groups, the former being of the Iroquois and the latter of the Hawaiian type. The Lengua employ teknonymy and mourning terminologies. Descent is bilateral with certain matrilineal tendencies.

Although not particularly warlike, the Lengua did engage in intertribal warfare with the Sanapaná, their archenemies, and with the Angaité, the Chamacoco, the Toba, and the Maká. They went to war to defend their territory, avenge the death of one of their own group killed by violence or sorcery, obtain artifactual goods and livestock, and capture women and children. Scalps were taken as war trophies.

Shamans were important to Lengua daily life. They healed the sick, averted attacks by evil spirits, regulated rainfall and repelled stormy weather, guaranteed fertility of the land and its plants and animals, and helped bring about success in warfare. Shamans practiced sorcery to cause sickness and death. Although contemporary shamans are all male, powerful female shamans figure in the oral tradition, and women were potentially free to become initiated into the office. Shamans cured by chanting, sucking, and recapturing the soul of their patients.

Death in older people was believed to occur naturally as a consequence of skeletal deterioration. Young people who died other than through warfare were said to have suffered unnatural deaths owing to sorcery and spirit aggression. Upon determining the origin of the evil that caused the death of a young person, shamans made public the culprits name during a ritual of revenge. Funerary rites included the mutilation or fracturing of the dead person's skull and the placing of a candescent stone into the corpse's stomach. The stone was believed to fly to the Milky Way, whence it fell to earth as a meteor to kill the murderer. The corpse was buried as soon as a grave had been dug in the nearby mountains or forests, immediately following the performance, at the gravesite, of a rite of vengeance. Upon closing the grave with soil and decorating it with branches, the lamenting people left and never revisited the site. Influenced by missionaries and Paraguayan settlers, modern Lengua bury their dead in cemetaries.

To avoid being visited by the soul of the dead, the Lengua used to destroy the belongings of the departed, burn their houses and rebuild them in situ, or move the village to a different location. Shamans conducted special rituals to prevent the living from being accosted by the souls of the dead. Mourning practices included observance of food taboos, hair cropping, and the wearing of mourning garb. The land of the dead was believed to be situated in the west, where the souls congregated in groups or families. The souls of shamans went to reside in the Milky Way, and those of other people turned into animals, especially birds. Profound culture change notwithstanding, religion, shamanism, and mythology continue to be of considerable significance to contemporary Lengua Indians.


Arenas, Pastor (1981). Etnobotánica lengua-maskoy. Buenos Aires: Fundación para la Educación, la Ciencia y la Cultura.

Braunstein, José A. (1983). Algunos rasgos de la organización social de los indígenas del Gran Chaco. Trabajos de Etnología, Publicación 2. Buenos Aires: Universidad de Buenos Aires, Instituto de Ciencias Antropológicas.

Grubb, Barbroke W. (1911). An Unknown People in an Unknown Land: An Account of the Life and Customs of the Lengua Indians of the Paraguayan Chaco. London: Seeley, Service & Co.

Hawtrey, Seymour H. C. (1901). "The Lengua Indians of the Paraguayan Chaco." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 31:280-299.

Loewen, Jacob Abraham (1966). "Lengua Indians and Their Innermost." Practical Anthropology 13:252-272.

Loewen, Jacob Abraham (1967). "Lengua Festivals and Functional Substitutes." Practical Anthropology 14:15-36.

Loewen, Jacob Abraham (1969). "Los lenguas y su mundo espiritual." Suplemento Antropológico, Revista Ateneo Paraguayano 4:115-133.

Renshaw, John (1988). "Property, Resources, and Equality among the Indians of the Paraguayan Chaco." Man 23:334-352.

Susnik, Branca J. (1977). Lengua maskoy: Su hablar, su pensar, su vivencia. Asunción: Museo Etnográfico Andres Barbero.


User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: