ETHNONYMS: Amókebit, Frentones, Mbocobí, Mocobí, Mogosnae, Mokoit, Mosobiae
An estimated 3,500 Mocoví live in the departments of O'Higgins, Chacabuco, Fontana, and San Lorenzo in the southern part of the province of Chaco, and in the departments of Garay, Obligado, San Javier, San Justo, and Vera in the northeastern part of the province of Santa Fe, in Argentina. Linguistically they belong to the Guiacuruan Family.
When conquered by the Spaniards, the Mocoví lived in the middle reaches of the Río Bermejo. Toward the end of the seventeenth century they began to migrate southeast to occupy the plains between the lower Bermejo and Salado rivers. Beginning in 1743 the Mocoví came under the influence of Franciscan and, especially, Jesuit missionaries who attracted thousands of them to their colonies. The Indians obtained cattle, and the missionaries began to transform the Mocoví (who were by then equestrian) from migratory hunters and gatherers into sedentary farmers. Today, all Mocoví settlements are in permanent or frequent contact with centers of Western civilization, where they work as farmers, ranch hands, migrant harvesters, lumberjacks, laborers, and domestics. As a result of this prolonged and intensive contact, the Mocoví have become increasingly assimilated into the Argentinan hinterland population, their culture has undergone substantial change, and fewer than half of the modern Mocoví have retained their native language. Although a fair amount of ethnographical information has become available since the middle of the eighteenth century, the Mocoví have remained one of the least-studied aboriginal societies of the Gran Chaco.
Although the Mocoví usually preferred to live without shelter, they sometimes built temporary camps consisting of windbreaks made of stick frames covered with skins. They also slept on skins.
Mocoví subsistence depended heavily on hunting, fishing, and collecting; farming was of little importance. Armed with bows and arrows, lances, spears, bolas, or clubs, men pursued game alone or in groups, or they conducted collective drives from horseback by encircling the animals within a wide area and driving them toward the center, where they were killed by hurling clubs at them or by clubbing them at close range. Mocoví hunters also built a light fence around a space between two thickets. Inside they placed a fresh animal skin covered with flies as bait for rheas. When the birds entered the encircled area through an opening in the fence, the hunters closed it with string and captured them. Automatic spring traps in combination with pitfalls were sometimes set, and caimans were speared or harpooned along the river banks. The favored species of game animals included deer, peccaries, and rheas. The first hunter to hit an animal became its owner, whether or not he actually killed it.
Fishing was of considerable importance during the rainy season. Men fished with nets and crude harpoons, the long recovery cords, of which were held in the fisherman's hand.
Traditionally, Mocoví women and men acquired a large part of their diet by collecting wild plant foods like algaroba ( Prosopis alba and P. nigra ), tuscas ( Acacia monoliformis ) pods, chañar ( Gourliea decorticans ) and mistol ( Zizyphus mistol ) fruit, the edible portions of various species of palm, poroto del monte beans ( Capparis retusa ), tasi ( Morrenia odorata ), tunas (Barbary figs; Opuntia sp.), and many other species. Honey and roasted locusts, which could be stored, constituted important food resources. Despite the relative variety and abundance of wild fare, its seasonality triggered periods of scarcity and occasional famine.
Because of the dryness and intermittent flooding of their habitat, horticulture was of relatively little importance to Mocoví subsistence. In parts of their territory, soils were particularly unsuited for agriculture, and laboriously prepared gardens had to be protected from animals by building thorn fences around them. The Mocoví raised maize, sweet manioc, beans, pumpkins, anco (squashes), watermelons, sweet potatoes, tobacco, cotton, and other species.
The Mocoví keep dogs as watchdogs and for hunting. From stock acquired from Whites toward the end of the seventeenth century, the Mocoví raise horses, sheep, and goats.
During the dry season, water often becomes dangerously scarce. Before wells of 4 to 6 meters in depth were dug, the Mocoví had to resort to drinking the water that collects in caraguatá leaves ( Bromelia sp.) and čipóy tubers ( Jacaratia hassleriana ). Water and other liquids were stored in gourds and in pottery water jugs. Female potters also made crude cooking pots and bowls. Rather than dugout canoes, Mocoví men manufacture bullboats to ferry old people and infants across rivers or to transport their belongings. Basketry was not practiced, but women made cordage, fishing nets, carrying nets, and bags from caraguatá fiber. Cotton and wool were spun on vertical looms.
Mocoví society consisted of extended families or bands embracing at least two generations of nuclear families, the members of which owed allegiance to a local chief. Bands were predominantly exogamous and combined with several others to form endogamous subtribes. Generally identified by ethnonyms of geographical connotation, subtribes were largely endogamous. Because subtribal boundaries were uristable and less than hermetically closed, marriages beyond subtribal borders and interethnic unions were not uncommon. The various subtribal bands congregated periodically for social and religious purposes, fostering a spirit of group cohesion under regional political authorities that became important in times of war. Marriage accompanied by bride-price was monogamous, but instances of sororal polygyny have been reported. Postmarital residence was uxorilocal, descent reckoning bilateral, and the kinship system of the Hawaiian type. Mourning terminology was traditional, but the application of teknonymy was apparently not practiced.
Following the adoption of an equestrian mode of life, the Mocoví began to distinguish between nobles and commoners. The noble class was endogamous and comprised of members of military societies. Commoners used special forms of speech when addressing nobles. Women and children captured in war formed a social stratum of slaves.
The Mocoví engaged in frequent warfare, occasionally joining warriors of other Indian societies to raid Spanish settlements along the frontier. Intertribal warfare was largely retaliatory in nature, seeking redress for violence suffered in the form of death and property loss. In battle, the men formed two lines around their chief according to their relative degree of closeness to him. Engagement of the enemy by warriors on horseback preceded the attack by warriors on foot. While the main contingent of the Mocoví force was involved in combat, smaller groups concentrated on raiding the livestock of their enemies. The Mocoví took skulls and scalps as war trophies, and victorious warriors fastened a new feather to their spears for each enemy they killed. Upon their return from battle, warriors were hailed by the shouting, dancing, and drum beating of old women. Daily for one month, the women danced around the trophies, which were suspended from a post. The old women impersonated warriors during an elaborate childbirth parade. Horsehair symbolizing scalps, ceremonial bows and arrows, and other gifts were presented to a baby boy. The baby of a chief was taken to spend the night with another baby boy who would become his brother-in-arms.
Relatives often assisted a fatally ill and suffering patient to die. Upon death, women wailed for several nights in the funerary hut. A widow lamented loudly the death of her husband, accusing him of deserting her and his children. During the day the bereaved woman remained indoors, cropped her hair, and covered her head with a net bag that she wore until she remarried. The Mocoví wrapped their dead in skins or nets and buried them in shallow graves. Offerings of food and water were deposited near the grave, and children were buried with one hand uncovered to help them partake of the food their parents brought. Victims of sorcery were cremated while a chanting shaman shot an arrow into the dead person's heart and another one into his or her throat so as to destroy the guilty sorcerer. Close relatives of the deceased changed their names as a precaution against the return of the soul that might drag them into the otherworld.
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