Warao - Orientation

Identification. The Warao Indians, fishermen and incipient agriculturists, inhabit the labyrinthine arms of the Orinoco Delta of northeastern Venezuela and adjacent areas. "Warao" is an autodenomination meaning "lowland people" or "marshland people" from waha, "lowland," and arao, "inhabitant people." All non-Warao, whatever their origin, are hotarao , "dryland people," from hota, "high" or "dryland," and arao. "Guaraúno" is a Hispanicized version of the ethnonym, and "Tiuitiua" is the name given the Warao by the Otomac Indians, referring to a type of sandpiper, waharomu ( Tringa flavipes ), with which the Warao identified mythologically. Sir Walter Raleigh, the sixteenth-century English explorer, refers to the Tiuitiuas as divided into "Ciawani" and "Waraweete" ("real Warao").

Location. Politically, the Orinoco Delta forms part of the Venezuelan Federal Territory of Delta Amacuro (Territoria Federal Delta Amacuro), which spreads over 40,200 square kilometers and is located between 7°38′ and 10°3′ N and 59°48′ and 62°30′ W. The area is at the northern tip of the vast lands between the Orinoco and Amazon rivers, called in colonial times the "Island of Guayana." More than half of the Warao population lives in a coastal strip of mangrove and moriche- palm ( Mauritia flexuosa ) swamps, about 80 kilometers deep, along some 200 kilometers of seashore between the Río Marosa (Mariusa) of the central delta and the Río Amacuro (Amakoro) south of the Río Grande del Orinoco. The warm and humid climate of the delta produces a mean annual temperature of 26° C, but early mornings can be chilly. The area is under the influence of twice-daily tides, which during the dry season between January and April bring brackish water upriver. After the sudden onset of the rainy season around May, the annual flooding of the Orinoco reaches a peak in August and September and fills the adjacent Gulf of Paria up to the island of Trinidad with fresh water to such an extent that it made Columbus suspect he had happened on a great continent when he touched the Spanish Main for the first time on his third voyage in August of 1498.

Demography. Today the total Warao population is estimated at 22,000, of which, according to the Venezuelan indigenous census of 1982, 19,573 live in Venezuela, and 17,654 in the Territorio Federal Delta Amacuro, where they constitute about one-third of the total population. The Warao form the second-largest indigenous group in the country after the Guajiro (Wayuu). Although indigenous peoples make up less than 1 percent of the country's estimated 17,000,000 population, they inhabit over one-third of its surface, mainly in strategic border areas. After holding at an estimated 8,000 during colonial times and into the twentieth century, the Warao population has about tripled, possibly because of improved health service regarding infectious and gastrointestinal illnesses; but new endemic diseases such as tuberculosis are bringing this growth to an end.

Linguistic Affiliation. AU Warao speak mutually intelligible variants of the same language. Warao has traditionally been considered an isolate, without affiliation with one of the great South American language families such as Tupí, Carib, or Arawak. Nevertheless, some scholars suggest a possible connection of Warao, together with Yanomaman and Barían, to the Chibcha Language Family, whose speakers live mainly in the Colombian Andes. More likely, all these unaffiliated languages belong to a common substratum and are only tenuously related. Originally an unwritten language, Warao today is spelled in a variety of ways, all in the Roman alphabet.

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