Cultural Overview

A cluster of approximately 10 named tribes speaking Eastern Tukanoan languages is found in the region of the Uaupes River basin and adjacent areas in Brazil and Colombia. The area, referred to as the Northwest Amazon, is part of the Amazon river basin. The Uaupes River is an affluent of the Rio Negro, the Amazon river's largest tributary. The region is densely forested, yet the soils are poor, with the tree cover thinner than elsewhere in the basin.

Here, each named group possesses a distinct identifying language, yet no one group is autonomous. Rules of exogamy (out-marriage) require that one marry outside the "language group," so that the region is united through ties of intermarriage and may be said to share one common culture.

A language group consists of several villages arranged along the river edge. Generally speaking, villages are about 5 miles apart and contain up to 150 residents. According to preferences expressed by Eastern Tukanoan speakers, the villages of a language group should form a geographic unity. However, the more common pattern is one where villages of one language group are interspersed by villages of another language group. Villages are located on high ground at the river's edge, with paths leading to gardens deep inside the forest. The principal forms of livelihood are fishing, carried out by males, and root-crop horticulture, carried out by females. Males cut and burn new gardens, after which women plant, weed, and harvest several root crops, including manioc and sweet potato.

Because each group speaks a recognizable linguistic variant (a language or dialect within the Eastern Tukanaon family of languages), the groups have been called "tribes" (Sorensen, 1967) or "language groups" (Jackson, 1983) in the ethnographic literature. Members of a language group consider themselves to belong to one family, based upon an overriding principle of patrilineal descent from a single mythical ancestor. Each language group is in turn subdivided into patrilineal descent groups which have been called sibs (Goldman, 1963) or patri-clans. See studies by Chernela (1993), C. Hugh-Jones (1979), H. Hugh-Jones (1979), and Jackson (1983) for groups that conform to the norms described here; see Goldman (1963), Arhem (1981), and Chernela (1988a, 1989) for a discussion of departures from these norms.

On marriage, a bride from one language group must leave the village of her birth and reside among her husband's relatives, who are members of a different language group. Marrying inside her own language group would be considered incestuous. In this broad regional network, marital and kin ties unite some 14,000 speakers of diverse languages over an area of approximately 150,000 km2.

In addition, Eastern Tukanoan descent groups are also ranked according to seniority, so that every patriclan and every individual within a language group has a distinct ranked relationship to every other.

The result is a uniquely coherent culture complex, with unilineal descent, rank orders, and cross-cousin marriage acting as major integrating structural principles.

The linguist Arthur Sorensen (1967) identified 13 languages as members of the Eastern Tukanoan language family: Tukano, Tuyuca, Yuruti, Paneroa, Eduria, Karapana, Tatuyo, Barasana, Piratapuyo, Wanano, Desano, Siriano, and Kubeo. He suggests that the member languages of the Eastern Tukanoan family are less closely interrelated than those of the Romance or Scandinavian groups.

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