Situated at the junction of the lowlands and the highlands, the Yurakaré represent a group without affiliation, not only at the linguistic level. Even though their socio-cultural profile and their general economy make them a lowland Amazonian people, it is difficult to group them with any of their eastern neighbors, or to fit them into a regionally well-defined group. This idiosyncrasy does not mean that we cannot identify a network of connections between the cultural profile of the Yurakaré and those of their direct neighbors from the Andean foothills as well as those from the Mojo Savannahs. The ‘Andean’ influence, which reflects the long-term relationships the Yurakaré entertained with their highlands neighbors is less clear than in the case of the Chimane/Mosetén group, and even less than in the case of the Tacana group (cf. Métraux 1942). On the other hand, as shown by Nordenskiöld (1929), there were also connections between the Yurakaré and the peoples from the Chaco area, considering a number of common elements of the material culture (the use of a carrying basket made of vegetal fiber, and a spherical, flattened flute carved from wood, both objects which are widely spread in the Chaco but not in the foothill area towards the north or in the plains). Apart from these objects, the social classification of the Yurakaré comes very close to what ethnographers found in the Chaco area, but not with the immediate neighbors of the Yurakaré (more on social classification and kinship terminology below).

Historical sketch

The Yurakaré have been mentioned by their current name in the historical sources since the end of the sixteenth century (e.g. López [ca. 1570] 1971, Toledo 1573 in Levillier 1926; cf. also Kelm 1966, Schramm 1993, 1995 for a historical survey of the Yurakaré for that period). The available sources of the 16th century and the archeological vestiges from the area allow us to make some statements about the situation of the Yurakaré before the arrival of the Spaniards (cf. Sánchez 2003). The earliest historical period in which we can situate the Yurakaré (the end of the 15th century) is characterized by two major social processes: on the one hand the territorial expansion of the Inca empire Tawantinsuyu in the Andes, stretching towards the lowlands, and on the other hand the migrations of the Guaraní, coming from the Paraná basin, and giving rise to the ethnogenesis of the Chiriguanos (Combès y Saignes 1991).
    Even though we do not know exactly how close the relationships between the Yurakaré and the Incas were, the available historical sources show that they were less important than those of their immediate neighbors in the foothill area: the Amo or Rache (extinct today), who dwelled in an area reaching from the upper Chapare basin towards the north, and the Tamacoci of the area of the Grigota plains, where today we find the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. In both cases we know that these groups had a certain form of administrative dependence on the Incas (Angulo [1584] 1906), Alcaya [ca. 1610] 1906). Schramm (1993) argues that this could also have been true for the Yurakaré, through the mediation of the Chuy people of the valleys, who themselves were directly subjected to the Incas. None of the sources, however, describes these relationships as clearly as for the other groups. Therefore it seems reasonable to assume that the involvement of the Yurakaré in the expansive policies of the Incas towards the lowlands was less important than that of their immediate foothill neighbors (Hirtzel in prep.).
    Regarding the ties of the Yurakaré with the Guaraní migrants, we know from sources from the 1580s giving testimony of the events of these years (e.g Blas 1584, Solís Holguín 1914 [1603] ) that they maintained direct contacts at that time. However, even though there were contacts with the ‘Chiriguanaes’, as the Chiriguanos are called in those sources, these did not lead to the same type of submission as was the case with other groups at the margins of the Cordillera, like the Chane or the already mentioned Tamacoci. The Yurakaré stayed at a distance far enough not to be ‘enslaved’ or absorbed by the powerful immigrants (Kelm 1997 [1966]). On the other hand, even though the sources mention “anti-colonial alliances” against the Spaniards between the Yurakaré, the Chiriguanos and other groups of that area (cf. García Recio 1988), this does not mean that the Yurakaré shared the same logic of belligerent incorporation of the other (census Viveiros de Castro 1992) as their Guaraní allies.
    The arrival of the Spaniards caused profound demographic changes in the Andean area neighboring the Yurakaré territory, as well as in the region where the Government of Santa Cruz was created. The installation of the Spaniards and their policy towards indigenous people destroyed the regional ties that existed in the Inca period. Confronted with these changes, and mainly in order to resist the Spanish expansion, the Yurakaré opted for a strategy based on retreat and isolation as well as on defense by warfare. During the whole first half of the seventeenth century, the episodes of war (punctual aggressions and cycles of vengeance) between the Yurakaré and the Spaniards are numerous (Schramm 1995, Meruvia Balderrama 2000). From the middle of the seventeenth century onwards, expeditions were organized in search of the legendary land of Paititi (a regional version of ‘El Dorado’) from the Valleys towards the actual Chapare region. As this required a pacific environment, the intensity of warfare in that area diminished (Hirtzel in prep.).
    Nevertheless, the Yurakaré remained relatively unaffected by all the attempts to enter the area from the Andes organized in the last third of the seventeenth century. In the same vein, their isolation made them practically impermeable to the religious penetration of the Jesuits, which within only a few decades changed the social organization of a great part of what today is eastern Bolivia (the Mojo plains and the Chiquitania. Only at the end of the eighteenth century the Yurakaré gave up their position outside the colonial world. However, the ‘incorporation’ of the Yurakaré into the colonial world through concentration in missions, attempted especially by Franciscans, was a complete failure. All the attempts of conversion of the Yurakaré resulted in the abandonment of the missions. The first phase of missionary attempts to enter the area lasted from 1776 until 1821, the second started in the 1840s and ended in the 1850s, and even the last attempt, at the beginning of the 1900s, resulted in the departing of the missionaries in the 1920s. In no case the missionaries, no matter which era, had been able to control the totality of the Yurakaré population.
    The main changes for the Yurakaré, apart from their long and problematic relations with the missionaries, came with the development of a commercial axis uniting the valleys of Cochabamba and the plains of the Beni via the Chapare and Ichilo basins at the end of the eighteenth century. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, as a consequence of the production of rubber in Acre, the economic flux increased considerably and projects were developed to colonize the areas around this axis. From then on, ports and colonized towns were built (Santa Rosa, Todos Santos, Villa Tunari), which saw the arrival of an ever growing stream of colonizers (Rodriguez Ostria 1997).
    It was, however, only after the revolution of 1952, and especially in the 1970s and 1980s, that the central Yurakaré territory witnessed the most striking changes, with the arrival of tens of thousands of Andean peasant colonizers and ex-miners who were relocated in the moment the road network expanded with the opening of the road from Cochabamba to Santa Cruz (Paz 1991). This increased the retreat of the Yurakaré to the outside of the colonized area where the forest was exploited and systematically transformed into an agrarian and fishing area. The exponential increase of the colonization was mainly sustained by the profits of coca production and drug trafficking. This movement has remained constant until the present and the forefront of it is still advancing, though at a slower pace than some decades ago.
    In the northern part of the Yurakaré territory, consisting of the area where the National Park Isiboro-Sécure was created in 1965, this situation had less impact than in the Chapare or Ichilo basins. In this area especially the Yurakaré were witnesses to other social movements in the passing of the twentieth century, like the expansion of cattle farming typical of the Beni economy toward the Andes. Furthermore, the search for lands without owners and the messianic movement in search of the Holy Hill (Loma Santa, cf. Lehm 2000) caused the creation of more and more Mojo-Trinitario communities in this area.
    At the religious level, the second half of the twentieth century is characterized by the arrival of the north-American evangelical missionaries of the New Tribes Mission who settled down along the Chapare river and organized their missionary activities from their center in Nueva Vida. Even though they were more successful than the Franciscans, they could not extend their influence over all the Yurakaré communities. Especially in the Isiboro-Sécure area their influence has remained marginal.
    As a reaction to the process of the seizure of their territory, a social movement demanding land reclaim came into being, first headed by the Mojo people. This movement led to the march for territory and dignity in 1991, which resulted in a recognition by the state of the right to possession of the land of the Yurakaré. First the Isiboro National Park Isiboro-Sécure was decreed as indigenous territory, while in the Chapare basin two ‘Territorios Comunitarios de Origen’ (indigenous communal territories) were founded: the TCO Yurakaré and the TCO Yuqui (see Geography). This process was motivated by the control of territory and resources it contained and was the departure point for the creation of the local and regional indigenous representative councils (Consejos Indígenas, Centrales de Cabildos) in the Cochabamba department as well as in the Beni department, which today defend the interests of the indigenous people, and help foster the local socio-economic development.

Short description of the social organization


The historical processes the Yurakaré formed part of in the twentieth century have drastically modified all parts of their social life. Historically, the Yurakaré were one of the peoples whose economy was based on the classic horticulture of the tropical rain forests (rotating slash and burn), as well as hunting and fishing, with supportive gathering of the products of the forest, an economy which can still be found in various places in the Isiboro-Sécure area.
    The Yurakaré settlements were characterized by the atomization of their houses. A local group consisted of various houses dispersed along a river or a creek. The order of proximity of the houses was determined by kinship and marriage relationships, the masculine line having the stronger integrative capacity. Each local group occupied an area in which they periodically relocated the houses of each of their members in a relatively fluid manner, inspired by the need to build new houses every now and again (as their houses did not last longer than ten years) or by the need to open new plantations for their crops. This territorial mobility was also determined by the history of a local group: the death of an older person or internal conflicts could provoke resettlements, generate processes of splitting and the formation of new groupings. Interfering with these small-scale regular movements were larger movements, related to the contacts of the Yurakaré with the ‘foreigners’: concentration in the missions, as well as attraction to the cattle farms on the one hand, and a retreat from the colonization front on the other.
    Currently, the process of the concentration of the local groups in villages is almost complete. Permanent settlement in legally recognized communities makes it possible to be incorporated into the national educational system and the indigenous organizational structures; it has also changed the movement patterns of the Yurakaré. The actual movement patterns range from temporal labor-related migration to the outside of the TCOs (Lara Delgado 2002) to an internal migration between communities.
    In Bolivia, the territorial flexibility of the Yurakaré has often been considered as some type of ‘nomadic life’. These are exaggerated statements, because it has nothing in common with the territoriality of the hunters-gatherers, who, indeed, practice a form of nomadic life. Like many peoples of the lowlands, the Yurakaré form an egalitarian society, which shows no sign of any form of institutionalized hierarchy. Even though there existed in each group one or more powerful men, their leadership did not extend to more than political matters pertaining to the kinship-based local group. What can be noted in the case of the Yurakaré, is the superiority of the elder over the younger people, and within the same generation, of the older over the younger. Furthermore, a man who had many sons, and/or attracted many sons-in-law could gain local influence. The Yurakaré do not form a society where the “chiefs are without power” as Clastres (1977 [1974]) argues, but rather a society without institutionalized chiefs, as Descola (1988) accurately notes. This atomization of power, which corresponds to the disperse structure of their local communities can still be seen nowadays in the operating of the political and territorial organizations of the Yurakaré: their leaders, who are often internally disputed, have difficulties gaining respect for the legitimacy of their political actions, even if they are democratically chosen.
    Even though the elements of social organization presented here can be observed in many other societies of the lowlands, in the case of the Yurakaré they are combined with a relatively special type of social classification in terms of kinship terminology. In opposition to many Amazonian peoples, the Yurakaré kinship terminology is not based on the logic that allows to distinguish between cross-kin and parallel kin. The father’s brother and the mother’s sister receive a specific name, which differs from their same sex sibling (F≠FB; M≠MZ), but that is identical to the mother’s brother and the father’s sister, respectively (FB=MB; FZ=MZ). Furthermore, the Yurakaré do not differentiate between two types of cousins (cross or parallel), who are all called younger or older brothers and sisters.
    The terminological architecture of the Yurakaré kinship term system shares various characteristics with the classifications of many contemporary Indo-European languages, albeit with its own peculiarities. What they all have in common is that they do not pose any structural rules or constraints as to the choosing of a spouse. The only constraint on marriage candidates for the Yurakaré is the prohibition of incest in terms of the closeness of the kinship relation. In the past, only the marriage between siblings was prohibited, but this has extended to first grade cousins and even further, due to external pressure (especially religiously motivated) during the past century. However, the normative accounts given by the Yurakaré do not always reflect practice, and cases of close marriage can still be found (Hirtzel in prep.).
    Because of their conflicts with the Spaniards in the past, the Yurakaré have gained the reputation of a belligerent people. However, the importance of warfare was historically less prominent than for other groups of the lowlands, without implying that the Yurakaré could be said to have had a pacifistic disposition, like it is claimed for some peoples of the Amazon. The Yurakaré never seem to have practiced any form of symbolic or real incorporation of non-Yurakaré enemies by means of complex warfare rituals, like taking trophies or cannibalism. Even though in the old sources we find mentions of war captives, they are rare and cannot be compared to the neighboring groups such as the Chiriguanaes (cf. Combès y Saignes 1991) or Yuqui (Jabin, pers. comm.), where the pair captive-captor was attributed a role of major importance. Furthermore, contrary to these two groups, we find no mention of internal wars or vendettas among the Yurakaré in the historical sources.
    At the level of internal conflicts, however, there did exist a very particular institution, the turumata ‘arrow duel’, which could be carried out by persons who were in direct conflict. These duels were realized by an exchange of arrows, which the duelists directed at the shoulder of their adversary. These duels did not have as their objective to kill each other, but just served as a confrontation of valiance and courage, until one of the two duelists would surrender. Kelm (1997 [1964]) proposed a functional analysis of this combat as a means for “settling of a dispute”. However, it cannot be confined to this aspect, because the duels did not exclusively occur with a background of direct conflict, and were tightly connected to a value of affinity, and especially masculine affinity, corresponding to ‘friendship’ (chee) of a very particular kind between men.

Principal cosmological elements and ritual practices

For a long period of time (and for some this still holds presently) the Yurakaré have viewed themselves as a distinct and special group of people on the basis of the mythological story of the demiurge Tiri, the contents and importance of which have been discussed first in D’Orbigny (1844). This story, which can be considered to be the Yurakaré myth of their origin, belongs to a family of related texts which have a very broad, pan-South-American diffusion, often called “The saga of the twins” (Métraux 1931, 1946, Lévi-Strauss 1991). The contents of these stories have many elements in common, the principle element being that the demiurge Tiri, the son of a woman who gets lost in the jungle, is secretly brought up by the mother of the jaguars, who in turn are the assassins of Tiri’s biological mother.
    Some elements particular to the Yurakaré version of this story deserve a closer look. For instance, in the Yurakaré version, Tiri is an only child, and does not have any twin brothers or sisters. Instead, the twin sibling of the demiurge appears in the Yurakaré version as a character who is born out of the nail of Tiri’s big toe. Furthermore, in its most complete versions, the story of Tiri normally includes a destructive character called Aymashunñe, who plays a vital role in the cosmology of the Yurakaré.
    Through its narrative contents, the story of Tiri carries some cosmological propositions that can be summarized as follows: in an area that is considered to be the most remote of the Beni savannahs, lives Aymashunñe, a character described as an immortal figure, burning like fire. Now and again, this character comes out of his refuge to destroy the whole world and humanity by causing a devastating fire. In some of the most complicated versions of this story, Tiri and his clone Karru are the sole survivors of the previous humanity after an all-destroying fire caused by Aymashunñe. At the end of these versions there is a passage in which a new humanity, originating from below the ground, repopulates the earth as we know it today.
    The moment that Tiri meets these people coming from below the ground is a key moment in which the representation of the Yurakaré as a separate collective becomes apparent. In the versions that include these narrative elements, Tiri invites some of the people that came out of the earth to join him to a heavenly place way past the Andes (and symmetrically opposed to the dwelling place of Aymashunñe). However, Tiri does not succeed in taking all the people to this place of abundance: the ones left behind are precisely those that tell his story. In this way, the Yurakaré consider themselves as a people that have been forgotten by their own demiurge.
    Aymashunñe’s capacity of intervening in the real world as well as the westward migration of Tiri formed the basis of a double-faced eschatology for the Yurakaré who were left behind, putting them in a place between hope and fear, with on the one hand the ever-present threat of the earth’s destruction by Aymashunñe, and on the other hand the possible return of Tiri when he should realize that he had forgotten them.
    Apart from the stories of Tiri and Aymashunñe, which define the general elements of a basic cosmology, spirits used to play an important role in the Yurakaré perspective on the organization of the world. Basically, the Yurakaré distinguished two classes of spirits, the first were spirits without a proper name, who were the masters or proprietors of the earth or the clay. These spirits, who were considered to be extremely dangerous, were seen as the protectors of the animals, and their dwelling places normally correspond to places were many animals are found (cf. Hirtzel 2007a). The other class of spirits were much less dangerous: the Mororuma. These spirits were seen as the masters of the strongest thunderbolts, which helped the Yurakaré and their shamans with curing illnesses. By means of a specific apprentice path, based in particular on the ingestion of tobacco, people could get acquainted with these spirits, and gain access to the spiritual world in general. The ones with the most stamina could even reach the point where they could marry the women of the spiritual world and carry offspring in their breast, as it is the case for the Chimane (Daillant 2003). Presently, the knowledge and the practices linked to the spiritual world has changed a lot, particularly under the influence of the Christian faith. There is a general tendency to demonize the ancient ritual practices by placing them under the rubric of ‘witchcraft’.
    Although the Yurakaré did not have complex cycles of rituals, there were still a number of ritual practices that were associated with certain productive activities of daily life, which involved spirits and corresponded to adopting cautious behavior during their realization. As the most part of these ritual practices have disappeared, we are dependent on older sources and on what elder people remember (cf. also Paz, Suaznabar & Garnica 1989, Querejazu 2005). One of the ritual practices that have been written down concerned collective hunting expeditions. To please the spirits, the Yurakaré used to sprinkle salted water or chicha over the heads of hunted animals such as monkeys or peccaries (cf. D’Orbigny 1844). The production of ceramics by women was also associated with specific behavior meant to avoid the spirit of the clay becoming angry. This specific behavior consisted for instance of the prohibition of speech between the women, or the production of the ceramics taking place far away from the men. Other ritual practices took place during the time of the creation of new plantations, where people sang and played music in honor of the trees that were to be cut down.
    Apart from this type of ritual practices directed towards spiritual entities, there were also other ritual practices, marking a personal trajectory of individuals. Like in various other places in lowland South-America, girls, at the time they reached puberty, were subjected to a ritual of severe reclusion in a mosquito net for several days. Coming out of this fasting period, the ritual followed several prescribed steps, among them cutting the hair of the girl. When she made her first chicha, a couple of weeks later, they invited the neighbors to a party where especially younger people could enter into a ritual to strengthen themselves (kulukkuta). This ritual consisted of having the skin pierced with a sharp, pointed bone in various places of the body. This same ritual, which corresponded to the coming into existence of a ‘new woman’, could also be practiced in the same manner to inaugurate a new wooden bowl (laweta) used for the first time to make chicha. In some communities, the reclusion of women and piercing rituals are still being practiced.
    During these rituals, and undoubtedly also on other occasions - even though we cannot say this with certainty - the Yurakaré used to sing and dance. Their traditional dance and music shilata is hardly remembered nowadays and has been replaced by ‘modern-style’ dancing and music.

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