Guahibo Essence: Experiencing Colombia’s Indigenous Soul
The Guahibo were once present in large numbers in the eastern regions of Colombia known as Los Llanos (Savannah), of which Casanare is part. Although now much reduced in number, the Guahibo are still one of Colombia’s major indigenous ethnic groups.
Guahibo and Chiricoa, are two South American tribes inhabiting the savannas along the Orinoco River in eastern Colombia; some Guahibo also live east of the Orinoco in Venezuela.
They speak closely related languages or dialects of Guahiboan and are otherwise culturally indistinguishable.
Guahiboan belongs to the Guajibo language family in South America. The existing dialects are Guajibos, Amorua and Tigrero. Each has its own language, but many have been lost and are now replaced by Spanish.
Although 55% are illiterate, written Guajibo does still exist.
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The Guahibo live in a zone bounded by the Meta River to the north, the Vichada River to the south, the Orinoco River to the east and the Muco River to the west. Outside this area, marginal groups are found north of the Meta, in Boyaca and Arauca and south of the Vichada, in the vicinity of the Mataveni River. In Venezuela, a few have also been reported in the Apure region and south of the Orinoco in Amazonas Territory.
Traditionally the Guahibo were nomadic hunters, gatherers and fishermen. Their most important animal was the armadillo, which was highly prized. They hunted equally forest and savannah animals and gathered plant foods, while fishing and the capture of river animals was of lesser importance.
The Mantaco palm heart was consumed as a staple.
They usually hunted with bows and arrows with a frequent technique involving men walking together through an area in a long line, eventually closing into a circle and capturing their prey.
A fishing net was made from the vavara palm, by using it as a frame for a woven fishing net of cumare fiber. These nets were employed when fishing with barbasco (poisonous plants), to scoop up the stunned fish as they floated to the surface.
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The Guahibo were skilled artisans, producing beautiful pottery. Other handcrafts included weapons, hammocks, grinding bowls, rafts and clothing.
Musical instruments included rattles, panpipes and cane flutes.
Trading between groups was frequent, using palm thread, palm fiber hammocks, calabash gourds (hard-skinned fruit) and even captured slaves.
Constantly on the move, they rarely spent more than two or three days in one camp. Their largest unit of organization was under a hereditary leader, which was estimated to number about 20,000.
Described as nomadic hunter-gatherers, whose form of life contrasted with sedentary river dwellers dedicated to horticulture.
Beginning in the 18th century they began to settle down on the banks of the Meta, Vichada, and Ariari rivers with the remainder of the Arawak (Achagua and Piapoco) and changed their form of life from hunting and gathering to that of semi-sedentary horticulture.
At the end of the 17th century, the Guahibo gained control over the riverine territories after the Jesuit missionaries had departed. The missionaries were never able to congregate them into towns, to be able to control them.
Surges of colonization brought about conflicts in the interior, which led to the territory being overrun by cattle ranchers headed to the east. They were not afraid to use bullets and guns on the natives. The Guahibo took advantage as best they could and attacked travelers and hunted cattle without mercy.
Throughout there was fairly extensive trade between the nomads of the savanna and the sedentary farming peoples in the forests to the south. At one time the nomads supplied them with slaves captured during their warfare with other tribes.
The Guahibo had a rather intricate knowledge for a nomadic people and made painted pottery, hammocks and many kinds of baskets.
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