Witoto Tribe:Cultural Colombian Wonders

Witoto, also known as Huitoto, is a South American indigenous tribe of southeastern Colombia and northern Peru, belonging to an isolated language group. The Witoto once consisted of 100 villages and 31 tribes, but disease and conflict have considerably reduced their numbers.

They first experienced contact with Europeans in the early 17th century. However, contacts remained sporadic well into the 19th century, so as a result at the beginning of the 20th century Witoto had a population of about 50,000.

The rubber boom of the mid-20th century brought disease and displacement to the Witoto and their numbers plummeted to between 7,000 and 10,000.

In the Witoto region, the destructive rubber industry relied on indigenous labor, who were kept in endless servitude through constant debt and physical torture. This had such a detrimental effect on the surrounding indigenous people that by the time the exploitation had ceased, the area’s indigenous population had fallen to a fraction of its original number.

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Then since the 1990s cattle ranchers have encroached on Witoto‘s land, depleting the soil and polluting the waterways. In response to this invasion, the Colombian government established several reservations for the Witotos.

The Witoto are divided into several groups, the largest of which is the Murui, who live on the western edge of their territory. Another group, the Muinane, habitually lived to the east of the Murui.

Historically they were a large group, but most of them were gradually absorbed into the Murui. A third group, the Menekas live in the basins of the Putumayo and Ampyak rivers. There are also many smaller groups scattered around.

The Witoto have lived according to the patrilineal lineage. This custom is less common today, but some community elders continue the tradition. They live in communal housing known as malokas, shared by several families. Each family has a separate space for hanging hammocks.

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The center of Witoto family, social and ceremonial life is the communal house. These are octagonal with a conical roof, usually with the entrance facing east. Besides the communal house, there are outbuildings and small houses within the complex that the communal house dominates. Witoto communal houses are of the Murui (masculine) type with closed roofs or the Muinane (feminine) type with an opening at the apex of the roof.

These structures are symbolically complementary like earth and sky, man and woman, thought and substance. In households that are politically and ceremonially prominent, there is a xylophone made of hollow wood sticks of various sizes, suspended from a wooden frame, that produce different notes when they are beaten to announce the beginning of a ceremony or the arrival of an honored visitor. Certain individuals are specialists in building and playing these instruments. Others specialize in the production and use of tobacco or coca and certain songs, dances and kinds of ritual knowledge.

Witoto diet consists primarily of arepas made from yuca brava flour and meat obtained from hunting and fishing. In the maloka, men have specific places where they can consume an ancestral green powder called mambe, or jiibi. This powder is made from coca leaves and yarmo ash. Traditionally, Witoto men play a drum called a maguare while consuming mambe and the sound can be heard several kilometers away. The purpose of these drums is to communicate with nearby tribes.

Witoto culture is typical of the tropical forest: they are good farmers and food gatherers as well as proficient hunters and fishermen. The typical settlement consists of a single large round or rectangular hut sheltering many families, from which they use the large, hollow signal drums to communicate. Traditionally, women go naked, while men wear only a breechclout (small covering) with both sexes painting colorful designs on their bodies, sometimes from shoulders to feet.

Ceremonial regalia was specific to the occasion and to individual status; people emphasized their rank by wearing certain kinds of plumage and jaguar tooth necklaces and chiefs carried ceremonial axes. Today, however, many of the Witoto wear Western-style clothing.

The Witoto practice slash-and-burn farming. To prevent land depletion, they rotate fields every few years. Major crops include cocoa, coca, corn, bitter and sweet canola, bananas, mangoes, palms, pineapples, plantains, sugarcane, sweet potatoes, and yams. Tobacco and peanuts are also grown in small quantities.

Witoto men hunt with blowguns with poisoned darts for small game and also small shotguns. They make traps and pitfalls of various kinds and formerly hunted with spears, but never used the bow and arrow. They bring home such games as peccaries, tapir, capybaras, agoutis, anteaters, armadillos, deer, sloths, parrots, frogs and turtles, but the most treasured is the monkey. Fish are caught in nets and speared, while fishhooks are now also used. Men often hunt and fish at night with flashlights.

Historically, Witoto groups and even villages have often been at war with each other; one purpose of these wars was to take prisoners. Young captives were incorporated into the group as members, and the old were ritually eaten during a ceremony. Cannibalism was limited to male participation and was part of a magico-religious celebration.
Another purpose of warfare was to exact revenge against shamans believed to have caused illness as shamans conjured spirits and healed diseases.

In 2023, four indigenous children, including an infant, survived 40 days in the jungle after a plane crash killed all adults, including their mother. It has been suggested that lore they had previously heard from their relatives helped them obtain enough food to survive.

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