Made from Bone: Trickster Myths, Music, and History from the Amazon

Made from Bone: Trickster Myths, Music, and History from the Amazon

by Jonathan D. Hill

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Made-from-Bone provides the first complete set of English translations of narratives about the mythic past and its transformations from the indigenous Arawak-speaking Wakuénai of southernmost Venezuela. The central character throughout these primordial times is a trickster-creator, Made-from-Bone, who survives a prolonged series of life-threatening attacks. Carefully recorded and transcribed by Jonathan D. Hill, these narratives offer scholars of South America and other areas the only ethnographically generated cosmogony of contemporary or ancient native peoples of South America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252075704
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 10/29/2008
Series: Interp Culture New Millennium
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Jonathan D. Hill is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Southern Illinois University and the author of Keepers of the Sacred Chants: The Poetics of Ritual Power in an Amazonian Society.

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Trickster Myths, Music, and History from the Amazon
By Jonathan D. Hill

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2009 Jonathan D. Hill
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07570-4

Chapter One

The Arawakan Wakuénai of Venezuela

The Wakuénai, or Curripaco, live at the headwaters of the Río Negro, a region that is politically divided among the three countries of Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil. From a modern perspective, the Wakuénai appear to be located in a marginal area that is far removed from major centers of power and commerce. However, when seen in the long run of history, Wakuénai ancestral lands are anything but marginal. Rather, they occupy the riverine territories that connect the central Amazon floodplains in the south to the Orinoco basin, grasslands, and Caribbean Sea to the north.

The Wakuénai language belongs to the Northern, or Maipuran, branch of the Arawak family. At the time of Columbus's first encounters with the Taíno and other indigenous peoples living in the Caribbean basin, Arawak was the most widespread language family in the Americas, extending for three thousand miles from the Taíno in the north all the way to the Chané and Terena in southern Brazil and for twenty-four hundred miles from the Yanesha in the west to the Palikur (Pa'ikwené) near the mouth of the Amazon River (see map 1). Linguistic reconstruction (Key 1979) shows that Arawak-speaking peoples occupied lands along a continuous, flowing network of rivers spreading like a gigantic handprint across South America and the Caribbean, with "fingers" radiating up to the headwaters of the main southern, southwestern, and northwestern tributaries of the Amazon River; across the Orinoco basin and its tributaries in the western grasslands of Venezuela; along the northeastern coast of South America; and up into the Caribbean basin. The Wakuénai view of their lands as the center of the world and as the place from which the world opened up through their ancestors' movements away from and back to the mythic center makes perfect sense when understood in this broader historical and geographic perspective.

Five hundred years after Columbus's first encounters with the Taíno, the vast, continuous pattern of Arawak language groups across South America and the Caribbean has transformed into discrete pockets and clusters at the headwaters of major rivers, including the Orinoco, Negro, Purus, Ucayali, Madeira, and Xingu (see map 2). Together with the lowlands of eastern Peru and westernmost Brazil, the upper Río Negro region of Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil is one of the two areas where here is the greatest amount of linguistic, social, and cultural diversity among contemporary Arawak-speaking peoples. The Wakuénai are the largest surviving group in the Northern, or Maipuran, branch of the Arawak language family.

The Wakuénai of Venezuela are located primarily in villages along the Guainía-Negro River from Victorino in the north to Cocuí in the south (see map 3). A smaller number of their villages are found along the lower Casiquiare River; the Río Atabapo and its tributaries, the Temi and Atacavi rivers; and neighborhoods and villages in and around Puerto Ayacucho. The number of Wakuénai speakers living in the Venezuelan Amazon has increased from 1,600 in the early 1980s (OCEI 1982 census) to 4,817 in 2002 (Programa Censal 2001). Archaeological, linguistic, historical, and ethnographic evidence indicates that the Isana-Guainía drainage area of Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil formed the core region of ancestral Wakuénai territories.

Wakuénai mythic narratives describe the creation of humanity as a process in which the trickster-creator, Made-from-Bone, raised the mythic ancestors of Wakuénai phratries and patrisibs from a hole beneath the rapids at Hípana, a village on the Aiarí River in Brazil. In this myth, Made-from-Bone brought these ancestors to life by blowing tobacco smoke and giving each of them powerful spirit names. The narratives about mythic past times outline a process in which Made-from-Bone gradually shapes a world of primordial beginnings in which there is only one place into an expanding world of named, culturally and geographically distinct peoples and places. The contemporary world of fully human social groups and history unfolded as an opening up of the world through a series of movements away from and back to the mythic center, or place of emergence, at Hípana, during the cycle of mythic narratives about the birth, life, and "death" (or fiery transformation) of the primordial human being (Kuwái).

Wakuénai social organization is grounded in this understanding of mythic history as a series of outward expansions from and inward returns to the regional center at Hípana. The most dramatic social expressions of this process of mythic creation through opening up the world are the long series of malikái singing and chanting in male and female initiation rituals. These performances begin and end with singing that invokes First-Woman (Ámaru), her son (Kuwái), and their attachment to the world of living human beings via a celestial umbilical cord at Hípana, the place of ancestral emergence and "navel" of the world. Between the opening and closing songs, a series of chants lasting for several hours names all the places where Made-from-Bone traveled as he chased after First-Woman and tried to take back the sacred flutes and trumpets. In both male and female initiation rituals, sacred malikái singing and chanting aims to purify the sacred food, called káridzámai, that becomes the initiates' first meal as adult persons.

Place-naming in female initiation rituals moves down the Isana and Negro rivers and across the Casiquiare, Guainía, and Cuyarí rivers, musically mapping out the Isana-Guainía headwater region that forms the ancestral homeland of the Wakuénai (see map 4). In male initiation rituals, the chanting of place-names encompasses a much larger area of riverine territories extending from the Upper Río Negro downstream to the Lower Río Negro where it joins the Amazon River at Manaus and beyond, all the way to the mouth of the Amazon on the Atlantic Coast. Returning back upstream to the Upper Río Negro, the chanting of place-names continues north and east through the Atabapo and Middle Orinoco rivers until reaching the mouth of the Orinoco in the Caribbean Sea (see map 5). This enormous expanse of riverine territories is roughly equivalent to the geographic distribution of the northern branch of the Arawakan language family prior to the European colonization of South America in the sixteenth century. The chanting of place-names in initiation rituals is an episodic reopening of the world, an enchantment of the historical connections between the Wakuénai and their homeland in the Isana-Guainía headwater region, and a dynamic reconstruction of social networks that once extended across the two largest river systems in northern South America.

The basic unit of Wakuénai social organization is a group of brothers and their descendants who recognize shared identity by virtue of patrilineal descent from a common mythic ancestor. Anthropologists call such organization a "patrisib." Groups of four or five patrisibs are hierarchically organized into phratries on the basis of the order of mythic emergence of ancestral spirits. Patrisibs descending from firstborn, or "emerged," ancestors are the most highly ranked groups within each phratry and are referred to as "the older brothers." Lower-ranked sibs, or "younger brothers," are descended from mythic ancestors that were "born" or "emerged" later. Wakuénai phratries are internally ranked, but there is no evidence that there was ranking among the different phratries.

In spite of dislocations and migrations in the colonial and more recent periods, there are still strong associations between each phratry and specific riverine territories in the Isana-Guainía drainage area: the "Owners of the Jaguar" (Dzáwinai) phratry of Tonowí and the middle Isana River, the "Children of the Wild Chicken" (Hohódeni) phratry of the Aiarí River, the "Owners of the Duck" (Kumadámnainai) phratry of the upper Isana River, the "Grandchildren of the Pleiades" (Waríperídakéna) phratry of the Cuyarí River, the "Children of the Armadillo" (Adzanéni) phratry of the upper and middle Guainía River, and the "Owners of the Firefly" (Tuirímnainai) phratry of the middle and lower Guainía River (see map 6).

Most of the Wakuénai living along the Guainía-Negro River in Venezuela are members of the Adzanéni, Dzáwinai, Waríperídakéna, and Tuirímnainai phratries. Since all the patrisibs within each phratry regard one another as brothers, they collectively form a single expanded mythic family that serves as the unit of marital exogamy. Postmarital residence is virilocal after a brief, one-to two-year period of bride service during which young men reside uxorilocally in their wives' families' villages and demonstrate their proficiencies at clearing forest plots for manioc gardening, fishing, and other basic economic activities. In addition, there is a direct linkage between marriage and rank, resulting in a pattern of "rank endogamy." Men from highest-ranked groups intermarry with women from comparably ranked groups, thereby ensuring that elite status and ritual hierarchy will persist across generations.

The ranking of patrisibs within phratries and its linkage to marriage practices was still very much in evidence among the senior generation of men and women at the time of my fieldwork in the 1980s. Horacio and his brother, Herminio, were members of the second-highest ranked patrisib in the "Owners of the Jaguar" (Dzáwinai) phratry. Their wives, Antonia and Maria, were two sisters from the most highly ranked patrisib in the "Grandchildren of the Pleiades" (Waríperídakéna) phratry. This core group of highly ranked Dzáwinai men and their highly ranked Waríperídakéna wives formed the backbone of local social organization in the early 1980s.

However, rank endogamy and related practices, such as bride service and cross-cousin marriages, were giving way in the next generation of adults to marriages based on individual choice and other factors. For political and economic reasons, many young adults chose to marry members of other indigenous groups who were more firmly established in the Venezuelan Amazon, such as the Baniwa, Guarequena, Baré, and Ye'kuana. Horacio's son Félix was married to his mother's brother's daughter, a highly ranked Waríperídakéna woman in 1980, but that marriage ended in divorce in 1982. By 1984, Félix had remarried a Baniwa woman from a prominent local family in Maroa. Félix's older sister Felicia had been married to a Ye'kuana man since the late 1960s. This trend toward interethnic marriage continued to accelerate in the 1990s and began to include an increasing number of marriages between Wakuénai women and nonindigenous (criollo) men from Puerto Ayacucho and other, more distant Venezuelan cities. When I returned to the Río Guainía in 1998, Felicia's oldest daughter, Ester, had married a criollo man and moved to Puerto Ayacucho with him in the early 1990s.

Wakuénai social organization is also grounded in language practices. There are different ways of saying "yes" (áh-han, óh-hon, éh-hen) or "no" (cúrri, carrú, ñáme), which have given names to the five major dialects of Wakuénai. There are strong associations between these different dialects and specific phratries. The Áh-han dialect is spoken mainly by the Adzanéni, Óh-hon by the Waríperídakéna, Óh-hon or Carrú by the Dzáwinai, Éh-hen by the Tuirímnainai, and Ñáme by the Hohódeni. In spite of significant lexical differences among these dialects, the Wakuénai regard all five dialects to be a single, mutually intelligible language rather than five distinct languages. The term "Curripaco" most accurately describes the Áh-han-speaking Adzanéni and appears to have been adopted as the name for the entire set of dialect groups and phratries because Protestant missionaries chose to use the Áh-han, or Curripaco, dialect for their published translation of the New Testament. A more accurate ethnonym for all five dialect groups and associated phratries is "Wakuénai," or "People Who Speak Our Language," and that is the term I will use throughout this book.

The Wakuénai are masters of the headwater regions of the Guainía-Negro River, an area lying between 1 and 3 degrees north of the equator and forming a natural connection between rivers flowing northward into Venezuela (Orinoco and Atabapo) and southward into Brazil (Casiquiare and Guainía-Negro). The Atabapo, lower Casiquiare, and Guainía-Negro are blackwater rivers draining geologically ancient, nutrient-poor soils. Analysis of nutrient flows in forests near San Carlos de Río Negro have demonstrated that more than 98 percent of available nutrients are locked up in tightly closed recycling loops within the living components of the forest (Herrera et al. 1978). These white sand, blackwater ecosystems are so acidic (3 to 6 pH) that mosquitoes are unable to breed, and the region is relatively free of malaria, yellow fever, and other mosquito-borne diseases.

Producing or procuring sufficient food in the region's acidic rivers and sandy soils is difficult, and the Río Negro came to be known as "The River of Hunger" during the colonial period. Due to the region's proximity to the equator, rainfall is heavy throughout the year (3,600 mm average annual total). The slightly drier months of December through March allow people barely enough time to clear new gardens (conucos) and take advantage of more productive fishing and hunting conditions as the rivers fall to their lowest levels of the year. Burning of felled vegetation in February and March is crucial for successful gardening, since carbon and organic materials from burning and decaying vegetation is the main source of nutrients for garden soils and cultigens. Heavy rains in late March and April signal the start of a dramatic, seven-meter rise in river levels, resulting in the submersion of 65 percent of the region's forests. The long wet season from April through August is a period of scarcity when fishing and hunting productivity declines to a bare minimum. During the transition from dry to wet seasons in March and April (referred to as "The Mouth of the Pleiades," or wáripérihnúme, in Wakuénai), people experience a brief period of superabundance during the spawning migrations of bocachico (Leporinus spp.) fish. As the rivers and streams flood their banks, large schools of bocachico migrate into the newly flooded forests to spawn and are captured in weirs and traps as they return to the main channel of the river.

The Guainía-Negro River is characterized by a pronounced alternation between relative abundance of food in drier, low-water months and relatively severe scarcity in wetter, high-water months. Wakuénai economic activities are directly tied to this pattern of alternating abundance and scarcity. Looking broadly across the Isana-Guainía drainage area, the configuration of internally ranked phratric territories can be understood as a highly efficient human settlement pattern designed to take full advantage of the natural spawning migrations of various fish species into the headwater region and the annual felling and burning of forest vegetation to make gardens. A detailed study of nutritional status in four villages along the Guainía-Negro and lower Casiquiare rivers came to the surprising conclusion that the Wakuénai are generally well nourished, even at the height of the wet season (Holmes 1981). Another study demonstrated that bitter manioc production in conucos outside of San Carlos de Río Negro had an energy efficiency ratio of 10 calories output per 1 calorie of input, even in the sandy, nutrient-poor soils of the region (Uhl 1980).


Excerpted from Made-from-Bone by Jonathan D. Hill Copyright © 2009 by Jonathan D. Hill. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations....................vii
Preface: Introducing Made-from-Bone, the Trickster-Creator....................xi
1. The Arawakan Wakuénai of Venezuela....................1
Part 1: Words from the Primordial Times Overview....................20
2. Narratives from the Primordial Times....................25
The Cricket-Brothers; or, The Origin of Made-from-Bone....................25
The Origin of Death....................29
Owl-Monkey; or, Made-from-Bone Tries to End Poisoning....................31
Made-from-Bone and Anaconda-Person....................33
The Origin of the Bat-People....................37
The Origin of Cooking with Hot Peppers....................38
The Origin of the Vulture-People....................42
Great Sickness; or, The Origin of Malaria....................48
Made-from-Bone Creates Evil Omens....................53
3. Ethnohistorical Interlude: Historical Themes in the Myth of Made-from-Bone and Anaconda-Person....................57
Part 2: The World Begins Overview....................70
4. Narratives from "The World Begins"....................75
Grandfather Sleep; or, The Origin of Night....................75
The Origin of Fire....................80
The Origin of Working in Manioc Gardens....................82
The Origin of Ceremonial Music....................83
The Origin of Bocachico-Fish Dances....................85
Pípirri; or, The Origin of Peach-Palm Fruits....................87
5. Ethnomusicological Interlude: The Catfish Trumpet Festival of 1981, or How to Ask for a Drink in Curripaco....................92
Part 3: The World Opens Up Overview....................110
6. Narratives from "The World Opens Up"....................117
Kuwái, the Powerful Sound that Opened Up the World....................117
The Struggle between Made-from-Bone and First-Woman....................127
The Origin of Hallucinogenic Snuff and Shamanic Healing....................134
The Origin of Honey for Curing....................136
The Origin of Witchcraft and Its Treatment....................138
The Origin of Enchanted Spirits and the City of Gold....................142
7. Ethnological Coda: Shamanizing the State in Venezuela....................147
Appendix A: A Note on Translation Methods....................157
Appendix B: AILLA Numbers for Narratives, Music, Dances, and Illustrations....................160
References Cited....................177

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