otheruses4|the Yagua embasilic huımans people|the Yagua language|Yagua language|Yagua (Venezuela)The Yagua are a people in northeastern Peru numbering approximately 3,000 to 4,000. Currently, they live near the Amazon, Napo, Putumayo and Yavari Rivers and their tributaries. Ethnographic descriptions of the Yagua are found in Fejos (1943) and P. Powlison (1985). The history and migrations of the Yagua are described in Chaumeil (1983). As of 2005, apparently some Yagua have migrated northward to Colombia, near the town of Leticia.


Currently the Yagua live in some 30 communities scattered throughout a section of the Peruvian and Colombian Amazon basin which can roughly be described as a rectangle 200 miles wide and 350 miles long (70,000 sq. miles) extending southward from the second to the fifth parallel and westward from the seventieth to the seventy-fifth meridian (Powlison, 1969).

As for present day population, approximately three thousand people would identify themselves as Yaguas. Of these, 75% of the women and 25% of the men are monolingual in Yagua, the rest being bilingual in Spanish to varying degrees.


There are two possible etymologies for the term 'yagua', both of which originate outside of the Yagua language. First, the Quechua term "yawar" meaning 'blood' or 'the color of blood', is a likely possibility due to the Yagua custom of painting their faces with achiote, the blood red seeds of the annatto plant ("Bixa orellana").

During the pre-conquest period, the Yaguas were in close contact with the Incas, as to this day there are far more Quechua (Inca) words in Yagua than there are Spanish words. The term in Quechua would have been something like "yawar runa", 'the blood-red people', which could easily have been assimilated into Spanish as "yagua".

Second, the term "yagua" in Spanish means 'royal palm'. This term could have been applied to the Yaguas by the Spanish explorers because much of the native clothing is made of palm fiber. Unfortunately, there is no data on whether a name resembling "yagua" was first used by the Quechuas of the area or the Spanish, therefore there is no principled way to distinguish between these two possible etymologies.

The only native term that might be thought of as a self-referent is "nijyąąmíy" 'people.' This word is often used in contrast with "mááy" 'white people' and "munuñúmiy" 'savages', 'enemies' or 'non-Yaguas'. However, "nijyąąmíy" is also the generic term for all human beings.


The third earliest documented European contact with the Yagua was probably made by the Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana in January 1542. While exploring in the area of modern day Pebas, Orellana encountered a village called Aparia, and captured two chiefs named Aparia and Dirimara, as well as some others (Medina 1934:257). These names could conceivably have come from the Yagua words "(j)ápiiryá" 'red macaw clan' and "rimyurá" 'shaman' respectively. The former could very well be a village name as well as a name applied to an individual; today clan names are still used by many Yaguas as family names. The word for shaman might also be used to refer to an individual, especially one singled out as a 'chief'. Regular European contact began in 1686 with the establishment of a Jesuit mission at San Joaquin de los Omagua, on an island in the Amazon river probably near what is now the mouth of the Ampiyacu river (Chaumeil, 1981:18). Though this mission was established to serve the Cambeba people, there was undoubtedly contact with the Yaguas as well. From the 17th century to the last half of the 19th century, contact with the Yaguas was mainly through the Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries. In the early 18th century, Portuguese raiding parties attacked the Spanish missions throughout the Amazon region causing much geographic dispersion of the tribes that were in contact with the Spanish, and inflicting severe casualties (Espinosa, 1955).

The present extreme geographic dispersion of the Yagua, however, is due largely to the effects of the 'rubber boom' in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At that time Europeans arrived in large numbers from Brazil and began to exploit the indigenous people to extract natural latex from the jungle. Many Yaguas died in conflicts with these Europeans, as well as by exposure to European diseases. Others were exploited as slave labor. Still others fled to remote regions of the jungle. Ever since the rubber boom, the Yagua sense of unity and of common culture has declined.


The tremendous distances between villages make it very difficult to have consistent interaction with Yaguas outside of one's home village. All economic activity outside of the village is with non-Yagua peoples, usually Spanish-speakers. Thus there is economic and social pressure to learn Spanish and assimilate to the general Peruvian culture. Villages are also characteristically quite small (2 to 30 families). This fact further limits the breadth of interaction with other Yaguas, and increases the tendency to want to reach out beyond one's village for social and economic advantages.

However, the Yagua culture and language do continue to be viable, especially in some of the larger and more isolated communities. Some children grow up speaking only Yagua, and native artisanship is a significant economic activity.


As a result of geographic dispersion combined with economic and sociolinguistic pressures, use of the Yagua language is in decline. Greenberg (1960), Loukotka (1968), and Voegelin and Voegelin (1977) all classify Yagua as the only extant member of the Peban or Peba-Yaguan language family of the Ge-Pano-Carib Phylum.

The only closely related languages that have been documented are Peba (Rivet, 1911) and Yameo (Espinosa, 1955), both of which are now extinct. Greenberg's classification of Peba-Yaguan as part of the Ge-Pano-Carib phylum (on which both Loukotka's and Voegelin and Voegelin's seem to be based) is unsupported by any substantive evidence, and thus is not to be considered authoritative. In fact the very existence of the Ge-Pano-Carib and Andean-Equatorial phyla has not been sufficiently documented, and therefore offers no real help in identifying the more distant genetic relations of Yagua.


*Chaumeil, J. P. 1983. "Historia y migraciones de los yagua." Lima: Peru.
*Fejos, Paul. 1943. "Ethnology of the Yagua." Viking.
*Powlison, Paul. 1985. "Yagua Mythology: Epic Tendencies in a New World Mythology." Dallas:
*Handbook of Amazonian languages, vol. 2, ed. by Desmond C. Derbyshire and Geoffrey Pullum. The Hague: Mouton.

External links

* [http://www.biopark.org/peru/yahua.html International Biopark]
* [http://www.earthwatch.org/site/pp.asp?c=dsJSK6PFJnH&b=2086911 Earthwatch Institute]
* [http://www.amazon-indians.org/page17.html Amazon-Indians.org]

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