Monday, June 14, 2010

Peoples of the Gran Chaco

The first major group of the southern hunters resided in the Gran Chaco, the great territorial depression between the Bolivian Andes, the Brazilian massif, the rocky hills along the upper Paraguay River, and the Córdoba mountains of Argentina. The Gran Chaco is not a region conductive to tilling. Its numerous marshes spill into and flood the surrounding grasslands during the rainy season, leaving a thin crust of salt on the land. During the rest of the year, the unrelenting sun dries up the vegetation, except for the thick tropical woodlands that bound the Gran Chaco on the east. Numerous cultural and linguistic groups contested for living space within this sparse landscape. At the time of European contact, the Chaco groups displayed much variation among

A 19th-century depiction of a group of indigenous people of Argentina’s Gran Chaco region (León Pallière, 1858)

From study of the Inca it is known that people from the Gran Chaco came to the border villages of the Andean empire to barter animal skins and ostrich and egret feathers for ornaments of gold, silver, and copper. Through trade, these same Andean products found their way east and south to the hunting groups on the Pampas. Few peoples of the Chaco cultivated crops, the Guaná being one of the exceptions, for they cultivated root crops, especially the cassava plant, and tobacco. The Guaná dried and crushed tobacco into a coarse powder, which they smoked in pipes.

Each of the seven major and numerous minor cultural and linguistic groups in the Gran Chaco maintained rituals representing beliefs about their relation to the cosmos. Certain rites of manhood and menstruation initiated youth into full participation in village affairs. Like all other indigenous groups, the people of the Chaco were polytheistic. Good and evil spirits existed everywhere, in nature, in animals, and in the heavens, so that the shamans had to chant and lead dances in order to placate the harmful spirits and bring good luck to the camp. The knowledge of herbs and the art of chanting confirmed the authority of the male, and in some cases female, shamans in curing the sick.

Each clan in the Chaco divided gender tasks: The men followed athletic and warrior pursuits, and the women, domestic and reproductive roles. Women constructed the temporary shelters, wove baskets, and made crude pottery. Monogamy prevailed among most men; only the headmen had more than one wife. The warriors honed their skills at warfare by hunting deer, peccaries, tapir, jaguars, and nutria. Boys customarily fished with bows and arrows. Besides using tobacco, all groups consumed chicha.

As was true among other nomadic peoples, the typical Chaco hunting band of 50 to 100 members made major decisions by consensus. The chieftain merely carried out the decisions of the band’s adult males. Although individuals may have attempted to live in concert with nature in so far as possible, these hunting groups never existed in peace and harmony among themselves. Seasonal variations in the availability of game and even the slightest variation in rainfall left the hunters vulnerable to feast or famine. These factors placed the small bands under constant pressure to expand their living space and to raid and conduct warfare with neighboring groups. These nomadic hunt-ers preferred to live in the vicinity of their ancestors’ burial sites, but over time they were forced to move and adjust to one another. And the paucity of resources discouraged the Spaniards, who avoided the Gran Chaco for more than 300 years, especially after some early and disastrous encounters with these hunting peoples.

The Charrúa (Delaunois, 1832)