Ethnography and Shamanism of the C^oko`, I-III











History of the Choco`



The people




Material culture










The haibana`




2 caerimonies




Design & meaning




A description of the mythology




An analysis of the mythology










p. 21 voyage by Inca

"Lothrop’s (1932:237) description of ... a voyage reputedly made by ... Tupac Yupanqui ... during the reign of his father Pachacutec (1421-78) ... far out to sea. These islands named Hahua-Chumpi and Nina-Chumpi were said to be thickly populated and rich in gold ... . ... After nine months he returned in triumph with many dark-skinned prisoners, much gold and silver, a throne of copper, and skins of an animal like a horse."

{"dark-skinned" people could be inhabitants of Melanesia; Hahua-Chumpi and Nina-Chumpi may be New Guinea and New Britain – gold is mined in New Guinea; and copper in New Britain}

Lothrop 1932 = S. K. Lothrop : "Aboriginal Navigation off the West Coast of South America". JRAI 62:229-56.

pp. 31, 33 beliefs

p. 31

"There is also the Catio legend (m16) of the golden houses, which may also have Chibcha or Sinu` origins."

p. 33

"They are superstitious and obsessed with omens, believing obstinately in dreams ..., because some serpent or bird spoke to them {in a dream?} or appeared to them."

pp. 36-39 locations of tribes



its location



upper Sinu` river; San Jorge river



Andagueda (a tributary to the Atrato)



Baudo` river



lower San Juan river



north coast (north of the San Juan river)


Cayapa (et al.)

south coast (south of the San Juan river)

pp. 32, 36-37, 40 obsolete names of tribes and of rivers




Suruco : 17th-century name for nomadic tribe inhabiting Serrani`a de Baudo`


Poromea ("who made extraordinarily large canoes") : tribe occupying north coast {they could hardly have been identical with the Embera` tribe now occupying the same area, if the the Embera` "moved to the coast only in recent times." (p. 190, n. 4) The Embera` may have earlier been the occupants of the upper San Juan river, or else the Suruco, or a combination of both.}


"Coiba (Cueva), ... ‘far away’ ... . The name Cueva could also refer to these people’s habit of burying their dead in mountain caves." [p. 191, n. 14 : "The Yuko Motilo`n of the Perija`, ... living along the Colombian-Venezuelan border area, still maintained their cave burial customs".]


"a river called Choco`, which nearer the sea is called Noanama`, the Spanish renamed it Rio San Juan." [p. 40 (cf. p. 49) : "the Embera` ... call their large pottery urns choco`."]


"the Darie`n river (now the Atrato)".

p. 41 languages

"Nordenskio:ld proposed ... two distinct linguistic groups ... . These are

The Noanama` with its various synonyms (Waunan, Wauananan, Waunama, Noanamena, etc.) and

the total group being referred to by others as Cholo.

the Embera` (Epera, True-Choco`, etc.),

It is ... generally assumed that various groups such as Chami`, Catio ... etc. are affiliated to the general Choco` group." [p. 67 "Catio ... language and customs are like those of the northernmost of the Choco` Indians (or Embera`)".] [the C^ami` are directly to the east of the Noanama` (map, p. 38).]

According to Loewen, "Noanama` ... has no distinct dialects ... . The Embera` he divides into nine dialect groups". [p. 194, n. 38 : "the Chami` and the Catio, he regards as Embera` dialects."]

p. 45 housing

"The Choco` house ... is built on piles {viz., elevated above the ground on stilts, a fashion also employed in the Orinoco delta and in Borneo}. With the Noanama` these piles are usually not more than six or seven feet above the ground, whereas the [Katio] houses of the Sinu` region ... stand eight to fourteen feet above ground level. Some have been reported to be as much as twenty feet high ... . ... The house has no walls {like those of the Warau in the Orinoco delta, but unlike those in Borneo}".

p. 51 idols

"The Noanama` roof caps, dipatkoo ..[p. 192, n. 23 : "dibatkoo (also called diponghu)"]. are ... sometimes covered in frog representations, and terminate in a human figure with outstretched arms. ... only the shaman’s house has these apex tops.

... a Noanama` shaman’s wife in the lower Calima, a tributary to the san Juan, ... made various anthropomorphic pottery figurines for her husband to use in curing illness. These ... stood about 18 inches high."

p. 54 ritual & utilitarian musical instruments

Amongst the Embera`, all "flutes ... are called ursidi [p. 193, n. 28 : "only the Noanama` end flutes were referred to as urseri (or ursiri)."], and are used for ‘invoking god’. They are used only by men ... . ...

Drums are more elaborate amongst the Embera` and, unlike flutes, they are played by women. Small single membrane drums are played by the women at Noanama` religious ceremonies". [p. 193, n. 29 : "Also the Noanama` women play the canoe drum, slung from the roof beams, at harvest festivals."]

"Two unusual instruments are a friction idiophone and a bell;

the former attributed to the Embera` ... . It is a tortoise shell with a waxed orifice and played with the palm of the hand ... . [p. 193, n. 31 : "The Tukano secure the tortoise shell firmly in the crook of the knee."]

The bell ... a ‘claw instrument’ used by the Noanama`, is made from the claws of a crayfish with a leaf attachment and hung above the sleeping place : ‘When the leaf is stirred by the breeze, the claw portions rattle against each other ...’. ... these bells have a similar purpose as the Cuna ones : to frighten away vampire bats." [p. 193, n. 30 : "Lobster claws containing small grains are hung up inside their houses by the Cuna of the San Blas coast to keep away vampire bats. ... an identical contrivance, with a plaited pandanus leaves in the Celebes, ... was noted".]

pp. 57-59, 61 beliefs & practices regarding foods




"All seed crops, especially corn and beans, grow best if planted by men ... . If a woman’s hands are ‘good’, her name will often include the syllable Be, their word for maize."


"hot ... chilis (Capsicum sp.) ... may be cultivated in an old canoe raised several feet above the ground on wood posts. These canoe-gardens seem to be a very old custom with the Noanama`, being first reported ... in the sixteenth century." [p. 193, n. 32 : "These earth-filled old canoe-shells are also used by the shaman to grow his hallucinogenic herbs and medicinal plants. Canoes are also used by some Noanama` for burial, and canoe-gongs are played at the harvest festival. The shaman’s ancestor figures are also represented in the wooden model boats hung from the roof."]


"the women for gathering the various forest fruits ... . Of these the taparo (Orbignya cuatrecasana) and chigua (Zania chigua) are the most important".


"Unmarried men and women, even brothers and sisters, do not eat from the same tray". {in Hawai>i, the two gendres always ate apart.}

"a guest may receive the monkey’s head to eat as a mark of esteem." [p. 194, n. 35 : "We were offered the head of a monkey to eat with the Tukano".]

p. 81 customs at female’s first menstruation

"She ... eats ... whilst sitting on the grinding stone. ...

She ... must eat the fish barbudo. ...

When she had completed menstruation, she must walk naked about the fire to singe herself as much as she can bear." [p. 195, n. 57 : "menstruation" : "a Catio girl ... at the celebration afterwards ... is obliged to walk so close to it that she ‘singes’ herself."]

p. 86 customs of interrment




"the mother-in-law ... rubbed and anointed the face vigorously. ... Presently the women covered the face with hair".

(south of Buenaventura)

"place their dead in an old canoe, or part of one". [p. 195, n. 56 : "Canoe burial is reported as occurring among some eastern Nicaragua Indian groups ... . It also occurs among the Northwest Amazonian Tukano where deceased elders are place in canoes and buried beneath the malocas (communal houses) where the river of the dead is symbolically conceived as running counter to the sun’s nightly path (see Hugh-Jones 1985:93)."]

Hugh-Jones 1985 = S. Hugh-Jones : "The Maloca". In :- E. Carmichael (ed.) : The Hidden Peoples of the Amazon. London : British Museum, 1985. pp. 78-93.

pp. 85, 92, 196 shamanism




"During his middle years, it is probable that a man will befriend a shaman, and this shaman ... may agree to instruct him in the use and employment of certain magical and medicinal herbs. At the same time the man will acquire one or several protective or tutelary spirits, which will guard him against ... misfortune in later life."


"There are ... two recognized types of Choco` shaman.

Firstly there are those who employ hallucinogens and medicinal plants to affect {effect} their cures. These are known as ‘blowers’.


The second type, known as ‘singers’, are shamans who work on a purely intuitive level of contact with the spirit beings. The status of the singer is higher than the blower ... . The singer who does not require the use of narcotics appears to be closer to a classical type of Siberian shaman."

196, n. 61

"Me’traux (1944:211) states that the Bororo have two types of shaman, whom they distinguish according to the spirits from whom they receive their power : souls of dead shamans and ‘nature’ demons for one type; ancestral soul spirits for the other. ... Eliade comments (1964:19) that Buryat choose hereditary shamans and that the soul of a youth is carried off eastwards by the spirits (in fits of trance ...) if he is destined to become a ‘white’ shaman; westwards if a ‘black’. ... In the Noanama` saga (m12) one twin falls west, the other east."

Me’traux 1944 = A. Me’traux : "South American Thunderbirds". JAFL LVII.

Eliade 1964 = M. Eliade : Shamanism. London : Routledge & Kegan Paul.

pp. 92, 94-96 apprenticeship & vocation to become a shaman




"Verrill (1933:19) refers to ... the Atrato area where a shaman decided to elect a pupil ... . In order to do this he chose a pregnant woman, expectorated on and rubbed her belly intoning divinatory songs ... . ... It was thought that the child would be irresistibly drawn to this calling as a result of these pre-natal rites.


With the commencement of his training the pupil makes several anthropomorphic figurines in order to obtain a hai or guardian spirit. He also makes a boat filled with carved figurines representing ancestors ... . Wasse`n in referring to these boats says (1935:115) :

The ships, as well as all the figures belonging to them, are carved in balsa wood and painted ... . The figures below deck ... represent illness-expelling demons which protect the owner of the ship. [p. 95, Fig. 4 : "These boats closely resemble the ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ ships of the Cuna whose occupants represent illness-demons."]

Other carvings on the ship represent ... a parrot, a cayman, a ray, an armadillo, and a sole. ... This boat according to Reichel-Dolmatoff (1960:123), is tied to the roof of the house, and seated beneath it, the pupil learns to sing and speak with the spirits :

During the night he hears at times a slight noise in the boat hanging in the dark, as if the figures were moving rhythmically ... . The pupil then knows that the ancestral spirits have descended and are living with the figurines infusing them with their power.


These spirits are not however the pupil’s, but those of the tutor. His own spirits only come later when his knowledge increases. On reaching an advanced stage of knowledge, called uskuni kapusin by the Noanama`, the teacher starts to transfer certain objects, formulas and procedures. Under his supervision the pupil is taught to make zoomorphic and anthropomorphic wooden figurines, carved batons, painted tablets and other objects. The teacher ‘cures’ all the objects, infusing them with hai, returning them again to the pupil, each with its own secret name, formula or song. At the same time the pupil must learn how to cure sickness, and to recognize, prepare, and apply the diverse medicinal plants. ... Each haibana` has a


collection of fangs taken from the snakes he has killed and the pupil the pupil ... learns orations and conjurings which allows him to pacify the snakes he may encounter. ... The pupil is also introduced to hallucinogenic drinks, at first small doses only, then gradually increased ... .

The final stage of the apprenticeship is according to Reichel-Dolmatoff (1960:123) the handing over of the two curved figurine-topped batons. One of these should be made by the pupil and ‘cured’ by the teacher. The other should be a present from the teacher. In these two figures resides the ‘personal force’ of the new haibana`, who now has several guardian spirits at his disposition. He should never be separated from these two batons. ... For the rest of his life he will never allow them out of his sight. ... According to Verrill’s account (1933:22), at this time [the rite of initiation of a new haibana`] the hai or guardian spirits join in singing with the shaman, and also accompany him when he plays ‘an instrument’ ... . At this ceremony according to Verrill the haibana` asks which one of the spirits wish to enter the body of the initiate and when one of them has accepted the offer, the haibana` ... expectorates on his body, begging the hai that has entered his body to lead him to be a good shaman. ... Loewen (1960b:214) refers to training by four masters."


"a shaman may begin to practice once he has acquired four haippana or curing sticks from four different masters."

Verrill 1933 = J. Verrill : "Survey of the Archaeology and Ethnology of the Atrato Valley". Smithsonian, Bureau of American Ethnology, MS 4440.

Wasse`n 1935 = S. H. Wasse`n : "Notes on Southern Groups of Choco` Indians". ETNOLOGISKA STUDIER I:35-182. Go:teborg.

Reichel-Dolmatoff 1960 = G. Reichel-Dolmatoff : "Notas etnograficas sobre los indios del Choco`." REVISTA COLOMBIANA DE ANTROPOLOGI`A IX:73-158. Bogota`.

pp. 97-100 curing patients of ailments




"The Choco` ... consider that hunted animal spirits are responsible for afflictions, and this may include malevolent spirits or demons such as Ataumia who .... by touching someone, may cause madness. ... In response to this illness the shaman’s cure consists of two basic aspects. In the first place it is necessary to influence the animal spirits to ‘withdraw’ the illness. In the second place the shaman himself ought to treat the diseased part of the patient by means of extraction. In both cases the intervention of the ancestral spirits is necessary because of their intimate relations with the animal spirits."


"The patient explains his symptoms ..., discussing dreams and omens whilst the shaman indicates medicinal plants and explains to him the manner in which he ought to prepare and apply them. Generally he ... advises the use of jagua paint on certain parts of the body."


"Cures for such maladies as ... epilepsy involve blowing and touching of the body with magic batons. Others may require the manufacture of fingurines, which the shaman takes in turn to touch different parts of the patient’s body, whilst intoning long song asking the ancestors to give their magic power to the figures, in order to draw the affliction from the body of the patient." For "more serious illness", "large numbers of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines and tablets are made by both shaman and the family of the afflicted man. These are then painted with red and black motifs, and are said to represent the ancestral spirits {effecting the curing} and the animal spirits causing the illness. They are then placed around the afflicted person, whilst other carvings depicting herons, fish and rays ... are hung above him."


"Reichel-Dolmatoff summarizes the Choco` ritual curing ... (1961c:231) :

... The shaman sits next to the patient on a special low seat, generally of zoomorphic forms ... . While the figurines surrounding the prostrate body represent the shaman’s spirit helpers, his personal curing power resides in two hardwood staffs with anthropomorphic figures carved on their upper ends. At times these staffs, or one of them, are laid near the patient and at times one of them is held upright while the shaman sits singing and beating the rhythm with the lower end of the staff. ... In certain cases where localised pains are present the shaman will apply a wooden tube to the patient’s body and try to ‘suck out’ the disease. [Sometimes] the patient will sit with his (or her) back turned to the shaman who sits on his stool keeping next to him an assortment of figurines. While chanting and reciting he then takes one figurine in each hand and, with parallel movements, touches and strokes the patient’s body following slowly the contours of the head, torso and limbs. After a few minutes the two figures are laid aside and another pair is taken up and used in the same manner, then a third and a


fourth pair, until the supply is exhausted. Often the patient lies under a roof-like contraption made of wooden slats which covers the middle portion of his body ... . The slats are painted with anthropomorphic and geometrical designs in red and black ..., representing spirit helpers and power animals."

Reichel-Dolmatoff 1961c = G. Reichel-Dolmatoff : "Anthropomorphic Figurines from Colombia". In :- S. K. Lothrop (ed.) : Essays in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology. Harvard U Pr. pp. 229-41.

pp. 100-103 uses of hallucinogens




At Choconta`, women supplied men with the "herb Datura arborea. Datura is a genus of the family Solanaceae (which includes D. arborea, D. stramonium, D. candida, and D. rosei), from whose bark, seeds and leaves ..., narcotic preparations are made which include elements of hyoscyamin, scopolamin and atropin. It ... is generally known as borrachero. Borrachero, says Reichel-Dolmatoff (1960:130), is the most common hallucinogen amongst the Noanama` and Embera` Choco`. In the lower Rio San Juan and in the Calima river only the white species was seen (Datura alba), but in the Docordo and Baudo` valleys,


further north, there are both white and red species (D. sanguinea). ... Cooper (1949:555) refers to it as ... Jivaro boys after two days’ fast are given it in order that ‘spirits of their forefathers may properly admonish them in ensuing dreams and visions’. There are further references to its use ... by Chibchan fortune-tellers, and its use as an aphrodisiac by highland Peruvian women. ... Borrachero is a shrub ... with large bell-shaped flowers. ... Wasse`n (1935:101) refers to it as tonga ... [a name] widely known in the Choco` ... . ... This preparation must be done during the period of the waxing moon ... . ... if taken in strength it will ... induce ... profound sleep with visions and spirit visitations through which the shaman or lay person acquires knowledge of ... the cure of maladies, the location ... of treasure, the identity of thieves".


"There is a second major narcotic used by the Choco` which according to Cooper (1949:554) brings on :

... trembling and giddiness ... next ... profound sleep, before and during which sleep occur gorgeous ... visions of marked clearness that may have a bluish aureole and that are vividly remembered after awakening.

Clairvoyance and [telepathic?] communication are also associated with this drug. This narcotic is obtained from plants of the genus Banisteriopsis (which includes B. inebrians, B. caapi and B. quitensis), its chief elements being the alkaloids banisterin, yagein and yagenin. ... Amongst the Embera` the drug is called pilde, among the Noanama` dapa ... . The narcotic is obtained from a liana ... [having a] smell when cut, which is strong and disagreeable. Like borrachero, the narcotic must be cut and prepared at the time of the waxing moon. ... This is pulped and cooked with ... water for several hours and then drunk in ... sips."


"Wasse`n in referring to these two narcotics which he calls tonga and pilde says (1935:101) they give ‘visions of large villages, cities etc.’ adding that ‘in the planting, the right hand must be used, as also in the reaping ... ‘. A description of a trance given by Reichel-Dolmatoff was (1960:132) : ‘where there is forest it is clear, where there water one sees sand. One sees all types of animals and people and villages, one hears music of all types – of flutes, pipes and drums’. {cf. the music by Caran.a deities heard during dreams in Radha Soami} ...


Cooper says that Banisteriopsis is drunk is drunk in order to (1949:554) : ‘enter into communication with man[t]istic or other spirits, to learn the cause and cure of illness, ... the future ...’. Reichel-Dolmatoff, referring to the use of these drugs by Choco` shamans says (1960:131), they are used ... to place one in contact with ancestral spirits and with hunted animal spirits, and ... to ascertain the whereabouts of lost or stolen objects."

Cooper 1949 = J. N. Cooper : "Stimulants and Narcotics". In :- J. H,. Stewart (ed.) : Handbook of South American Indians. Smithsonian Institution. Vol. V, pp. 525-58.

pp. 109-111 summoning of daimones to the caerimony




"According to Wasse`n (1935:114), two tutelary balso wood figures are placed on the platform on either side of the ladder to give protection against the frog demon Ataumia which is depicted on these figurines or staffs : one in red is called Haru, the other in black or jagua dye called Chipara."


"Wasse`n (1935:112) refers to his four staffs : a pormia, two spear-shaped totkeri and a snake figure called Memkoni. In Reichel-Dolmatoff’s account (1960:135) :

... he starts to sing a monotonous chant inviting the ancestors to ‘embark on their boats’ [p. 197, n. 75 : "Sometimes the boat carrying the original ancestral beings is also an anaconda as in Tukano creation mythology, whilst the Choco` have boats with snake designs on the hull."] and come ... . This song he alternates with another calling the animals ... .

Wasse`n (1935:113) says that this chanting is called iheuba and in it the shaman summons Mapera, a demon, to come and drink of the chicha, otherwise it would not be good. He also refers to Memkoni, a benevolent spirit in the form of a snake, and to Ataumia, a frog or forest demon. The pormia demon located in the staff fights against the illness demons by reason of which he must be equipped with the spear totkeri. ... All night long no one sleeps. If they do the shaman throws water on them. ... In these songs the the shaman asks pardon of the animals, explaining that it is necessary to persecute them or starve."

"Wasse`n refers to the first ... stirring (1935:112) : ‘the chicha is stirred with a special staff, pakulsa [by the shaman]. ... He places his hand on the staff and sets out on lejos pesando [‘distance thinking’]. that is to say, goes on a dream journey ...’."


"Reichel-Dolmatoff states (1960:136) :

The Indians say that during the chicha ceremony the ancestral spirits and hunted animal spirits ‘speak’ to one other. The ancestors ... assume their role of intermediaries and try to appease the hunted animals."

PITT RIVERS MUSEUM, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD, MONOGRAPH No. 6 = Donald Tayler : Embarkations : Ethnography and Shamanism of the Choco` Indians of Colombia. 1996.