... certain ceremonies among Arawak-speaking groups in the northwestern Amazon.
Here, on the margins of the Amazon and Orinoco Basins, Arawak-speakers have for
millennia mediated a lively trade that has connected the central Amazon with the
Caribbean in the north and the Andean highlands in the west. The proclivity to
trade, forge alliances, and maintain far-flung fields of identification is
commonly represented as a cultural peculiarity of Arawak-speaking groups
throughout their vast, if fragmented, area of distribution from the Antilles to
Bolivia. An important element in their maintenance of a geographically dispersed
Arawakan identity, it seems, may have been the recurrent ceremonial recitation
of historically significant place-names. Among the Wakuénai of the Içana and
Guainía tributaries of the Río Negro, Jonathan Hill has documented a list of
ceremonially chanted toponyms that form a chain reaching from the mouth of the
Orinoco over the Río Negro all the way to the mouth of the Amazon. These named
places are often referred to as the homes of mythical ancestors (in particular
Kúwai, the first human) but reflect a living knowledge of riverine geography
that is undoubtedly connected to ancient Arawakan trade routes.
The broad distribution of the Arawakan linguistic family contrasts with the more consolidated distribution of other large language families in South America, such as the Tukano, the Pano, the Carib, and the Gê. In contrast with the "predatory" cosmology attributed to other Amazonian groups, the Arawaks' ethos emphasizes peaceful relations with other Arawak-speakers even over great geographical distances. The prohibition of endo-warfare has been codified in ritualized greetings serving as reminders that, whatever their genealogical or geographical distance, Arawaks do not kill each other. Arawaks have also shown a characteristic willingness to incorporate other ethnic groups into their communities, as is exemplified by the history of the upper Río Negro and the upper Xingú since preconquest times. Such cultural institutions have undoubtedly been significant for their capacity to integrate remote areas of the South American lowlands into a common, continentwide trade network. From their point of origin somewhere in the northwestern Amazon, Arawak-speakers during the second millennium BC expanded northward along the Orinoco to the Caribbean and south along the Río Negro to the central Amazon. From the Amazon area, Arawakan languages continued to spread southward along the Purús and Madeira Rivers to the lowlands of Peru and Bolivia, where Arawak-speaking groups established themselves as middlemen in the trade between the lowlands and the Andean highlands. The pervasive presence of Arawak-speakers, with their characteristic cultural emphasis on river navigation, trade, intensive agriculture, hierarchy, and geographically extended identities, undoubtedly played a crucial role in the emergence of a regional exchange system in prehistoric Amazonia.