The Tomaraho Conception of the Sky

Guillermo Sequera and Alejandro Gangui

1Secretaría Nacional de Cultura de Paraguay

2Instituto de Astronomía y Física del Espacio (CONICET–UBA)


Abstract.The small community of the Tomaraho, an ethnic group culturally derived from the Zamucos,became known in the South American and world anthropological scenario in recent times. Thisgroup, far from the banks of the Paraguay river, remained concealed from organized modern soci-eties for many years. Like any other groups of people in close contact with nature, the Tomaraho developed a profound and rich world view which parallels other more widely researched aborig-inal cultures as well as showing distinctive features of their own. This is also apparent in theirimagery of the sky and of the characters that are closely connected with the celestial sphere.This paper is based on the lengthy anthropological studies of G. Sequera.

We have recentlyundertaken a project to carry out a detailed analysis of the different astronomical elementspresent in the imagined sky of the Tomaraho and other Chamacoco ethnic groups. We willbriefly review some aspects of this aboriginal culture: places where they live, regions of influencein the past, their linguistic family, their living habits and how the advancement of civilizationaffected their culture and survival. We will later mention the fieldwork carried out for decadesand some of the existing studies and publications. We will also make a brief description of themethodology of this work and special anthropological practices. Last but not least, we will focuson the Tomaraho conception of the sky as well as describe the research work we have been doingtogether in recent times.Keywords. Ethnoastronomy, Anthropology, Chamacoco of Upper Paraguay1.

The Tomaraho CultureThe act of living in a certain culture is displayed in many different ways. One possibleway is their creativity, at stake when observing the changing phenomena of the sur-rounding nature; giving names to things, naming people, animals and plants, in short,building up knowledge and symbols to enable them to acquire an identity and surviveas a society. The present groups aspire to this, and in complete parallelism, this was astrong motivation of cultures in the past, of those more technologically developed as wellas the ones that did not follow the frantic development of “civilization” and remained incloser contact with nature.

The Tomaraho small community is an example of the latter.A first contact with members of this ethnic group took place in 1986 when one ofthe authors (Sequera) could see for himself the situation of near slavery and strongdependence the members of this people had to put up with in their relationship with theenterprise Carlos Casado. In complicity with the Paraguayan government since the end ofthe 19th century (a few years after the end of the Triple AllianceWar which weakened thenation considerably), this enterprise, made up of Anglo-Argentine capitals, had illegallytaken the lands of the Tomaraho and exploited the quebracho woods extensively in orderto obtain wood for railway sleepers and to stock their tanning industries. Without anykind of recognized rights, the natives were made to work as axmen under hard labourconditions and be, in their turn, witnesses to the plunder of the Chaco woods thusbecoming the helpless victims of the subjugation of their vital space (Sequera, 2006).

Given the importance of carrying out an anthropological study of this ethnic minority,comparative studies of ethnographic sources in different libraries and research centreswere done, which helped to clarify the panorama of the possible origin and mention ofthe Tom´arˆaho in Jesuits’ letters (cartas annuas) and old chronicles. Sequera, moreover,lived among the natives during several periods between 1987 and 1992, which enabledhim to undertake a methodical work of recognition and transcription of the Tom´arˆaholanguage, a detailed inventory of the social representation of their flora and fauna as wellas the gathering and register of an immense mythical corpus that shows the rich worldview of this small group. The ethnological work employed the most pertinent qualitativetechniques in anthropology, with scientific rigour in observations as well as giving greatimportance to fieldwork based on the method of partaker observation, cf. the works ofPolish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (Malinowski, 1922).

The Tom´arˆaho (or Tomaraxo) is a small ethnic group, which together with the Ybytoso(or Ebidoso), makes up a larger group, the Ishir, known in Paraguay as the Chamacoco.The Chamacoco, traditionally hunter-gatherers, in the linguistic classification are relatedto the Zamuco family. Another indigenous group, the Ayoreo, also belongs to the linguisticfamily of Zamuco. We do not intend to discuss the etymology of these words and nameswhere abound disparate proposals mainly based in the writings of European chroniclers,beginning perhaps with Viaje al R´ıo de la Plata, 1534-1554 by harquebusier UlricoSchmidl (1510-1580). In different catalogues of languages and dialects, in compilationsof chronicles and other European texts, certain terms like Timinabas, later Timinahaand other similar ones come up, always in the Zamuco category. It is mentioned thatthe peoples who spoke these languages lived in the Chaco woods, inland, far from theParaguay river. It is also said that these natives had not yet been “subdued by the JesuitMission”. We gather then that they are referring to the Tom´arˆaho, those natives whosedescendants Sequera visited in the neighbouring area of San Carlos in 1986 and who, dueto their ancient customs and their own idiosyncrasy, for many years remained alienatedfrom Paraguayan society.

Shamanism among the Chamacoco has as much relevance as in other indigenous cul-tures. Vocal music is closely related to shamans’ rituals, whether men or women. Theseprominent members of the tribe, known as konsaha or anahak, create their own repertoriesbasing themselves on dreams, called chykera, which stimulate the creation of their poems,melodies and rhythms. The Chamacoco shamans try to dominate their dreams by turningthem into a chant called teichu. The production of these songs is highly personal and itcan be transmitted to other members of the community, but it is generally performed ingroups where several songs mix and a very atypical musical atmosphere is created withrattles (sonajas) and whistles as instrumental accompaniment. Rattles called osecha orpaıkara by the Chamacoco are made from gourds (calabazas of the species Lagenariasiceraria) or with tortoise shells called enermitak (Geochelone carbonaria). Dry seeds orpebbles are put inside so as to produce sound. These rattles represent the sky and theshamans identify their upper part with the centre of the sky, porr hosypyte. The bodyof the instrument is painted in “visual narratives” in the shape of rhomboids, and in-side these geometrical figures are represented the stars porrebija (Sequera, 2006). Studiessuggest a close relationship between the Chamacoco vocal and instrumental techniques –specially among the Tom´arˆaho where shamanism has lasted longer and more intensively–and their vision of the world, a bond between musical expression and the natives’ viewof the universe still to be researched in detail (see also Cordeu, 1994).

The Chamacoco shamanic practices are very similar to those of other South Americanindigenous cultures, and even to those of other continents: visionary dreams, personalitysplit, trance achieved through chants, etc. are situations to be repeated in time and space. It is through these dreams that the konsaha discover for the rest of the membersof the tribe the true “topography” of the indigenous universe and its interrelation withthe mythical tales inherited from their ancestors.†

2. Astronomic elements of the Ybyt´oso and Tomaraho sky

The Chamacoco imagine the world as a disk-shaped flat surface which they callh˜nymich. On this immense earth disk are located their familiar landscapes, their villages,rivers and woods and also neighbouring villages they had contact with. The h˜nymichstands on the waters of an aquatic world called niogorot urr. As it occurs with otherancient peoples, the presence of a subterranean water world fits the Chamacoco worldview because of the importance they assign to water in springs and rivers (moreover,the mythical beings ahnapsˆuro are aquatic beings, as we will see). The niogorot urr issubdivided in various strata at different depths. Over the earth disk are situated sev-eral transparent skies, generically called porrioho. They are immense half spheres thatsurround men and which they imagine resting on the sides of the h˜nymich disk.

Apart from these descriptions of the earth, the underworld and the characteristicskies, the Chamacoco conception of the sky includes many representations related to thestars, individually as well as in groups. We find the Milky Way, called iomyny and itsmeaning, perhaps, as the way of the souls (Gimenez Benıtez et al., 2002), and other“nebula” clearly seen from the great Paraguayan Chaco, such as the Great (kajywysta)and Small (kajywyhyrtˆa) Magellanic Clouds. Also the Sun, called Deich, and the Moon,Xekulku, both male characters, are protagonists of several stories very dear to theirculture (Cordeu, 1990-1991). There are also certain stories that mention Venus, whichthey call Iohdle, or also mother of the stars, porrebe bahlohta, which are related to theother celestial bodies and to the gentiles. Many elements of the Chamacoco cosmos haveprotectors assigned, such as insects (protected by ˜ Nˆıogogo, the frog Bufo granulosus)or other members of local birds (protected by Wohˆora for the Tom´arˆaho and by Pˆeetayrˆahata for the Ybyt´oso). In the same way, stars are protected by Abich, the star son ofVenus, while the ˜nand´u or local ostrich (Rhea Americana) called Pemme-Kamytˆerehe bythe Chamacoco is in charge of Deich, the Sun. In their stories and drawings the kululteor chˆaro has also been represented. It is the “cosmic tree” or world support, which, likein many other cultures, works as a link between the porrioho and the niogorot urr. Aswe will see later the chˆaro plays a privileged role in the stories about shamanic travels.

3. The Axis Mundi

The centre as a symbol is present in many cultures and was thoroughly studied byhistorians of religion. According to Eliade, the existence of a cosmic centre is a naturalconsequence of the divide of reality into the sacred (where all the value is concentrated)and the profane, whose space gives no orientation to man (Eliade, 1957). Thus the worldacquires a meaning only through hierophanies.‡ These intrusions of the sacred into theprofane establish a unique place, a centre, which breaks away with a homogeneous spaceunrelated to any mythical inheritance. It can also be interpreted as an element whichlinks several existential levels; among them, one is, of course, ordinary life, whereas theother levels are unapproachable to men, or at least to all men.The spatial arrangement of these different levels is oriented orthogonally to the earthflat space, though it is true that the borders of the habitable earth have also special connotations. Moving between these levels is done vertically, either towards the upperpart or, quite on the contrary, penetrating the bowels of the earth. The typical imagethat arises in the imaginary of people from the different cultures is that of a prominentmountain, which stands out in the landscape, or that of a “cosmic tree” distinguished byits height or old age, or another “pillar” that functions as a link between the sky withthe earth as well as with the lower regions.

Generically speaking, this object is called an axis mundi, and History is generous inexamples. We will see that there exists a strong parallel between these beliefs and thecosmos as imagined by the Ybyt´oso and the Tom´arˆaho from Northern Paraguayan Chaco.

The mountain or cosmic pillar was not only located in the centre of the organizedspace of ancient communities but very often its peak represented the highest point in theworld, an area that had not been reached even by the greatest floods ever. These placeswere imagined, in their turn, like a kind of navel of the earth, an embryo. The Creationof the world took place there and then expanded towards the periphery in all directions.And of course, man had been born (had had its origin) in that centre of the world; acentre of Creation that a future ethnographic work should be able to clarify also for thewhole Chamacoco community, and for the Tomaraho in particular.

4. The Ybytoso and Tomaraho axis mundi

The view of the universe accepted by the Chamacoco imagines a tree-support of theworld which, as we said, they call kululte or chˆaro. This tree belongs to the speciesChorisia insignis, endemic from Paraguay and bordering countries; among other namesthis tree is known in Spanish as palo borracho. Like in many other cultures, this cosmictree represents the link between the sky and the earth. It is said that in the roots of thismythological tree converge all graves.

The Chamacoco’s higher universe is imagined like a juxtaposition of transparent skieswhich we earlier in this article called porrioho, opposite to the dwelling of the dead onearth where the chˆaro sinks its roots. The myth of origin says that in ancient times theearth and the sky were united by the cosmic tree. Both kingdoms, lets say, were fused to-gether and the gentiles could move around without any barriers or impediments. The firstinhabitants of the earth, called yxyro poruwuhle, fed themselves without effort, huntinganimals and gathering fruits easily. This situation reminds us of similar mythological erasin other cultures and it may very well be called a sort of Chamacoco’s paradise or gar-den of abundance. However, as the informants that collaborated with this ethnographicinvestigation coincide in stating, history changed its course the day a widow and herchildren asked to be helped with food, assistance which was denied to them. On seeingthis lack of altruism for her family and the idleness her neighbours showed, Dagylta, thewidow, turned into a beetle and slowly began to gnaw the wood of the mighty chˆaro.At that moment appears in the story a bird, dichikˆıor of the species Polyborus plancusor Caracara plancus, known in Spanish as carancho, who attempted to stop the widowfrom carrying out her plan. But he failed and the cosmic tree finally fell down.†

The two images we show below present the conception of the cosmic tree in two graphicregisters of Ogwa Flores Balbuena, a member of the Ybyt´oso community (Sequera, 2005).The first one (left, year 1991) shows a representation of the myth of origin for the Ybyt´osoand the central place occupied by the chˆaro. We can see in the drawing a whole varietyof local birds and animals, as well as a few gentiles travelling between the earth and thesky. The second graphic register (right, year 1988) shows the tree Ebyta (another name for charo) as the pillar and support of the world, again during times previous to its fallcaused by Dagylta’s intervention. This drawing shows also the two kingdoms united bythe mighty tree and some characters around it.

While Dagylta, in the shape of a beetle, gnawed and weakened the trunk of the cosmictree, many gentiles that until then moved freely between sky and earth, foreseeing whatmight happen, decided to climb down. Others, instead, more idle, were left behind andonce the tree had fallen, remained forever in the upper kingdom, clinging to the sky. Andthey turned into the porrebija, the stars that inhabit the Chamacoco sky.†

The universe expanded and sky and earth never came together again. In the represen-tations of Ogwa Flores shown in previous figures, the sky is inhabited by beings thatmove about, interact and cohabit with animals and plants of the higher region. Andthis region is located just a few metres above the top of the highest trees in the earthwoods. Moreover, from the stories we gather that the same sky reflects its colour on theleaves of the top foliage of these woods. When chˆaro collapsed, the joint of this kind ofcosmic pillar closed, transforming the sky, which was seen as a thick layer, hard and gray,into a stratified region divided in multiple levels. The Chamacoco imagery, through thisfoundational event of collapse, disarticulates the Ecumene into two opposing worlds: theupper kingdom, which looks like a half sphered sky; the lower region, set on the originalwaters, imagined like a wrecked world (Sequera, 2006).

This separation heaven-earth-hell was largely recorded both in studies on Anthropologyand in the history of religions as well. Eliade, in his book Images and Symbols mentionsthe case of the Semang pygmies in the Malaca or Malayan peninsula. In the centre ofthe Semang world there is an enormous rock (or perhaps a limestone hill; see Evans,1937), called Batu Ribn or Batu ’Rem, which covers the lower regions and, in ancienttimes, was the base on which stood a tree trunk that reached the sky. Hell, the centre ofthe earth and the entrance to heaven were joined by the same axis. This axis, in turn,was the way to take to move from one region to the other. The story goes that, for thispeople, in the past, communication with God and heaven was simple and natural, butafter a ritual flaw this relationship was interrupted. What had been natural for all themembers of the Semang world was then left as a privilege only for the shamans.

5. The Chamacoco space-world
After the collapse of mythological chˆaro, a breakdown event that took place early in thehistory of the Ybytoso and the Tomaraho, the universe acquires a particular architecturewhere the higher world is separated from the underground world. The former is locatedabove ground and it includes six strata, starting with the usual habitat of plants andanimals. This layer, solid and dry is also the dwelling of men and climbs to an altitudeequivalent to the highest palm tree. This region is called porr iut, which in Chamacocolanguage means lower sky. Then there is a layer located above the ground, which ischaracterized by its humidity. It is called porr pehet, which in indigenous language standsfor half way up to heaven (pehet means space). This layer belongs to the region whereclouds are located and where rain develops. Also storms, originated by beings calledosˆasero (spirits of the storms), find in this area a place to set up. This is the dwellingof the wren-like rushbirds (Phleocryptes melanops, or in Spanish pajaritos junqueros orpetıis chyperme in indigenous language), who fly low in swamps, and it is also wheresome of the shamans dwell. In turn, the members of the Tom´arˆaho community affirmthat this region is peopled by strange spirits, called osıoro kynaha, evil beings whichtransmit deceases, microbial or contagious, endemic in many regions of Northern Chaco.Nehmurt, a mythical malevolent being is also found in porr pehet.

The following stratum of the higher world is called porr pixt (true sky) and the Chama-coco represent it as a layer of thick fog, the domain of a character called Lapyxe, the rainmaker. Many characters act as guardians of certain things, phenomena and animate andinanimate objects. Lapyxe, in turn, is the guardian of waters. In this region both theMoon and the Sun can be found but, according to some qualified informants, with thelatter located beneath the former. In fact the contour of the Moon marks the higheredge of the porr pixt. This edge makes up the gate to heaven, difficult to go throughas its guardians are the strange spirits osˆıoro kynaha. These are the main obstacles theshamans anahak have to overcome in order to travel through the skies of the higher worldduring their shamanic flights.

The fourth sky, porr yhyr (high sky), is a wide area where the stars porrebija are found,as well as groups of stars that make up asterisms and constellations. Let us recall thatin the Chamacoco world view, stars had been born from the beings left behind in thehigher region at the moment of the collapse of the charo, the cosmic tree that joined thesky and the earth in time immemorial. The most luminous “star” in the night sky afterthe Moon, which is planet Venus, or Iohdle for the natives, is also found in this clear sky,together with other kinds of celestial objects. The Milky Way, iomyny, as we have seen,is shown in the crystal clear skies of the Chaco Paraguayo as an outstanding whitishstripe across the sky and is also located in the porr yhyr. With the exception of somevisionary shamans, nobody has the power to enter this distant and profound sky.

Finally, the two last strata of the higher world are called porr uhur (“horizon” sky),the former, and porr nahnyk (cold sky), the higher. The former is the threshold to theend of the firmament and the region of the unknown. The latter is seen as an indefinitespace which goes beyond the inner skies, the region where the universe is expanded andthe unknown predominates. It is a profound, airless sky.†

Let us travel now in the opposite vertical direction, that is, towards the kingdom ofthe profound. The underground world, which appeared in the Chamacoco imagery afterthe fall of the cosmic tree, is divided into three main strata. It is a hidden and profoundworld that extends towards the bowels of the earth and it has a viscose constitution. It is supposed to be a region where destruction reigns. The first region, nˆıogoro urr, is awetland zone with superficial water courses. In this fluid medium inhabits the mythicaleel dyhylygyta and also the uriche, the present otter (of the species Lontra longicaudis).These animals coexist with spirits that take the shape of fishes. It would be these fisheswho would grant the shamans powers to fight against the strange spirits osˆıoro kynaha.

The second subterranean layer is imagined like an area of profound waters mixed withthick viscous mud. It is known as h˜nymich yhyrt, literally earth of high hill, and it isthe dwelling of monsters similar to the eels. The most fabulous among them both forits dimension and its red giant head, is the one the natives call pˆeeta. This monster eelgrants to certain shamans the power to move quickly through this subterranean layer,to emerge from the water underworld at great speed in any point of the earth. Finally,the third subterranean layer is called h˜nymich urruo, which means under ground. This isthe region of the dark and rotten world of corpses and that of the being called amyrmylata, which looks like a giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus), which is connected withinitiated shamans.

Although these different strata of the wrecked world invoke destruction, death andfinally putrefaction of everything alive, they can, however, liberate certain forces of as-cension like those that impel the shamans in the second layer (Sequera, 2006) and also theones that characterize the ahnapsuro (or axnabsero), the mythical beings of the Chama-coco world. Having being described for the first time by Boggiani in 1900 (Baldus, 1932;Susnik, 1969), the ahnapsˆuro are recalled by all Chamacoco natives, although only theTom´arˆaho keep the ritual practices of mythical representations even today (the mythsof origin called emuhno). These powerful aquatic beings, whose bodies are covered withscales and feathers, are believed to be the founders of the Chamacoco culture and, in timeimmemorial, lived together with the gentiles yxyro in full harmony, and even taught thefirst peoples to search for food and organize themselves. Their appearance now-a-days inthe Tomaraho camp is the source of shock and terror. Regularly, ritual representationsare organized to repel the danger of their possible presence.

6. Final Discussion and Future Projects

In this article we described just a sketch of the immense richness of the Chamacocoin their relationship with nature and the sky. A long and patient ethnographic workhas brought to light the most remarkable features of this aboriginal group as a whole,alongside with the characteristics of the Tom´arˆaho and Ybyt´oso in particular. Becomingfamiliar with their culture, the transcription of their language, their slow social improve-ment and education, are some of the elements many people have been working on, withgreat respect for traditions and cultural identity.

In this important ethnographic work, however, the astronomical aspects have not beentreated as thoroughly as the other aspects. That is the reason why there remains to bedone a detailed analysis of recognition and identification of the outstanding aspects of theChamacoco sky, as well as an in-depth study of the true meaning of the chˆaro, the cosmictree that united the sky and the earth and which, even nowadays, is central to the ritualsconcerning the origin of the world. Prominent stars visible at different moments of theyear (such as Sirius) or even well known asterisms like the Orion’s belt, their names andthe stories that were certainly told about them, are some aspects, we believe, that needto be payed greater attention. Also their imagery about the presence and characteristicsof the Milky Way; their interpretation of some outstanding and sudden phenomena, liketotal solar eclipses; also prolonged appearances in the sky, like for comets, or sporadicones like in the case of shooting stars, are other interesting aspects of their culture thatrequire more work.

The story of Iodhle (Venus), who long time ago married a young Tomaraho gentile, is just one of the many stories with astronomical elements that old people used to tell.Many of these stories are still remembered by the older members of this group. Thus, anecessary project is to be able to incorporate this culture into the immaterial patrimonyof humanity before it gets lost in the unfathomable clouds of time. Another projectin store is to try to understand the relationship between the vocal and instrumentaltechniques of the Chamacoco and their view of the universe surrounding them, speciallythe use they make of rattles (paıkara) which, as we have seen, represent the starry sky.

Likewise our project intends to carry out, together with the members of the present Tomaraho community, a work of gathering data and recognition of the stars and constel-lations distribution, dark zones in the sky, nebula etc. These would be interpreted mapswith an important symbolic weight of the Tom´arˆaho sky for the Upper Chaco region, fordifferent moments of the year, which may tell us a great deal about the aboriginal imageryand also about many things of their every-day life that they project in the dark depthsof the sky. In short, we consider that the Tom´arˆaho conception of the sky has not beensufficiently explored as a study in itself, and that more fieldwork would be welcome inthe area of ethnoastronomy as an interdisciplinary activity that includes anthropologistsas well as astronomers.

Acknowledgements. We wish to thank Beatriz Tosso for her key input on the benefit ofthe final shape of this article. A.G. acknowledges support from CONICET and from theUniversity of Buenos Aires. Both authors would like to thank the Paran´a Ra’anga project(AECID), and the many fruitful discussions with the participating colleagues, where thiscollaboration started.

† A very detailed anthropological exploration for the case of the Qom, or Tobas from theargentine Chaco, can be consulted in (Wright, 2005).‡ from Greek, hieros, meaning sacred, and phainein, revelation, that is, hierophany could betranslated as “where the sacred is revealed”.

† Among the mocov´ı of the argentine Chaco there exists a very similar story, where the widowis turned into a capybara or carpincho. See the chronicle by the Jesuit father Guevara (1764).

† Note that the Bushmen (Bosquimanos) from the Kalahari desert, in South Africa, say thatthe stars are the very first peoples and that they are like them, nomads and hunter-gatherers(Krupp, 1996). According to the Qom of the argentine Chaco, after a cataclysm that alteredthe structure of earth and sky, some characters also became stars (Wright, 2005).

† Cordeu (1994) has provided a different stratification of the higher world, more related tothe chromatic and atmospheric properties of the sky.


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