Guyana Times Amerindian Heritage Month Article

‘Tribes without Tribes:
Race and Tribe in the construction
of Amerindian Heritage in Guyana’

6 September 2009

In this article I will address the significance of ‘race’ and ‘tribe’ in the public construction of Amerindian heritage in Guyana.  It is an ironic but familiar story in colonial and post-colonial histories, that the main categories that organize the public construction of identity have more to do with the ideologies of the colonizers than they have to do with the traditional forms of indigenous self-identity.  Race has been the most obvious and insidious of these categories since the early modern era, and has taken its current biological and ‘scientific’ form since the time of the European Enlightenment.  The notion of ‘tribe’ has also been one which European colonizers imposed upon the indigenous social formations of Guyana, of the Americas in general, and of much of the colonial world.


As a biological term, the overwhelming scientific evidence of the past hundred years has indicated that race is not a useful biological concept when applied to the human species.  Race in a biological sense refers to a sub-species, a population that is genetically distinct, and genetically isolated enough from other populations that these separate groups are en route to speciation (becoming separate species).  Nothing like race in this biological sense can be said to exist among modern humans.  Based on anatomy, physiology, and intelligence testing, scientists such as Alfred Binet and Franz Boas began arguing over a hundred years ago that it is impossible to divide the human species into discrete, fixed races with distinct physical and/or mental characteristics.  More recently, human geneticists have validated the conclusions of these earlier observers of the human mind and organism.  Particularly since the 1970s and 1980s, the science of genetics has produced clear evidence that all living humans are very closely related to one another, and are all descended from common ancestors who lived in sub-Saharan Africa less than 200,000 years ago.

All of the things that make us human (having large brains, walking upright, using tools, using complex language and forming complex social bonds, creating art, music, and religion, and forming beliefs about the cosmos, the afterlife, and the meaning of human existence) were characteristics first developed during our shared pre-history in Sub-Saharan Africa.  These traits are universal in the human species, and are shared by all living human cultures.  Conversely, the characteristics that are used to categorize human beings by race are all easily observable physical characteristics whose genetics are not well understood, but clearly bear very little relationship to a person’s overall genetic make-up.  Differences in skin color, hair texture, or shape of a person’s eyes are all recent and superficial differences that are adaptations to the various environments into which the human species has moved.  These traits also do not help us to define discrete races, because the existence of these traits varies gradually across geographic space, rather than being neatly contained into clearly defined populations that we can indentify as races.

However, while race does not have any biological reality, race does have a very powerful social and cultural reality.  Despite the fact that Henry Lewis Gates, Jr. is just as likely to be closely genetically related to someone from Denmark or Korea, or to the officer that arrested him, as he is to be genetically related to Barack Obama, this was irrelevant to the woman who had been Gates’ neighbor for many years and called the police because a non-white person was fumbling with the lock at his home in a predominately white and wealthy neighborhood.  That race does not have a biological reality also did not matter to the police officer who charged Gates with disorderly conduct when he became upset about being arrested for “breaking and entering” into his own home.

Similarly, consider the situation of the Amerindian in Guyana who is discriminated against or not given opportunities because he or she is considered to be a ‘stupid buck.’  Whether this is explained as being a result of nature or of circumstance, it does not matter for this individual that in a biological sense, there is really no such thing as the Amerindian ‘race,’ but only the human race.  For the person categorized as racially inferior, race is real because it has real effects in that person’s life.


The indigenous peoples of the Americas are descended from the same common ancestors as all other living human beings.  The best available archaeological and biological evidence indicates that the main migration of indigenous Americans into the hemisphere occurred across the Bering Land Bridge which connected Siberia and Alaska until around the end of the last ice age.  There are artifacts that clearly date a major migration into the Americas from around 12,000 BC.  Some archaeologists, however, speculate that earlier and smaller migrations took place across the Bering Straits as early as 18,000 BC, and some geneticists have claimed that the colonization of the Americas may have begun as early as 40,000 years ago.

The earliest Amerindians (often referred to by archaeologists as ‘Paleo-Indians’) probably came to the Americas following herds of megafauna (very large animals like the wooly mammoth) that they relied upon for subsistence.  The mastodon, and the giant sloth whose fossil was recently discovered in the Bartica area, are examples of megafaunal species that were around at the end of the Pleistocene, and were probably hunted by Guyana’s first Amerindians.  Some archaeologists suggest that once Paleo-Indians reached the Americas, they very quickly moved throughout North America, and perhaps as far south as South America within a few generations after crossing the Bering Land Bridge.  As soon as a century or two after walking from Siberia, it is likely that Paleo-Indians were already living in what is today Guyana.

Paleo-Indians throughout the Americans probably first lived in small (25 – 50 persons) egalitarian hunting and gathering bands, and many probably nomadically followed herd animals while collecting plants and other animal sources of food along the way.  They moved throughout the Americas following megafauna, but whether because of overhunting, climate changes, disease, other reasons, or a combination of the above, their occupation of the Americans was soon followed by a massive extinction of the megafaunal species.

Throughout the Americas, Paleo-Indians adapted to the megafaunal extinctions by becoming more diversified foragers: fishing, hunting, and gathering a wider variety of plants and animals than they had previously.  Among the early settlers of the Guyana coast, Paleo-Indian foragers diversified the kinds of marine resources which they collected, and some of the earliest evidence of continuous human settlement in the Guyana can be seen in the shell middens of Guyana’s North West, where people have used shell fish as a source of food for thousands of years, and the shells which are the refuse from their meals form enormous mounds.  Fishing also took on greater significance in Guyana: very large stone fish hooks found along Guyana’s riverbanks are among the oldest surviving artifacts in the region.


Of the Amerindian groups that live in Guyana today, the group whose ancestors seem to have come here first is the Warau.

From around 5200 BC there is evidence that early Waroan peoples lived along the coast of Guyana’s North West and in the Orinoco River Delta area of neighboring Venezuela.

They subsisted by gathering plant materials, such as the Ite palm, and by exploiting marine resources such as oysters, conch, lucines, mussels, netirites, crabs and snails (Williams 2003: 86).  After around 3300 BC they began making canoes, and a wide variety of stone tools that were used in canoe manufacturing (130-148).  There was also a division of labor between communities, as the skills and resources were unevenly distributed between Waroan groups.  Canoes most likely lead to an increase in the productive capacity of fishermen and collectors of marine resources, and there was a resulting increase in population density (145).

The language of the Warau people is not closely related to any of the other languages spoken in Guyana.  It forms its own language family.

Speakers of Arawakan languages, and Cariban languages came to Guyana at a later date.  The Arawakan languages that are currently spoken in Guyana are Lokono (commonly simply called “Arawak” in Guyana) and Wapishana.  The Cariban languages are Carib, Arekuna, Makushi, Akawaio, Patamona, and Wai Wai.

Sometime around 1600 BC, the peoples inhabiting the mouths of the Orinoco and Amazon Rivers developed horticulture.  According to Jennifer Wishart (1995), the first farmers to move into Guyana were the ancestors of modern-day Lokono Arawaks, who settled the coast around 1550 BC.  Denis Williams (1995) elaborates on this notion, attributing environmentally determined causes to the rise of horticulture:

“Around 3550 years ago, all of the factors that were necessary for the transition to horticulture existed in Guyana several varieties of wild manioc, adequate flour-processing expertise and its associated implements, sedentary populations and the indispensable technology of pottery-making.  The only thing needed to precipitate the change to horticulture was a major subsistence crisis.  At this time, comprehensive drying out of the swamps over several generations provided that crisis.  Neo-Indian culture based on horticulture was the result.”

According to Irving Rouse (1985), around 2000 BC, early Arawakan peoples set out from a homeland somewhere in the Upper Rio Negro area, and colonized in a “double pincer” movement down the length of the Orinoco and Amazon rivers by around 1600 BC.  When the Orinocan or Northern branch reached the mouth of the Orinoco, they moved northward into the Caribbean Islands and southward along the Western Guiana coast.  When the Amazonian or Eastern branch reached the mouth of the Amazon they moved northward along the Eastern Guiana coast.  The two groups met somewhere along Guiana Coastal Plain, and today’s Lokono Arawaks are the mixed descendants of these two groups.

Given the many similarities in pottery styles, and ways of life of Arawakan and Cariban peoples of this era, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the migrations of these two groups of horticultural peoples who probably migrated into Guyana around roughly the same time.

The mode of production that the Proto-Arawak and Proto-Carib peoples practiced was based on horticultural production with cassava (manioc) as the staple crop.  Cassava subsistence production is a labor intensive activity involving under brushing, the felling of trees, burning and clearing of logs, planting and harvesting; as well as labor intensive food preparation involving squeezing, grating, boiling, straining, baking, etc.  Every stage of this process is communally organized along kinship lines.  This mode of production relies on the activities of part-time specializations in basketry, ceramics and stonework.  It also relied on the expansion of the stone axe making industry especially in order to continually supply firewood for food preparation.  Furthermore, these new horticultural societies developed exchange relations of mutual dependence with each other, and with the still thriving Warao people of the Orinoco delta and the Guyanese North West (Williams 2003).

By the end of the first millennium BC, linguists suggest that the original Cariban language had differentiated into the distinctly different languages of Carib, Kapon (Akawaio & Patamona) and Pemon (Arekuna and Makushi).  Denis Williams suggests that the Kapon and Pemon speakers migrated into the interior of Guyana around the end of the last century BC, introducing the horticultural way of life into the deep interior, and also becoming specialists in long distance trade.  Archaeological evidence suggests that there developed in pre-Colombian times systems of long distance trade that connected the societies of the Amazon, the Orinoco, and the Caribbean Islands with the societies of Guyana’s coast and interior.

Some archaeologists have suggested that more complex systems of agriculture developed along the Amazon and the Orinoco, and perhaps also along the Guyana Coast, from the first centuries AD on.  Horticultural peoples such as those of Guyana’s interior played the role of trading goods long distance between these societies.  More complex systems of agriculture were perhaps also accompanied by more complex forms of political structures, such as societies with forms of hierarchy, status, and rank: i.e. lineage systems, chiefdoms, and perhaps even classes and states.  Neil Whitehead, Michael Heckenberger and George Simon  have recently suggested that the raised-field complex which covers large areas of the Berbice Savannas, and extends into Suriname, is a logical place to look for archaeological evidence about more complex systems of agriculture and possibly more complex political systems in the prehistoric Guianas.


Just as we are told that Guyana is the land of six races, only to learn that race in the sense that this notions implies is an illusion, it is also somewhat of an illusion to represent Guyana as having nine ‘tribes.’  There really is no agreed upon definition of the ‘tribe’ either in lay terms or in the anthropological literature.  The most common reference point for anthropologists trying to reason through the notion of ‘tribe’ is American cultural anthropologist Elman Service’s 1962 work, Primitive Social Organization: An Evolutionary Perspective.  In that work, Service suggested that the tribe was a stage of political evolution in human societies that was more complex than the bands of hunting and gathering societies, but not as complex as chiefdoms and states.

The band organization of hunting and gathering societies was small scale, egalitarian, and had no political institutions that linked groups beyond the level of small, fluid, kinship-based co-residence.

The tribe, as Service saw it, was a level of political organization that was more commonly found among horticultural and pastoral societies than among hunters and gatherers.  It was more complex than the band, involved greater numbers of persons in a single polity, had the beginning of forms of hierarchy based on status, rank or prestige, and had forms of organization such as the lineage, moiety, or clan which linked together groups beyond the level of the kinship-based bands.

For Service, the band and the tribe were the first two stages in an evolutionary model which progressed towards chiefdoms and culminated in the state-based and class-stratified societies which he referred to as civilizations.

There are many problems with Service’s concepts, not the least of which is his one- directional evolutionary model which posits state-based and class-stratified societies as inevitable and irreversible advances over more ‘primitive’ forms of social organization.  From the point of view of the societies of the Guianas, however, another real problem is the lack of empirical ‘fit’ between Service’s model and the manner in which Amerindian societies that have been closely studied by ethnographers actually function.  The majority of the societies that Peter Rivière surveyed in his work Individual and Society in Guiana, for instance (these were mainly the Cariban speaking peoples of the Guiana Shield), seemed to operate more according to the principals that Service attributed to the band societies.  They are small, largely autonomous groups, who have no chiefs, leaders, or even ideas of tribal identity or affiliation that normally exist beyond the level of the individual settlement.  The settlement itself is a small, fluid, and fragile social unit that is easily dissolved when intra-group conflict arises.  And yet, these are not bands of hunter-gatherers, these are horticultural peoples, some of whom are involved in complex long-distance trade, and some of whom have periodically been involved in complex political negotiations with state-based colonial and post-colonial societies for the past four centuries.  They are not less evolutionarily adapted to deal with the realities of the modern world than their tribal, chiefly, or state-based contemporaries, they have simply adapted to modern conditions differently.

Having said that the tribe as an idea about a certain stage of political evolution does not work very well (in general, or in the Guianas), this does not mean that there have never been tribal kinds of political organization in the Guianas, or that the idea of the tribe has not taken on some kind of reality as a result of its employment by the colonial and the post-colonial states.

Historically, it seems likely that the Lokono Arawaks of  Guyana at the time of European contact had some kind of tribal or chiefly political organization that integrated communities beyond the level of the settlement.  Likewise, we have a very clear and well documented depiction of the formation and the disintegration of a chiefdom in the Guianas in Neil Whitehead’s work Lords of the Tiger Spirit: A History of the Caribs in Colonial Venezuela and Guyana 1498-1820. These two examples, the first of which probably predates European contact, and the second of which was in part a response to European colonialism, should by no means be considered anomalies, but are probably part of a larger pattern of the formation and disintegration of tribes and chiefdoms that has existed since the time of the introduction of horticulture into the Guiana Shield and the surrounding regions.

While the idea of the tribe in the anthropological sense meant by Elman Service or by his critics is not one that can be easily applied to the Amerindian groups as they exist in Guyana today, there is, however, another important sense in which these groups can be said to have been ‘tribalised’ during the colonial and post-colonial eras.  As recently as the 1950s, when Audrey Butt Colson did her doctoral research in the Upper Mazaruni, she reported that the majority of persons whom the state identified as ‘Akawaio’ did not self-identify with that name.  She found that identity was a part of a nested hierarchy that included information about residence, geography, language and culture, but did not include an overarching notion of a shared tribal identity.  By contrast, my own impressions of the situation when I did fieldwork in the Upper Mazaruni in 2001 and 2002, is that today the Kapon-speaking peoples of the Upper Mazaruni seem to have nearly universally internalized the notion of an ‘Akawaio’ identity.

This internalization of an identity that was probably initially a name imposed by strangers to describe an aggregate of peoples who did not necessarily originally perceive themselves as having a shared common identity is a phenomenon that is probably equally applicable to a number of other groups in Guyana, such as the Caribs, the Arekuna, the Patamona, the Makushi, and the Wai Wai.  The colonial state, and now the post-colonial state, used these names as ways of categorizing groups which it sought to keep track of and control for various reasons such as the state’s claim to territory, the need for a labour force in extractive industries in the interior, and originally for purposes of making strategic alliances that would enable small European colonies to survive in areas that still were effectively controlled by Amerindian peoples.

Interestingly, for the purposes of future political organization, the British colonial state ascribed identities to Amerindian peoples on the basis of so-called ‘tribe’, but they never recognized entities known as ‘tribes’ or recognized political institutions that could negotiate on behalf of their peoples in the same sense that ‘states’ negotiate on behalf of ‘nations.’  In the post-colonial era, when land title has been given to Amerindians, and when political institutions have been created and incorporated as part of the state, land has been granted to villages, and political representation works through village councils.  Nowhere in Guyana does a tribe collectively own land, nor are there large blocks of unfragmented land controlled by a single ‘tribe’ of people.  Furthermore, nowhere in Guyana are there tribal councils that are invested with the authority to negotiate on behalf of the peoples who have today internalized the tribal identities that were ascribed to them by the colonial state.

This situation of tribes without tribes has historically been the best of both worlds from the point of view of the state.  Tribal identities have made it easier for the state to categorize people for the purposes of social control, but there are no tribal political institutions which could be used to mobilize demands for recognition, respect, more equitable social conditions, or greater control on the part of Amerindian peoples over their own resources and destiny.  Whether a process of ethnogenesis on the part of Amerindian peoples, and a political movement to secure the conditions of Amerindian self-determination will arise out of the ‘tribalisation’ created by the colonial and post-colonial states remains to be seen.  Just such a movement has flourished in recent decades in many other parts of South and Central America, and is vibrant and militant among the Makushi and Wapishana of Roraima State, Brazil, with whom Guyanese Amerindians have many contacts and relations.  What effect their presence will have on Amerindian politics in Guyana remains to be seen.



Rivière, Peter

1984  Individual and Society in Guiana: A comparative study of Amerindian social organization.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rouse, Irving B.

1985  Arawakan phylogeny, Caribbean chronology, and their implications for the study of popular movement.  Antropologica 63/4: 9-21.

Service, Elman

1962  Primitive Social Organization: An Evolutionary Perspective. New York: Random House.

Whitehead, Neil.

1988    Lords of the Tiger Spirit: A History of the Caribs in Colonial Venezuela and Guyana 1498 – 1820.  Dordrecht, Holland: Foris Publications.

Williams, Denis.

1995    Pages in Guyanese Prehistory.  Georgetown, Guyana: Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology.

2003    Prehistoric Guiana.  Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers.

Wishart, Jennifer

1995    The Prehistoric Arawak of Guyana.  Georgetown, Guyana: Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology.



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