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Tigi Nukak.jpg
A Nukak mother and child.
Total population
approx. 450-550
Regions with significant populations
San José del Guaviare settlements: 210-250, Nukak Reservation: estimated at 200-300,
Spanish speakers rare.
Related ethnic groups
Cacua or Bara Makú
Other Makú peoples like Hupdu

The Nukak [nɨkâk] people (also Nukak-Makú) live between the Guaviare and Inírida rivers, in the depths of the tropical humid forest, on the fringe of the Amazon basin, in Guaviare Department, Republic of Colombia. They are nomadic hunter-gatherers with seasonal nomadic patterns and in addition they practice a shifting horticulture in small scale. An "uncontacted people" until 1981,[1] they have since lost half of their population, primarily to disease.[2] Part of their territory has been used by coca growers, ranchers and other settlers and occupied by guerrillas, army and paramilitaries. Responses to this crisis include protests, requests for assimilation, and the suicide of leader Maw-be'.[2] Some 210–250 are estimated to live in provisional settlements at San José del Guaviare, while about as many live nomadically in the Nukak Reservation (Resguardo).

Nukak are expert hunters. The men hunt using blowguns, with darts coated with curare "manyi", a poison made from different plants (curares). They specially hunt several species of monkeys (Alouatta spp., Cebus spp., Saimiri sp., Lagothrix spp., Ateles sp., Saguinus spp., Callicebus torquatus), and birds (Muscovy duck, chachalacas, guans, curassows, grey-winged trumpeter and toucans). Also they use javelins of Socratea exorrhiza palm wood to hunt two species of peccaries (Tayassu pecari and T. tajacu) and spectacled caimans, whose eggs they consume too. Nukak neither hunt nor eat brocket deer, Odocoileus virginianus and tapirs (Tapirus terrestris); these animals are considered by them as part of the same group of origin as human beings.

The Nukak also capture rodents (Cuniculus sp., Dasyprocta spp.); armadillos (Dasypus sp.) tortoises (Geochelone sp); frogs (in large quantities); crabs; shrimps; snails; larvae of palm weevils (mojojoy, "mun", Rhynchophorus spp.); larvae of several species of wasps and caterpillars.


The Nukak eat several species of fish, like Hoplias sp., Myloplus spp., Mylossoma spp., Hydrolycus sp., Cichla sp., surubí (Pseudoplatystoma fasciatum), catfishes (Brachyplatystoma spp.), piranhas (Serrasalmus spp., Pygocentrus spp.) and river rays (Potamotrygon sp.). Lately, part of this activity is done using cord and metal fishooks, although the Nukak, to this day, still catch their fish in the traditional way, with bow and arrow or harpoons, traps or baskets ("mei", water cages). They also use a very sophisticated technique that has been reported in several cultures. This technique uses nuún, the root of a Lonchocarpus sp. that contains a number of substances that when dissolved in the water streams stun the fish, making them an easy catch for the Nukak.

They collect honey of twenty species of bees and many fruits: palm fruits (Jessenia bataua), Oenocarpus spp., Attalea spp., Mauritia sp., Phenakospermum guyannense, Aechmea sp., Inga sp., Couma macrocarpa, Iryanthera sp., Theobroma spp., Pourouma spp., Parinari sp., Micrandra sp., Helicostylis sp., Caryocar sp., Talisia sp., Hymenaea sp., Dacryodes spp., Abuta sp., Eugenia spp., Touraleia sp., Perebea spp., Protium sp., Cecropia sp., 'Batocarpus sp., Hyeronima sp., Brosimum sp., Dialium sp., Garcinia sp., Manilkara sp., Naucleopsis spp., Pradosia sp., Pouteria sp., Salasia sp., Passiflora spp., Duroia maguirei, Duroia hirsuta, Mouriri sp., Alibertia sp..

Nukak take the sweet resin from "mupabuat" (Lacunal sp.) and the rattan water (Doliocarpus sp.). They collect vegetal materials like the elements necessary to cover their encampments "wopyi" (with leaves of Phenakospermum guyannense and palms); to make their hammocks (with fiber of the cumare palm Astrocaryum sp.), moorings (Heteropsis tenuispadix, Eschweilera sp., Anthurium sp.), blowguns (Iriartella stigera, Bactris maraja), bows (Duguetia quitarensis), axe ends (Aspidosperma sp.), darts (thorns of Oneocarpus sp.), quivers for the darts (leaves of Calathea sp.), milkweed to assure the darts (Pachira nukakika, Ceiba sp., Pseudobombax sp.), loinclothes for men (Couratari guianensis), baskets (Heteropsis spp.), disposable bags (Ischnosiphon arouma, Heliconia sp.), soap (Cedrelinga sp.), perfumes (Myroxylon sp., Justice pectoralis) and diverse objects.

They make blades with the teeth of piranha, but lately they also use metallic ones. Until 1990 they practised pottery in small scale, producing a small kind of pot to take with them on their travels and a second, bigger kind, to leave as supplies in their key camping sites. Today they prefer to obtain metallic pots. When they do not have matches or lighters, they use special wood (Pausandra trianae) to produce fire. At present time they do not make mirrors with the resin of Trattinickia glaziovii nor stone axes like they did in past times.

Social aspects[edit]

The marriage, base of the domestic group, is settled after the man has formally courted the woman with accepted gifts and she has acceded to live with him. In order to look for a pairing, a man must have gone through an initiation ritual in which he endures several penalties and difficulties, to demonstrate the fundamental abilities for the subsistence and consumes a hallucinogen (Virola sp.).

The most suitable couple is one made up by crossed cousins. Parallel cousins marriage is forbidden, that being the reason why each man looks for a suitable woman in groups where his maternal sisters and aunts are married and therefore the unmarried are eligible. If the woman still lives in the home of the father, the gifts must include him. If the woman accepts, she settles down in the encampment of the man and if they have a child then they are considered a formal pair, which establishes mutual relations of kinship, expressed in rights and duties of reciprocity.

A man can marry several wives, although a single wife is most common, and examples of three or more are rare. This polygyny coexists with a temporal polyandry during the pregnancy in order to improve the qualities of the baby.

Each domestic group is part of a territorial group and other groups that are established to perform specific duties like security measures, according to the different stations and situations. On the other hand, each Núkâk is considered as part of a paternal lineage, "nüwayi", named with an animal or plant.

Ten territorial Nukak groups have been identified, at least each one with 50 or 60 people, who most of the year do not remain together but form different groups for harvesting and/or hunting that are distributed in accordance with the climatic seasonal changes and the security situation. In certain special occasions different groups join, after they practice a special ritual, "entiwat", in which the groups dance face to face, striking and verbally injuring each other until the ritual reaches a climatic moment in which they all embrace, weeping while they remember their ancestors and express affection. The groups practice a form of exchange, "ihinihat", especially when all the resources are not in the same territory.

It is considered taboo for the Nukak to discuss dead people.


Nukak people speak a tonal Nadahup language.

Endangered people[edit]

The Nukak have already suffered the devastation of their population by malaria, measles and pulmonary diseases since their contact with the New Tribes Mission and other outsiders beginning in 1981;[1] now, coca growers, left-wing FARC guerillas, right-wing AUC paramilitaries and the Colombian army have occupied their lands. These aboriginals have therefore become embroiled in Colombia's armed conflict. In 2006, a group of nearly 80 Nukak left the jungle and sought assimilation along with cultural preservation. As one of the migrants, Pia-pe, put it: "We do want to join the white family, but we do not want to forget words of the Nukak."[3] In October 2006, leader and Nukak Spanish speaker Maw-be' committed suicide by drinking poison; friends and the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) described him as in desperation in his inability to secure supplies or a safe return to their homeland for the Nukak.[2][4]

Niall Ferguson cites them as an example of a hunter-gathering tribe which, hitherto ignorant of a money economy, has shown itself happy to exchange an arduous traditional life in their jungle homelands for a subsistence existence based on government handouts at the periphery of a globalized world of finance.[5]


  1. ^ a b Hammer, Joshua (March 2013). "The Lost Tribes of the Amazon". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 31 March 2013.
  2. ^ a b c "Se suicida un líder indígena, desesperado por la inminente extinción de su pueblo en Colombia," El Mundo, October 2006. [This appears to be a translated press release from Survival.]
  3. ^ Juan Forero, "Leaving the Wild, and Rather Liking the Change," New York Times, May 11, 2006.
  4. ^ DARCY CROWE, Nomadic tribe struggles in Colombia, Associated Press, October 27, 2006.
  5. ^ Niall Ferguson, The Ascent of Money: A Financial history of the world, (2008) Penguin Books, 2009 p.19.


  • CABRERA, Gabriel; Carlos FRANKY y Dany MAHECHA 1999: Los N+kak: nómadas de la Amazonia colombiana; Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Sf. Bogotá D.C.- ISBN 978-958-8051-35-2
  • CÁRDENAS, Dairon y Gustavo POLITIS 2000: Territorios, movilidad, etnobotánica y manejo del bosque en los Nukak orientales. Amazonic Institute of Scientific Research, SINCHI, Bogotá D.C.- ISBN 978-958-695-035-0
  • GUALTERO, Israel 1989: "Estudio breve de la cultura material de los Nukak". Asociación Nuevas Tribus de Colombia, mec. 15 p.
  • GUTIÉRREZ, Ruth 1996: "Manejo de los recursos naturales (fauna y flora) por los Nukak"; trabajo de grado. Universidad Nacional de Colombia, mec.
  • MONDRAGÓN, Héctor 1994 "La defensa del territorio Nukak" en Antropología y derechos Humanos. Memorias del VI Congreso de Antropología en Colombia. Carlos Vladimir Zambrano editor. Universidad de los Andes, p.p. 139 a 155. Bogotá D.C.- ISBN 978-958-95646-1-5
  • POLITIS, Gustavo G. 1995 Mundo Nukak. Fondo de Promoción de Cultura, Banco Popular, Bogotá D.C.- ISBN 958-9003-81-8
1996 Nukak. Instituto Amazónico de Investigaciones SINCHI, Bogotá D.C.- ISBN 978-958-95379-8-5
2007: Nukak: Ethnoarchaeology of an Amazonian People. (Benjamin ALBERTI, trans.) Left Cast Press and University College London Institute of Archaeology Publications, Walnut Creek, CA.

External links[edit]