Friday, 18 May 2012

The Tribal Relationship of the Akawoias

The Tribal Relationship of the Akawoias
By A. Hyatt Verrill.
Timehri, June 1917. Researched by Alan Schenker, digitized by Doug Frizzle, May 2012.

Of all the tribes of British Guiana the most numerous, the most widely distributed and the richest in sub-tribes are the Akawoias or, as they call themselves, Kapohn (The People).
There is scarcely any portion of the colony where Akawoias are not found, with the exception of a narrow strip along the coast, and their benabs are scattered through the forests from the Courantyne to the Venezuelan border and southward to the savannas of the Rupununi. But though so widely distributed throughout this colony they do not occur in Dutch Guiana, Brazil or Venezuela, unless the Akurias of Dutch Guiana and the Arekunas of Venezuela are related tribes,—and they may be considered as strictly British Guiana Indians, the only tribe in fact which is indigenous and confined to the colony.
For this reason alone they are of particular interest, and moreover, it is not at all improbable that they represent the original aborigines of British Guiana, a race distinct from all the neighbouring tribes and neither of Carib nor of Arowak stock.
To be sure, many ethnologists and others have classed the Akawoias as belonging to the Carib race; but I see no valid reason for so doing and in every case, if we examine the evidence put forth in support of this classification, we will find it lamentably inadequate and not borne out by facts.
Schomburgk, im Thurn, Brett and Brinton all class the Akawoias as Carib stock; but Schomburgk was hardly an authority on tribal relationships; im Thurn jumped at conclusions and accepted hearsay superficial resemblances as proofs; Brett, though a careful observer in some matters had little knowledge of ethnology and was far more interested in saving Indians' souls than in preserving scientific data, while Brinton had never visited the Guiana Indians and possessed no first hand knowledge; but culled his information from earlier authors. Moreover, all of these writers depended entirely upon linguistic resemblances for their determinations of relationship between the tribes, a most inadequate and misleading method unless supported by other evidence and carried out with an intimate knowledge of local conditions and familiarity with the people themselves.
During my investigations among the British Guiana Indians I have spent much time among the Akawoias and their sub-tribes and have made a very careful and detailed study of the Kapohn nation. Moreover, I have been so fortunate as to find several isolated villages never before visited by white men and in which the Indians were living absolutely primitive lives. It was also my privilege to live among the Carib Indians of Dominica some thirty years ago when the insular Carib dialect was still in use and there was a large number of pure-blooded survivors of the tribe, while, during my stay in British Guiana, I have visited and studied nearly all the uncivilized Caribs of the North West District. From my intimate acquaintance with the two races I am convinced that they are in no way related and that the Akawoias are a distinct and separate race, probably the oldest of the tribes of Northeastern South America, and it is my purpose, in the present paper, to explain my reasons for this assumption and to point out the evidence in support of my theory.
In the first place the Kapohn or Akawoia nation is divided into numerous sub-tribes, each more or less distinct in habits, customs, arts, industries, handiwork and dialects, although all consider themselves as belonging to the Kapohn nation.
Moreover the Akawoias consider themselves absolutely distinct from the Carinya or Carib race; but claim relationship with the Arekunas, Makushis, Atoradis and others and state that these tribes are mixtures of Carib and Kapohn stock, the offspring of Carib women captured by the Akawoias in the days of constant warfare between the two tribes.
Although we can place very little credence on Indian tradition or legends, yet this particular belief seems borne out by investigations and it is, moreover, a perfectly natural and plausible explanation of the tribal relationships.
But leaving these other tribes and their connection with the Kapohn aside, the number of recognized sub-tribes of the Akawoia race prove the antiquity of the tribe, for distinct sub-tribes are not quickly formed and require many centuries of separation from the parent tribe before they acquire distinctive names and fixed characteristics.
It is also a noteworthy fact that such sub-tribes do not exist to any extent among either the Caribs, Arowaks or other British Guiana tribes.
Unquestionably there were once more of the Akawoia sub-tribes than exist to-day for Brett mentions the following:
Karatimkoa, Passonkos, Yaramoonas, Guaicas (Waikis), Komorahnis, Skamanas, Kamarokotas, True Akawoias, Patamonas, Etooekos
Of these, the true Akawoias, the Patamonas, the Guaicas and the Kamarokotas are the only tribes existing in any numbers to-day although, as before mentioned, it is questionable if the Arekunas and Akurias are not offshoots of the Kapohn, or, at least, a mixture of Akawoia and Carib stock. Very probably too some of the sub-tribes mentioned by Brett and others were synonymous, for the pronunciation of an Indian word is difficult to convey in print, and besides, the Indians frequently have two or more words with one meaning.
From a linguistic standpoint a superficial comparison might easily lead one to assume that the Akawoias are of Carib stock, and, if we depend upon the comparative vocabularies given by Brett or Brinton, the relationship of the two tribes seems established.
For example, in the following table there is a striking similarity of Carib and Akawoia words:
Table No. 1.
Words similar in Various Dialects. *



But it is just as easy to select an equal number of words totally distinct as shown by the following:
Table No. 2.
Dissimilar Words.
Iuga'mo Morok
Waiwa Wairanabi Ainchi
Ahaichi Ahaikiuru
No-ai Aitario
Tikuin Asara


* The spelling used in these tables is that adopted by the various Scientific societies. The letters have the Spanish or Italian sound, "U" is always like "oo"; "Ai" like "eye"; "A" like "Ah"; "E" as in "tell”; "I" as in "pig"; "O" as in "globe".

In each table Akuria words have been given for comparison and in every case there is a marked similarity between these and the Akawoia, in fact the very limited Guaica vocabulary which I have secured is so similar to the Akuria that the differences are impossible to reproduce, while the Patamona dialect differs only from the true Akawoia in pronunciation and a few minor details.
So too, the Arowak equivalents have been given in Table No. 1 where they even remotely resemble the Akawoia or Carib words whereas in Table 2 and in the following table, 3, Arowak and Warrau words are given to illustrate their absolute variance and to prove at once the impossibility of any relationship between these two tribes and the Akawoias.

Table No. 3.
Comparison of Akawoia. Carib. Arowak. and Warrau words.
Autai (or) Tapoui

From the foregoing it will be seen that there is no more resemblance between the equivalent words in Akawoia and Carib in Table No. 2 than between the Carib and Arowak or Warrau and hence, by language alone, we might just as well consider the Arowak, Warrau and Carib races as one as to consider the Akawoias and Caribs of common stock. At any rate the linguistic evidence is just as strong against as for the assumption that the Caribs and Akawoias are related.
It is not at all surprising that a certain number of Akawoia words should resemble, or even be identical with those in the Carib tongue for the Caribs, as is well known, overran the country in the past and the races they conquered might readily have adopted words from their conquerors’ tongue, exactly as the Britons adopted many Latin words, or, on the other hand, the Caribs may have incorporated Akawoia words in their dialect just as the inhabitants of the Southwestern United States and California use many Spanish words in every day conversation and which, by long usage, are now recognized as United States English and are to be found in Webster's dictionary.
Still another matter which should not be overlooked is the fact that the Caribs were not always the victors and that, whether they won or not, a certain number of men must have been made prisoners, to remain with the conquering tribe and by ultimate intermarriage and amalgamation add portions of their tribal tongue to that of their adopted tribe.
The very fact that the languages are similar in certain respect helps to prove my contention that the Akawoias were the original aborigines of the interior and were in no ways connected with the Caribs, for it is natural that the tribe with whom the Caribs most frequently fought would adopt the greatest number of Carib words or vice versa. So too, the Akawoias must have been a numerous powerful and long established nation to have met the Caribs and still exist through centuries of warfare upon the same territory as that occupied by their ancestors. That they were such is admitted by the Carib legends and the number and power of the tribe can be still better appreciated if we bear in mind that they were the nearest neighbours of the Caribs inland, and must have been exposed to their attack more frequently than any other people of the interior. Indeed, the Kapohn formed a sort of human barricade between the coastwise Caribs and the savannah tribes and through which the Caribs were obliged to force a bloody way to reach the hinterland Indians.
Had they been of Carib stock, or had their language been very similar to the Caribs; a peace or an alliance would have been formed between the two tribes and yet, as far as known, the Kapohn and the Carinya were always deadly enemies and no mention is made of any peace between them, either in the Carib or Akawoia legends.
But the most important factor bearing on the similarity of words in the two dialects is that the Akawoias have always been noted as traders and nomads, gypsy-like in their wanderings throughout the length and breadth of the land. Moreover they were not always peaceful barterers, but forced their presence and their dealings upon other tribes by dint of arms, evidently believing that might made right and compelling weaker races to do business, willy-nilly.
Whenever we find a tribe or a race with such bartering tendencies we find some common medium of speech in use, for the success of a trader among strangers depends largely upon his ability to converse with them. Hence there is nothing more natural than that the bartering, nomadic Kapohn should have developed a language which could be understood by the tribes with whom they dealt and that the other tribes should likewise have become accustomed to certain essential words and expressions in Akawoia. There is almost conclusive evidence that such is the case, for to-day, the Akawoias dialect is the lingua-franca of the forest Indians and is understood by practically every tribe in the interior of British Guiana.
But while Arekunas, Akawoias, Akurias, Myangongs, Makushis and others can converse readily, yet the true Caribs cannot understand pure Akawoia nor can a member of the Kapohn understand the Carib tongue, and yet many authorities would have us believe they are of the same race and that their dialects are much alike.
As I have already mentioned, linguistic resemblances or distinctions are often misleading, if taken by themselves; but if such points are supported by other evidence in the shape of customs, life, tradition, handiwork, religious ceremonies etc., it is quite a different matter.
Let us then compare the similarities or differences of the Carib and Akawoia races as regards such matters.
Unfortunately many of the primitive customs, arts and other important peculiarities of the Indians have been lost through contact with civilization and Christianity and it is questionable how much we can depend upon the descriptions or illustrations of early writers in forming an opinion as to the Indians’ ways in the past.
Many of these old authors were apparently keen observers and took a great interest in the aboriginies; but the area of their investigations was limited and their judgment and assumptions were superficial while their illustrations, even if accurately drawn, were often so altered by the engravers as to render them valueless as evidence. Moreover customs and fashions have their vogue among savage tribes, as well as among civilised races, and hence we can only judge of the accuracy of such matters by the facts as we find them to-day.
But before taking up the life, customs and handiwork of the tribes it may be well to compare their physical characteristics.
To be sure, little reliance can be placed upon physical development or peculiarities as a means of establishing tribal or racial relationships, for local conditions and environment have a tremendous influence upon the colour, form, proportions and physiognomy of the human race; but distinct changes, due to such causes, require countless centuries before they become fixed characteristics and, even then, closely related tribes usually possess certain physical resemblances.
The Akawoias and Caribs however are totally different, save that both tribes have straight black hair and dark eyes, traits common to nearly every American aboriginal race, and are far more distinct, in physical characters, than are the Caribs and Arowaks. In order that the differences may be more readily appreciated I have tabulated them as follows:

Physical Characters of Akawoias and Caribs.*

Lower Limbs

Lower jaw
Facial expression
Coppery to dark brown.
Small, undeveloped.
Oblique, narrow, black or
dark brown.
Lacking or very scanty.
Broad, often flattened.
Morose or sullen, dull or often repulsive,
Olive to brownish-yellow.
Well proportioned.
Straight, large, often light hazel or gray.
Often prominent.
Often well developed.
Straight, well formed, often aquiline.
Bright, intelligent, pleasant and often attractive.
* Brinton says: "The physical features of the Caribs assimilate closely to those of the Arowaks. They ere taller and more vigorous but are beardless and have the same variability in colour of skin.” This is far from correct. Both the insular and mainland Caribs have well-developed beards and many of the Arowaks have quite luxuriant mustaches. Even a casual observer can readily distinguish a Carib from an Arowak.

In a word the Akawoias are of an ancient type, of low stature, short lower limbs, broad faces, small eyes, prominent brows and low foreheads whereas the Caribs are a more highly developed type with well developed limbs, broad foreheads, oval faces and medium stature. It is however a very difficult matter to convey an intelligent idea of the physical peculiarities or appearance of a man or woman by words but by a comparison of photographs of the two races the vast difference can be at once distinguished.
But it is in the handiwork, customs and architecture of the Caribs and Kapohn that we find the most striking contrasts.
Whereas the Caribs build neatly thatched or wattled houses with walls, the Akawoias use open shed-like benabs of crude, or at least very primitive, construction. The dances of the two tribes are distinct, the Parasara and Bimiti of the Akawoias being unknown to the Caribs while the Wahnoo dance is peculiar to the latter.
Both tribes use bows and arrows, as do all the Guiana Indians, but the Caribs also employ lances or javelins and harpoons which are unknown to the Akawoias. Both tribes use drums; but they are distinct in form and method of manufacture and the Caribs' fiddles, or their counterparts, are never seen among the Akawoias, save where they have been borrowed from neighbouring Caribs. (Here it may be of interest to call attention to Brinton's statement that, "no Indian tribe uses stringed instruments," an erroneous assumption as Italian harps, fiddles and other stringed instruments were in use by various tribes when first visited by Europeans.)
In common with the Makushis, Wapisianas, Arekunas and nearly all the interior tribes the Akawoias wear feather crowns and feather capes or mantles and employ feathers extensively for decorative purposes. The Caribs on the other hand do not wear feather crowns, but have distinct head-dresses of upright feathers. They never use feather mantles and seldom use feathers to any extent for decorations. Some of the old prints show Caribs decked in feather crowns and capes but I have never been able to find any trace of either among the Caribs, save where Akawoias had married into or lived with the tribe, and old Caribs with whom I have conversed state that feather crowns of the Akawoia type, or feather capes, have never been used by the true Caribs.*
The Carib tribal mark, a tuft or patch of the white down of the King Vulture on the forehead, is never used by any of the Kapohn people and the Carib headdress of braided and tasselled cotton is not in use by any Akawoia tribe or sub-tribe.
The bead apron or queyu of the Akowoia women, and worn by the females of nearly every British Guiana tribe, is never worn by the Caribs, the women of this tribe wearing a cloth lap supported by a bead belt. The lap of the Carib men is fringed and ornamented, supported by woven cotton belts, and is very distinct from the lap of any other tribe.
* Brett figures and decription Caribs, Arowaks, Akawoias, Arekunas and other tribes as wearing feather crowns. His illustrations depict the Indians with various forms of crowns, some with feathers standing upright instead of horizontally; others with two or more long feathers in front and others with a few upright feathers on the forehead. Some of these forms are now unknown while the upright feathers are confined to the Akurias and Caribs in British Guiana and the Trios in Surinam. The halo-like crowns with long feathers in front are peculiar to the hinterland tribes. Possibly the bunches of feathers on the forehead are supposed to represent the Carib tribal mark of white vulture down. Brett also speaks of nose ornaments worn by the Arekunas, but I have never found an Arekuna with such decorations and the Arekunas insist they are never worn by members of the tribe. They are in use among the Wapisianas and some other tribes, however.

Tattooing, almost universal among the Akawoias is never seen among the Caribs and the painted decorations of the latter are purely ornamental and have no significance, as far as can be ascertained.
Practically all the Carib women, and many of the Carib men have the lower lip pierced and wear pins or labrets in the aperture and while this custom is said to be followed by some of the true Akawoias I have never seen it and members of the tribe state positively that pure-blooded Akawoias never wear labrets.
Immensely heavy necklaces, formed of numerous strings of beads held together by rings carved from palm nuts, are universally worn by Carib women but are entirely lacking among the Akawoias, while the Carib women's method of dressing the hair, in a flat coif on the back of the head, and decorating it with bright ribbons or cotton strings is confined entirely to this tribe.
Many of the customs and arts, as well as weapons and handiwork of the Caribs and Akawoias are common to all the British Guiana Indians; but in every case they are distinctive of the tribe and the most casual observer could note the difference between the Carib and Akawoia objects.
Among such articles are the clubs, bows, baskets, hammocks, rattles, pottery, cotton fringes to necklaces of teeth, calabashes, wooden stools, etc.; but the distinctions, although obvious upon examination, are impossible to describe.
Of much more interest and importance is the fact that Wurali poison and blow guns, used extensively by the Akawoias and other tribes, are not employed by the Caribs who openly express contempt for the Akawoias as poisoners. For the sake of comparison the following table will prove of interest.
* Many of the Patamonas wear pins in the lower lip but the true Akawoias consider the Patamonas an inferior and mongrel race. It is very probable that the Patamonas have acquired the habit through contact with the Makushis for it is far commoner among those inhabiting the borders of the Makushi country than among the Patamonas elsewhere. I consider the Patamonas a mixture of Akawoia and some other tribe, perhaps Arowak, while the Guaicas or Waikis are undoubtedly a mixture of Akawoia and Carib.

Women's costume
Lances and harpoons
Head-dresses or crowns
Mantles or capes

Painting on faces or bodies

Tribal mark on forehead
Wurali poison and blow pipes
*Labret in Lower lip
Open, shed-like.
Plain lap.
Feathers, halo-like.
Universal with "beena" significance.
Common, often with significance.

Not used.
Walled, thatched or wattled.
Ornamental lap, cotton belt
Cotton coronets, upright feathers.

Universal, purely ornamental.

White vulture down.

Universal, especially with women.
In common use

To sum up, the evidence in support of the assumption that the Akawoias are a distinct race from the Caribs is as follows.—
1. A dialect in which the majority of words are distinct.
2. Marked differences in physical characteristics.
3. Ancient enmity and irreconcilable hatred between the tribes.
4. Totally different dances, religious and ceremonial rites and traditions.
5. The use of Wurali poison by one tribe and not by the other.
6. Symbolical and significant tatooing by one and not by the other.
7. Distinctive types of permanent houses.
8. The unique use of laps by the Carib women and the use of queyus by the Akawoias.
9. The universal use of feather crowns and mantles by the Akawoias and not by the Caribs and the headdresses of upright feathers of the latter.
10. The tribal mark of white vulture down employed by the Caribs and not by the Akawoias.
11. The cotton coronets used only by the Caribs.
12. The nomadic, trading propensities of the Akawoias.
13. The use of stringed instruments by Caribs and not by Akawoias.
14. Harpoons and javelins used only by the Caribs.
15. Distinct forms of ornaments, weapons, ceremonial clubs, etc.

In contradiction of this theory, and in support of the claim that the Caribs and Akawoias are of common stock, we have the following:—
1. Certain words identical or similar.
2. Physical characteristics common to all South American tribes.
3. Statements and illustrations by early writers of questionable accuracy.
4. The use of certain weapons, implements, utensils, etc., such as metapees, baskets, bows and arrows, hammocks, etc., which are common to all British Guiana and most South American tribes.
5. The theory that the Caribs originated in South America, probably near the Orinoco delta, which is not borne out by investigation.

Certainly it must be admitted that the preponderance of evidence is in favour of my claim that the two tribes are of distinct origin and once we accept this as a fact great light is thrown upon the relationships of the other British Guiana tribes. For, instead of being compelled to class them as of Arowak or Carib stock, we can explain all puzzling features by an intermingling of Arowaks, Caribs and Akawoias, or by offshoots of these tribes which have developed certain features which are distinctive. Thus, the true feather crown is typically Akawoian; but was once used by the Arowaks and is still in use by the various interior tribes; but is not and never was used by the Caribs. On the other hand the head-dress of upright feathers is peculiar to the Carib and Akuria tribes and while the latter linguistically are almost identical with the Akawoias yet in physical characters, colour, many customs and arts and in handiwork they are strikingly Carib. In still other matters they are distinctly Arowak and there is no doubt in my mind that they are descended from some marauding horde of Caribs who became cut off from their fellow tribesmen and, surrounded by Akawoias and Arowaks, gradually acquired some of the characteristics of their neighbours. Likewise the Makushis, although linguistically Carib, have many features strikingly Akawoian.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.