Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Dear visitor: Summer is here, and you may be thinking about a well-deserved vacation, family get-togethers, BBQs with neighborhood friends. More than likely, making a donation to Catholic Answers is not on your radar right now. But this is exactly the time we most need your help. The “summer slowdown” in donations is upon us, but the work of spreading the gospel and explaining and defending the Faith never takes a break. Your gift today will change lives and save souls for Christ this summer! The reward is eternal. Thank you and God bless.

Dear visitor: Summer is here, and you may be thinking about a well-deserved vacation, family get-togethers, BBQs with neighborhood friends. More than likely, making a donation to Catholic Answers is not on your radar right now. But this is exactly the time we most need your help. The “summer slowdown” in donations is upon us, but the work of spreading the gospel and explaining and defending the Faith never takes a break. Your gift today will change lives and save souls for Christ this summer! The reward is eternal. Thank you and God bless.

Moxos Indians

History of this group of tribes famous in the mission annals of South America

Click to enlarge

Moxos Indians (MOYOS INDIANS). According to one authority, they are named from Musu, their Quichua name; according to others, from the Moxos word, muha, erroneously thought by the Spaniards to be the tribal name. This collective designation is that of a group of tribes famous in the mission annals of South America, originally ranging through the forests and prairies of the upper Mamore, extending east and west from the Guapore (Itenes) to the Beni, and centring in the present Province of Mojos, Department of Beni, Bolivia. They numbered altogether at least 50,000 souls, in perhaps a hundred small tribes or sub-tribes, speaking at least thirteen distinct languages, each with dialects, viz., Moxo (spoken with dialectic variation by the Moxos proper, Baure, Ticomeri, and several small tribes), Paicone, Mopeciana, Icabicici, Mapiena, Movima, Cayubaba, Itonama, Sapibocona, Cheriba, Rocotona, Mure, Canichana. Of these, the Moxos and Paicone, with all their dialects, belong to the widespread Arawakan stock, which includes also the Maipure (q.v.) of the Orinoco; the Sapibocona belong to the Tacanan stock of Beni river; the Mure are an offshoot from the Mura of the great Tupian stock of eastern and central Brazil; the Movima, Cayubaba, Itonama, Canichana, and Rocotona (Ocorona) represent each a distinct stock; while the others remain unclassified. Besides all these, there were gathered in by the Jesuits some immigrant Chiquito, Siriono, and Chiriguano, each of different language, from the southern Bolivian missions. Of them all, the Moxos proper were the most important.

The mode of life of the Moxos, in their primitive condition, was determined by their peculiar environment. During the rainy season, lasting four months, nearly the whole country is inundated, excepting certain elevated places, where the scattered bands made their temporary villages. As the waters retreat the hot sun generates pestilence in the low grounds along the rivers, while the prevailing oppressive heat is varied by spells of piercingly cold winds from the mountains which prevent the ripening of corn. The natives therefore were generally without agriculture, but subsisted chiefly upon fish and roots during the greater part of the year, and upon the wild game of the mountains when driven from the low grounds by the floods. They were thus compelled to a wandering habit, at the same time that they were skillful fishers and river men. The constant shifting also brought the bands into collision, so that each tribe was constantly making war on its neighbors.

Their houses were low huts, occupied each by a single family, instead of being communal as in so many tribes. The larger villages had also well built “town houses” for the celebration of tribal functions. They slept upon mats upon the ground or in hammocks, with a smouldering fire close at hand to drive away the swarms of mosquitoes and other insects. They ate when they could find food, without regard to time, feasting equally upon putrid fish taken from stagnant pools, and upon human flesh of prisoners taken in war, for all or nearly all the tribes were cannibal. Of game, the monkey was their favorite food. They used dogs in hunting. They were greatly addicted to drunkenness, brought about by a fermented liquor of their own manufacture, and their frequent dance festivals always ended in general intoxication, frequently with bloody encounters in revenge for old injuries. Not-withstanding the generally rude culture, the Moxos proper and Baure excelled in hammock-weaving, boat making, pottery, and music, their favorite musical instrument being a sort of pan-pipes sometimes six feet in length. The Moxos had also a method of picture writing. This superiority may have been due in a measure to Peruvian influence, the Inca emperor Yupanqui having temporarily subdued the Moxos about 1460.

In most of the tribes both men and women went entirely naked, but painted their faces in different colors, wore labrets, nose pendants, and necklaces particularly of the teeth of slain enemie—and various decorations of feathers. One of their tribes, the Tiboi, had heads of pyramidal shape, produced by pressure upon the skull in infancy. Their hair was worn at full length in a queue. Their weapons were the bow, with poisoned arrows, and a javelin with which they could kill at one hundred paces. They were very cruel in war, being addicted to the torture of prisoners a practice rare in South America—as well as to cannibalism. The Canichana even fattened prisoners for their cannibal feasts and afterwards fashioned their skulls into drinking cups. In some cases prisoners were held as slaves. Unlike the Iroquois, who exorcised the ghosts of their murdered victims, the Moxos moved away from the spot of the sacrifice to escape the vengeance of the dead. The savage Canichana in particular were so persistent in cannibalism that after coming into the missions they would sometimes steal children secretly for this purpose, even casting lots among themselves to decide who should give up a child, until the missionaries took steps to note each birth immediately upon delivery.

Marriages were arranged between the parents, usually without consulting the young people, and polygamy was permitted, although not common, but adultery was considered disgraceful. The wife was the mistress of the household and always chose the camping place. If the mother died the infant was buried alive with her, and if twins were born, one also was always buried. The woman who suffered miscarriage was killed by her own husband. The help-less aged were put to death by their children, and orphaned children also were sometimes killed by the elders. The authority of the village chiefs was absolute. Interment was in the ground and the property, instead of being destroyed as in most tribes, was divided among the relatives. In several tribes the bones were dug up after a time, reduced to powder and mixed with pounded corn to form a cake, which was given to friends to eat as the strongest bond and token of friendship. Some of this bread was thus partaken of by the first missionaries before they knew its composition.

Their religion was a pure nature worship, special reverence being paid to the River, the Thunder, and the Jaguar. Their tribal ceremonials and religious rituals were in the keeping of their priests, who were put through a severe course of training and initiation involving a years abstention from all animal food, together with a battle with a jaguar—regarded as an embodied god—until wounded, and thus marked, by the divinity. Their principal festivals were regulated by the new moon, beginning with a days fast and ending with a night dance and drinking orgy.

The earlier attempts to missionize the tribes of central Bolivia met with no success. About the year 1673 the Moxos province was brought to the attention of the Jesuits of the college at Lima by Jose del Castillo, a lay brother, author of the valuable “Relacibn”, who had accompanied some traders into that region and had been greatly impressed by the apparent docility of the natives. Father Cipriano Baraza, afterwards so noted as a missionary, at once asked and obtained the permission to undertake their conversion. In 1674, accompanied only by Brother Castillo and some Indian guides, he entered their country from Santa Cruz by way of a twelve-days canoe voyage down the Mamore river. In four years he had won their love and nearly mastered the language, when serious illness compelled his return to the healthier climate of Santa Cruz. He employed his convalescence in learning weaving, in order to induce them to clothe themselves, as a beginning in civilization. In the meantime, however, he was assigned to labor among the Chiriguano, among whom he spent five years before he was permitted to return to his first choice, the Moxos. In 1686 he founded the first mission, Loreto, followed in rapid succession by Trinidad (1687), San Ignacio (1689), San Xavier (1690), San Jose (1691), San (Francisco de) Borja (1693), the six missions soon containing altogether nearly 20,000 Indians, Loreto alone in 1691 having 4000. Later missions were: San Pedro (the capital, 1698), Santa Ana, Exaltacion, Magdalena (alias San Ramon), Concepcion, San Simen San Joaquin, San Martin, San Luis, San Pablo, an Juan, San Nicolas, Santos Reyes, San Judas, Santa Rosa I (del Itenes) San Miguel, Patrocinio, Santa Rosa II, Desposorios, Santa Cruz. Of these, the two missions of Santa Rosa del Itenes and San Miguel occupied chiefly by the Mure, Meque, and Rocotona tribes, were entirely broken up by the raids of the Portuguese slave-hunters (see Guarani Indians; Mameluco) subsequent to 1742, and the survivors removed to other foundations. Wars, epidemics, and removals led to the abandonment also of San Luis, San Jose, San Pablo, Patrocinio, and San Juan. Santa Rosa II (1765), Desposorios, and Santa Cruz (de la Sierra) were the latest, and were occupied by Siriono, Chiriguano, and Chiquito, south of the Moxos province proper. The whole number of missions at one time was about twenty, containing in 1736 about 30,000 converts, increased to nearly 50,000 before the close of the Jesuit period, but again reduced to 20,345 souls in eleven missions in 1797, thirty years after the expulsion of the Jesuits.

Baraza himself was their great apostle and civilizer. Besides learning the principal languages and adapting himself to the Indian life so that he was able to penetrate every part of the province and thus make successful discovery of a shorter mountain passage to From Eder ERNST, FREIHERR VON, jurist, Peru, be introduced cattle, weaving, agriculture, car b. August 10, 1799, at Munich; d. August 1, 1867, pentry, and brick-making. The mission churches reared at Innsbruck (Tyrol). He belonged to an ancient by the Indians under his supervision rivalled those of noble family of Picardy, banished from France in Peru. At last after twenty seven years of labor he 1789 and settled in Munich. After completing his was treacherously murdered at the age of sixty one, studies in his native city, he became auditor in the on September 16, 1702, among the then unconverted war office; in 1827 privatdocent; 1830-33 attorney at Baure, a tribe of considerably higher native culture law, in 1833 extraordinary professor of natural and than the others, living in palisaded villages on the political law at Wurtzburg; finally in 1837 ordinary eastern border of the province.

On the expulsion of the Jesuits from Spanish Amer Senate of the university to King Ludwig II concernica in 1767 the Moxos missions were turned over to ing the notorious dancer Lola Montes, he was deposed the Franciscans, under whom they continued into the together with several other professors and appointed modern period. The population has been greatly re supernumerary counsellor of the Court of Appeals duced, first by the slave raids and epidemic fevers in the at Neuburg on the Danube. Obtaining leave of ab earlier times, and more lately by the constant drain of Bence in 1848, he went to Innsbruck, where he devoted the able-bodied men to the rubber forests of Brazil, himself to literary work for the old Conservative whence few of them ever return, their superiority as party and in 1851, after his complete severance from boatmen rendering their services in demand as far as the service of Bavaria, he accepted the chair of history the Amazon. They are comfortably dressed in cloth  of the German Empire and German law, in the um- ing made by themselves from bark fibre. In physique vel Sity of that town. In 1863 he retired after having they are robust, and taller than most of the Bolivian transferred the chair of German history to Ficker. tribes. "They are distinguished by a remarkably In 1860-62 he was first vice-president and in 1864 equable disposition, a frank and upright character, president of the General Assembly of German Cathoand great industry. They give up less time to merry lies. A tireless champion of Catholic ideas in speech making than their southern kinsfolk, and are generally of more laborious habits, hence their industries are greatly developed, and although living far from the large towns and markets the Moxos excel all the other Indians as weavers, builders and wood carvers" (Reclus). They are zealous Catholics, entirely under the spiritual authority of their priests, and noted for their voluntary penances, as were their convert forefathers two centuries ago. Under the two principal names of Moxos and Baure, they number now about 30,000, not including several tribes as the Canichana, Movima, etc. included in the Moxos missions, but still retaining their distinct name and language.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!