Linguistic, Cultural, and Environmental Aspects of Ethnoprimatological Knowledge Among the Lokono, Kari’na, and Warao of the Moruca River (Guyana)

  • Konrad RybkaEmail author
Part of the Ethnobiology book series (EBL)


Indigenous people possess extensive knowledge of the environment they inhabit. Indigenous languages, a reserve of this knowledge, astound in turn with the number of ethnobiological categories encoded and the diversity of principles according to which they are organized. Even more confounding is the mosaic of languages that has crystalized in precontact South America, the fragments of which scientists try to piece together. The Moruca River in northwestern Guyana, inhabited by three linguistically unrelated peoples (the Lokono, Kari’na, and Warao), is one piece of this puzzle. Its multiethnic character renders it a perfect setting for the study of environmental adaptation and cultural exchange among indigenous peoples, two forces that may have played an important role in shaping the linguistic and cultural landscape of Amazonia. It is from this angle that ethnoprimatological knowledge and the related vocabulary are analyzed in this chapter. The data reveal that the three languages are highly sensitive to environmental pressures. The languages retain, borrow, and drop terms for primates, or even change their meanings, fine-tuning their lexical resources to the environmental niches, in which they have been spoken. The results also unravel patterns of areal convergence and borrowing of cultural practices involving primates. However, the linguistic and cultural borrowings do not align. The observed linguistic borrowings are cases of classic lexical borrowing motivated by the need to name unknown referents, independently of the cultural import of their referents.


Primate perceptions Linguistic borrowing Cultural convergence Guyana forest Indigenous people Environmental adaptation 


Los pueblos indígenas poseen un amplio conocimiento de los ambientes que habitan. Las lenguas indígenas, un reservorio de este conocimiento, sorprenden a su vez con el número de categorías etnobiológicas que contienen y la diversidad de principios conforme a los que están organizados. Aún más confuso es el mosaico de lenguas que se cristalizó en América del Sur antes de la colonización, cuyos fragmentos están intentando juntar los científicos amazonistas. El río Moruca, en el noroeste de Guyana, habitado por tres comunidades lingüísticamente distintas (los Lokono, los Kari’na, y los Warao) es una pieza de este rompecabezas. Su carácter multiétnico representa un marco ideal para el estudio de la adaptación ambiental y el intercambio cultural entre los pueblos indígenas; dos elementos que quizás han jugado un papel clave en la conformación del escenario lingüístico y cultural de la Amazonia. Desde este punto de vista se analizan en este capítulo el conocimiento etnoprimatológico a la luz del vocabulario. Los datos revelan que las tres lenguas son altamente sensibles a las presiones medioambientales. Las lenguas conservan, toman, y descartan términos de primates, o incluso cambian sus significados, ajustando sus recursos léxicos a sus nichos ecológicos. Los resultados también desentrañan patrones de áreas de convergencia e intercambio de prácticas culturales involucrando primates. Pero, la lingüística y los intercambios culturales no están nivelados. Los intercambios lingüísticos observados son casos clásicos de préstamos de léxicos motivados por la necesidad de nombrar referentes desconocidos, independientemente del componente cultural de sus referentes.



This chapter has been produced in close cooperation with the speakers of Lokono, Kari’na, and Warao from Santa Rosa, Manawarin, and Waramuri, respectively, whom the author wants to command on their knowledge and thank for sharing it with him. The author is also grateful to Lev Michael for discussions of the topic and comments on the first draft, as well as to the editors of the volume and the external reviewer for their feedback. The research leading to this publication was funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (project number 446-15-012).


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Berkeley Linguistics DepartmentUniversity of California at BerkeleyBerkeleyUSA

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