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The Abipon were an indigenous people of South America. They lived in the lower Bermejo River area in the Argentine Gran Chaco. The tribe was one of the tribes that belonged to the linguistic group Guaycuru. The Abipon consisted of three dialect groups that included the Nakaigetergehe (“Forest People”), Riikahe (“People of the Open Country”), and the Yaaukaniga (“Water People”). The “Water People” were believed to have attached themselves to the Abipon after they were defeated by the Spanish at Santa Fe. In 1750, the Abipon numbered an estimated 5000 people.

The Abipon were initially a semi-nomadic group that engaged in hunting, gathering, fishing, and limited agriculture prior to the arrival of the horse in the Gran Chaco area. The Spanish brought the horse when they came to the region. Within five to six generations, the tribe had transformed themselves into a nomadic, equestrian community.

The social organization of the Abipon was of a warrior society led by a shaman-approved War Chief. The War Chief inherited the position through the male line if he could prove his capability and valor. The duties of the men of the tribe were to hunt and wage war on other groups. The women of the Abipon did most of the work of the camp with little or no assistance from the men. The women ran the camp, gathered most of the food, carried out ritual ceremonies, and were renowned in their aggressive fighting and wrestling. However, the power in the tribe belonged in the Shaman. The Abipon believed that the shaman could inflict disease and death, foresee the future, cause rain and tempests, call the dead, shape shift into the “tiger”, handle snakes and heal injured or sick individuals. The shaman had complete say over private and tribal matters. Shamans were the most wealthy tribe members and were often women. It was considered a crime to contradict the words or commands and desires of the shaman.

The Abipon had social classes within the tribe that included “nobles”, commoners, and slaves. “Nobles” were of high birth or nonhereditary based on their accomplishments. Abipon nobles were identified by adornments to the body. Traditionally, men and women adorned their pierced earlobes with horns, wood, bone, colored thread, and tightly spiraled palm leaves (women only). Males wore lip plugs on the lower lip made of wood covered with silver or brass. Tattooing identified tribe status for men and women, but was practiced more extensively by the women. Females of noble birth were often covered by tattoos on their faces, arms, and breasts. In addition, Abipon were easily recognized by the shaved tops of their heads, and plucked eyebrows and eyelashes.

The arrival of the horse, as early as 1641, impacted the Abipon in hunting, war, and daily life. The Abipon were thought to be the first Indians in the region to acquire and utilize the horse in their daily life. They developed into expert and daring horseman. This inhibited the colonization and trade of the Spanish in the Gran Chaco and helped them raid and fight other native groups. Over a period of fifty years, the Abipon stole 100,000 horses from the Spanish. Settlements and camps were not impenetrable or safe from the Abipon due to Abipon’s resilience, determination, and swimming, climbing and riding abilities. During warfare, the Abipon utilized the bola, lance, and bow and arrow. They took native prisoners and trophies from the skirmishes. They used native women and children prisoners as slaves. Although they treated their prisoners well, Abipon refused to intermarry with them.

The Spanish crown sent the Jesuits to the region to help restore peace and protect the natives in the early to mid-1700s. Jesuit missionaries settled the Abipon on reducciones (work missions) that later became the current day cities of Reconquista (1748) and Resistancia (1750). The missionaries facilitated a peace treaty between the natives and Spanish. The missionaries taught the natives Christianity, strict discipline, centralized organization, and eventually had absolute power over the labor of the Indians. The mission life rigidly regimented the Abipon’s dress, housing, and routines of work, play, and rest. Gran Chaco missions primarily produced cotton, tobacco, and hides and were considered an economical success. However, the missions didn’t produce strong Christians. The Indians tended to intermingle past beliefs with practices of the Christian church. In addition, local Tobas and Moobobis tribes did not convert to missionary life and harassed the missions and missionary Indians. In 1768 the Spanish crown expelled the Jesuits from the South American territories and the missions were closed. The Abipon attempted to return to their hunting grounds, but encroachment from military posts and other tribes did not allow them the return to their land. Within less than half a century, the Abipon people died in small pox epidemics, were slaughtered, or were assimilated into the general population (primarily the Creole).


“Abipon.” Encyclopedia Britannica,5716,3396+1+3362,00.html 4 June 2000.

“Guaycuruan languages.” Encyclopedia Britannica Search "Guaycuruan languages" at 4 June 2000.

“ Mdaya Indians.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. 6 June 2000.

Radin, Paul. Indians of South America. New York: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1969.

Steward, Julian H. Handbook of South American Indians. Vol. 1 “The Marginal Tribes.” New York: Cooper Square Publications, Inc., 1963.

Steward, Julian H. Handbook of South American Indians. Vol. 5 “The Comparative Ethnology of South American Indians.” New York: Cooper Square Publications, Inc., 1963.

Additional Reading

 Argentina Native tribes
 Indigenous South Americans

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