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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 Mamoré, extending east and west from the Guapure (Itenes) to the Beni, and centering 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, Taicomeri, 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 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 environment. During the rainy season, lasting four months, the whole country is inundated, excepting certain elevated places, where the scattered bands made their temporary villages. As the water retreats, the hot sun generates pestilence in the low grounds around 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 native 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, as 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 neighbours.
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 smoldering fire close at hand to drive away swarms of mosquitoes and other insects. They ate when they could find food, without regard to time, feasting equally upon putrid fish in 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. Notwithstanding the general 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 also had a method of picture writing. This superiority may have been due, in a measure, to Peruvian influence, the Incan emperor Yupanqui having temporarily subdued the Moxos about 1460.
In most of the tribes both men and women went about entirely naked, but painted their faces in different colours, wore labrets, nose pendants, and necklaces - particularly of the teeth of slain enemies - 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 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, though 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 helpless aged were put to death by their children, and orphaned children were sometimes killed by the elders. The authority of the village chiefs was absolute. Internment 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 powdered 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 year's 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 day's fast and ending with a night's 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 José del Castillo, a lay brother, author of the valuable "Relación", 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, asked at once 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 Mamoré 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 labour 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 Trinadad (1687), San Ignacio (1689), San Xavier (1690), San José (1691), San (Francisco de) Borja (1693), the six missions soon containing all together nearly 20,000 Indians, Loreto alone in 1641 having nearly 4,000. Later missions were San Pedro (the capital, 1698), Santa Ana, Exaltación, Magdalena (alias San Ramón), Concepción, San Simón, San Joaquín, San Martín, San Luís, San Pablo, San Juan, San Nicolas, Santa Reyes, San Judas, San 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 Muré, Meque, and Mocatona tribes, were entirely broken up by the raids of the Portuguese slave-hunters (see GUARANÍ INDIANS; MEMELUCO) subsequent to 1742, and the survivors removed to other foundations. Wars, epidemics, and removals lead the the abandonment also of San Luís, San José, San Pablo, Patrocinio, and San Juan. Santa Rose II (1765), Desposorios, and Santa Cruz (de la Sierra) were the latest, and were occupied by Seriono, 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 Peru, he introduced cattle, weaving, agriculture, carpentry, and brick-making. The mission churches reared by the Indians under his supervision rivalled those of Peru. At last after twenty-seven years of labour he was treacherously murdered at the age of sixty-one, on 16 September, 1702, among the then unconverted Baure, a tribe of considerably higher native culture than the others, living in palisaded villages on the eastern border of the province.
On the expulsion of the Jesuits from Spanish America in 1767 the Moxos missions were turned over to the Franciscans, under whom they continued into the modern period. The population has been greatly reduced, first by the slave-raids and epidemic fever of earlier times, and more lately by the constant drain of able-bodied men to the rubber forests of Brazil, whence few of them ever return, their superiority as boatmen rendering their services in demand as far as the Amazon. They are comfortably dressed in clothing made by themselves from bark fibre. In physique they are robust, and taller than most of the Bolivian tribes. "They are distinguished by a remarkably equable disposition, a frank and upright character, and great industry. They give up less time in merry-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.
For all that relates to the primitive condition and early missionary history of the Moxos tribes, our principal authorities are the valuable writings of the Jesuits, CASTILLO, EDER, and EQUILUX. For the language of the Moxos and its cognate dialects, both grammar and vocabulary, our principal source is the Arte of the Jesuit MARBAN. BALLIVIAN, Documentos para la Historia Geográfica de la República Bolivia I: La Provincias de Moyos y Chiquitos (La Paz, 1906); BRINTON, The American Race (New York, 1891); CASTILLO, Relación de la Provincia de Moyos in BALLIVIAN, supra; EDER, Descriptio Provinciæ Maxitarum in Regno Peruano (Buda, 1791). EQUILUZ, Relación de la Misión de la Moxos (1696); GIBBON, Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon, part II (Washington, 1854); smaller tribes, HEATH in Kansas City Review of Science, VI (Kansas City, 1883); HERVAS, Catalogo de las Lenguas I (Madrid, 1800); Lettres Edifiantes et Curieuses I-II (Paris, 1807), especially letter of ARLET on the Canichana tribe and mission in vol. II; MARBAN, Arte de la Lengua Moxa, con vocabularia y catechismo (1701; reprinted, Leipzig, 1894); MARKHAM, Tribes in the Valley of the Amazon in Jour. Anthrop. Institute XXIV (London, 1895), a brief notice; MORENO, Biblioteca Boliviana: Catálogo del Archivo de Moyos y Chiquitos (Santiago de Chile, 1888); d'ORBIGNY, L'Homme de Américain II (Paris, 1839); PAGE, La Plata, the Argentine Confederation, and Paraguay (New York, 1859); Reclus, The Earth and Its Inhabitants: South America, I, The Andes Region (New York, 1894); SOUTHEY, History of Brazil, III (London, 1819); Sinópsis estadistica y geográfica de la república de la Bolivia (La Paz, 1903); PORTER in Bolivia, published by the International Bureau of the American Republics (Washington, D.C., 1904).