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One of the few still unconquered savage tribes of the great Chaco wilderness of South America, and notable alike for their persistent hostility to the white man and for their close resemblance in language, customs, and manner of living to the celebrated Abipón, among whom the famous Jesuit Dobrizhoffer (q.v.) laboured one hundred and fifty years ago. They are of Guaycuran linguistic stock, which includes also the Abipón, Mocoví, and a number of other tribes of similar predatory habit, and range, in alliance with the Mocoví, through the forests and marshes of the Chaco region on the west bank of the Paraguay River about the lower Pilcomayo and Vermejo, in Paraguay and north-east Argentina, sometimes extending their forays westward to the frontiers of Oran and Tarija. They are known under various names, the most common being from the Guaraní tobai, signifying "opposite", i.e. those living on the opposite bank of the Paraguay from the Guaraní. They number now perhaps 2000 souls.
Physically they are tall and well-built, with fierce countenance, and from going constantly barefoot the soles of their feet are toughened to resist thorns and sharp rocks. Both sexes go nearly naked except when in the presence of strangers, and wear their hair long, the men confining it by means of a band or turban. On special occasions they wear shirts or skirts of skins or of woollen stuff, of their own weaving, from the sheep they now possess, together with head-dresses, belts, and wristlets of ostrich feathers. They tattoo their faces and upper bodies with vegetable dye. They live almost entirely by hunting and fishing, but raise a little corn. They have large herds of horses and are fine horsemen. The men are expert in the making of dug-out canoes and fish traps, while the women are expert potters and net weavers. Their huts are simple structures of willow branches covered with grass, sometimes large enough to have several compartments. Their weapons are the bow, lance, and wooden club, besides which they now have some guns. They bury the dead, the aged being sometimes killed by their own children from a feeling of pity for their helplessness. For the same reason, when a mother dies her infant is buried with her. Men have only one wife at a time. There is no head chief, the government resting principally with the old men. Little is known of their religion, which seems to consist chiefly of a special reverence for the sun and the rising moon, and the propitiation of a host of invisible spirits which are held responsible for sickness and other misfortunes. In war they are distinguished for their ferocity and barbarous cruelty, and are dreaded alike by settlers, travellers, and Christianized Indians throughout the whole northern Chaco frontier. In 1882 they massacred an entire exploring expedition of fifteen men under command of the French geographer, Crévaux. In 1854, however, the American expedition up the Paraguay, under Captain Page, held friendly intercourse with them. Some special studies of their language, which is virtually the same as that of the Abipón, have been made by Carranza and Quevedo. An interesting, though strongly anti-religious, account of their latter-day condition and habits is given by the Italian engineer, Pelleschi.
In the early colonization period of the eighteenth century the Toba, with the Abipón and Mocoví, were among the most determined and constant enemies of the Argentine-Paraguayan settlements and missions, and hardly a half year ever passed without a raid or retaliatory punitive expedition. On one occasion six hundred Toba attacked Dobrizhoffer's mission, but were repelled by the missionary himself single-handed with the aid of his firearms, of which the savages were in deadly terror. The missionary received an arrow wound in the encounter. In 1756 a number of Toba and Mataco were gathered into the Mission of San Ignacio de Ledesma, on the Rio Grande tributary of the Vermejo, where they numbered 600 souls at the time of the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767. Some later attempt was made by the Franciscans to restore the Chaco missions, but with the end of Spanish rule the missions declined and the Indians scattered to the forests. (See MATACO INDIANS; MOCOVÎ INDIANS.)
Consult: BRINTON, American Race (New York, 1891); CARRANZA, Expedición al Chaco Austral (Buenos Ayres, 1884); CHARLEVOIX, Hist. du Paraguay (Paris, 1756; tr. London, 1769); DOBRIZHOFFER, Account of the Abipones (London, 1822); HERVÁS, Catálogo de las Lenguas, I (Madrid, 1800); LOZANO, Descripción Chorográphica del Gran Chaco (Cordova, 1733); D'ORBIGNY, L'Homme Américian (Paris, 1839); PAGE, La Plata, the Argentine Confederation and Paraguay (New York, 1859); PELLESCHI, Eight Months on the Gran Chaco (London, 1886); QUEVEDO, Lenguas Argentinas, Idioma Abipón (Buenos Ayres, 1896); RECLUS, The Earth and its Inhabitants; South America, II, Amazonia and La Plata (New York, 1895).