Assembly with the Puinave people. ©

British Council

The Puinave people live in the eastern part of Colombia, mainly by the Inírida and Guaviare rivers (Reserves: Almidón- La Ceiba, Bachaco – Buenavista, Caranacoa-Yuri-Morocoto, Coayare-El Coco, Paujil y Chorro Bocón). They live mainly in the Guainía department but are also present in the departments of Guaviare and Vichada.

Also known as the Guaipunare, Puinave, Uapi or Wantyinht. Puinave people call themselves “children of Guarirom”. They make their living from fishing, growing yuca (in family-size plots), and gathering wild fruits. The Puinave people have gone through a complex process of cultural assimilation during the 20th century, mainly through the intervention of religious communities and evangelical missions. As a consequence, their cosmology, social organization and traditional medicine practices and rituals have experienced substantial changes.

First contacts between early colonizers and the Puinave people, historically settled in their territory, were registered during the first European explorations. During the 17th century, the first Catholic missions were founded, although it wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that a powerful western influence was exerted on them. During this time the North American missionary Sophia Müller carried out her evangelic activities, reorganizing the Puinave people in villages, leaving behind their semi-nomadic ways, which implied a radical change in their way of life, customs and traditions.

Native language

Uncertainty remains regarding the origin of their language. A widely accepted hypothesis claims it belongs to the Maku language family, although some consider it an isolated language.


Although much of the Puinave traditional Worldview has been forgotten due to external influences such as the extractive economy and evangelization, there are still customs and traditions in their society based on traditional ways of relating to each other and with the environment.

Kinship and alliances, which are still largely determined by myth, constitute the paradigm that regulates social relationships. Everyday activities are still shaped by their original way of understanding their relationship with the environment. This can be noticed in activities such as hunting, where rituals to ask for permission to the “animal owners” persist and are respected by many hunters.

The Puinave people retain specialized knowledge in Astronomy, as part of their worldview. The relationship between the cosmos and the position of the celestial bodies is fundamental to understand the organization of lifecycles.

Tales place their mythical origin in the Payé lagoon, on the Inírida river. The creator God Dugjin is said to have lived there.

According to their tales, after he and his parents were killed, her aunt found a bone that belonged to his small forearm. Dugjin was reborn from this bone and raised by his aunt.

This bone was a seed to the first man, Dugjin, which means “orphan”. Bearer of superior intelligence and wisdom, Dugjin used his power to take revenge on the death of his parents, rubbing his body with bitter leaves called Iwan in their native language. After this heroic act, the Puinave people became called in their language Iwansujùt (people of the bitter tree). After this he became the deliverer of justice for his people, defining the uses, limits and management of nature.

Number of inhabitants

The population of the Puinave people in Colombia is around 4500 persons. Approximately 160 live in the Bachaco-Buenavista Reserve, where activities of the “Sowing Our Knowledge” programme took place.

Location People
Bachaco and Barranco Tigre communities (Resguardo Bachaco-Buenavista). 160

The Puinave, as many other peoples in the region, were affected by the rubber exploitations that developed the early and mid 20th century. During this period, the exploitation and enslavement of the Indigenous population destroyed many aspects of their culture, giving way to the success of evangelical missions that offered different way of life.

Puinave people have traditionally been divided in domestic groups made of families related to each other by kinship. Different groups formed a clan, associated to a river and a particular mythical ancestor. As a result of all the historical changes they have gone through, the living space is at present made of single-family independent rectangular houses.

What is our main goal?

We work with Puinave communities in the Resguardo Bachaco-Buenavista. This Reserve hosts two communities (Bachaco and Barranco Tigre) but lacks stable support and accompaniment. Nevertheless, during the last four years they have developed a recreational fishing tourism plan, in collaboration with local and national operators.

The “Sowing Our Knowledge” programme (known globally as Cultural Heritage for Inclusive Growth, CH4IG) has focused on the recovery knowledge of traditional crafts (ceramics, fabrics and woodcarving). This was done through a local research initiative targeting:

  • The recovery of knowledge associated with care of the land.
  • The recovery of ancestral techniques and uses of useful plants. 

We managed new spaces for the exchange of knowledge between communities, which have helped to build a shared vision of the territory and collective craftwork.