Prior to the arrival of the Spaniards in the early 16th century, Venezuela was inhabited by numerous groups of indigenous people. It is believed that the total number of indigenous population at the time might have been 1 million people. Archaeologists believe that the first inhabitants of pre-Columbian Venezuela arrived in the country from the Andean region and from the Brazilian Amazon, although the mountainous areas were the most densely populated. Following the arrival of the Spaniards, several indigenous groups succumbed to the illnesses brought by the Europeans and eventually became extinct. This is the case of the Timoto-Culca tribes (who inhabited a large area around Merida), the Caquetios (who lived near Maracaibo Lake and in the Paraguana peninsula), and the Mariches (who lived in the northeast of the country).
In their majority, the original inhabitants of Venezuela lived off agriculture and farming. Some researchers believe that indigenous tribes had knowledge of the country’s large oil resources and used them as fuel and for medicinal purposes.
Although some indigenous groups disappeared quickly following the arrival of the Spanish, others continued to exist until the late 19th century, although they regularly faced displacement and were forced to moved further inland as the country’s natural resources were discovered and exploited by European colonisers. In our days, several indigenous groups continue to live in Venezuela and enjoy legal protection thanks to several changes made to the Constitution of 1999.
The geographical location of the various indigenous groups in Venezuela
The largest surviving indigenous group in Venezuela is the Wayuu (also known as Guajiros). There are approximately 300,000 Wayuu people living in the northeast of the country, mostly around Maracaibo and along the border with Colombia. The Wayuu are known for the quality and originality of their woven handicrafts.
The Pemon people can be mostly found in Bolivar state and along the borders with Brazil and Guyana. Pemon people are the first known inhabitants of the Gran Sabana and of what today is known as Canaima National Park. The Pemon rely on hunting, fishing, and agriculture, although recently tourism has become an important source of income for this indigenous group.
The Warao have traditionally inhabited the wetlands of eastern Venezuela and the Orinoco River Delta. It is believed that the Warao arrived in this area more than 9,000 years ago. The name Warao means “boat people”, a title that describes to perfection the outstanding canoe-making skills of the Warao and their ability to thrive in their original environment.
Other important indigenous groups in Venezuela include the Yanomami (a group of 20,000 people who live in the Orinoco Casiquiare Biosphere Reserve), and the Yekuana (who inhabit the rainforests of the Amazonas and Bolivar states).
Indigenous groups in modern Venezuela
Over the past 25 years, the indigenous people of Venezuela have gained voice and rights thanks to initiatives like the National Council of Venezuelan Indians (established in 1989), and to the amendments made to the Venezuelan Constitution in 1999, which granted political representation and intellectual property rights to the country’s indigenous groups. These changes also meant that indigenous groups must be consulted before new tourist or industrial developments can be implemented in the territory they occupy.