From Indigenous Peoples in Brazil
Photo: Vincent Carelli/ISA, 1981


Where they are How many
RO 350 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
Linguistic family

The Indigenous Territory currently inhabited by the majority of the Aikanã does not correspond to their traditional territory. They were brought to the area by the government indigenist agency in 1970, along with another two indigenous peoples. Because of the low fertility of the soil, they gained their livelihood through rubber extraction, but today, largely due to the fall in the price of this product, they encounter serious difficulties in ensuring their own physical and cultural survival. Far from resigning themselves to this situation, the Aikanã are currently developing cultural revival projects and work to keep their language alive through bilingual school education.

Location and demographics

Aikanã is the name of one of the forty or so indigenous peoples living in the state of Rondônia, primarily in the known region of the Guaporé river in the so-called ‘lowlands’ of Amazonia. The Guaporé river forms the main dividing line between the borders of the state and Bolivia.

The majority of the Aikanã live in three villages in the Tubarão-Latundê Indigenous Territory, assigned to them by Incra in 1970. This area, formed by sandy, eroded soil, is situated in the southeast of Rondônia state, around 180km from the city of Vilhena and about 100km from Brazil’s border with Bolivia. The closest rivers are the Chupinguaia and the Pimenta Bueno, but access to them is extremely difficult. Many Aikanã also live in nearby towns and cities, especially Vilhena.

During the first contact made with the Aikanã by myself in December 1988, there were a total of 85 individuals. In 2005, the Aikanã numbered around 180 people.


According to information provided by the Aikanã themselves, until their transference they inhabited rich lands close to the Tanaru, one of the region’s smallest rivers, west of the Rio Pimenta Bueno river.

At the time of their transfer to the current Indigenous Territory, two other peoples were taken with the Aikanã, both low in number: the Koazá (also written Kwaza), known as the Arara at the time, and the Latundê. It is worth emphasizing that these were different peoples, each bringing their own culture and speaking their own language. In histories of their ancestors, the Aikanã describe the Koazá as ferocious warriors, dangerous sorcerers and their indefatigable enemies.

According to the anthropologist and researcher Price (1981), in 1940 the Indian Protection Service opened a post on the Cascata river, an affluent of the Pimenta Bueno, where various indigenous groups were subsequently taken, including the Aikanã. Measles and strong influenza viruses caused the death of many of their number, leaving these groups considerably smaller. These events are confirmed by the older Aikan

The first closer contacts between the Aikanã and the non-indigenous population seem to have begun in the 1940s through the work of geological engineer Vitor Dequech, who I was able to meet in the 1990s. Between 1941 and 1943 Dequech led the Urucumacuan Expedition, composed of a mineral research team assembled by General Rondon to explore the region in search of potential gold deposits along the Pimenta Bueno river and its affluents. During that period, Dequech had frequent contacts with the region’s indigenous peoples, including the Aikanã – referred to by him as ‘Massacá’ – and he documented in detail all the contacts and activities undertaken during his trip. This contact was recorded in issues of the Jornal Alto Madeira, published at the time in Porto Velho.


The people call both themselves and their language Aikanã. However, they are referred to by other names in the existing literature. The oldest reference to them under this name is by Becker-Donner (1955:275-343, apud Cestmír Loukotka 1968:163) in which the Aikanã are called ‘Masaca or Aicana.’ Another interesting record is that of Erland Nordenskiöld (apud Voort 2000) from 1915. According to Voort, the ethnographer Nordenskiöld was the first researcher to photograph the people and record a word list from the language spoken by the Aikanã, who he called ‘Huari.’ Other names given to this people include Corumbiara, Kasupá, Mundé and, finally, Tubarão (Rodrigues, 1986:94).

Despite the names Mundé and Mondé being commonly used as male proper names among the Aikanã, they attribute no special meaning to this term. Another name exists, Winzankyi, mentioned by the former chief Luíz Aikanã, which he claims also refers to the Aikanã people. However there is no consensus among the people concerning this denomination.

Although the name of the people is written in the literature as ‘Aicana,’ ‘Aikana’ or ‘Aikaná,’ the speakers themselves pronounce the word with nasalization of the final vowel: ‘Aikanã.’

In relation to the other denominations for the Aikanã, Huari should not be confused with Wari (or Orowari), which refers to the Pacaá-Novo of the Txapakura family. It should also be noted that despite the similarity of the names Mundé and Mondé, these terms are not associated here with the Mondé linguistic family from the Tupi trunk.

Language and school

Today each of the three villages possesses a school, maintained by the Vilhena local council with both Aikanã and non-Aikanã teachers. The teacher Luzia Aikanã, with the help of myself, began to teach the maternal language in 1992. Since then, she has taken part in various pedagogical meetings focusing on planned school education for the indigenous peoples of Rondônia.

The Aikanã language is still unclassified. So far it has not been possible to determine its genetic relationship to other Brazilian indigenous languages, even those spoken by their neighbours in the Guaporé region. All the Aikanã speak Portuguese and some speak Koazá. However some people speak just Portuguese. Interestingly, in two of the villages the students are being taught to read and write in their maternal language too. Nonetheless, the language remains threatened with extinction.

The children from marriages with people who do not speak Aikanã tend to speak the national language, which constitutes a form of pressure towards the abandonment of the group’s own language. Additionally, those who leave their villages in search of better living conditions are also obliged to speak Portuguese.

A segmental analysis of the language’s phonology shows that it had sixteen consonants and ten vowels, six of which are oral and four nasal. Among the unusual morphological features of Aikanã we can highlight the classifiers. These are morphemes embedded within a verbal construction with the purpose of providing information on semantic aspects of the verb argument, such as size, form, consistency and so on.

Cultural aspects

An interesting myth mentioned by the Aikanã is that of Kiantô. This concerns a giant snake with the colours of the rainbow, According to the myth, just as a kingdom exists on Earth among its inhabitants, there is also a kingdom of the waters with its own inhabitants, presided over by Kiantô.

Another myth is the ‘Day the sun died’ (ya imeen). On this day, people who are not in their own homes may be attacked by forest spirits. The ‘death of the sun (ya)’ occurs during a total eclipse: “the sun dies and the world becomes dark.”

Today it is extremely rare to find any kind of ritual celebration among the Aikanã. In one festival I witnessed, they made chicha drink, sang music and, in a special location hidden from the women, the men played their music on large bamboo flutes.

The oldest living Aikanã is more than 80 and produces traditional bows and arrows designed for a variety of purposes. According to him, an arrow to strike people, other arrows to kill large and small animals, in and out of the water. The craftwork made and sold today include ear decorations, bracelets, necklaces, bags, rings and some wooden objects.

Note on the sources

The most recent works produced on the Aikanã people and language comprise two doctoral theses. The first, completed in 2000 by Hein van der Voort, is on the Kwaza people and language, but due to the geographic proximity and the family relations between the two groups, the thesis provides substantial information on the Aikanã people and their history. The second thesis was completed by myself in 2002 and focuses more precisely on the phonology and morphology of the Aikanã language. We can also highlight the work of engineer Vitor Dequech, who kindly granted a number of interviews to the researcher Hein van der Voort and myself. His work, which is planned for publication, will be of great interest to all scholars of the indigenous peoples and history of the Guaporé region.

Sources of information

  • CARLSON, Harvey. Aikana fieldnotes. Berkeley, Biblioteca da Universidade da California, 1984, Manuscrito.
  • _______. Harvey. Aikana phonology. Arquivo da FUNAI, Fundação Nacional do Índio, Vilhena, 1984, Manuscrito.


  • DEQUECH, Victor. “Expedição Urucumacuan, Notas do Diário de Viagem” Alto Madeira, Porto Velho, 1988a, 3-4/07 Caderno 2, pp 1-4.


  • _______. Victor. “Expedição Urucumacuan, Notas do Diário de Viagem” Alto Madeira, Porto Velho, 1988b, 11-12/12, Caderno 3, pp 1-4.


  • _______. Victor. “Expedição Urucumacuan, Notas do Diário de Viagem” Alto Madeira, Porto Velho, 1993a, 30-31/05, Caderno 3, pp 1-6.


  • DERBYSHIRE, Desmond C. Geoffrey K. Pullum (eds). Handbook of Amazonian languages. Mouton de Gruyter, New York, Vols 1-4, 1986-98.


  • HINTON, Leanne (ed). Aikana modules: a class report on the fieldnotes of Harvey Carlson. University of California, Berkeley, 1993.


  • KAUFMAN, Terence. “Language history in South America: what we know and how to know more” in Doris L. Payne (org). Amazonian Linguistics Austin, University of Texas Press, 1990, pp. 13-76.


  • LOUKOTKA, Cestmir. Classification of South American Indian Languages. Latin American Center, University of California, Los Angeles. 1968.


  • PAYNE, Doris L. “Morphological characteristics of lowland South American languages” in Doris L. Payne (org). Amazonian Linguistics. University of Texas Press, Austin, 1990, pp. 213-241.


  • PRICE, P. David. “The Nambiquara linguistic family” in Antrhropological linguistics, v. 20, n. 1, 1978, pp 14-37.
  • _______. “In the path of Polo Noroeste: endangered peoples of Western Brazil” in: Cultural survival, Inc. Occasional Papers, No. 6, 1981, pp. 1-37.


  • RODRIGUES, Aryon D. Línguas ameríndias, in Grande Enciclopédia Delta Larouse, Delta, Rio de Janeiro, 1970, pp.4034-4036
  • _______. Aryon D. Línguas Brasileiras –para o conhecimento das línguas indígenas. Loyola, São Paulo, 1982.


  • _______. “Endangered languages in Brazil”. Symposium on Endangered Languages of South America, Leiden, 1993
  • SEBEOK, Thomas A (ed). Native languages of the Americas. The New York Plenum, vol. 1, 1976, PP 359-425.


  • VASCONCELOS, Ione P. Aspectos da fonología e morfología da língua Aikanã. Tese de Doutorado, Maceió, 2002.


  • VOORT, Hein van der. “Alguns aspectos da língua Koaiá, presentemente denominada Kwaza” in ABRALIN, Boletim da Associação Brasileira de Lingüística: n. 20, 1997 pp. 35-54.


  • _______. Hein van der. A Grammar of Kwaza: a description of an endangered and unclassified indigenous language of Southern Rondonia, Brazil. Tese de Doutorado. Amsterdam, 2000.