Etymologies for some lower Napo ethnonyms: Payagua and Masamae

I’ve recently been reading quite a number of 17th and 18th century works about the upper Amazon region, mostly written by Jesuit missionaries who worked in the area. One of the more bewildering characteristics of these works is the plethora of ethnonyms the Jesuits used, sometimes in contradictory and unclear ways. One reason for this multiplicity of names is that the Jesuits would sometimes retain multiple names for roughly the same ethnolinguistic group, originating from different sources, or supply and use names for numerous subgroups of a given ethnolinguistic group in confusing ways. Once in a while, however, the circumstances behind the jumble of partially overlapping ethnonyms become clear, and one can get a brief glimpse into the multilinguistic and multiethnic milieu of the the period.

The first ethnonym I want to consider is ‘Payagua’, which I believe is an Omagua name for some or all of the Tukanoan peoples the Omaguas were familiar with. The Omaguas were a large and powerful group which, during the period in question, lived along the Amazon proper, from near the mouth of the Napo to below the mouth of the Putumayo (or Iça, as it is known in Brazil). The Omaguas spoke a language that is related to those of the Tupí-Guaraní family in complicated ways (more on this in an upcoming post). For our present interests, it is relevant that the Omaguas sometimes used binomial ethnonyms for their neighbors, in which the second element was the noun /awa/ ‘person, people’. For example, they referred to their eastern (downriver) neighbors, who lived in a large settlement called Yoriman, as the Yurimawa (/Yurima(n) + awa/), which the Spanish rendered as ‘Yurimagua’.

(In case you are curious, the Omaguas referred to themselves as ‘Awa’ — the eymology of ‘Umawa’ is unclear, the folk etymological ingenuity of the Jesuits notwithstanding.)

The ‘Payagua’, it so happens, were the Omaguas western neighbors, a Tukanoan people that inhabited the northern banks of the lower Napo. The Western Tukanoan groups who inhabited the northern bank of the Napo from its mouth to well into present day Ecuador tended to be called ‘Encabellados’ by the early colonial Spanish — a name derived from their distinctive long haircuts. The present day descendants of this groups, who are usually called ‘Siona’, ‘Secoya’, and ‘Orejón’ in the ethnographic and linguistic literature, employ autonyms incorporating the element /pai/ or /mai/ ‘person, people’. The Secoya, for example, call themselves /airo pai/ ‘forest people’, while the group formerly known as Orejón now prefer to be called /maihuna/ ‘people’ (/-huna/ is apparently a collective plural). It seems plausible then, that the Omaguas followed their binominal ethnonym formation pattern, using the autonym /pai/ to construct /pai + awa/, which the Spanish rendered ‘Payagua’. The reason for overlapping names in this case thus seems to stem from the fact that the Jesuits employed both the Omagua name for the Tukanoan neighbors of the Omaguasm and another term (Encabellados) to denote the Western Tukanoans as a whole.

Which brings us to the ethnonym ‘Masamae’, which was applied by the Spanish to a subgroup of Yameos who lived near the mouth of a southern tributary of the lower Napo River, now know as the Río Mazán. Any one who has read this far can probably now deduce the origin of ‘Massamae’ by themselves: the Tukanoan peoples just discussed lived directly across the river from this Yameo group, and presumably distinguished them from other Yameo groups by referring to them as the ‘people of the Mazán’ or /masa + mai/ (cf. /mai/ ‘person’, as discussed above). So ‘Masamae’ seems to be a name of Tukano origin, used to denote a particular geographically distinguished group of Yameos.

In closing, let me note the name ‘Masamae’ and its rarer variant ‘Masshamae’ pose some further puzzles — for example, why the use of /mai/ in the formation of this name, rather than the /pai/ that surfaces in ‘Payagua’? — but I’ll leave these for another day.

3 thoughts on “Etymologies for some lower Napo ethnonyms: Payagua and Masamae

  1. Who doesn’t love a good etymology?

    I was interested to see the element /awa/ meaning ‘people’, this could add a whole new level of speculation regarding the origin of Aguaruna.

  2. I’ve often (idly) wondered about the origins of ‘Aguaruna’ myself — the ‘runa’ being pretty suggestive of a Quechua origin.

    I have a related question that you can probably clear up in a trice: I’ve gotten the impression that the ethnonym ‘Maina(s)’ is sometimes used to the refer to the Jibaroan groups in the colonial records, but sometimes it seems to be used to refer to other groups as well, judging by its broad geographical scope at times. What insight do you have about the use of this term?

  3. Interesting. What about the Paiagua on the Rio Paraguay and Pantanal? Although they were surrounded by Tupi-speakers, they spoke a variety of Guiakuru.

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