Yekuana Roundhouses

The Yekuana live amid the rainforests of southern Venezuela, along the banks of the river Orinoco and its tributaries. Their traditional dwellings are communal roundhouses large enough to house several families. They have walls of wattle and daub and a huge conical roof, thatched over, through which the central pole protrudes, pointing directly upwards at the heavens.

According to Yekuana myth, the design of the roundhouse was handed down by the Sun (Wanadi) himself, the creator of the world, and reflects the properties of the cosmos in a variety of ways. A circular inner room represents the sea (this is used as sleeping space for bachelor men as well as a place for rituals and ceremonials presided over by the village shaman), and the outer ring, divided radially into compartments where different families live, represents the land. The roof is seen as a reflection of the celestial dome: it is supported by upright posts known as "pillars of the stars," and the horizontal crossbeam supporting it, always placed in a north-south orientation, has the name of the Milky Way. The center post reaches down into the underworld and up, beyond the roof, to the heavens. Placed centrally within the roof space, about three meters (ten feet) above the floor, is a set of tie beams forming a rectangular structure. This has a practical purpose in helping to support the crossbeam and providing a frame from which the men sleeping in the central space can hang their hammocks. However, its precise rectangular shape also has a cosmological significance: the directions of the four corners from the center pole are the directions of sunrise and sunset at the solstices and, together with the pole itself, represent the four corners and center of the world.

A trapezoidal opening in the western or southwestern side of the roof doubles as a vent for smoke and as a source of light. It is closed in the wet season (when the roundhouse fills unpleasantly with smoke), but opened up in the dry season; at this time its orientation, well away from the southerly or southeasterly direction of the prevailing wind, ensures that only rarely will it catch the wind thus blocking the escaping smoke. However, this does not explain why a northerly or northeasterly orientation could not equally well be chosen in many cases. The reason for this may be that the opening originally had a third purpose, as an observation window. The beam of the afternoon sun crosses the interior of the house, its movement marking out the time of day and the time of year. The interior of the house is richly decorated with paintings depicting scenes and figures important in Yekuana myth, some of which are lit up by the beam of sunlight at certain times. There are structural alignments, too: thus on the winter solstice, the sunbeam reaches the northeastern corner of the internal rectangle.

The Yekuana roundhouse was truly a model of the cosmos. It may also, in some senses, have functioned as an observatory, in the sense that observations of sunlight through the roof opening could have been used as a clock or calendar. It may even have been used to observe the night sky. There is no ethnographic evidence to support this claim directly, although the same is known to have been the case among some indigenous North America groups, such as the Pawnee.

The Yekuana creation myth, and a very specific set of principles of construction conceived within the framework of that myth, ensure that the traditional roundhouse not only incorporates sound structural principles and pragmatics for living, but also reflects and reinforces the prevailing world-view. It is interesting to speculate on how much of the cosmological symbolism incorporated just in the overall structure of the roundhouse could have been guessed at by an archaeologist of the future if all historical records had been lost. The answer is probably very little, a sobering thought when we struggle to interpret, for example, roundhouses surviving in Europe from the Iron Age.

See also:

Cosmology; Solstitial Directions.

Iron Age Roundhouses; Navajo Hogan; Pawnee Earth Lodge.

Solstices.

References and further reading

Aveni, Anthony F. Ancient Astronomers, 146.Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 1993.

Ruggles, Clive, and Nicholas Saunders, eds. Astronomies and Cultures, 296-328. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1993.

Wilbert, Johannes. "Warao Cosmology and Yekuana Roundhouse Symbolism." Journal of Latin American Lore 7 (1981), 37-72.

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