Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia


Indigenous groups

Quechua (30%), Aymara (25%), Guarani (1.5%), Chiquitano (2.2%), Mojeno (0.85%), Other indigenous (1.5%).  36 groups in all.


As well as Spanish, Bolivia’s official languages are: Aymara, Araona, Baure, Bésiro, Canichana, Cavineño, Cayubaba, Chácobo, Chimán, Ese Ejja, Guaraní,  Guarasuawe, Guarayu, Itonama, Leco, Machajuyai-Kallawaya, Machineri, Maropa, Mojeño-trinitario, Mojeño-Ignaciano, Moré, Mosetén, Movima, Pacawara, Puquina, Quechua, Sirionó, Tacana, Tapiete, Toromona, Uruchipaya, Weenhayek, Yaminawa, Yuki, Yuracaré and Zamuco.

Indigenous peoples

Bolivia has the largest proportion of indigenous people in Latin America, with 62% of the total population of Bolivia considering themselves to be of indigenous descent This compares with about 50% in Guatemala, 40% in Peru and 35% in Ecuador. The indigenous Quechua and Aymara groups make up the great majority of the population in the northern parts of the Altiplano, and in the higher valleys and basins of the Andes. The Chiquitanos and Guarani-speaking peoples of the eastern lowlands are the third and fourth most numerous ethnic groups. There is a wide variety of small lowland indigenous groupings in the departments of Santa Cruz, the Beni and Pando.

Many of the indigenous languages and ways of life have been maintained as indigenous people represent such a large proportion of Bolivia’s population. Indigenous practices and customs are also reflected in Bolivian popular culture. Although Spanish tends to predominate in urban areas, more than half of the population has an indigenous language as their mother tongue. Community festivals, which continue to play a significant role in rural cultural life, are also still important in those cities with large indigenous populations.

Historically, at the end of the Spanish colonial period, Bolivia’s principal ethnic groups were a majority of Quechua or Aymara indigenous people, a small number of European-descended whites and a larger and more diverse group of mestizos. Political and economic power was largely monopolised by the latter two groups. The term ‘cholo’, which is still in use, was generally adopted to describe an indigenous person considered to be attempting upward mobility through assimilation: taking on the norms and cultural and linguistic identity of a mestizo.

Bolivia was also a home to a number of other minority groups. The Callahuaya, for example, are a linguistically distinct sub-group of the Aymara who lived in the Muñecas and Franz Tamayo provinces of the Department of La Paz. Widely known for their folk medicine practices, most Callahuaya men earned a living travelling among the markets throughout the Andes, speaking either Quechua, Aymara, or Spanish in addition to their native Callahuaya.

There is also a small black population in Bolivia concentrated in the Nor and Sur Yungas regions in the department of La Paz. These communities are descended from Africans, brought to Bolivia as slave labour for the mines before the Spaniards concluded that the slaves were ‘unsuitable’ to work in the horrific prevailing conditions.

Significant numbers of Europeans later migrated to Bolivia, most immediately before and during World War II. In the years preceding World War II, Jewish people found refuge in Bolivia. In the years afterwards, Nazi sympathisers did likewise. Probably the most notorious was Klaus Barbie, the infamous Gestapo ‘butcher of Lyon’. The opening up of Santa Cruz also attracted large numbers of Europeans, particularly from Eastern Europe and the former Yugoslavia. There are also colonies of Japanese and Mennonite farmers in northern Santa Cruz. Attempts to resettle anti-Communist Vietnamese refugees and South African white farmers in Santa Cruz were aborted after objections were raised.

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