The Kukama-Kukamiria Documentation Project

The people and their language

The Kukama-Kukamiria people (also known as Kokama-Kokamilla) live in the Peruvian amazon. Based on historical and geographic criteria, two dialects have been reported for this language: Kukamiria (Kokamilla) is spoken basically in the high Huallaga mapRiver, and Kukama (Kokama) along the Marañon, Samiria, Ucayali,and Amazon Rivers. So far only a few phonetic and lexical differences have been found between these two dialects (Vallejos, 2010). The total ethnic population is approximately 20,000. Nevertheless, their heritage language is highly endangered because all of the estimated 1500 remaining speakers are elderly people spread in small villages. Small groups of Kukama have been also reported in Brazil and Colombia; however, at present, the language is no longer spoken in Colombia and very close to extinct in Brazil. In Peru, speakers still use the language to speak amongst themselves, but only in very restricted situations, such as traditional events and intimate meetings. Several historical reasons could explain the current sociolinguistic situation that one finds in the communities, such as a long history of contact with various linguistic groups, the geographic proximity of Kukama-Kukamilla communities to big cities where Spanish is the dominant language, and the early presence of schools with instruction only in Spanish. Such factors have led them to stop using their language. As a consequence, natural processes of language transmission have been interrupted and the majority of the Kukama-Kukamiria population has shifted to Spanish.

A history of migration and contact

The Kokama people have a long history of migration and contact. According to Chaumeil (1996), there were various migratory movements from the Central Amazon of Brazil to the Peruvian Amazon which happened during centuries, from about IX to XVI. Stocks (1981) claims that the Tupi came to the Western Amazon looking for better sources of food, escaping from wars among Indians, for religious purposes, and, later, escaping from slavery imposed by Europeans. The Kokama, says Stocks, arrived to the lower Amazon around 200 or 300 years prior to the Spanish conquest. The current location of the Kokama is considered by some scholars one of the best examples of the migratory tendency characterizing the Tupí-Guarani ethnodynamism. In the lower, middle, and upper Amazon river they lived surrounded for several groups, such as the Pawanas, Parianas, Machiparu, Yurimawas, Benorinas, Ibanomas, Ikitos, Mayorunas, Chiberos, Panoan, Arawakan, among others. Early chronicles attest a regular trade network among these groups.

The Kokama people were the first Amazonian group contacted by the Spanish explorer Juan Salinas de Loyola in 1557. They were located at the lower Ucayali river and upper Amazon river. The communities he found had each about 200 to 400 houses along 300 Km of the rivers. At the time of the conquest, the population is calculated in 10000 to 12000 (AIDESEP 2000). But the Kokama continue migrating, down the river by the Ucayali, and up the river by the Marañon were they created the town called Nauta. A small group of Kokamas continue migrating towards the Marañon and High Huallaga river creating a town called Lagunas, which marks the origin of the Kokamilla variety. Rivas (2000) mentions that the Kokamilla may have splitted from the Kokamas around 1619.

During the time of missionary presence in the Alto Amazonas (1637-1768), Kokama was the lingua franca in the area known as the Province of Maynas (Peru) which included villages along the Ucayali, Huallaga, Pastaza, and Napo rivers. In that period, indigenous populations were forced either to move away from their habitat to escape the subjugations of the whites, to join the large farms or haciendas and live in slavery, or to accept the reductionist system administered by the missionaries. The missionary villages or reducciones concentrated different ethnic groups. It is said that in the reducciones the dominant language was Kokama because, in part, the Spanish missionary work started with the Kokama people, and the Kokama reducciones were the first created in the area. In 1768, the missionaries were expulsed from the area. By then, there were more than 40 reducciones with about 18000 Indians living in there. Later, around 1853, there were additional campaigns and projects for colonization the forest. The system of hacienda was re-established the system of hacienda and the Kokama people were the main laborers.


  • AIDESEP-FORMABIAP. 2000. El Ojo Verde: Cosmovisiones Amazónicas. Lima, Peru.
  • Espinosa, Lucas. 1935. Los tupí del oriente peruano. Estudio Lingüístico y etnográfico. Casa Editorial Hernando.
  • Rivas, Roxani. 2000. IPURUKARI. Los Cocama-Cocamilla en la Várzea de la Amazonía Peruana. M.A. Thesis, Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru. Lima, Peru.
  • Stocks, Anthony. 1981. Los Nativos Invisibles: Notas sobre la historia y realidad actual de los cocama del río Huallaga, Perú. Serie Antropológica Nº 4, 185 pp. CAAAP, Lima , Perú.
  • Vallejos, Rosa. 2010. A Grammar of Kokama-Kokamilla. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oregon.

Documentation project

Kukama-Kukamiria is a deeply endangered language. At present, only about 5% of the Kukama-Kukamiria population speaks the language in very restricted situations; that is, the majority of them has shift to Spanish. The remaining speakers are elderly people, and natural processes of language transmission have been interrupted. Since the early 1980s, the Kukama-Kukamirias have promoted language revitalization efforts, including training of bilingual elementary school teachers to teach Kukama-Kukamiria as a second language. However, there are no clear results in terms of language learning in these formal-school contexts. Among the problems for the success of learning the language through formal instructional methodologies are lack of school materials for teaching Kukama-Kukamiria as a second language and lack of a basic description of the language to enable development of such materials. Although it is common to meet community members who lament the disappearance of their language, there is also little motivation for younger people to learn Kukama-Kukamiria since there is not many communicative situations for using it.

Products of the project

This documentation project attempts to contribute concrete resources to those who are already committed to the revitalization and maintenance of the language. These resources include:

Team members: Rosa Amías Murayari

A Kukama speaker, she is original from the community "Dos de Mayo, San Pablo de Tipishca", along the Samiria river. She has been collaborating with my research since 2001, and with this project since 2003. She is a great story teller and an excellent interviewer. Patience is not among her virtues, though; she is so smart and expects everyone to learn things at her pace!

Team members: Victor Yuyarima Chota

A Kukamiria speaker, original for the community "8 de Octubre-Paucaryacu", along the Huallaga river. He is a respected curandero and very knowledgeable about the Kukama-Kukamiria traditional practices. He has an excellent sense of humor that makes him an awesome fieldtrip mate. I am very fortunate to have his friendship and wise advice since 1999.

Language consultants

Up to know we have visited 16 villages along the Samiria, Nanay, and Huallaga rivers. We have interviewed 42 speakers in total. The range of age of the consultants is from 50 to 86 years. The average age of the consultants is 69.4 years.

Photos from fieldwork