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SWAMP-EEL (Synbranchus spp.) FISHING IN AMAZONIA
FROM PRE-COLUMBIAN TO PRESENT TIMES
and Philippe B´
New data on archaeofaunal remains from artificial earthen mounds (lomas) in southwestern Amazonia
reveal that swamp-eels (Synbranchus spp.) played an important role in pre-Columbian economies. To date, little
attention has been paid to synbranchid taxa in the archaeological literature. Furthermore, information on their
osteology and ecology is quite scant. In this paper, we use ichthyoarchaeological remains from the Loma
Salvatierra site (Llanos de Mojos, Bolivia) in addition to references from the biological and zooarchaeological
literature, to summarize and compare the distribution of synbranchid eels through time at pre-Columbian sites
in the wetlands of Central and South America. Synbranchid eels are rarely documented as a food resource in
present-day Brazil and Bolivia; however, Synbranchus marmoratus consumption has been documented for
pre-Columbian and present-day Panama, where the species is called morena. Although swamp-eels were
exploited and appreciated during the colonial period in some regions of South America, their consumption there
seems to have been abandoned or greatly reduced during the last century.
Keywords: pre-Columbian ﬁshing, ichthyoarchaeology, Amazonian archaeology, Synbranchus ﬁshing,
The study of changing food consumption practices is critical to understand-
ing colonial encounters and social transformations; for example, the process of
cross-cultural exchanges is evident in the integration of many Native American
food products into European cuisines after the colonization of the Americas (e.g.,
Dietler 2006). Similarly, the declining use and abandonment of local foods in the
Americas provides insight into the changing social conditions before, during, and
after colonization. However, no single source of evidence covers the entire period
from prehistory to the present. Therefore, zooarchaeological studies must be
combined with ethnohistorical sources to reveal long-term patterns of animal
food consumption. Available zooarchaeological data and ethnohistorical infor-
mation allows us to investigate swamp-eel (Synbranchus spp.) consumption in the
Amazon basin from pre-Columbian to present times to explore the impact of
colonization on long-lasting food practices.
Currently, synbranchid eels (Teleostei, Synbranchiformes, Synbranchidae)—
also known as swamp-eels, mu¸cum, or anguilas de agua dulce and, in Panama,
es, Pratiques et Environnements (UMR 7209). Sorbonne
es, MNHN, CNRS. Mus´
eum National d’Histoire Naturelle. 55 rue Buffon, 75005, Paris
Universidade Federal do Oeste do Para
´. Programa de Antropologia e Arqueologia. Santar´
Corresponding author (email@example.com)
Journal of Ethnobiology 37(3): 380–397 2017
morenas—are rarely documented as a food resource in Amazonia. Although some
ﬁshers in South America use swamp-eels as bait to catch larger ﬁsh (Moraes and
Espinoza 2000), they do not appear to be an important element of present-day
commercial ﬁshing in Amazonia (Ferreira et al. 1998; Santos et al. 2006; Smith 1979).
Due to their cryptic habits, synbranchid eels are difﬁcult to locate and catch, which
might explain why their skeletons were, until recently, rare in reference collections
and, hence, little attention has been paid to their importance in archaeological sites.
In this paper, we examine the ichthyofaunal remains from Loma Salvatierra,
a recently excavated archaeological site in Llanos de Mojos region (Figure 1a). At
Loma Salvatierra, we identiﬁed a large proportion of synbranchid ﬁsh that
enables us to examine the importance of this species in the past. We compare our
zooarchaeological results with ethnohistorical and ethnographic data from
Llanos de Mojos region and zooarchaeological data from South and Central
American archaeological sites in order to trace swamp-eel uses and evaluate
chronological changes in its consumption over time. Our data indicate that
swamp-eels were exploited during pre-Columbian times, through the colonial
period, and until the second half of the twentieth century, but their consumption
seems to have been abandoned or much reduced in recent times.
The Ecology and Archaeology of Synbranchus
Three species of Synbranchus, distributed in freshwater and estuarine areas of
South and Central America, are recognized today. Synbranchus madeirae is found
Figure 1. Map of archaeological sites that report the presence of Synbranchus eel. (a) The shaded area
represents its current approximate distribution. White circles indicate archaeological sites where the
genus represents more than 15% of the freshwater ﬁsh remains. Small black circles indicate sites where
it is reported in low levels. The area of the circles represents the percentage of synbranchid eels
recovered (see % and NISP values in Table 2). (b) S. madeirae (top) and S. marmoratus (bottom) from
Trinidad (Bolivia); scale bar is 1 cm. (c) Artiﬁcial lakes near San Pedro community (Beni Department,
Bolivia) where Synbranchus is ﬁshed today using ﬁne mesh nets or hooks.
JOURNAL OF ETHNOBIOLOGY2017 381
in lowland Bolivia (Figure 1b) and Synbranchus lampreia in northern Brazil. The
marbled swamp-eel, Synbranchus marmoratus, probably comprises more than one
species. Moreover, new species are still undescribed (Tyson Roberts, personal
communication). Synbranchus eels lack pectoral and pelvic ﬁns. Individuals
usually measure about 50 cm in length, but can reach up to 150 cm (Kullander
2003). The morphology of external characteristics in Synbranchus is highly
variable (Favorito et al. 2005). Commonly found in standing waters of lakes,
marshes, and canals, they have developed speciﬁc adaptive mechanisms that
allow them to switch from aquatic to aerial breathing and to live in very low
oxygen levels (Bicudo and Johansen 1979). As a result of this particularity,
synbranchids can establish their nests in dry areas by digging a channel gallery
system, sometimes meters away from water supplies and can survive buried up
to three months (Favorito et al. 2005).
Only after the 2000s was swamp-eel documented in archaeological literature
of various regions across Central and South America (Figure 1a). Since then,
synbranchids have been identiﬁed at sites occupied over the last 2000 years in the
Pantanal Basin of Brazil (Rosa 2000), in Llanos de Mojos, Bolivia (B´
umers 2007), in the Central Amazon (Prestes-Carneiro et al. 2016), and
elsewhere. In Llanos de Mojos sites, preliminary ichthyofaunal studies carried
out by B´
earez and Pr ¨
umers (2007), Von den Driesch and Hutterer (2012), and
Lombardo et al. (2013) revealed that swamp-eels were intensively exploited by
occupants of Loma Mendoza, Loma Salvatierra, and Isla del Tesoro, respectively,
at different periods during the last 8000 years. In Panama, Synbranchus remains
were ﬁrst recovered in the 1970s at sites in the central Paciﬁc lowlands, but were
not reported until much later (Cooke 2001; Cooke and Ranere 1999). Synbranchus
marmoratus has now been recorded at ﬁve prehistoric sites (Cooke and Jim´
2008). Further north in Central America, synbranchids were recovered from
Mayan sites in Belize (Fradkin and Carr 2008) and from Formative sites in
Mexico, such as El Varal (Wake and Steadman 2010).
The Study Area
Llanos de Mojos is one of the largest seasonal swamp savannas in Bolivia,
covering approximately 110,000 km
. This region has recently attracted the
attention of the archaeological community because of the discovery of many
types of monumental anthropic structures, such as earthen platforms (also called
lomas), raised ﬁelds, and geoglyphs, demonstrating that pre-Columbian societies
have intensely modiﬁed and managed this landscape over the last 2000 years
(Carson et al. 2015; Mann 2008; Watling et al. 2015). While studying ﬁrst
millennium AD loma-type sites, archaeologists have documented the presence of
hydraulic earthworks, such as channels, drained ﬁelds, ditches, and weirs, which
were linked to the management of shallow waters in ﬂoodplains (Denevan 1966;
Erickson 2000). Preliminary studies on archaeofaunal remains from loma-type
sites indicate that ﬁsh were heavily exploited at these sites, sometimes
PRESTES-CARNEIRO and B ´
EAREZ382 Vol. 37, No. 3
corresponding to 40% of the archaeofaunal assemblage (Von den Driesch and
One such site is Loma Salvatierra, situated about 50 km to the east of the
e River and the city of Trinidad, capital of the department of Beni (Figure
2). Loma Salvatierra is an earthen platform that extends for 2 hectares, with the
highest point reaching 7 meters. The site is surrounded by a paleo-meander and a
seasonally inundated swamp area. Multiple mounds (residential and funeral),
placed in a ‘‘U’’ form, enclose a central plaza. The site represents ﬁve cultural
layers dated between AD 400 and 1400 (Pr ¨
umers 2007). Our current
ichthyoarchaeological analysis of Loma Salvatierra expands on earlier work by
Von den Driesch and Hutterer (2012) by enlarging the number of identiﬁed
remains and expanding the analysis to all layers of occupation, whereas previous
work was focused on phases 3 to 5.
Ichthyofaunal remains from Loma Salvatierra used in this study come from
62 archaeological stratigraphic units from Corte 2, which is a terrace associated
with domestic activities: food preparation, spinning, and manufacturing of bone
Figure 2. Approximate territories of Llanos de Mojos Indigenous communities in the beginning of the
1990s. Map modiﬁed from Maldonado and Tonico (2014).
JOURNAL OF ETHNOBIOLOGY2017 383
and wooden tools (Jaimes Betancourt 2010). This area was occupied during all
ﬁve cultural phases. Samples were recovered from an excavated area measuring
6 m x 8 m and 3 m in depth. All layers and features were dry-screened through 3
mm mesh. Taxonomic identiﬁcations were made to genus and species whenever
possible and were based on cranial and post-cranial elements using the reference
collection of present-day Amazonian ﬁshes at the Mus ´
eum National d’Histoire
Naturelle, Paris. Minimum Number of Individuals (MNI) and Number of
Identiﬁed Specimens (NISP) were used in this study. Cutmarks and burn damage
were analyzed under a binocular microscope.
To create a basis for discussing pre-Columbian Synbranchus consumption
across the Americas, we reviewed ichthyoarchaeological literature available for
Central and South America and created a list of archaeological records of swamp-
eel ﬁshing in the pre-Columbian period. Concerning the historical periods, we
have focused on Llanos de Mojos region and listed written sources containing
information about ﬁshing practices and habits. About 20 ethnohistorical sources
from missionaries and naturalists (for the colonial period) and 25 ethnographic
reports (for modern and contemporaneous period) were consulted. We faced two
main difﬁculties during the survey of ethnohistorical information about swamp-
eel consumption: ﬁrstly, the lack of species-level information concerning the ﬁsh
consumed (especially in documents dating from the seventeenth to nineteenth
centuries) and, secondly, long chronological gaps of information on ﬁshing for
some ethnic groups (e.g., the Chiquitanos). Furthermore, in written sources,
either historical or ethnographic, the term anguila was also used to refer to other
eel-like ﬁshes, such as electric eels (Gymnotiformes) and lungﬁshes (Lepidosir-
eniformes). Even though mentions of words like mu¸cum,mocim,mu¸cu, or muu are
probably species-speciﬁc, the term anguila must be taken with caution.
Zooarchaeological Evidence from Loma Salvatierra
We identiﬁed a total of 4862 ﬁsh remains from Loma Salvatierra (Table 1).
Synbranchiformes represent 69% of the NISP, followed by catﬁshes (Siluriformes)
at 20%. Characids (Characiformes) and lungﬁshes (Lepidosireniformes) are also
present in smaller proportions. The number of synbranchids may be inﬂated
somewhat because they have many vertebrae (ca. 130–160) that over-represent
their NISP compared to lungﬁshes, for which no vertebrae are recovered. For this
reason, we also provide MNI calculations of different ﬁsh taxa, but MNI is not
reported for most other pre-Columbian sites for comparison.
The presence of ﬁsh taxa such as Hoplosternum spp. (Callichthyidae), Hoplias
spp. (Erythrinidae), and lungﬁshes (Lepidosirenidae), suggests that ﬁshing
strategies focused on shallow waters (Table 1). At least two species of
synbranchid eels, Synbranchus marmoratus and S. madeirae, were identiﬁed. In
all stratigraphic layers, however, the former dominates the ﬁsh assemblage: S.
marmoratus corresponds to about 45% of the total number of Synbranchiformes
remains, while S. madeirae corresponds to about 2% (Table 1). The presence of
PRESTES-CARNEIRO and B ´
EAREZ384 Vol. 37, No. 3
synbranchids inside residential structures, as well as evidence of cutting and
thermal alteration in about 1% of the bones, conﬁrms that Synbranchus was
processed and consumed by humans. Synbranchiformes represent more than half
of all identiﬁed taxa across the different layers, indicating that swamp-eels were
the principally exploited ﬁsh during the 900-year occupation at Loma Salvatierra.
Synbranchid Eels at Other Central and South American Archaeological Sites
Although there are still few ichthyoarchaeological studies for Central and
South American pre-Columbian sites, several reports indicate the recovery of
synbranchid eels (Table 2). The presence of Synbranchus was noted in two
additional Middle Holocene sites of southwestern Amazonia: Isla del Tesoro and
Monte Castelo (Prestes-Carneiro, unpublished data). In some cases, swamp-eels
comprise more than 25% of freshwater ﬁsh, for example, at Cuello (Belize), El
e (Argentinian Chacos), and in many sites of the Pantanal wetlands. In
´cara do Lea
˜o, a shell-midden located in a seasonally inundated plain 18 km
from the coast in Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil), Synbranchus marmoratus corresponds
to 91% of the freshwater ﬁsh assemblage, an even greater proportion than those
of the Bolivian sites (Table 2).
A lower intensity of swamp-eel consumption has been attested in the
Madgalena valley and Atlantic side mangroves of Colombia (Monsu site, Alice
e, personal communication, 2016; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1985), in the
Central Amazon Region, and in the grassland areas of Southern Brazil and
Argentina (Figure 1a). Bearing in mind that the present-day distribution of
synbranchids includes the Atlantic coast and estuarine zones of South America, it
is worth noting that they are not mentioned in the zooarchaeological studies as a
pre-Columbian food source in these regions. Given the frequent small sample
sizes and the lack of continuity in the archaeological record, we cannot evaluate
swamp-eel ﬁshing through prehistoric times. However, we note that the heaviest
exploitation seems to be concentrated in seasonal swamps of the lowlands of
Central and South America.
Ethnohistorical and Ethnographic Information
We identiﬁed 34 historical records of ﬁshing practices from 1676 to 2003 in
our review of ethnohistorical and ethnographic documents from Llanos de Mojos
Table 1. Fish taxonomic representation per phase of occupation at Loma Salvatierra.
Phase 1 Phase 2 Phase 3 Phase 4 Phase 5
NISP MNI NISP MNI NISP MNI NISP MNI NISP MNI
Synbranchidae 864 102 815 126 788 324 689 120 148 34
Callichthyidae 195 7 45 7 199 37 155 7 17 3
Erythrinidae 102 9 8 1 99 8 45 3 4 1
Lepidosirenidae 36 11 33 6 90 26 76 19 21 8
Cichlidae 30 4 0 0 16 1 15 1 0 0
Siluriformes diverse 29 11 56 14 243 57 7 2 6 1
Characiformes diverse 7 5 1 1 1 1 21 2 0 0
Total NISP 1263 149 958 155 1436 454 1008 154 196 47
JOURNAL OF ETHNOBIOLOGY2017 385
Table 2. Comparison of freshwater ﬁsh remains recovered in Central and South American archaeological sites.
NISP ReferencesLEP CHA SIL GYM SYN
ca. 8654 BC– AD 1550 Isla del Tesoro SM1 (Bolivia)
- - - - - - - (Lombardo et al. 2013)
7480–5300 BC Garivaldino 8 1 9 (Rosa 2009)
6400 BC–AD 1140 Monte Castelo (Brazil)
-- - - -- - (Miller 2009)
6320 BC Lada
´rio (MS-CP-22) (Brazil) 14 536 42 (7%) 38 630
5050–550 BC Aguadulce (Panama) 274 131 27 40 (8%) 31 503 (Cooke and Jim´
3350–1940 BC Mons´
-- - - -- - (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1985)
2550–1050 BC Monagrillo (Panama) 1 1 13 (Cooke and Jim´
2190 BC Jacadigo (MS-CP-16) (Brazil) 10 215 24 (8%) 69 318
1250–1000 BC El Varal (Mexico) 313 16 (Wake and Steadman 2010)
ca.1200 BC–AD 400 Cuello (Belize) 1 30 (50%) 28 59 (Fradkin and Carr 2008)
800–400 BC Montalvito (Colombia) 54 4 1 (1%) 59 (Pe˜
on et al. 2007)
ca. 210 BC Ilha do Bem-te-vi (MS-CP-20) (Brazil) 14 144 68 (25%) 5 231
AD 150–1250 Cerro Jua
ıaz (Panama) 29 1 9 9 (19%) 48 (Cooke and Jim´
AD 150–450 Sitio Sierra (Panama) 2188 1341 166 119 (4%) 29 3843 (Cooke and Jim´
AD 190 Cha
´cara do Lea
˜o (Brazil) 20 34 590 (91%) 1 645 (Rosa 2006)
AD 250–1050 El cachap´
e potrero V (Argentina) 57 16 266 141 (30%) 480 (Santini 2012)
AD 220 RS-LC-97 (Brazil) 56 13 31 (20%) 58 158 (Bretano et al. 2006)
AD 260 Sotelo I (Argentina) 23 419 18 (4%) 460 (Santini 2012)
ca. AD 400–1400 Loma Salvatierra (Bolivia) 256 288 952 3304 (68%) 61 4861 Current study
ca. AD 400–1400 Loma Mendoza (Bolivia) 18 92 77 554 (74%) 745 (B´
earez and Pr ¨
ca. 750–1230 AD Hatahara (Brazil) 620 297 10 (1%) 143 1070 (Prestes-Carneiro et al. 2016)
AD 950–1450 Nata
´(Panama) 1 23 (Cooke and Jim´
AD 1055–1420 Cerro Aguara
´(Argentina) 180 1616 25811 1485 (5%) 90 29185 (Musali et al. 2013)
AD 1387 RS-LC-81 (Brazil) 31 103 38 (17%) 50 222 (Rosa 2006)
Where applicable, all stratigraphic layers were combined and dates were converted to BC-AD notation but not calibrated.
Fish orders are abbreviated as follows: LEP¼Lepidosireniformes, CHA¼Characiformes, SIL¼Siluriformes, GYM¼Gymnotiformes, SYN¼Synbranchiformes, PER¼Perciformes.
Synbranchiformes percentage values are shown only for sample sizes larger than 45 total NISP.
No available quantitative information.
Values are available as MNI only.
PRESTES-CARNEIRO and B ´
EAREZ386 Vol. 37, No. 3
(summarized in Supplementary Tables 1 and 2). In the following sections, we
describe swamp-eel consumption and ﬁshing practices during four main
historical periods in the region. We include our translations of key excerpts
from these records (some extended accounts are available in Supplementary
The Jesuit Period
After their arrival in Llanos de Mojos around 1668, the Jesuits initiated the
construction of large mission towns (many of them mixing non-related ethnic
groups) and the introduction of new languages, crops, skills, and traditions
(Denevan 1966). Missionaries produced single written sources about native
customs and everyday practices; many of them contain brief comments on local
ﬁshing practices. Jesuit letters and reports of the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries, such as those by Jos´
e de Castillo (1906) and Pedro Marban (1701),
afﬁrm that ﬁshing is one of the most important activities of the Mojos Indigenous
groups, although the authors rarely list the species procured. There are several
mentions of swamp-eel ﬁshing from the Jesuit period. One of the ﬁrst written
sources that speciﬁes eels as a key resource appears in an anonymous work
(1754), probably a Jesuit father who lived among the Movima people, according
to Barnadas and Plaza (2005), which states, ‘‘The most ordinary sustenance of
these Indians is ﬁsh, who abound in these rivers and lakes...They used to
ﬁsh...eels with a bundle of 10 to 12 rods of sharpened chonta [sticks of palm
tree].’’ A second Jesuit, Francisco Xavier Eder (1985),documented everyday life
in the Mojos missions between 1749 and 1767 and described eels among the
principally consumed ﬁsh. Eder (1985 :227) remarked that Baures
communities in north-east Bolivia used to know where eels burrow during the
summer: ‘‘They take [eels] out in the middle of the savanna, from a depth of 1.6
meters, where there’s not one single drop of water.’’ Eel ﬁshing was also reported
by missionary Julian von Knogler, who lived among Chiquitano groups in south-
eastern Bolivia between 1748 and 1768. ‘‘The eels were ﬁshed with wooden
spears of three-meter length’’ (Freyer 2000:38). These records suggest that
swamp-eel ﬁshing was not uncommon among various Indigenous communities
of the Jesuit period.
The Jesuit occupation had engendered important changes in labor processes,
establishing the manufacture and trade of native food staples, such as manioc
and dried ﬁsh, and introduced products such as rice, coffee, citrus, cacao, cotton,
and sugar cane. According to Denevan (1966), after the Jesuit expulsion in 1764,
much of this economic system was maintained. During the post-Jesuit period (the
end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries), Llanos de Mojos
experienced a succession of instable dictatorial governors, engendering numer-
ous conﬂicts and revolts that resulted in an abrupt decline of Indigenous
populations (Denevan 1966). The daily practices of Mojos people in this period
were reported by many travelers and explorers, such as D’Orbigny (1839, 1843,
1844) and Keller et al. (1875). Unfortunately, very few authors describe the precise
state of ﬁshing in this period except for Card ´
us (1886). This Franciscan father,
JOURNAL OF ETHNOBIOLOGY2017 387
who lived among the Guarayos around 1883, called attention to eel ﬁshing
Every year, as water levels drop, the Guarayos kill large quantities [of
eels], very quickly and very easily. They go to the banks of the lagoon or
along the streams, with water reaching feet or knees, carrying a thin rod
made of chonta, two beams long, inside the mud, and since the eels have
their cave in the mud, they thrust them with the point of the rod (Card ´
Swamp-eel ﬁshing also appears in several ethnohistorical accounts by
naturalists and explorers who traveled across South America from the sixteenth
to eighteenth centuries. One of the ﬁrst explorer accounts of swamp-eel
consumption appears in 1587 in Bahia State (Brazil), when Gabriel Soares de
Sousa (1974 :295) reported that eels are ‘‘present in these rivers [of Bahia]
that grow under the rocks, and the Indians call them mocim, and they have the
same appearance and taste as those of Portugal.’’ Synbranchid eel consumption
was also mentioned in documents written throughout the entire seventeenth
century in various parts of Brazil (Lisboa 1967 , Marcgrave 1942 ) and
Surinam (Bloch 1797). Like Sousa, these authors all praise the high quality of
swamp-eel ﬂesh and some compare it with that of European eels.
The First Half of the Twentieth Century
In the beginning of the twentieth century, Llanos de Mojos emerged in a new
economic cycle called the ‘‘rubber boom.’’ Thousands of Indigenous people left
their territories to work in rubber plantations. Many isolated groups established
their ﬁrst contact with Europeans at this time, but groups that were under Jesuit
inﬂuence for over 70 years were in a different political, social, and cultural
e 2010). During the rubber boom, thousands of Indigenous people
died, e.g., Chiquitanos and Mojos, and many other groups were assimilated into
Benian peasant society (Riester 1975). In the ﬁrst half of the twentieth century,
ﬁshing was an important economic activity among a majority of the Llanos de
Mojos communities, but authors rarely indicate which species were procured.
One of the exceptions concerns the Guarayos, who practiced eel ﬁshing
old 2003). Their principal method for catching eel was with baskets
(Figure 3). M´
etraux (1942) described, ‘‘Eels were killed with spears, used in pairs,
or they were driven into big oval baskets by men who struck the bottom of the
Figure 3. Baskets used for eel ﬁshing by the Guarayos in the beginning of the twentieth century. Sketch
PRESTES-CARNEIRO and B ´
EAREZ388 Vol. 37, No. 3
stream with sticks.’’ In other parts of South America, the traveler Raimundo
Morais (1931) reports that, until the beginning of the twentieth century, swamp-
eel meat was widely appreciated in the Amazon region
European inﬂuence was evident in the changing ﬁshing techniques from the
beginning of the twentieth century. Our literature review indicated a progressive
replacement of bow and arrow with ﬁsh hooks, gill nets, cast nets, and trotlines, a
phenomenon observed among various groups (Supplementary Table 1). People
continued to use traditional ﬁshing gears such as barbasco, which is the use of
poisonous plants (e.g., Hura crepitans, Tephrosia toxicaria, Serjania lethalis, or
Paullinia pinnata) in lakes and streams, ﬁsh weirs of wooden sticks, baskets, and
ﬁsh traps (Boom 1987; M´
etraux 1942). Nets, shotguns, and even the use of
dynamite were introduced during this period (Guise 1922).
Contemporary Mojos: From 1950 to the Present
From the 1950s onwards, the economy of Llanos de Mojos was greatly
inﬂuenced by the power of the ranching industry (Jones 1980). Nowadays, many
Indigenous communities combine cattle farming with native subsistence
activities, such as hunting, ﬁshing, and gathering. Fish consumption varies
considerably among contemporary Indigenous communities. Of the 14 sources
dating to the second half of the twentieth century to the present, which relate to
12 different Indigenous groups (Supplementary Table 1), reports describe eel
consumption among only two communities. A report by CICPA (2013) mentions
eel consumptio n among the Guarayos community of Yaguar ´
u. Ottaviano and
Ottaviano (1979) report eel consumption by the Tacana people at the end of the
1970s, and, thirty years later, a report by the Wildlife Conservation Society
(CIPTA-WCS 2002) no longer lists eels as one of the most consumed species but
instead describes its medical use by the Tacana people. The scarcity of accounts of
swamp-eel ﬁshing, despite the larger number of available historical records,
suggests that swamp-eel consumption reduced considerably in Llanos de Mojos
during this period; however, a systematic anthropological survey of Synbranchus
ﬁshing is necessary to further investigate recent changes in swamp-eel
consumption. In other parts of South America, there are few records of
Synbranchus ﬁshing, such as ethnobiological reports of traditional maroon and
ﬁsher communities in Sa
˜o Paulo (Costa-Neto et al. 2002), Bahia (Fernandes-Pinto
and Marques 2004), and Maranha
˜o (Soares 2005). In these three localities,
swamp-eel ﬁshing is rare but some people still consume it. In parts of the
Paraguay basin, however, large individuals are still consumed (Sven Kullander,
During the past ﬁfty years, commercial ﬁshing started to develop in the
surrounding areas of Llanos de Mojos cities. Synbranchus does not appear on any
of the lists of commercial ﬁsh, which are primarily Pseudoplatystoma spp.,
Colossoma macropomum (pac´
u), Cichla spp., and Phractocephalus hemioliopterus
(general) (Paz and Van Damme 2008). Commercial ﬁsh intended for urban
markets tend to be large, such as large-sized catﬁshes and pac ´
u, whereas small
ﬁsh species, such as small Cichlids, are consumed by peasants (Jones 1980), and
are often called ‘‘the food of the poor,’’ ‘‘camba food,’’ or even ‘‘Indian food’’
JOURNAL OF ETHNOBIOLOGY2017 389
Swamp-Eels in Amerindian Mythologies
The swamp-eel not only played a role as an economic resource but also as a
common ﬁgure in local Amerindian stories and myths, which is well-
documented in the available literature. Here we highlight only a few examples
from different periods to demonstrate the importance of swamp-eel in
Amerindian mythologies. The Baures people in Beni have a myth called ‘‘the
woman and the eel’’ that tells the story of a woman who used to spin in her home
seated on top of a hole where a swamp-eel used to live (Riedel 2015:350). For the
´, the mussuarana represented the rope that bound prisoners at the
cannibalism ceremony. ‘‘Men used to braid the rope called mussuarana which was
used to tie up the prisoners. This rope was a veritable cult object imbued with
religious respect and its confection was entrusted to the chiefs’’ (M´
Figure 4). The mu¸cum was considered to be the totem and guardian of the
freshwater sources and lakes of the northern groups who moved to the Mato
Grosso (Cascudo 1954). For the Waya
˜pi of French Guyana, the swamp-eel was a
penis (cut off by a woman) that fell into the river and sank in the mud
1982). In both Wayana and Tukano mythologies, synbranchid eels adopt the role
of a ﬂute. For the Wayana, the muu is a ﬂute that provided the colors that paint all
kinds of colored birds (Van Velthem 2003), whereas for the Tukano of the Upper
e River, swamp-eels are called mere bue or pu bue and consist of old chips of
sacred ﬂutes that fell into the water and were transformed into a ﬁsh (Cabalzar
2005). These examples demonstrate that swamp-eel or mu¸cum—whether it
symbolized a sacred rope, a totem, the sex of a man, or a ﬂute—played a role,
until recently, in mythologies of a large and diverse array of Amerindian groups.
Finally, we point out the possibility that swamp-eel representation in pre-
Columbian iconography is unrecognized. Serpentine images are generally
assumed to represent snakes in prehistorical iconographies of Amazonian
Figure 4. Depiction of Tupinamba
´community holding a rope called mussurana that binds a prisoner.
Painting by Theodor de Bry appearing in the third volume of Grands Voyages (1541). The name of the
rope was probably related to the swamp-eel called mussu (M´
PRESTES-CARNEIRO and B ´
EAREZ390 Vol. 37, No. 3
pottery; however, these images may also represent snake-like ﬁshes like swamp-
eels—a hypothesis that researchers rarely take into consideration.
Discussion: Why did Swamp-Eel Fishing Become Less Important Through
Our ichthyoarchaeological analysis at Loma Salvatierra showed that swamp-
eel was a major food resource during the occupation of this site around AD 400–
1400. In fact, the very large numbers of eels recovered at archaeological sites
stand in stark contrast with their very limited present-day importance as an
economic resource in Llanos de Mojos. Our review of historical records indicates
that, among the Indigenous communities of Llanos de Mojos, eel was not
consumed during the second half of the twentieth century (except for the
Guarayos), although it was consumed in earlier periods, which indicates that the
decline of swamp-eel consumption may have occurred at some point during the
last century. Ethnohistorical sources from Llanos de Mojos dating to the
sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries demonstrate that eel ﬁshing
continued during the Colonial period, in some areas, and that many surviving
Indigenous groups incorporated eels into their myths and legends. For the
Tacana community, the abandonment of eel consumption might have happened
in the last 30 years. These results demonstrate the importance of swamp-eels as
past food items and reveal a very recent, at least for the Tacana, decrease in their
consumption. We propose a series of factors that might have contributed to the
decline in swamp-eel consumption.
A starting point for exploring changes in swamp-eel ﬁshing is the availability
of this resource in Llanos de Mojos. Zooarchaeological data recovered in Central
and South America show that synbranchid eels were targeted in pre-Columbian
Neotropical areas in lowland freshwater habitats. Even though no chronological
tendency in Synbranchus exploitation can be observed during prehistoric times,
there appears to be a pattern of exploitation, particularly specialized around
seasonal swamp formations. In 1886, brother Jos ´
e Card ´
us noted their abundance
in the Guarayos Missions: ‘‘Their abundance is barely credible, being mainly in
streams and curiches [swamp areas], in many lakes and in almost every low
point in clay soils’’ (Card ´
us 1886). Today, they are still present in the area, in
natural or artiﬁcial pools, ponds, and lakes, where they live and feed in ﬂoating
vegetation termed tarope (Yunoki et al. 2012:397–398; Figure 1c). They also occur
in residual waters of urban agglomerations. In Trinidad, the local population
reports that during rainfall after a long dry period, swamp-eels come up to the
surface in ditches and channels of the city. Local informants report that eels can
even grasp small mammals and birds when they come to the surface. However,
swamp-eels do not seem to be consumed.
Changes in human dietary customs would have occurred when Europeans
brought their own concepts of what could be eaten or not. Although some
European documents favorably compare the taste of swamp-eel with European
eels (Lisboa 1967
; Morais 1931
; Sousa (1974 )), in other accounts, swamp-
JOURNAL OF ETHNOBIOLOGY2017 391
eel is disliked by Europeans. In the French Edition of the description of
Synbranchus marmoratus from Surinam, Bloch (1797:76) mentions that Europeans
were loathe to eat synbranchid eels because of their muddy taste, but that Black
Africans (Bloch uses the term n`
egres) would appreciate eel because it was a fatty
. The distaste for swamp-eel in more recent times may also be related to their
connection with residual waters in urban areas, as noted above.
Changes in the composition of consumed ﬁsh might also be related to the
arrival of new ﬁshing tools and methods introduced by Europeans and colonos
and a shift to commercial ﬁshing. The gradual replacement of bows and arrows,
harpoons, and spears with ﬁshhooks, gill nets (malhadeira), and cast nets (tarrafa)
probably modiﬁed the types of ﬁshes consumed, from those with solitary
behaviors to others that live in shoals and schools. In the Middle Mamor´
a large part of ﬁshing production was based on the use of surface gill nets by the
end of the 1980s (Lauzanne et al. 1990).
Another possible cause for changes in ﬁsh species preference can be related
to European-inﬂuences on both local taboos and practices. Scholars have
discussed the biblical origin of the taboo of eating ﬁshes without scales and
ﬁns (Douglas 1966), a practice that became more commonplace in the Amazon
region with the expansion of Evangelicalism during the last century (Garmany
and Gerhardt 2015). Others have noted that some Amazonian communities reject
piscivorous ﬁshes, such as the barred sorubim (Pseudoplatystoma fasciatum)
(Begossi et al. 2004). Yet another widespread Amazonian category of ﬁsh taboo is
the peixe reimoso (from the Latin word rheum meaning phlegm), which refers to
the fatty or ‘‘strong’’ property of the meat and the thickness of the animal’s blood.
For example, in various parts of the Amazon, ﬁshes considered to be reimosos are
unsuitable for pregnant women or ill people (i.e., Furtado 1993; Smith 1996).
Furthermore, in the traditional ﬁsherfolk community of Conde, in Bahia State,
swamp-eels are not consumed because they have teeth and allude to the body of
a snake (Costa-Neto 2000). Animal taboos can rarely be detected in archaeological
contexts since the simple absence of a speciﬁc taxon does not necessarily imply
its rejection. It is important, therefore, to compare archaeological evidence with
information provided by ethnohistory, iconography, and anthropology, as we
have done in this paper.
Although swamp-eel is not generally eaten today in Llanos de Mojos, the
collection of evidence from archaeological and ethnohistorical sources reveals the
existence of a long-lasting practice of swamp-eel ﬁshing and consumption in
Llanos de Mojos. Furthermore, tracing changes in the consumption of this food
resource over time provides insight into social and technological changes
occurring in Llanos de Mojos from pre-Columbian to present times. Although
European tastes and religious restrictions likely contributed to its decline,
swamp-eel consumption continued during European colonization. Our evidence
suggests that swamp-eel consumption was abandoned in Llanos de Mojos as
recently as the last 30 years, perhaps because of additional factors, including local
taboos and changing ﬁshing technology, among others. In present-day
commercial markets, larger catﬁsh and characins replaced Synbranchus, probably
alongside other small and muddy ﬁsh species that used to be consumed. Future
work will continue to reﬁne knowledge of ancient swamp-eel exploitation in
PRESTES-CARNEIRO and B ´
EAREZ392 Vol. 37, No. 3
other regions of South America, particularly in sites that lack ichthyofaunal
An extended excerpt of this account is available in Supplementary Table 3.
The authors thank Richard Cooke, Pierre Grenand, and Fran¸coise Grenand for their
insightful comments on this paper. Zulema Lehm and Franziska Riedel gave us great aid
with the ethnographic literature of Llanos de Mojos. Heiko Pr ¨
umers and Carla Jaimes
Betancourt granted access to the archaeological material for the study. We are also grateful
to the editors and referees for their help with improving the quality of the text. This study
is part of the ﬁrst author’s doctoral thesis conducted at the Mus´
eum National d’Histoire
Naturelle in Paris. Funding for this research was provided by the Brazilian Research
Agency (CAPES-BEX0910/14-7). The Soci´
e des Amis du Mus´
eum National d’Histoire
Naturelle of Paris and the UMR 7209 ‘‘Arch´
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