Before Spanish intrusion, the eastern lowlands were an area of extreme cultural and linguistic diversity. The region was the terminus of several major population movements. Tribes ran the gamut of technology and social organization from nomadic hunters and gatherers to sedentary agricultural chiefdoms. The largest and best known of these groups, the Chiriguano, successfully resisted a number of Inca military forays into their territory. Considerable trade also occurred between the chiefdoms in the Altiplano, Yungas, and valleys and these tribes in the lowlands.
The Spanish sent periodic expeditions through the area in search of the land of the Great Tiger Lord (El Gran Paititi), whose wealth was rumored to rival even that of the Inca. The indigenous population's primary contact with Europeans, however, came through the Jesuit missions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The mission territory remained off-limits to other Spaniards until the Jesuits' expulsion from the New World in 1767, thus sparing the Indians there the worst abuses of colonial rule. Settlers then entered the region, bringing new diseases and instituting a level of exploitation that ranged from forced labor to outright slavery. Conditions reached their nadir during the Rubber Boom in the early twentieth century. Some Indians survived by fleeing to less accessible areas of the tropical forest; others adopted the way of life of the Oriente lower class.
Both the numbers and the way of life of the lowland Indians continued to decline through the 1980s. Rough estimates put the lowland Indian population at perhaps 100,000 in the early 1980s. The main ethnic groups or linguistic families were Pano, MatacoMac 'a, Uru-Chipaya, Quecha, Tacana, Arawak (Mojo), Tupi-Guarani, Chiquitano and Aymara. These were divided into nearly thirty subgroups ranging in size from 10 to 20,000 persons.
Bolivia lacked a coherent national policy on Indian affairs. The criminal code made some provision for defendants deemed "without civilization" and therefore not criminally responsible for their transgressions. The national government made only sporadic attempts to protect the remaining Indians from abuses or displacement by the growing numbers of settlers. Missionaries, including the New Tribes Mission, the South American Mission, and the Summer Institute of Linguistics, actively proselytized among the tribes. Fundamentalist groups were particularly interested in "untouched tribes." Critics charged that the missionaries undermined the indigenous way of life and left their converts vulnerable to exploitation by others. Others suggested that the missionaries at least protected their charges from the worst abuses of whites and mestizos.
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