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Identification. The name "Macuna" is of foreign, probably Geral, origin. As used in the ethnographic literature it refers to a speech community, composed of two exogamous, intermarrying sets of clans (sibs). The Macuna generally use clan names to identify themselves.

Location. The Macuna are a tropical-forest people of the northwestern Amazon. They occupy their traditional territory around the confluence of the Pirá-Paraná and Apaporis rivers in the Colombian Vaupés region. The area is roughly from 0.5° N to 0.5° S and from 70° to 70.5° W.

Demography. There are no reliable census data for the entire Macuna population. In 1973 it was estimated as comprising about 400 individuals. On the basis of a partial census in 1989, the present population is thought to include some 600 individuals. Despite the considerable increase, the Macuna hold that the population was much bigger in the past.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Macuna speak a language belonging to the Eastern Tucanoan Language Family. It is said that in the past the different clans now forming the Macuna speech community spoke different languages (dialects). There are still slight dialectal variations among the clans. An adult Macuna normally speaks the languages of several neighboring groups (e.g., Barasana, Tuyuca, Tucano).

History and Cultural Relations

The Macuna speak of continuous violent conflicts in past centuries with their southern neighbors, particularly the Yaúna and Tanimuka (both Eastern Tucanoan groups). Little is known about the early history of Indian-White contacts. The Macuna are mentioned in Portuguese chronicles from the eighteenth century. More regular contact dates from the late nineteenth century, when the commercial exploitation of wild rubber began in the Colombian Amazon. Although the most affected areas lie south of the Vaupés region, the Macuna also experienced the devastating impact of the rubber boom. Men were rounded up and taken away by force to work for White rubber patrons. The pattern was repeated in a less crude form during World War II. Intermittent contact with Catholic missionaries has existed at least since the eighteenth century, but the first mission station in the Pirá-Paraná area was established in the 1960s.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Pirá-Paraná experienced a new economic boom based on growing coca leaves for illegal cocaine production. The Macuna, like most of the Pirá-Paraná and Apaporis groups, were heavily involved in the cultivation and trade of coca leaves with White patrons who established themselves in the area. The coca trade brought great quantities of money and trade goods to the region, but the boom ended as abruptly as it commenced. By the mid-1980s no Macuna produced coca leaves for sale, and the White traders had left the area. Other powerful economic forces have since affected Macuna society. Gold has been found along the Río Taraira only a few days' distance from Macuna territory, and thousands of White gold miners have entered the area, many through Macuna lands. The Macuna utilize the gold rush as a new source of income and White trade goods. Many young men occasionally go to the gold fields for shorter periodsbetween a couple of weeks to a few monthsto dig for gold on their own or to look for temporary employment with a White patron. Work in the gold fields has not yet led to debt bondage or dependence on White patrons, but it is producing important changes in Macuna society: differential access to White trade goods and the occasional neglect of subsistence production because of the periodic absence of young men. The creation by the government of two resguardos (Indian reserves), which include most of the Macuna territory, has been an important development for the Macuna in their struggle for control over their land.


The traditional Macuna settlement consisted of a single, large multifamily longhouse, usually referred to as a maloca in the ethnographic literature. The malocas were widely dispersed along streams and rivers in the forest. In the early 1970s this was still the dominant settlement pattern. There are basically two types of malocas: one round, common in the Apaporis area; the other rectangular and prevalent in the Pirá-Paraná area. The latter type could measure 30 meters in length, 20 in width, and 10 in height. Both types can still be seen among the Macuna, but now rather as ceremonial centers in village communities composed of a number of small single-family houses. Early accounts describe huge malocas containing some 100 inhabitants. At present, the size of the residence group inhabiting a maloca generally varies between 10 and 20. During important collective ceremonies, however, 70 or more people are easily accommodated in the maloca. In the 1970s the maloca commonly contained three to five agnatically related nuclear familiesan aging father and his married sons or a group of young or middle-aged married brothers (who were later likely to split up and form independent settlements). The malocas, in turn, were vaguely grouped into extensive neighborhoods of agnatically and affinally related residence groups; elderly brothers and brothers-in-law lived in separate but adjacent malocas. Today these local groups of neighboring malocas have largely turned into village communities that are based on the same structural principles of agnation and marriage alliance but subdivided into small family units, each inhabiting a separate house.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . The Macuna still essentially subsist on swidden cultivation, hunting, fishing, and gathering of wild forest resources. The staple is bitter manioc, but a large number of other food plants are also cultivated, including plantains, sweet potatoes, bananas, pineapples, and sugarcane. Fish is the principal source of protein, but considerable time is also spent on hunting. The most important game include pacas, peccaries, and tapir. Large birds, monkeys, and caimans also constitute a significant part of the diet. The fur trade (particularly of the skins of jaguars, ocelots, and otters) played an important part in the Macuna economy until the 1970s, when it was prohibited. Farinha (a gruel prepared from manioc roots) has been traded with Whites for centuries and is still important as a means of exchange and a source of White trade goods.

Industrial Arts and Trade. Indigenous crafts, still produced largely for domestic use, principally consist of pottery and basketry. Arrow poison is produced by the Macuna on the Río Apaporis but mainly obtained from Macú groups in the forests on the northern bank of the Apaporis. Traditionally, a large-scale trading system seems to have operated over the entire Vaupés region, integrating many of the tribal groups of the area. In the Pirá-Paraná area, different groups are still recognized as being specialized in certain crafts: the Macuna deem the Barasana to be expert basket makers, the Tuyuca skillful potters, and the Macú poison makers and producers of a particularly valued type of basket. Grating boards are obtained from Arawak-speaking groups north of the Río Vaupés. Salt is said to have been produced locally in various areas along the larger rivers of the region but is now exclusively obtained from Whites. Aluminum pots have replaced much of the traditional pottery. All metal toolsincluding axes, knives, machetes, and much of the hunting and fishing gear (hooks and nylon lines, shotguns, and ammunition)are bought from White traders.

Division of Labor. Women do most of the gardening: they plant, harvest, and process the principal food crops. Men clear and burn the fields but engage in no other gardening activities except cultivating and harvesting the "male" tobacco and coca plants. The roasted and pounded coca leaves are used as a stimulant and ritual food by Macuna men. Men do all the hunting and most of the fishing. Both men and women collect wild forest fruits, nuts, and seeds, as well as certain edible insects such as ants, termites, and various kinds of larvae. Crafts also follow a strict division of labor. Women make the pottery, whereas men do all the basketwork, including the weaving of hammocks. This traditional division of labor is still strictly upheld.

Land Tenure. Each Macuna clan is considered the owner of a certain tract of land along specific affluents of the Río Pirá-Paraná. This ownership derives from the myth of creation. Within this clan territory, every member of the clan has the right to hunt, fish, and clear fields for cultivation. Forest and river are thus communal property. Individual families have exclusive usufruct rights only to their cultivated fields.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Macuna are divided into patrilineal and exogamous descent groups (masa ; lit., "people"), called clans or sibs in the ethnographic literature. These are in turn categorically related to one another as elder/younger "brother people" or "brother-in-law people" (affines). Marriage is prohibited between clans classified as "brothers," but permitted and encouraged between those referring to one another as "brothers-in-law." The Macuna clans thus form two exogamous and intermarrying phratric sets. The clans of each phratrie set are hierarchically arranged in order of seniority, defined by the mythical birth order of the clan ancestors. Each clan is further symbolically associated with one of five specialist roles: chief, chanter or dancer, warrior, shaman, and servant. Today, however, this organizational scheme is purely conceptual; it portrays an ideal social order with no counterpart in present social practice. Each clan collectively owns a set of sacred instruments (trumpets and flutes), called yurupari in the ethnographic literature, which represent the clan ancestors. These instruments can be seen, handled, and played only by adult (initiated) men; women and children are prohibited from seeing them. The clan also "owns" a body of individual "spirit" names. A newborn child ideally receives the name of a deceased grandparent. Names are thus recycled within the clan in alternating generations.

Kinship Terminology. The Macuna have a two-line relationship terminology of the Dravidian type.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Consonant with the prescriptive kinship terminology, the ideal Macuna marriage takes the form of a sister exchange between bilateral cross cousins. Most marriages today involve actual, genealogical cross cousins. Owing to the close genealogical ties between the families involved, the immediate exchange aspect of the marriage is not stressed. The guiding principle in the Macuna marriage system is the continuation of established marriage alliances over generations. No marriage ceremony is performed; marriages are negotiated between senior men of the families involved. Today most marriages are local. Bride-capture was common in the past. Polygyny is considered a prestigious form of marriage but is not common in actual practice. Virilocal postmarital residence is the norm. Traditionally, divorce in established marriages was extremely rare or even legally nonexistent. Annulment, implying the dissolution of a marriage before it is fully completed, is increasingly common.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family traditionally formed part of the larger residence unit inhabiting a single maloca. The nuclear family was the basic domestic unit, although certain productive activities (like clearing forest) involved the cooperation of the entire residence group. At least one meal daily was consumed jointly by the residence group, and most fish and game were shared among the families of the maloca. Today each nuclear family tends to form an independent domestic group, inhabiting a separate house. Food sharing and cooperation are consequently reduced.

Inheritance. There is little property to be inherited. Land is not individually owned, and most traditional artifactshousehold goods, tools, and weapons as well as the house itselfdo not enter a formalized system of inheritance. Only the ritual wealththe sacred feather headdress and other ceremonial paraphernaliaseems to be formally inherited, ideally from father to eldest son.

Socialization. Children are raised permissively. Young children are taken care of by the mother and elder siblings. By the age of 10, the children already know the rudiments of their distinct sex roles; girls accompany their mothers and elder sisters during garden work and domestic chores, whereas boys accompany their fathers and elder brothers on hunting and fishing trips. Today there are government-sponsored primary schools in most villages, attended by most Macuna children. Formal schooling was introduced into the Macuna territory in the late 1970s.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Social life among the Macuna is very much structured around the rules of descent and marriage. The traditional residence group inhabiting a maloca was a local descent group. Larger spatial groupingsthe former neighborhood and actual villageare based on the interplay between the two principles of descent and marriage alliance, forming closely tied kinship communities.

Political Organization. Macuna society is unstratified and lacks centralized leadership. The conceptual scheme of five specialist roles, polarizing chiefs and servants, provides a hierarchical political ideology that has no counterpart in actual political practice. Every maloca hadand still hasits headman. Sometimes an influential headman gains authority over an entire neighborhood or a larger territorial group. Nevertheless, his authority, which is based on charisma, sacred knowledge, and political skill, remains limited. Status as headman or chief is not hereditary. Authority is acquired, maintained, and displayed principally by sponsoring communal rituals where manioc beer and coca (and occasionally smoked fish and meat and wild forest fruits) are redistributed among participant families. This competitive and informal political organization underscores the egalitarian character of Macuna society; structural inequality is practically limited to relations between sexes and elder and younger brothers. Although men dominate women and elder brothers have authority over younger ones, even these authority relations are essentially expressed in terms of mutual complementarity. Today every village community has an administrative leader (capitán ). Traditionally, it was the task of the headman to ensure peace and social harmony. Respect for local shamans and the force of tribal norms embedded in religion and kinship relations providedand still providesan informal yet highly effective system of social control. Infractions of social norms are believed to result in supernatural sanctions, disease, and misfortune.

Conflict. In the remote past, tribal wars were fought between the Macuna and their traditional enemies; these wars were grounded in cosmological beliefs and apparently had no practical ends such as the acquisition of land, women, or ritual property. Bride-capture was a common source of political conflict as well as a means of expressing it. Today, the competition for political leadership occasionally leads to social conflicts. Unequal distribution of White trade goods and the individualization of the domestic economy tend to create tensions in the village community.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. According to the Macuna, the world and everything in it were created by four godlike mythical heroes (Ayawa mesa) and the Ancestral Mother of all people, referred to as the Woman Shaman (Romi Cumu). The sexual union between the mythical heroes and the Ancestral Mother gave birth to the first clan ancestors. The mythical heroes are manifest today in thunder and lightning, whereas the Ancestral Mother is alternatively conceived of as a star constellation (the Pleiades) or the earth itself. The celestial bodiessun, moon, and starsplay a significant role in mythology. The mythical heroes and first clan ancestors are mystically represented by the yurupari instruments that are brought forth and played during the most important of Macuna rituals. According to myth, the Woman Shaman owned the primordial yurupari instruments. These were later stolen from her by the mythical heroes, who thus established the present social order of male supremacy. The clan ancestors were believed to have the form of huge anacondas, which transformed into people. The Macuna think of all animals as sharing certain fundamental spiritual properties with people; animals once were and still arein another mode of perceptionpeople. Hence, interaction with the animal world is guided by the same fundamental principles of reciprocity that guide human social interaction. Traditional religion is still vigorous and continues to be practiced.

Religious Practitioners. The important religious functionaries are the shaman (cumu/yai ), the chanter (yuam ), and the ritual dancer (baya). Their presence is necessary at every collective religious ritual. The shaman mediates between people and the spiritual beings. There are shamans who specialize exclusively in managing the relations between this world and the spirit world of ancestors and mythical beings. Other shamans are fundamentally healers; it is their duty to cure afflicted people. The chanter is the "voice" of the shaman. Whereas the services of the shaman are required continuously, the chanter's role is essentially limited to ritual performances. The chanter ceremoniously recounts the mythical creation story, which is dramatically reenacted during the major dance rituals. The dancer is the lead dancer during all collective rituals. Today only men hold these important ritual offices, but it is said that in the past there were several female shamans.

Ceremonies. The Macuna have a rich ritual life. The major stages in the individual's life cyclebirth, initiation, and deathare accompanied by ritual acts. Perhaps the major Macuna ritual is the male initiation ritea collective, public, and large-scale ritual during which the ancient yurupari instruments are shown to the initiates. Other major communal rituals are the exchange ritual (referred to as dabucurí in the literature), at which smoked meat, fish, and forest fruits are exchanged between affinally related groups, and the spectacular spirit dance (baile de muñeco ), which is held during the harvest season of the chontaduro -palm fruit. During this dance, men and male children wear masks and bark-cloth costumes representing 100 or so different animal spirits and mythical beings. Throughout the year, other communal-dance rituals are held, during which the male dancers wear ceremonial headdresses of macaw feathers and the down, plumes, hairs, and bones of other animals.

During the rituals, only ceremonial foods are consumed: coca, tobacco, locally brewed beer, and occasionally the hallucinogenic drug yage. All these communal rituals dramatize and symbolically reenact mythical events related to the creation of the world and the people inhabiting it; the ancestral beings are brought back to life, represented by the dancers, and the maloca turns into mythical space, the cosmos itself.

Arts. Macuna art is fundamentally embodied in their crafts, architecture, and ceremonial property. Body painting and decoration of ceremonial regalia are basically geometrical. These arts are fundamentally structured by collective tradition but leave room for individual creativity. Pottery is undecorated, and there are no sculptured or graphic representations of deities. In the Macuna territory, there are ancient petroglyphs elaborated by those to whom the Macuna refer as "ancestral people."

Medicine. A characteristic feature of the Macuna, distinguishing them from many other Tucanoan groups, is that they utilize no plant medicines. Prevention and healing of illness basically involve the practice of blowing and silent chanting over foods, drinks, or certain magical substances. These acts of blowing and chanting can be performed by any knowledgeable adult man. Certain serious afflictions are treated by curing shamans (yaia ; lit., "jaguars") who suck out the disease agent (usually a dart) or remove it by pouring blessed water over the patient. The Macuna disease etiology centers on food as the fundamental disease agent. All food is considered inherently dangerous; it has to be blessed by blowing before eaten. Most diseases are believed to be caused by eating food that has not been properly blessed.

Death and Afterlife. At death, the soul is believed to wander off to the sky world or down into the underworld and finally, on the earth, settle in the ancestral birth house ("peoples' waking-up house") of its clan. The Macuna believe that, at birth, the soul of a deceased grandparent enters the newborn baby, who receives the name of its soul giver; there thus exists among the Macuna a belief in the reincarnation of souls in alternate generations. The funerary ritual, like the birth ritual, is essentially a private ceremony. The body of the deceased is buried in the longhouse. The grave consists of a deep hole with a cave on one side, where the corpse is placed. After the burial, the shaman burns bees' wax in the house. The smoke is said to carry away the soul of the dead. The ritual is referred to as the "throwing away of sorrow."


Arhem, Kaj (1981). Makuna Social Organization. Uppsala Studies in Cultural Anthropology. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International.

Trupp, Fritz (1977). Mythen der Makuna. Vienna: Acta Ethnologica et Linguistica 40.