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ETHNONYMS: Cochaboth; Enimacá; Enimagá; Etaboslé; Imacas; Inimacá; Lengua (ancient); Macca; Maká (in Spanish and Guaraní); Mak'á; Makká; Namaká (in Mataco); Ñimaqá, Njimaqá, Njomaqá (in Toba and Pilagá); TawaLáj Lawós (in Chulupí [Nivaklé]); TowoLi (in Lengua). The pronoun jekheweliL of the first person plural exclusive is the most appropriate alternative to ethnic auto-designation.


Identification. The Maká are a group of South American Indians that used to roam in the Gran Chacothe enormous plain that occupies part of the present-day republics of Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguayand today live in the city of Asunción del Paraguay. A suprasegmental trait distinguishing them from the rest of the inhabitants of the Chaco is that adult men and women wear their hair long without ever cutting it, even when in mourning.

Location. The Gran Chaco is an enormous wooded plain with a subtropical climate and a dry season (winter); average rainfall does not exceed 80 centimeters per year. Its inland location gives it great thermal range, with maximum temperatures easily reaching above 40° C, whereas the lowest are well below 0° C. It is a plain of alluvial origin covered with vegetation, frequently spiny, in which leguminosae predominate. The terrain's relief is proof of intense fluvial activity: dry riverbeds, ravines, and madrejones (temporary or semipermanent lagoons caused by overflowing rivers). The Bermejo and Pilcomayo rivers have scarred the terrain by shifting their courses. They run in a parallel fashion, traversing the central area in a northwest to southeast direction. The Pilcomayo disappears at its central course in an area of extensive swamps, lagoons, and marshlands. This is the area where the Maká once lived. At the beginning of the twentieth century, they formed two separate tribes, settled at the mouths of the Montelindo and Confuso rivers (right tributaries of the Río Paraguay) respectively, with an additional band, which was allied with the Pilagá, located to the south of the Pilcomayo. After the Chaco War (1933-1936), the Maká were resettled in the periphery of Asunción.

Demography, Although their population appears to have diminished in the past fifty years, the Maká still number about 600 individuals. It is unlikely that they ever numbered more than 1,000, which is approximately the population of the typical Chaco tribe.

Linguistic Affiliation. Maká belongs to the Mataco-Maká Language Family. In Maká phonetics, voiceless sounds predominate. Maká differs especially from Mataco in the universality of gender category and the presence of deictic markers along the lines of Gauycurúan languages.

History and Cultural Relations

The ancestors of the Maká were almost certainly a southeastern tribe of the Mataca area; by around the mid-eighteenth century they were living on the right bank of the central Río Bermejo. There they absorbed the full impact of massive immigration of peoples on horseback, a result of colonial pressure in the west of the region. They adopted an equestrian life-style, and migrated toward the north, occupying the eastern portion of the Pilcomayo Delta, in the midst of the Patino marshlands of Paraguay. From then on, they were at least partially identified with the late-eighteenth-century Enimagá because they became part of the groups of marauders and robbers who kept the Paraguayan border of the Gran Chaco in a state of war until well into the nineteenth century. Immediately before the Chaco War, the Maká were contacted by explorers and travelers who began to penetrate the area from Paraguay. Among the newcomers was Juan Belaieff, a Russian military topographer-ethnographer in the service of the Paraguayan armed forces. Some Maká formed a privileged relationship with this military humanist, and, for the services they rendered as scouts and auxiliaries to General Belaieff behind Bolivian lines, the Paraguayan government rewarded them with possession of land opposite the city of Asunción, land that they now occupy.

Besides Western influence, which has intensified recently, the Maká have maintained cultural relations with many other inhabitants of the Chaco during their tangled history of the last 250 years. In Maká locations to the south of the Río Bermejo, Toba, Mocoví, Pilagá, and Vilela influences were superimposed on a cultural base that was surely Mataco. Later the Maká established relations with the Mbayá-Guaycurú of the northern Chaco. At the end of the nineteenth century, the northern nucleus was allied to the Lengua and the central nucleus to the Chulupí (Nivaklé) and Toba-Mirí. Both groups warred, especially against the southern Toba and Pilagá. The southern nucleus, on the other hand, lived with the Pilagá, possibly from the end of the eighteenth century until the beginning of the twentieth century.


The main present-day settlements are in the periphery of Asunción del Paraguay (Limpio, Puerto Botánico) and Ciudad del Este, although there are approximately fifty individuals who remain dispersed in the Gran Chaco. Until their definitive removal from Chaco territory in 1940, however, the Maká lived in small villages and temporary camps composed of a simple band or, in times of social concentration, of several bands. In the camps, huts made of branches were built only if cold weather or rain made it necessary. The huts were usually dome shaped but could be built longer if more shelter was needed. Formerly, the Maká, like other equestrian peoples, used mats as roofs.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Maká have traditionally been hunter-gatherers, although there is an elementary form of agriculture (especially of pumpkins) which, on the basis of its distribution and other characteristics, is probably very ancient. The main game animal was the rhea, which was caught using techniques of game starting and camouflage. Gathering was no doubt the most important traditional source of subsistence, based on the exploitation of the immense resources of the Chaco forest. Nowadays, the Maká have integrated into the market economy and live principally from tourism, selling handicrafts, and charging fees to pose for photographs for international travelers who visit Asunción del Paraguay. It is fairly common for the Maká to go into the interior of the Gran Chaco in small groups for long periods of time, however, to return to their traditional form of life and to obtain ostrich feathers and animal skins, which they trade in Asunción.

Industrial Arts. Ethnographically, the Maká are central chaqueños, that is, they share with the Mataco, Chorote, Chulupí (Nivaklé), Toba, and Pilagá a considerable number of cultural values that are typical of hunter-gatherers. Some handicrafts have been replaced by industrial items. Nonetheless, the Maká conserve a rich traditional ergology, which must not be confused with what they fashion for the tourist market. The latter items, in contrast with the former, lack originality, functionality, and chromatic exuberance, and are made of nontraditional materials. Typical are grotesque small bows and arrows (40 to 50 centimeters), wrapped with cotton strings of the brightest contrasting colors possible. The Maká also make small bags and hair bands woven from cotton thread, in which the colors of the Paraguayan flag prevail.

Trade. Ancient forms of trade in the northern Chaco involved the circulation of bead necklaces, tobacco, and iron arrow points.

Division of Labor. Hunting, fishing, and collecting honey are male activities, whereas gathering and weaving are female tasks. Agriculture is the patrimony of the old men, whereas the harvestincorporated with gatheringis performed by women.

Land Tenure. Traditionally, land for hunting, fishing, and gathering was established for each band, although there were continuous inter- and intraethnic conflicts regarding it.


Kinship Groups and Descent. Bands are integrated by demes of bilateral descent, which bind extended families together with maximum solidarity. Within the deme most cooperative activities were organized according to sex and age.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is of the Hawaiian type for cousins and linear for the first ascending and descending generations, with mourning terms.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is monogamous, although some remember polygyny among ancient chiefs. The choice of a partner is frequently the result of negotiations between parents, but the marriage proposal always comes from the woman. Levirate and sororate are frequent, emphasizing the importance of marriage as a means of allying kinship groups. Relations with fathers-in-law and brothers-in-law are reserved. The rules of exogamy are prescriptive and inhibit relations with all those considered to be related. Former tribal limits must have coincided with those of endogamy because social relations outside them had to be limited by latent or active confrontations. Residence is characteristically matrilocal. Divorce is frequent in the first stages of a marriage, although rare after children are born. In the case of divorce, the man leaves, taking with him only items of personal use.

Domestic Unit. The extended family household consists of a couple and its unmarried sons, daughters, sons-in-law, grandchildren, and, from time to time, adult relativesof either spousewho are no longer in a position to organize their own household.

Inheritance. The few goods that are personal property are normally destroyed at the time of death.

Socialization. Children learn informally when they accompany their mother and a group of her female relatives in their daily search for food and, after puberty, when boys accompany their father. Learning also takes place within the age group as children play with miniature tools, intended to perfect physical dexterity, that imitate those of adults. Children are never punished, which furthers self-confidence and independence.

Sociopolitical Organization

Until they were united as a people in Asunción, the Maká grouped together in tribes, that is, in groups of allied nomadic bands that shared a territory and remained together more or less permanently. Many times in their history Maká bands integrated members of various tribes.

Social Organization. The social fabric is based on an institution of potential kinship. There are men who, although not of recognized genealogical kinship, maintain a privileged relationship that includes reciprocal services. The wajká ("friends") live near one another; they share game when hunting and formerly shared the hazards of war. Each organizes ceremonies that pertain to his partner's family. This relationship is hereditary (normally it passes to the firstborn son). It ends only when marriage results in actual kinship, in which case the obligations that correspond to this institution are replaced by those typical of affinal kinship.

Political Organization. Families were traditionally headed by adult males whose ranked relationship with one another was determined by their fighting ability, that is, by the scalps they had obtained, and by their oratorical skill, which played a decisive role in social control. In periodic skirmishes between allied bands, rank between warriors was actualized in drinking ceremonies in which each warrior related his deeds. In this way, preeminence was established and tribal leadership determined. In modern times, oratorical skill has in great measure taken the place of warrior prestige. It has been reformulated as the ability to speak Guaraní and Spanish, which is a stipulation of present-day rank in negotiations with Paraguayan society at large. Ancient forms of leadership have not been completely abandoned, however, even though the last scalps were obtained during the Chaco War. This continuation of past practices is made possible through the mechanism of inheriting warrior power, especially through songs that symbolize the scalps taken.

Social Control. Social control is exerted by leaders through counsel they render in a special and characteristic style of discourse. Fear of witchcraft and gossip limit individual action, imposing respect for generally recognized values and regulations.

Conflict. Each adult Maká male, who even today in some way considers himself a warrior, can physically intervene to defend the rights of his relatives. Murders of shamans accused of witchcraft still occur. Blood feuds and other conflicts mark lines of tension that show a permanent tendency to fission in this society that has been somewhat arbitrarily unified. Traditional Maká society was centered mainly on war. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it, together with groups of other equestrian nomads, integrated the hordes of roaming peoples who kept the Spanish frontiers of the Gran Chaco in check. But even among these allied tribes, war was not infrequent.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The traditional religion of the Maká was based mainly on mythical knowledge and the conviction that an ordered reality is constituted by the social world of the inwometec (nature spirits), with whom the shaman (weihetáx ) could communicate. As throughout the central Chaco, there prevailed in Maká ideology an anthropogonic motif of a humanity, in the form of birds, that lacked an explanatory antecedent, the transformation of which gave origin to the beings that nowadays people the world, including humans. Carancho, the Hawk, is one of the most relevant mythical personages in Maká tradition, combining characteristics of the savior-hero with those of culture bringer. The world is populated by the inwometec, which function as masters of the environment; they associate with personages of power and volition, who are named after animal and plant species and maintain social relations among each other. There are also witsinqalic, free souls of slain warriors or dead jaguars, which pose a danger to those who have not captured them. The Maká believe that various monsters and frightening beings, such as large water snakes or a mythical cannibal ogress, inhabit the forest. These beliefs were gradually replaced by various syncretic forms and Christianity. Initially, the Maká adopted messianic and nativistic motifs in which the icon of Juan Belaieff, who was glorified after his death, played an important role. Nowadays, fundamentalist evangelical and Pentecostal cults prevail.

Religious Practitioners. The most important traditional religious agent is the shaman, who is in charge of the physical well-being of his group and who mediates with the powers of nature.

Ceremonies. Although the Maká had no ceremonial calendar, the most important gatherings were held during periods of social concentration, during the rainy season, when the ripening of wild fruit and an abundance of honey guaranteed sufficient provisions to feed the groups who had come together. Festivals of female initiation, when a young girl reaches her menarche, were very important. After a period of seclusion during which the girl had to pass a number of proficiency tests, a series of dances was performed in which the women danced with staves. The rite was completed with dances of young people of both sexes; an ambush by males disguised as supernatural beings, who were driven back by the girl's relatives; and drinking ceremonies. Other important celebrations took place when a man drank chicha for the first time, at the close of a mourning period, and on other occasions. Drinking together is in itself a key ceremony for the Maká. There are also evangelical cults, in which traditional mysticism is not completely absent.

Arts. Ceremonial music and dance are integral to Maká religious, propitiatory, and therapeutic beliefs and practices. Important components of Maká art are personal adornment with body painting, anklets, diadems, and feather crowns; music played on tin-can violins or the Jew's harp; and social events like wooing and warrior parades. Maká art is also manifested in the graphic abstraction of the cat's cradle, in the pyrographic decoration or encaustic painting on gourds, in techniques of weaving wool or Bromelia fibers, and in the theatrical presentation of indigenous life as performed for tourists.

Medicine. Illness is attributed to soul loss or object intrusion caused by an enemy shaman. Therapy continues to be the domain of the shaman, who, aided by his lewanhej (tutelary spirits), seeks to recapture the soul or extract the pathogens from the patient's body by blowing, sucking, and the laying on of hands.

Death and Afterlife. Death is never attributed to natural causes. Funerary rites include stoning and drubbing the corpse in the belief that harm will then revert to the evildoer who caused the person's demise. According to some, the souls of the dead are guided to a celestial paradise (in inkhap ), although their shadows, veritable phantoms, will haunt the living, seeking their ruin.


Belaieff, Juan (1940). "El maccá." Revista de la Sociedad Científica del Paraguay 4.

Chase-Sardi, Miguel (1970). "Cosmovisión mak'á." Suplemento Antropológico 5:239-246.

Schindler, Helmut (1967). "Die Inimacá und die Macá." Anthropos 62:452-486.

Schmidt, Max (1934). "El makká en comparación con los enimagá antiguos." Revista de la Sociedad Científica del Paraguay 3:152-157.

Wilbert, Johannes, and Karin Simoneau, eds. (1991). Folk Literature of the Makka Indians. Los Angeles: University of California, Latin American Center.

JOSÉ BRAUNSTEIN (Translated by Ruth Gubler)