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ETHNONYMS: Chuncho, Harákmbet


Identification. The name "Mashco" is of unknown origin, and in the Peruvian departments of Cuzcoin the tropical zone toward the northeastand Madre de Dios, the word has been synonymous with "assassin" or "criminal." The various Mashco factions identify themselves as "Xarangbütn" (human beings), but they also call themselves by some toponym, which refers generally to a river on which they live.

Location. The Mashco are located between 71°35 and 69°23 W and ll°35 and 13°40 S. This is an inland area which, descending abruptly from the Andean mountain ranges, leads into the northwestern portion of the Amazon Basin. The river system of the Madre de Dios has an intricate net of tributaries in the Mashco area, with numerous streams and some rivers with a copious flow of water. The boundaries of Mashco territory are formed by the Andean slopes below the mountain line of Tres Cruces-Marcapata, the western border of the Kosñipata Valley, the Río Madre de Dios up to where it joins the Río Inambari, and the latter in the direction of Marcapata, including a stretch of the Río Manu. From a climatic and phytogeographic perspective, this area is characterized by a subtropical strip of rain forest, monsoon forest, and cloud forest. The climate is typically tropical, divided into a dry season and a rainy season. The formerbetween May and Octoberis characterized by limited precipitation and icy winds coming from the south, which, intensifying during July and August, lower the temperature considerably. When these winds blow, there is a heavy downpour, which brings with it an increasing abundance of water in rivers and streams, but these diminish rapidly after a few days. The humid season follows, with heavier rainfallover 200 centimeters between November and April. The water level in rivers and streams remains at several meters above normal.

Mashco territory can be divided into two clearly differentiated areas: the high jungle, or montaña, and the low jungle. The former occupies the greater part of the area, including the sources and a large portion of the median courses of the rivers that descend from the western chain of the Andean mountain ranges. It is characterized mainly by soft hills, the last spurs of the aforementioned mountain range. The lower jungle is formed by the course of the Madre de Dios, from Manu and the lower stretch of the Inanbari to Puerto Maldonado, with an elevation of 200 meters, whereas the Kosñipata Valley reaches an elevation of 700 meters.

Demography. An estimated 6,000 Mashco inhabit an area of around 24,910 square kilometers, which, at the beginning of the twentieth century, had a population density of 0.24 inhabitants per square kilometer.

linguistic Affiliation. At first the Mashco language was classified as pre-Andean Arawak, together with Piro, Machiguenga, and Campa. Later studies showed that it was an isolated stock with a large number of Arawakan elements. That is why the Hararákmbet Language Family includes several dialects like Araseri, Amaracaeri, Wachipaeri, Toyeri, and Zapiterinames, which, at the same time, designate various factions.

History and Cultural Relations

Written data about the Mashco and the Madre de Dios area come from post-Conquest sources. According to these sources, the following historical periods can be demarcated: pre-Hispanic; Viceregal; rubber-tapper incursions at the end of the ninteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries; and the establishment of missions, colonization of the territory, and present-day situation (from 1950 on). The Inca endeavored to extend their dominion to the eastern slope of the cordillera, giving that unexplored section of its territory the name "Antisuyo." Around 1430 in Inca chronology, people of the sierra began their slow infiltration from Paucartambo toward the east.

In an eloquent text, Garcilaso de la Vega ("el Inca"), the Hispanic-Indian chronicler, narrates how the Inca Roca decided to send his son to conquer the Antisuyo; for this enterprise he had 15,000 warriors. Likewise, in 1450 the Inca Yupanki decided to conquer the Mojo and penetrated the Kosñipata Valley. His men, estimated to number around 1,000, were annihilated by the "Chuncho," who can have been none other than the Mashco. The Quechua called the upper Río Madre de Dios "Amáru Mayo" (Snake River)because of its winding courseor "Mayu Tata" (Father of the Rivers)because it is the source of so many rivers. One of the reasons that motivated the Spaniards to penetrate this Amazonian area was the legend of Paititi or El Dorado; they began their incursions toward the end of the first half of the sixteenth century. Among the most important ventures were those of Juan Alvarez de Maldonado, who in 1566 and 1567 made two expeditions, fought with the "savages," and returned with tales that only heightened the interest in reaching Paititi.

Some scholars and travelers visited the area in the republican era, and Father Bovo de Revello, an Italian Carmelite, was responsible for changing the name of Amaru Mayu to Madre de Dios after finding an image of the Holy Virgin on a rock. The image, which had fallen victim to indigenous sacking, had been thrown into the river and was seen by the Christian neophytes on Ascension Day. Rubber-tapping expeditions contributed nothing toward knowledge of the Mashco; instead, they brought only blood and death. In 1902 two important events took place that gradually contributed to pacification and knowledge about this ethnic group. One was the setting up of a missionary post by the Dominican order, which established contact with the Wachipaeri and led to the evangelization of the Kosñipata Valley. The other was the founding of the city of Puerto Maldonado on the lower course of the Madre de Dios, in the vicinity of its confluence with the Tambopata.

From then on, the area was to be the base from which all attempts at catechization were to be undertaken from the north. The Dominican missionaries began an intensive study of the Mashco language and wrote ethnographic descriptions that slowly informed the scientific world about the Mashco and their respective factions. With the publication of this information, linguists and ethnologists began their work, creating an extensive bibliography. Mashco groups have had permanent confrontations with each other, which on occasion alternated with alliances to fight an adversary faction that was more numerous and warlike. Relations with neighboring groupsfor example, the Machiguenga from the Pantiacolla rangeswere far from peaceful. The traditional enemies of the Mashco, however, have been the so-called Amiko; that is, foreigners of European origin.


All Mashco groups favor the large communal dwelling, which houses a group of nuclear families that are related to each other by kinship. The house has an elliptic form, with an entrance at each end. The two entrances are connected by a central corridor on whose sides families arrange themselves on their platforms. The size of the dwelling is approximately 30 meters in length by 10 in width. Some fifteen nuclear families, with about eighty members, could find room in such a house. In it the most important social events took place, like the Amaracaeri male-initiation ceremonies or the Wachipaeri and Zapiteri feasts at which masato (a fermented drink brewed from sweet manioc) is consumed.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Subsistence activities of the Mashco, in the order of their importance, include tropical-forest shifting cultivation, hunting, fishing, gathering wild fruits, and raising wild animals. Daily food for all the members of the community is guaranteed by the production of vegetables, a family enterprise. The Mashco grow achiote (annatto), peppers, manioc, various kinds of plantains, pumpkins, peanuts, papayas, and many other vegetables given to them by a mythical woman called Káya. For agricultural work iron axes (Wachipaeri and Zapiteri) were used or small stone axes (Amaracaeri) and a digging stick. Cultivation was the task of women, except for the felling of trees.

Even though hunting occupies a secondary place, the Mashco ethos is profoundly geared to it, and there exists a special relationship between humans and animals of the forest. This is true to such an extent that many animals not only are among the ancestors of the Mashco, but human society also finds its paradigm in animal life. There is much empirical knowledge related to the art of huntingthe identification of animal trails, their smells and associated insects, and their calls and the imitation of animal voices. The most abundant animals are tapir, deer, four species of jaguars, anteaters, white-lipped peccaries, bears (in some peripheral areas) that descend from the mountain ranges, sloths, armadillos, varieties of monkeys, toucans, parrots, turkeys, and many other species that exemplify the exuberant fauna of this southern Amazonian enclave. Bows and various types of arrows are the principal weapons, but the Mashco also use traps, hunting blinds, cages, and ropes for climbing high trees.

Fishing can be considered an extension of hunting when bows and arrows are used for this purpose. This is done from the shores of rivers with crystalline, calm, and shallow waters. Despite the shallowness of the rivers, the prey, such as pacú and dorado, are of considerable size and weight. Another procedure for fish of considerable size, especially among the Zapiteri, utilizes a hook made from deer antlers in the form of an anchor. The Mashco also catch surubi, bocachico, sábalo, sardines, catfish, and many other smaller species. Women collaborate with the men in fishing with barbasco. Eels and alligators are also taken.

There are two aspects to food collecting: the collection of animal products and that of plant species. The gathering of animal products is generally done by women with bare hands; it includes shrimp, crabs, river snails, palmborer grubs, turtle eggs, and carachama fish, which hide in riverbanks. Special precautions are taken when gathering wild fruit, since everything that grows in the forest belongs to Toto, a demon, and any violation, carelessness, or squandering can infuriate him and bring misfortune of various kinds. The number of edible fruits is enormous, and forty-five species have been counted. These are carried in baskets and bags; some are eaten raw, others cooked (i.e., boiled or roasted).

Industrial Arts. The Mashco have developed a very extensive ergology, which includes bows and various types of arrows, snuff Inhalators, small ritual rods for coca-chewing drums, spindles, boxes made of plant fiber for keeping feathers, basketry, pottery, bark and cotton bags, tunics of bark cloth, necklaces, feather ornaments for the head and other parts of the body, rattles, axes made of polished stone, graters, and many other items that demonstrate the richness of their heritage.

Trade. More than trade (especially as regards the Wachipaeri faction), the Mashco from early times have maintained an exchange first with the Inca and later with the Spaniards. The Indians were especially interested in items made of metal and offered feathers, exotic birds, and monkeys in exchange. There exists among the Mashco an expository opinion of mythical character expounding the meaning of the concept "gift"understood as a retribution and an obligation on the part of the Amiko to give metal items.

Division of Labor. Men are in charge of hunting and fishing with bows and arrows and are the creators of the entire male heritage. Women have dedicated themselves to horticulture and gathering. There are other, shared, tasks, for example, fishing with barbasco.

Land Tenure. The Mashco have always been very conscious of landownership. There is land that belongs to the communal house, and there is the territory comprised of the land of all communal houses, which integrates a specific faction.


Kin Groups and Descent. Various nuclear families live together in a communal house as an extended family. Descent is patrilineal.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is classificatory as well as descriptive. A special ceremony called enditaré (name change) was performed when cross cousins married. From then on a man no longer called his mother's brother "uncle" but addressed him as "father-in-law."

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage between cross cousins was preferred, and customary clan exogamy was still practiced by the Amaracaeri in the 1960s and remembered by the Wachipaeri and Zapiteri. Women were frequently abducted from another communal house.

Clans operate more in a classificatory sense and do not have a specific place in the communal dwelling. They regulate exogamy and patrilineality, as well as virilocal residence. Divorce was quite frequent, given the variety of amorous practices, especially the one associated with the erotic theophany called Atúnto, which instituted the abduction of women in Mashco society.

Domestic Unit. The smallest domestic unit is the nuclear family, but numerous in-laws live in the communal house despite the fact that they belong to different clans.

Inheritance. A dead person's property is completely destroyed.

Socialization. The basic concept of life centers on the idea that each brother owns a branch on the mythical tree called Wanámei, which is a simile of his existence. Male initiation ceremonies contribute to a man's development and situate him in a different phase of his life.

Among the Amaracaeri a male had to go through two initiation ceremonies instituted by two mythical personages, Péimpi and Séki, who appear in the extensive myth of Atúnto. These ceremonies were gatherings in which a boy danced to achieve the status of a young man, (wámbo ) and a young man to achieve the status of a man (ombukérek ), that is, an adult. Both had specific apparel, ornaments, painting, and songs.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The communal house or local group belongs to a regional faction made up of several house communities, as, for example, among the Wachipaeri of the Kosñipata Valley. They are divided into four local groups, corresponding to the cardinal directions, and recognize a regional chief. Leadership was based on kinship or valor acquired in battle. Each faction constitutes a cultural and political community within clearly stipulated territorial boundaries. The cultural homogeneity among factions is manifested in a common language with minor dialectical differences.

Political Organization. The Mashco are conscious of their ethnic identity vis-à-vis other Amazonian tribes, but they do not recognize central authority, and expressions of political solidarity are accidential as, for instance, in wartime, when the entire faction organizes to pursue a common goal. Local chiefs become subordinate to a regional chief. Social stratification is dual: the chief (wantópa ) together with people of high respect (warn ) form an upper social level and the inferiors (wanámba ), a lower social level. For example, the wantópa of a herd of pigs is the one who directs them; the members of the herd are wanámba. This social paradigm, as expressed in myth, is common to all Mashco factions and applies to the animal and human worlds.

Social Control. Even though chiefs exerted social control over their respective communities, the shamans and "dreamers" were more important overall. Indeed, both announced the likelihood of war, exposed witches and other harmful people, and pointed out cases of adultery and other events that affected life in a communal house.

Conflict. The Mashco have historically demonstrated great bellicosity. Periodically, and at a certain time of the year, they engaged in repeated fighting with adversarial factions.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. When considering the mythicoreligious universe of the Mashco, two general and basic structures must be recognized: the opposition between xarangbütn, or human, and tóto, or demonic, which determines the reality of native life. The Mashco differentiate three orders or circuits of the demonic: Tóto personified, entities that belong to Tóto, and beings that are in a state of tóto.

Tóto is purported to have a body similar to that of humans, but disfigured by mutilations such as a missing eye, an oversized mouth, a semifleshless body, and a lack of some body parts. Tóto is of a permanently orgiastic disposition, practices cannibalism, and causes illness and death. With the exception of those of the peach palm, all fruits of the forest belong to Tóto. If they are improperly gathered, it can result in the transgressors' illness and death.

Those who are in a state of tóto are the animals of the forest, of the water, and of the air (unless they have undergone a special process of "humanization") ; the masters of animal species; the hunters who have been initiated by one of the leaders of the animals; the Amiko, who have caused numerous types of harm, as, for example, the introduction of illnesses for which no cure is known; the Wachipaeri and Zapiteri shamans (topakéri ), who have entered a state of tóto through initiation; witches (tshiwembáe ) whose harmful activities are revealed by the shaman or the "dreamer" and who are submitted to a real trial to identify them, determine their culpability, and punish them; various artifacts, which in the moment of the coming apocalypse, will show their true demonic nature; and the souls of the deceased who live in the underworld (Seronhái).

The mythico-religious complex of the Mastico distinguishes between mythic narratives and chants (estiva ) for various purposes. There is no generic term that designates myths, but every narrative is particularized by mentioning its most important spiritual protagonist and the event that gives it meaning.

The cosmos is considered to be dome shaped. The Amaracaeri distinguish only a single sky, whereas the Wachipaeri and Zapiteri recognize several tiers. The terrestrial level is circular, and below it is the underworld of the souls of the deceased. Religion permeates all aspects of Mashco life. AU natural beings, like the animals, for example, are believed to be demonic.

Religious Practitioners. The shaman is initiated by the animals of the forest and learns how to separate his soul from his body. Like everybody else, he lives in the communal house, but he also lives with his animal wives in the interior of the forest. Among the Amaracaeri, shamanism is less complex an institution than among the other factions, and they prefer to speak of "dreamers" rather than of "shamans." In curing, agricultural rites, sorcery, and love magic, a very important role is played by the specialists in the performance of powerful chants. Witches are persecuted, and if the plant bundles with which they cause harm cannot be located, they are executed.

Ceremonies. The main Amaracaeri ceremony is centered on the male-initiation dances. Among the Wachipaeri and Zapiteri, drinking masato beer (made from sweet manioc) at a social gathering has a ceremonial character. It permits the resolution of personal conflicts by means of special songs containing metaphorical imagery.

Arts. Besides feather ornaments, there are small bags and tunics of bark cloth, adorned with geometrical designs like dots, crosses, and stripes of different meanings. Body painting is done on festive occasions.

Medicine. The shaman is in charge of medicine but does not completely monopolize the field. Instead, there are other curers whose therapeutic practices involve the use of esüva, which have become instituted in Mashco culture by means of etiological myth.

Death and Afterlife. In general, death is attributed to the malefic action of Tóto. The soul (wanokire ) goes to a place located in the underworld. The souls of shamans and hunters go into the forest, where they live with the animals. The Mashco have been catechized by missionaries of the Dominican order and by linguists of the Summer Institute of Linguistics.


Califano, Mario (1982). Etnografía de los mashco de la Amazonia sud occidental del Perú. Buenos Aires: Fundación para la Educación, la Ciencia y la Cultura (FECIC).

Califano, Mario (1983). "El mito del árbol cósmico Wanámei de los mashco de la Amazonia sudoccidental." Anthropos (St. Augustin) 78:739-769.

Gray, A. (1983). "The Amarakaeri: An Ethnographic Account of Harakmbut People from Southeastern Peru." Ph.D. thesis, University of Oxford.

Fernández Distel, Alicia A. (1977). "La decoración pintada aplicada a elementos de la tela de corteza, entre los indígenas mashco de Amazonia peruana." Archiv für Völkerkunde 30:5-30.

MARIO CALIFANO (Translated by Ruth Gubler)