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ETHNONYMS: Anti, Ashaninka ("our kind"), Kogapakori (isolated, uncontacted Matsigenka referred to as "wild ones"), Machiguenga, Nomatsigenka (an enclave residing within Campa territory)


Identification. "Matsigenka" means "people." It refers to a closely related group of people with minor local differences in dialect and material culture. They are sometimes considered a subgroup of the neighboring Campa, although both groups regard each other as distinct.

Location. The Matsigenka inhabit the tropical rain forest of the upper Amazon of southeastern Peru, primarily the eastern foothills of the Andes Mountains, along the Río Urubamba and its tributaries, and in the headwaters of the Río Madre de Dios. These Amazon headwaters originate near the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco and flow past abandoned Inca roads and terraces to the high forest (selva alta ) of the Matsigenka. Here there is profuse rainfall (250 to 500 centimeters per year), spread evenly through a wet season from October through March and a less wet, but still rainy season from April through September. Temperatures range from 14° C on the coolest nights to 32° C during the hottest days, with an annual average around 24° C. The high-forest habitat is mountainous tropical rain forest with steep inclines, rushing mountain rivers, and hazardous trails, making interregional travel difficult.

Demography. The Matsigenka population is estimated at between 7,000 and 12,000. The population is steadily growing in size after suffering staggering losses from European diseases and social atrocities during the rubber boom of the early 1900s. Historically, they were pressed from the Andes by farmers who established farms in the upper reaches of their territory to grow coca and other tropical crops and from the north and east by neighboring groups competing for hunting and fishing territories. Today they are again being pressed by highlanders moving into their lands, driven by overpopulation and poverty in the highlands.

Linguistic Affiliation. Matsigenka is an Arawakan language of the Pre-Andean Subgroup, which also includes Campa, Piro, and Amuesha. Current opinion favors the view that these societies are descendants of the ancient inhabitants of this region, who migrated to it at least several thousand years ago. Despite evidence of historical contact with Andean culture, there is very little language borrowing from Quechua.

History and Cultural Relations

The Matsigenka have inhabited their present territory since long before the Spanish Conquest. It may be called a "refuge zone," in the sense of being a niche in a somewhat less favorable environment than surrounding ones, where they have sought to live peaceably and to be left alone. The Matsigenka were surrounded to the north, east, and south by Arawakan and Panoan groups, among whom warfare was endemic. Evidence of Panoan pottery in the Arawakan zone indicates the groups traded with one another. At least as early as the mid-nineteenth century, the Matsigenka were described as less fierce than their neighbors and more likely to avoid violence.

Contact between the forest people of the high forest and the highland groups of the Andes predates the Inca empire. Matsigenka and their neighbors provided the highlanders with cacao, bird feathers, palm wood, cotton, herbal medicines, and tropical fruits. In return they received stone and metal tools and bits of silver used in jewelry. Otherwise, the influence of highland culture was very slight. The uninhabited cloud forest has been an effective barrier separating the highlands and the high forest. Furthermore, low population density and an absense of regional political organization made it impossible for the Inca to exercise effective control over the Matsigenka. Consequently, the Matsigenka historically were able to maintain their distance from both the Inca Empire and the Spanish Conquest. Catholic missionaries also had little influence in the region, often being martyred in raids by Matsigenka and Campa.

In the early 1900s, however, the rubber boom and slave trade had a significant disruptive impact, abetted by Matsigenka strongmen who traded their own people into slavery in exchange for shotguns and steel tools. Although the rubber boom collapsed after a few years, the practice of raiding continued on a smaller scale until the 1950s because colonists persisted in their demand for laborers and household servants. By the 1960s, Peruvian police, development agencies, and missionary programs finally curtailed the slave trade. Despite their growing dependence on Western medicine, clothing, steel tools, and aluminum pots, present-day Matsigenka retain most of their traditional culture.


The Machiguenga traditionally live in small semipermanent settlement clusters of 7 to 25 individuals, composed of one to four families, situated on hilltops and ridges for fear of slave raids. In the past, charismatic leaders or shamans attracted several hundred people along a tributary stream. Since the 1960s, Matsigenka schoolteachers, trained in Pucallpa by the Summer Institute of Linguistics (a Protestant group), have successfully drawn people out of their isolation into school communities with airstrips. But most Matsigenka households continue to be scattered in traditional hamlets to avoid competition over resources. Individual families periodically leave on foraging trips for several days or weeks at a time. Matsigenka school communities range in size from 100 to 250 individuals and consist of nuclear and extended family households averaging approximately 6 individuals per household. Houses are constructed entirely from local materials; they are built with heavy hardwood posts tied with bark, palm-wood walls, and a thatched palm-leaf roof. Houses were traditionally low, oval-shaped structures; today many have raised palm-wood floors and are larger and rectangular in shape. Houses are located at the edge of a river or a stream and are usually surrounded by a clearing with a small kitchen garden at the perimeter.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Matsigenka are slash-and-burn horticulturists; the main cultivated crops are manioc, maize, plantains, and pineapples. Garden activities produce about 90 percent of all calories, supplemented by hunting, fishing, and collecting, which provide the most highly prized foods. Most hunting is done with bows and arrows and traps. Individuals with shotguns are more successful and share their catch with local households to offset resentment. The most common game include monkeys, birds, peccaries, and tapir. Fishing is done with hooks and lines, nets, and barbasco poison; the latter is the most successfiil but requires communal effort in damming up waterways. Commercial activities have been almost nonexistent in traditional communities. Communities with schools typically try to develop commercial crops such as coffee, cacao, peanuts, and beans for sale, but as of the early 1980s these provided only a small proportion of household income. Money has only recently been introduced into the local economy.

Industrial Arts. The Matsigenka manufacture nearly everything they use except machetes and axes, and now aluminum pots and factory-made cloth. Men make houses, bows and arrows, and fiber twine for netting used in fishnets and carrying bags. Women primarily spin cotton and weave cloth, but also make mats for sleeping and sitting and plaited sifters and strainers used in food preparation.

Trade. Historically, trade with the Inca was important. Today Western goods such as machetes, axes, aluminum pots, and cloth are obtained through barter, by working for farmers in the major river valleys, or through the schoolteacher, who serves as a link with the commercial world.

Division of Labor. Women provide most child care, prepare nearly all the food, manufacture cotton cloth, and grow certain "women's crops," such as yams and cocayam (Xanthogoma nigra ). Men do all the hunting, most fishing, and the bulk of agricultural work, accounting for the vast majority of calories in the diet. Men and women occasionally work together in the garden or on foraging trips, complementing one another's tasks. Starting at age 5, children begin to acquire adult skills by accompanying the parent of their sex to work. The only other division of labor is on an individual basis, as people with particular skills such as hunting or bow manufacture share their products with others in exchange for material goods or prestige.

Land Tenure. Although land is not owned as such, territories are informally demarcated. Men announce in advance their intentions to clear gardens in specific locations; later, abandoned gardens revert to the public domain. Hamlets may remain in the same vicinity for several generations, although individuals frequently travel and visit to learn of prospects for resources or mates.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Matsigenka do not have named kin groups. At most, they have bilateral kindreds, in the form of hamlets of intermarrying families, but these hamlets frequently split for periods of time when nuclear-family households go off on their own. Newly married couples initially prefer matrilocal residence, so that a woman can be near her mother when her first child is born. Afterwards, residence is highly fluid and opportunistic. There are no descent rules determining access to group membership (no kin groups), territories, or ceremonial rights. Most material possessions are destroyed by burning upon an individual's death, so inneritance rarely arises as an issue. Kin relations are traced bilaterally through both parents.

Kinship Terminology. The Matsigenka kinship system is a straightforward Dravidian system with the cross/parallel ("lineal vs. affinal") distinction maintained in Ego's generation and those immediately preceding and following it. Opposite-sex cross cousins are defined as potential spouses.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Some marriages are arranged at an early age, although in communities with schools it is more common for girls to marry after puberty. Everyone on Ego's generation is either a sibling or a cross cousin, with prescriptive cross-cousin marriage. The system favors a pattern of two families intermarrying over time and living together in the same hamlet or vicinity. Demographics often falling short of this ideal, unmarried individuals of both sexes must visit other settlements seeking mates. Marriage is initiated when each partner addresses the prospective spouse's relatives as "in-laws" and the male assumes bride-service responsibilities.

Domestic Unit. The typical domestic unit is a nuclear family household in a 5-by-10 meter house, situated in a clearing either alone or near other households in a hamlet. In the small number of cases of polygyny, each wife has a separate hearth at her own end of the house, which is considered her living space. Co-wives are cordial but separate: they tend to manage their own food supplies, rear their own children, and control the distribution of the products of their own labor. Single relatives, including widowed elders, may live in the household as additional members, but not with their own hearth. Households of more than one married couple are temporary arrangements occasioned by death, divorce, or migration into a new area.

Inheritance. Generally, property is not inherited. Durable valuables, such as an axe or a mirror, may be passed on from mother to daughter or father to son.

Socialization. Infants are fed on demand and coddled and enjoyed. Discipline after 1 year of age is by verbal reprimand and the rarely enforced threat of corporal punishment. Weaning is between 3 and 4 years of age and is loudly protested by the child, but parents do not relent. After age 5, children gradually acquire adult, gender-appropriate behaviors. Scolding is common, but the process is gentle and gradual.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The nuclear-family household is the basic social unit. Each household is virtually self-sufficient, even when aggregated in hamlets of several related households. Wild foods, particularly game and fish, are shared generously within the hamlet, and cross-cousin marriages may tie the hamlet group together over the years, even when households take up separate residence for periods of time. Hamlet dwellers exchange visits, but larger groups are amorphous and unstructured.

Political Organization. The basic rule of political organization is household autonomy. There are no headmen or councils to set policy, and the Matsigenka are notorious for leaving an area when their autonomy is compromised. Traditionally, charismatic leaders and shamans did become centers of loose regional aggregates of households, brought together through beer feasts with meat sharing, singing, and dancing. Today, communities that have schools strive with limited success to overcome individualism. The government supplies a school curriculum that emphasizes Peruvian nationalism and political participation in the nation-state, and these communities register as Native Communities under Peruvian law. The Matsingenka have formed a multicommunity union and an elected council head to deal with oil exploration and other extractive industries moving into their territory.

Social Control. No overarching legal system exists to punish wrongdoing. Gossip and shaming are used to try to prevent serious breaches such as homicide or incest. Individuals who commit such crimes are punished by being ostracized or expelled from the Community. Early socialization and shaming are quite effective in teaching people to control aggressive impulses.

Conflict. Late in the twentieth century, conflict with outside groups is at a minimum. Conflicts within the household and hamlet occur occasionally, usually after drinking at a beer feast. Arguments take the form of verbal fights with limited physical contact. Fights usually result in one or more members leaving the community, either temporarily or for good.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. A Creator made the world by mounding up mud into land. He contended with a Trickster figure who created the bad things of this world, like biting flies. Many animals are the degenerated descendants of humans who violated norms in the past, for instance by theft or incest. Not all, but many features of the world are imbued with spirit. Animals have spirit rulers that must be appeased if one of their kind has been killed. Various demons, often with enlarged penises, haunt the forests and are especially dangerous to women, whom they can impregnate with a demon child. The alkaloid hallucinogen ayahuasca (kamarampi ; lit., "death medicine") is ingested to allow the spirit to fly to the land of the Unseen Ones, spirit helpers who can inhabit one's body and perform cures, divine the future, and give instruction. The soul also lives on after death and can reach a better layer of the cosmos if not eaten by dangerous spirits during its postmortem journey. The heroically good (and bad) figures who created the world are no longer active. Good and bad spirits continue to be present, especially away from inhabited areas. Some shamans practice sorcery to bring harm to others, but these are generally thought to reside far away in other communities.

Ceremonies. Ceremonial life is minimal. Curing and spiritual encounters are conducted by individuals in the privacy of their homes. Beer feasts are occasions for drunkenness, music and dance, and ribald humor blending into ridicule and humiliation, but they do not invoke spiritual forces. Calendrical festivals and ancestor worship are absent.

Arts. The Matsigenka are good singers; they sing in groups of up to four, with hypnotic repetitions and counterpoint. Drums, flutes, and panpipes are widely used. When drinking manioc beer, men drum in rapid 4/4 time and dance by darting and whirling around the clearing. Women dance by walking behind the men, holding hands, and singing. Men and women occasionally decorate their faces with achiote (annatto). In the most traditional areas, women still wear small silver nosepieces. Cotton cloth is usually decorated with small geometric designs in the weave. Sculpture, painting, and other plastic arts are lacking, as is pottery.

Medicine. A large number of herbal remedies are known, many of the most common from plants raised for that purpose in kitchen gardens. Shamans identify spiritual causes of illness and treat them by sucking magic darts or blowing smoke and by invoking the powers of friendly spirits.

Death and Afterlife. Death can occur through natural or supernatural causes. If the soul dies through attack by an evil spirit, the body will wither and die. In any case, the soul will linger in sorrow near the house of the deceased. The house must be burned down and the remainder of the family must move away so the soul will have no reason to linger and will begin its journey to the higher level of the cosmos, where people live just as they do here on earth but without suffering or death.


Baer, Gerhard (1984). Die Religion der Matsigenka Ost-Peru. Basel: Wepf & Co.

Johnson, Allen, and Orna R. Johnson (1987). Cross-Cultural Studies in Time Allocation. Vol. 1, Time Allocation among the Machiguenga of Shimaa. New Haven: Human Relations Area Files.

Johnson, Orna R. (1978). "Interpersonal Relations among the Machiguenga of the Peruvian Amazon." Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University.

Johnson, Orna R., and Allen Johnson (1975). "Male/Female Relations and the Organization of Work in a Machiguenga Community." American Ethnologist 2:634-648.

Renard-Casevitz, France-Marie (1991). Le banquet masqué: Une mythologie de l'étranger chez les indiens matsiguenga. Paris: Lierre & Coudrier.


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