Matsigenga Indians

The Machiguenga Tribe:

A Farewell to Eden

Article by Ling Raj                   Photographs by Chuck Clark

Machigenga Weaver with traditional loom


he Machiguenga (also known as the Machigenga, Matsiguenka, Matsigenka or Matsigenga) language belongs to the Campa group of Arawakan (Maipurean) language family.  At one time, the Arawakan group of languages was spoken widely across the Americas. In fact, the first native Americans that Christopher Columbus encountered spoke Taino, an Arawakan language from the Caribbean.  Currently in the Peruvian Amazon, approximately 12,000 people speak the various Machiguenga dialects. There are two main dialects of Machiguenga, Machiguenga proper and Nomatsigenga.  Other languages in the Campa linguistic group include Asháninka and Caquinte, which are distinctly different languages from Machiguenga.

Campa in the Amazon Rainforest, Year 1966The Machiguenga are indigenous to the jungles of Southeastern Peru and the border region of Peru with Bolivia and Brazil. Along with much of South America, their culture was severely put under strain by the arrival of the Europeans.  The Inca Empire was located immediately to the west of the Machiguengas and when the nearby Incas were defeated by the Spanish, some of the refugees fled to the jungles inhabited by the Machiguengas and other Campas and most probably became assimilated into these Amazonian cultures. Until the 1960's, most of the Machiguenga lived isolated from Westerners due to their remote locations.  This changed when the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) began flying in American missionaries with small aircraft in the 1960's.  However, due to the impenetrable Amazon rainforest, some small groups of uncontacted Machiguengas have survived to this day and remain living in voluntary isolation from Western civilization.  Recently loggers and miners have been clearing new roads to infiltrate into the Amazon Rainforest inhabited by these uncontacted groups of Machiguengas, putting their survival in jeopardy.   
Machigenga Matriarch wearing a "cushma" tunic  in the village of Quempiri Traditionally, the Machiguenga believe in the divinity and sacredness of the nature around them. They believe the forest is there to nurture them, its plants, herbs, animals and fish, and that the earth is working in harmony to sustain everything in the world. Their shamans are able to heal their people by harnessing the qualities of local herbs, plants and minerals which they use to manipulate animal spirits.  Chief among their animistic practices is the use of the plant ayahuasca to manipulate and control powerful jaguar spirits.  Beyond the animistic beliefs of the Machiguenga, their herbal lore is a vast untapped resource that could help the world discover new cures and medicines.  Since the 1960's, missionaries have moved into jungle outposts close to the tribes. In many ways, the lives of the Machiguengas have been totally transformed and turned up-side down.  Some anthropologists believe that new religion, new diseases, new value system, new ethics and new morality mean that the old ways are dying rapidly.  Critics say that these indigenous Amazonians are no longer allowed to feel proud of their history, ancestry or culture. Other anthropologists point out that indigenous cultures are adaptable and are capable of adapting to a modern world, provided that core cultural values and their native language remain intact. 
Physically, the Machiguenga people resemble other indigenous Amazonians and tend to be short, strong and slim with broad, pleasant facial features. They have little or no body hair and very little facial hair. Typically, the hair on the head is dark black, coarse and very straight.  Generally, eye color is black or dark brown. 
Traditionally, the Machiguenga used to roam the Amazon Rainforest wearing little more than beads (seeds and bones) and belts made of plant material.  In addition, they painted their bodies with colors obtained from plants, minerals and charcoal. Tattoos, (both facial and body tattoos) are popular amongst men and women. More recently, the Machiguenga have begun wearing "cushmas" which are tunics woven from cotton.  The Machiguenga traditionally cultivate cotton and weave its fibers using a loom almost identical to the looms used in the Andes by Quechua people. However, the Quechuans use wool or alpaca fibers, while the Machiguenga always use cotton fibers. 
Like most indigenous Amazonians, the Machiguenga are traditionally nomadic, migrating from forest to forest on a seasonal basis.  Once they exhausted the resources of a given area, they would move on in search of new resources.  Some anthropologists classify the Machiguenga as hunter-gatherers who cultivate small swidden plots to complement their meat intake. Their regular diet consisted of local rodents (for example, "majas," Cuniculus paca), fish and cassava (Manihot esculenta).  However, other anthropologists classify the Machiguenga as a civilized agrarian society in that they have many characteristics that only advanced civilizations exhibit such as weaving textiles, cultivating numerous food and fiber crops, and making ceramics.  Interestingly, a scientist studying the Machiguenga tribe (E. Montgomery, "Towards representative energy data: the Machiguenga study.") discovered that the Machiguenga, due to their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, expend 33% more calories than the normal American and that chronic physical diseases such as diabetes and obesity did not exist in their Amazonian culture. 

As to their traditional family structure, the Machiguengas are often polygamous with one man having several wives.  However, some anthropologists have described the Machiguenga tribe as matriarchal with the woman dominating the family.  The preferred marriage partner is a cross-cousin (i.e., the child of a maternal uncle, or the child of paternal aunt).  Newly married couples prefer to live in the wife's home, so that the wife can receive the support of her mother when she gives birth to her first child. 

Machiguenga Indians SmilingRecently, the Machiguenga were the victims of a misguided television producer (Matt Currington) and "fixer" (Deborah McLauchlan) who apparently caused a disease epidemic among the Machiguenga tribe that killed eight people, including three children.  In their zeal to film "uncontacted Indians,"   Currington and Mc Lauchlan entered a restricted area in Manu National Park in Peru that is home to a small group of Machiguenga Indians in the early stages of making initial contact with the outside world.  Passing themselves off as "Discovery Channel producers," Currington and McLauchlan were really employed by Cicada Productions from the United Kingdom, the actual producers of the television series, "World’s Lost Tribes: Mark and Olly Living with the Machigenga."  The star of this series, Mark Anstice chose to bring his  "World’s Lost Tribes" television series to Peru after contacting the editor of the website and the founder of the Movement in the Amazon for Tribal Subsistence and Economic Sustainability (MATSES), Dr. Dan James Pantone.  Anstice claimed to be interested in helping the indigenous people of Peru and discussed funding a vaccination program with Dr. Pantone, but the results of the events that Anstice put into place speak much differently, resulting in the deaths of indigenous Peruvians rather than their receiving benefits.  Although Currington and Cicada Productions were blacklisted by the Peruvian government, Currington was not fired from his position nor punished for the tragedy that he apparently caused.  Incredibly, Currington continues to work for Cicada producing television documentaries on indigenous people as if nothing had happened.  For an in depth assessment of the tragedy caused by Currington and Mc Lauchlan, please refer to the report ("An epidemic outbreak among the Matsiguenka in initial contact") prepared for the Association of Social Anthropologists by doctoral candidate, Daniel Rodriguez.               

Despite abuses by outsiders such as Currington and Mc Lauchlan, the Machiguengas are renown for being non-violent and for their warm reception of visitors.  This is in contrast to some of the other Amazonian tribes that live further downriver from the Machiguengas in the lowland Amazon Rainforest.  Surprisingly, the Machiguengas are relatively easily accessible from the Machu Picchu area, living just downriver in the Upper and Middle Urubamba River areas.  However, few organized tours to the Machiguengas are available and visitors must make arrangements on their own.  If you would like to learn how you can meet the Machiguenga Indians in person, please contact

The author, Ling Raj, is a British citizen of Indian descent who is presently investigating the cultural similarities between Asian Indian and Amazonian Indian ethnicities. The photographer, Chuck Clark, is an American from Victor, Colorado.  During the 1960's the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) was active in the Peruvian Amazon contacting indigenous Amazonians that were previously living in isolation from Western cultures.  Although he was not a missionary, Clark worked as a photographer for SIL at that time and recorded this historic period by photographing the "first contact" of these indigenous people of the Amazon. 


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Photographs © Chuck Clark. Article © 2011, all rights reserved, Machiguenga Tribe