Matses Indians




Matses Tribe


aradise.  That is the word I use to describe the reserve on the Río Gálvez where the Matsés Indians live.  The virgin rainforest, abundant wildlife, friendly natives, and absence of mosquitoes make for a wonderful experience.  After traveling in the Amazon for years, I discovered a magical place that few outsiders ever see.

Matses Natives - CeibaThe Río Gálvez is much different than the Río Amazonas and its water is referred to by the locals as agua  negra (black water) because of its dark appearance as viewed from the surface. The dark color comes from tannins leached from tree bark; tannins tend to purify the water by killing bacteria and mosquito larvae. Indeed, I never saw a single mosquito during my entire visit and locals told me that malaria is not a problem there. Natives drink the water from the Río Gálvez without purifying it with no apparent adverse health effects. The mighty Río Amazonas in contrast contains a lot of sediment from the Andes Mountains, giving it a lighter color, and creates a much less healthy environment.  Along the meandering Río Gálvez magnificent ceiba trees (Ceiba pentandra, one of the largest trees in the Amazon) provide shade and together with other tree species forms the characteristic three-level canopy of virgin rainforest (see photo at left). 


The Matsés Indians (who are also commonly called Mayorunas in Brazil) are often affectionately referred to as the "cat people" due to the characteristic "whiskers" that women place in their noses.  Presently, there are about 2200 Matsés living in the Yavarí Valley of Peru and Brazil, with the majority residing in Peru.  The Matsés speak a language of the Panoan linguistic family that is closely aligned with the dialects that the Matis and Korubo Indians speak.  Indeed, I discovered that the Matsés share many aspects of their culture with the Matis Indians, including medicinal plant use.  To my surprise I met some Matsés who know how to prepare neste or dauë (a medicinal bath for children) and bëcchëte (an eyewash for improving visual acuity) similar to the Matis Indians of Brazil.  


Matses Indian WomanMatsés Indian facial ornamentation is very different from the Matis in that their facial tattoos consist of accentuated lines that surround the mouth and extend along the cheeks to the base of the ears.  Women wear ornaments made from the ribs of palm leaves in their noses to represent the whiskers of cats. In addition, sticks made from the shoot of caña brava are sometimes placed in a perforation of the skin below the lower lip of women.  Formerly, men had perforations in their upper lips in which they placed spines from the ungurahui palm (Oenocarpus bataua). Commonly, a bright red dye (achiote), obtained from the seeds of the annatto tree (Bixa orellana) is applied to the face and body. 


The Matsés also use achiote to decorate circular headbands made from palm leaves.  The geometric patterns painted on the headbands represent the symbolic clans of Matsés society (e.g. the jaguar, worm, or peccary).  Normally, only men wear headbands.  Formerly, men used palm leaf belts.  They used them across the hips and sometimes across the chest or stomach.  The hip belt was used to hold up the penis which at one time was typical of all indigenous tribes in the Amazon.  Currently, very few Matsés men support themselves in this manner. 


Matses IndiansThe pelejo (two-toed sloth, Choloepus cf. hoffmann, illustrated below) is a common pet in Matsés homes.  It is also frequently hunted and eaten.  The pelejo plays an important role in the ceremony of the singers (comoc).  Comoc is a ceremony in which singers are covered from head to toe with capes.  The caped singers are said to be spirits and they provide game for the women, especially pelejo.  A variation of this ceremony involves punishing men who have abused their wives.  Interestingly, the ceremony of comoc shares many characteristics with  mariwin  which is practiced by the Matis Indians of Brazil. 


Another ritual practiced by the Matsés involves the application of a frog emetic.  To the Matsés, this frog emetic is not poison, rather it is a medicine.  Indigenous medicines often function by cleansing the system Two-toed sloththrough vomiting.  The exudate ("sweat") is scraped off the skin of a poisonous tree frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor, illustrated below).  The frog is not injured and is released afterwards.  Points are burned on the arms or chest and the frog poison is applied, resulting in a rapid heartbeat, extreme lethargy, and vomiting.  After resting, the recipient of the frog poison is ready to go hunting.  Indeed, the Matsés often refer to this remedy as "hunting magic" and believe it enhances the user's hunting ability. 

While many other Amazonian tribes use blowguns to hunt, the Matsés are specialists in the use of bows and arrows.  Formerly, they were used for war, but presently are only used for hunting game.  Arrows measure about two meters in length and very complex workmanship is involved in their manufacture.  The arrow shaft is constructed from a cane that they cultivate in their gardens.  After drying, the cane shafts are decorated with cotton string and a special golden Phyllomedusa bicolorcolored grass.  The fletching commonly consists of paujil (curassow, Mitu tuberosa) feathers, but eagle, condor, vulture, and macaw feathers are also used.  The feather is split in two, trimmed and attached to the shaft with a resin and beeswax mixture.  Then the feather is sewn to the shaft with fine thread obtained from the trunk of plantain trees.  In order to insure that the trajectory of the arrow is straight, the Matsés attach the feathers with a slight spiral, a feature that is lacking in the arrow construction of most other Amazonian tribes.  Arrow points are made from a wild bamboo and attached to the main arrow shaft with another short shaft of wood.  Therefore, the arrow actually consists of three pieces:  the main cane shaft, the bamboo arrow point, and the connecting wooden shaft.  A mixture of resin and beeswax is used to attach the three pieces which are also tied with cotton thread and decorated with red achiote dye.  To keep the arrows sharp, a paca (Agouti paca) tooth sharpener mounted on a peach palm (Bactris gasipaes) shaft is always carried by the hunter while in the rainforest.  Matsés arrows are incredible works of art and craftsmanship.


Matses - Bow and ArrowCurrently, it is impossible to meet the Matsés using commercial tourist guides who due to their past indiscretions are prohibited from entering the reserve.  Only the Matsés Indians may act as guides, thus preventing the exploitation of the Matsés communities by outsiders.  If you would like to receive more information and materials (books, maps, and articles) on the Matsés, please contact me at


For more information and to see more photos of my journey to the Río Gálvez, please visit An excellent reference is the book, Matsesën Nampid Chuibanaid, La Vida Tradicional de los Matsés (The Traditional Life of the Matsés) in Matsés, Spanish and English, published in July, 2004 by the CAAAP (Centro Amazónico de Antropología y Aplicación Práctica,  For information on the ecology of the Yavarí Valley, please read Rapid Biological Inventories: 11, Peru:Yavarí, published by the Field Museum ( in November, 2003. 


Matses Indians ArrowsExtraordinary videos of the Matis Indians (who are closely related to the Matsés) are available.  If you would like to learn how you can meet the Matis Indians and find out how you can help them preserve their culture, please contact  Additionally, if you are interested in authentic Matsés handicrafts, please contact

The author, Dr. Dan James Pantone, is the editor of Amazon-Indians and the founder of the Movement in the Amazon for Tribal Subsistence and Economic Sustainability (MATSES), a nonprofit association that is helping indigenous people so that they themselves can preserve their culture and lands in a sustainable and independent manner.


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