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.
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.
Matsés 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.
The 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
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.
Currently, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information and to see more photos of my journey to the Río Gálvez, please visit http://www.amazon-indians.org/matses. 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, www.caaap.org.pe). For information on the ecology of the Yavarí Valley, please read Rapid Biological Inventories: 11, Peru:Yavarí, published by the Field Museum (www.fieldmuseum.org) in November, 2003.
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
email@example.com. Additionally, if you are interested in
authentic Matsés handicrafts, please contact
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