The Amazon: Traditional Matsés
Updated: Dec 5, 2019
If you missed the previous Amazon segments, click these links:
Note: Contains nudity & sensitive photos
This included staying a few nights with a part of Armando’s family who, continue living in this way, including his mother Canë, his brother Roberto and his wife Tupa, and two other family members Bëso and Segundo.
When I mentioned in a previous post that the Matsés, in general, were quite shy, this part of the family were certainly an exception.
On arrival Roberto greeted us and it took me a few minutes to realize he was trying to be humorous by greeting me in a primitive way, as if he were trying to frighten me. I have to say it went over my head.
All of the elders have such a great sense of humor!
The rest of the family came out to greet me and immediately wanted me to take photos. We were then offered their traditional mashed banana juice and manioc as welcomed guests. My Matses name is Canshë.
They do live in a traditional ‘long house’ known as ‘maloca’ , however it isn’t as long as they were built in the past when the tribal communities lived together.
Based on my conversations with the family, it appears these family members are the remaining few living in this manner. Unlike the younger generations, these family members speak only Matses language with Roberto as the exception speaking a bit of Spanish.
Where elders live:
Inside maloca: as you can see it's VERY dark!
Now imagine how the conversations went when they only speak Matsés, my Spanish is limited, my guia’s English is limited!
Regardless, we were able to communicate somewhat and the warmth and hospitality shown were incredible.
They were just as curious of me as I was of them.
Simple things which we take for granted like flying in an airplane, living in cities with concrete buildings, automobiles, rush hour traffic, all sorts of electronic devices, etc., etc. are completely foreign to them.
Each day we got to experience a different activity in the course of their normal life. Here are a few examples:
Demonstrating plants for medicinal use:
Fishing with ‘Barbasco’, toxic plant:
There is a technique used to fish utilizing a plant. First, Roberto and Armando search for the plant, then they dig up the roots.
We then go further down river, hop out along the riverbank, trek a little inland to find a river or stream to fish. Roberto then beats the roots to release the toxins and places swishes the root in the water.
The ladies then bring up the mud on the river. The fish are shocked by the plant toxins and then the mud blurs their vision putting them in a dizzied, stunned state. The others are ready with net in hand to collect the fish as they float.
En-route to fish with barbasco, notice the ladies walk barefoot.
Fishing with barbasco. Notice Roberto putting toxins in water and the ladies kicking up the mud:
The ladies always keeping busy with making necessities
More wildlife for dinner:
Yes, we had monkey for dinner and Judy got to prepare and cook it for us. As many of you, non-vegetarians, have a ‘favorite’ part of your animal meat [e.g. chicken breast, thigh, etc.], Roberto’s favorite is the monkey brain.
Nunu Ceremony [nënë snuff]
Nunu ceremony: the ‘concoction’
Roberto and his brother Jorge demonstrated the nunu ceremony.
The powder substance ‘snuff’ is primarily made up on tobacco and cacao and other ingredients. The snuff gets blown into your nostrils, by another person, one at a time via a bamboo stick.
This is traditionally practiced by the men to gain courage and power for hunting. The side effects are bouts of nausea and vomiting.
I have to say that based on how it was described to me at the time, I did not brave to participate. Needless to say, it appears to have similarities to substances used in other parts of the world.
In order to prepare for this ceremony, poison from a tree frog is harvested by catching a particular tree frog, scraping the skin and removing the toxins.
It’s advised that this causes no harm or pain to the frogs and they are released; harming the frog would be a spiritual offense.
During ceremony, Segundo prepared the poisons and then he burns circles on your triceps; the number of burns is dependent on the person.
After a short while the skin is removed and the poison is placed on the raw, open skin.
You then feel an increased heart rate, your face turns beet red, and you experience vomiting [a cleansing].
You then rest [for a couple of hours] and once awake you are meant to be filled courage, stamina and strength.
In this instance I did brave it and participated, only after I could see the effects on those that partook in it. I’m not so sure about the energy, stamina and courage bit, but certainly the vomiting felt flu like.
This video demonstrates the application. Notice you’ll hear Roberto or Marden in the background who have already had the sapo applied.
Click here for more information on the frog ceremony.
First and unlike many other cultures, the Matsés were incredibly open about taking photos of them and their everyday lives, many times encouraging it.
I believe they actually want to preserve as much as possible and have gotten used to a few outsiders coming in to document their way of living. I’ve actually come across quite a few pictures of these same elders on other documentary websites.
Throughout the expedition, I would intentionally take photos of the family members with the intent of sending these back to Armando and the community so they have photos of themselves. I didn’t see many around and Armando had only one photo of himself and his father when Armando was about ten years old. I understood the photo to have been taken in the early 1970’s.
So before leaving the home of Armando’s mother and brother, we arranged to take family photos.
Now, in my head, I’m thinking ‘OK, let’s go outside and take photos now’.
I couldn't understand why it was taking so long to get everyone to gather round, what is everyone doing?
It was quite hilarious as they poised very seriously when taking photos and will not naturally smile as we may. I quite enjoyed the few times I was able to crack a joke to get a smile out of them.
As I mentioned it is easy to see the many changes that are taking place within the Matsés tribal communities.
How long will the ‘traditions’ continue to carry on down the generations?
Armando & Wagner seem committed to ensuring knowledge of their traditions are passed down and not lost or forgotten and they should be commended for this.
See more photos and videos below.
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