Ancestral Transmission

part 1

Introducing the Matsés, sustainable art and their medicinal plant knowledge.

 

 

 

 

 

photography by tui anandi & Mike van kruchten

 
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Introduction

 

The Matsés live in the Javari valley, some of the most remote rainforest in the world on the Peruvian / Brazilian frontier.

 

In this exclusive 3 part report we showcase Matsés culture like never before, sharing intimate photography and knowledge from our expedition to their lands in May 2018.

We (Xapiri) have been developing sustainable fair-trade with the Matsés for the past 2 years, working with their traditional arts. This project is facilitated by the brilliant team at the NGO ‘Acaté Amazon Conservation’ (Acaté). Acaté is an on-the-ground conservation organization founded in 2012 that works directly through projects developed and led by the Matsés to help maintain their self-sufficiency and cultural survival as they adapt to the outside world. The Matsés protect and safeguard through their traditional territory a vast expanse of rainforest, as well as shield some of the last remaining uncontacted tribes in the world from unwanted outside encroachment that will bring devastation and disease. 

For this first of its kind expedition, we spent 1 month on the Peruvian side of the vast Matsés territory, travelling days from village to village by dugout canoe. Our mission was to visit and develop relationships with the many Matsés artisans we are working with while also documenting the processes behind the art. The long-term aim of our work is to ensure that the ancestral artistic practices are maintained and transmitted to the younger Matsés generations throughout their territory.

The first week we joined the Acaté team as they met with the communities in some of the villages who are participating in the ‘Healing Forests’ project which we highlight later in this report. In the next two reports we will be delving deeper into Matsés culture, showing glimpses into their hunting origins, tobacco usage, artefact making, their GPS mapping project and much more. Join us as we document Matsés ancestral knowledge as rarely seen before.

The Matsés are often referred to in the popular literature as the 'Jaguar People' under the misconception that the palm leaflet veins that women insert in piercings in their nostril flares are meant to represent feline whiskers. Upon being interviewed, however, the Matsés reject the assumption that their facial ornaments are meant to imitate the jaguar, and assert that these ornaments and their facial tattoos are just markers that identify them as belonging to the Matsés ethnic group.

 
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 Tattoos were made by pricking the skin with a palm thorn, using a mixture of genipap fruit juice and copal soot. They burn a chunk of copal resin, collecting the soot from the smoke in an overturned clay pot, from which they scrape off the soot that collects inside the pot, they then they mix the soot with the genipap fruit juice creating the the dark coloured tattoo pigment. There are still many tattooed Matsés today but now the tattoos are seen only on the elders as this practice was stopped shortly after contact with the missionaries sometime in the 1970’s.

Tattoos were made by pricking the skin with a palm thorn, using a mixture of genipap fruit juice and copal soot. They burn a chunk of copal resin, collecting the soot from the smoke in an overturned clay pot, from which they scrape off the soot that collects inside the pot, they then they mix the soot with the genipap fruit juice creating the the dark coloured tattoo pigment. There are still many tattooed Matsés today but now the tattoos are seen only on the elders as this practice was stopped shortly after contact with the missionaries sometime in the 1970’s.

Their peaceful and permanent contact with the outside world was in 1969 after years of intermittent hostile contact when the Matsés were notoriously portayed as fierce warriors and for raiding nearby indigenous and non-indigenous villages with a motive of capturing women to take as wives. 

The Matsés have an approximate population of 2200 people on the Peruvian side, covering over 1 million hectares. Across the river into Brazil they number a further 1300, part of their territory lies within the Valle do Javari Indigenous Reserve, which protects the largest number of uncontacted groups in isolation remaining in the world. In Brazil, they are often called the Mayoruna, all speaking the Matsés language which is part of the Pano linguistic family.

The Matsés inhabit the very heart of the Amazon Rainforest, an area of staggering natural beauty and almost inconceivable biodiversity, but a land deeply troubled and beset with threats from logging and multinational petroleum companies. It is one of the last frontiers.

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Village Life

The Matsés traditionally live in large communal homes or malocas that are hexagonal in shape with a rectangular body formed by two longer opposite sides. The thatch roof covers the entire structure aside from two openings about 1.25 metres in height. These 'doorways' are located at the front and rear of the maloca at opposite ends of a central corridor that divides the house into two parts. In 1976, the largest malocas observed in Peru were up to 35 metres in length and 10 metres in height, sheltering 100 people. 

Today, the vast majority of contemporary Matsés houses have been built in the regional non-indigenous mestizo style, large and cool stilted homes made from fattened palm slats and roofed with palm leaves. The Matsés never build their houses in floodable areas, so the stilts do not serve the purpose of water protection for them. This house style was developed as they copied the structure from mestizos who dwell in the floodplain, The attraction for the Matsés is that this house style allows them to not have a dirt floor.

Before contact with the outside world 50 years ago, all Matsés lived in the traditional malocas, today the mestizo style home is the norm. To construct a maloca only the remaining elders have the knowledge to do so, showing how this once fundamental ancestral art is on the verge of being forgotten.

 Traditional maloca to the left and the contemporary mestizo inspired housing to the right.

Traditional maloca to the left and the contemporary mestizo inspired housing to the right.

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The Chakra

Matsés slash and burn gardens known as ‘chakras’ are normally located a short walk or boat ride outside of the village. A wide variety of crops grow in their gardens, including staples such as plantain and manioc. Most days Matsés women and their children will visit their gardens and collect food for the family. The mothers as they also learnt, teaching their daughters and passing on these agricultural methods for the next generation - ancestral transmission in action.

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Subsistence

The Matsés diet is simple, plantain, corn and manioc supplemented with forest fruits, fishing and hunting. In our second report we will look deeper into Matsés hunting traditions but first we will look at the processes behind the main Matsés drinks; chapo (plantain) and chicha (corn).

 Plantains being carried back to the village from the chakra.

Plantains being carried back to the village from the chakra.

 A typical Matsés kitchen - an open fireplace grilling plantain and manioc.

A typical Matsés kitchen - an open fireplace grilling plantain and manioc.

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Chapo & Chicha

Chapo is drank on a daily basis in the villages, as relatives and friends visit each other's houses chapo will often be offered - be it morning or night the drink plays a central role in Matsés culture. Made by boiling plantains the watery mixture is strained to leave a delicious sweet drink which can be consumed both hot and cold. 

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Chicha

Well known throughout South America, chicha is a fermented or non-fermented drink made from different grains, maize and fruits. Different ethnics have their own way and style of making chicha, the Matsés use dried corn and plantain in their recipe.

 Girls carrying corn through the jungle on route back to the village.

Girls carrying corn through the jungle on route back to the village.

 

the process

Corn which has been dried above the fireplace is separated into a wooden trough where it is crushed with a heavy wooden utensil in a laborious rocking motion. After working the corn the plantain is added and more work pulverises the ingredients together.

Water is added and the mixture is then squeezed and strained through a woven strainer. The liquid collected under the strainer is the chicha, this process is repeated numerous times, the corn mixture is crushed again then put into the chicha water and strained again. Finally the creamy liquid is boiled over the fire before it is ready to be served.

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Healing Forests

Biodiversity in the Amazon rainforest in unrivalled and with over 150,000 plant species calling the jungle home there are still many secrets left unturned.

Over the past few years, 1 hectare plots of ‘Healing Forests’ have been planted and maintained by 10 different Matsés villages. These Healing Forests can contain 100’s of species, the aim is so safeguard all of the Matsés ancestral medicinal knowledge and ensure there is a method for this knowledge to be passed down to the younger generations.

The Healing Forests are a continuation of 5 years of work between Acaté and the Matsés where they famously produced the first of its kind medicinal plant encyclopedia. This now 1000 page volume was groundbreaking work compiled by various Matsés elders and younger apprentices who have now continued this work into the Healing Forests. The encyclopedia is now finished and under Matsés ownership, meaning all future generations will have access and control to this important archive.

The Matsés elders can know 1000’s of species due to their proximity and understanding of the rainforest, having learned from their fathers as their fathers did with theirs.

 On route to the medicinal garden and Healing Forest of San Mateo, a short boat ride outside the village.

On route to the medicinal garden and Healing Forest of San Mateo, a short boat ride outside the village.

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Adaptive matses agroforestry

'Healing Forest medicinal plant gardens are based on adaptive Matsés agroforestry. Many of the medicinal vines and fungi that the Matsés use for healing will not grow in sun-exposed gardens outside their homes and require rainforest ecosystems for their propagation. Successfully transplanting and establishing rainforest plants in situ requires a master understanding of these complex ecosystems.

To an outsider, a Healing Forest forest might look like an unremarkable stretch of rainforest along a footpath to their farms, about a 10 to 15 minute walk away from their village. In the presence of a master Matsés shaman pointing out the medicinal plants, you realize in a moment that you are, in fact, surrounded by a constellation of medicinal plants cultivated by the Matsés healers for use in the treatment of a diverse range of ailments. The placement of the healing forest 10 to 15 minutes away from their villages is characteristic Matsés efficiency. If you have a sick child, you don’t want to have to travel 4 hours to find the remedy.
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Dr. Christopher Herndon, President and Co-Founder of Acaté Amazon Conservation

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 A young Matsés boy joins his family in the healing forests, the learning starts young!

A young Matsés boy joins his family in the healing forests, the learning starts young!

 

a matsés concept

The idea for the healing forests is not an outside concept, it is elaborated from similar traditional Matsés practices from when they first became settled after initial contact with the outside world in the 1970’s. 

 

‘Before we were semi-nomadic so we would just go into the forest to collect plants. In the 80’s we began to stay in one village so my father started to manage a garden where the plants were all put together. Now this idea is being done with other villages, with apprentices learning the plant knowledge, this is great as now all the plants are in one place and being learnt.'

Antonio Manquid, Matsés Elder

 Matsés elder and master shaman, Antonio, demonstrating the different uses of the medicinal plants to his apprentices - the ancestral transmission he learnt from his father is now continuing.

Matsés elder and master shaman, Antonio, demonstrating the different uses of the medicinal plants to his apprentices - the ancestral transmission he learnt from his father is now continuing.

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Antonio is now passing on his father's knowledge and is an influential teacher to the younger Matsés in the healing forest project. Antonio offers his advice to many Matsés apprentices who are interesting in learning the traditional medicinal knowledge not only in his village but in neighbouring communities too.

 

'Before Acaté’s initiatives, none of the remaining elder Matsés shamans had apprentices to pass on their ancestral knowledge of the rainforest accumulated over uncounted generations. Their entire ancestral healing knowledge was inarguably on the precipice of being lost forever. Now five years later, the Matsés have created the historic first indigenous medicinal encyclopedia to worldwide acclaim, completed a second volume last year, and have now restored Healing Forests in over half of their villages.

We are seeing young Matsés men and women, who constantly face racism and discrimination in their interactions with the outside world, emerge as leaders with a renewed pride in their culture and determination to carry on the proud legacy of their people.'
Dr. Christopher Herndon, President and Co-Founder of Acaté Amazon Conservation

 

Donate

If you would like to support future apprentices and ensure that this medicinal knowledge continues in more Matsés villages, please donate to Acaté Amazon Conservation via their webpage.

 
 
 
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Uitsun

It was during a village meeting in 2016 when a Matsés woman, Carmen Rodriguez Lopez, stood up to address the assembled chiefs from all their villages in Peru. She pointed out that the economic program has centered so far on activities done by men, but that women, too, have valuable skills and want to contribute to develop generating economic opportunities for their families. She held up a fistful of beautiful woven friendship bracelets, so called ‘uitsun’ by the Matsés. 

 Carmen Rodriguez Lopez

Carmen Rodriguez Lopez

The Acaté team then contacted ourselves at Xapiri with an ambitious goal to not only develop a sustainable and economically viable handicraft project led by the Matsés, but one that involves and engages all the Matsés communities as participants.

Shortly after, the first sample of 10 cotton uitsuns arrived at Xapiri, now 2 years on our latest purchase was for 400 uitsuns, involving 10 different Matsés communities and around 50 female artisans, generating sustainable income and ensuring the craft is being passed on to younger girls.

 

'We have witnessed many conservation organizations in the Amazon launch well-meaning handicraft projects in partnership with indigenous groups. Unfortunately, most fall short of reaching true economically viability in the real world market past the supported investment and development stage. 

Handicraft initiatives with other indigenous groups living remote areas of the Amazon typically source from only a small handful of individual artisans located in the most geographically accessible villages. Although marketing for such projects may claim that the purchase of handicrafts benefits an entire tribe, in actuality the benefits in this setting are focal and may not extend to families in communities deep in the heart of their territories where economic opportunities are even more scarce. The Matsés are a remarkably egalitarian people. At our community meetings, the Matsés reiterate that it is important to them that projects involve as many members of their community as possible so that the benefits can be as inclusive and be widely shared.

Since the first order of uitsun bracelets from the Matsés, the order has expanded across over 10 communities and involved dozens of Matsés artisans. The project has brought renewed interest and economic opportunities from the Matsés and over the past two years has expanded to many handicrafts including chonta wood spears crafted by Matsés elders and warriors to beautiful ceramics created by the last remaining artisans who hold knowledge of the art.'

Dr. Christopher Herndon, President and Co-Founder of Acaté Amazon Conservation

 

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uitsun tradition

Uitsuns are specific to the Matsés, taking over a day to construct, they are woven from natural home spun tree cotton or chambira palm fibre on a rustic loom. In Matsés culture, these woven ornaments are tied on the wrist or ankle. A sister puts on her little brothers ankle ornament by slipping the knotted ends through little loops. As she grows, a girl will weave for her brother, her husband and then for her children, just as the boy will grow to ask for ornaments from his mother, his sister, and eventually his wife.

Although these bracelets are still worn as accoutrements of daily wear, the knowledge of their craft is not being passed down and learned by the younger Matsés women. This is why the initiative was created to provide Matsés women the opportunity to earn income on their own while preserving their inherited traditions.

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Cotton

Uitsuns are made from either cotton or chambira fibre and then natural pigments are added for a variety of colours. Cotton plants and chambira palms are abundant around Matsés villages. For cotton, the buds are collected from nearby plants until a substantial amount is gathered ready to be spun. 

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Spin

The cotton buds are then cleaned and flattened before they are spun into a tight ball of string. This string will then be worked on to the loom as the uitsun weaving begins. 

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Chambira

The second material which the Matsés use to make their uitsuns is chambira palm fibre. To prepare the fibre the leaves are pulled down from the spikes palm and sufficient material is collected. The leaves are then stripped, taking the toughest part. Microscopically thin fibers with impressively high tensile strength are peeled away from the surface of leaflets of new unopened fronds (new unopened fronds are also called 'spear leaves') of chambira palms.

Chambira palms (Latin name: Astrocaryum chambira) grow wild in the forest.  Some mestizos plant them, because they can become scarce in the wild due to overexploitation, since the only way to get at the new frond of adult palms is to cut the whole tree down (they can be harvested from short ones without hurting the palm). The Matses never plant them, but Acaté is planning to do a reforestation project that planting useful species including chambira. Meanwhile, the cotton is planted by the Matses and does not grow wild, at least not in lowland Amazonia.

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 Collecting the chambira.

Collecting the chambira.

 Bundled chambira leaves.

Bundled chambira leaves.

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blood red

Chambira fibre is often dyed with natural pigments. One red pigment which is used frequently is found using the bark of the ‘bëpushudte’ or in Spanish the 'loro caspi' tree. This tree is found in the nearby forest and the Matsés take a thin layer of the white bark before cutting into smaller pieces. Once cut, the bark is taken home and with time the bark releases its dark red juice. Once the chambira has been sun dried it is then added to a bowl of the red bark, soaking for a few hours before the fibre has taken on it's colour. This pigment is more commonly used than the Amazonian favourite annatto as the dye is stronger and lasts longer.

Once dried in the sun the chambira fibre is twisted into a thin but extremely durable twine of different thickness, now ready to weave uitsuns, hammocks and other artefacts.

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Support

What better way to support indigenous culture than by buying a uitsun, fair-trade in its most valuable form.

Uitsun

 

Support Matsés artists by buying here.

For other art enquiries, please email us here.

 

stay tuned

Thank you for reading and getting immersed in Matsés culture!

We are proud of our work alongside the Matsés and Acaté, seeing long-term and sustainable models with the projects working successfully - by working together and with the support from you, this ancestral memory will live and the Matsés will continue to protect their vast territory in this remote and pristine corner of the Amazon rainforest.

Shortly we will publish our second Matsés report where we will explore more ancestral transmission in its different forms, from hunting origins and traditions, ancestral GPS mapping, more art and much more.

Please stay connected at our website and social media channels.

 

xapiri.com

 

 

Thank you to Acaté Amazon Conservation; Christopher Herndon, William Park and David Fleck for making this happen and being part of a memorable expedition. For all the Matsés who warmly welcomed us and to Segundo Shabac Reyna and Felipe Ëpë Bai Una for navigating the rivers and keeping it all together.