The prehistory of Arawakan Indians is hotly debated; their homeland has been identified variously as the Orinoco Basin and as the area between the Ucayali and Madre de Dios rivers. According to one theory, the original Arawakan speakers lived near the present city of Manaus about 3000 B . C . and moved up the Amazon River and, ultimately, up the Juruá and Purus rivers under pressure from the TupíGuaraní groups moving up the Amazon from the east. In the absence of archaeological research, little can be said of the prehistory specifically of the Culina.
The Culina were already in the Purus-Juruá region by the early nineteenth century and are mentioned as being there by the explorer Castelnau and by the naturalist Bates in the 1850s. During this period the Culina lived in the forest and avoided the rivers; Chandless did not meet any Culina during his ascent of the Purus in the 1860s, but reported that they were feared by the local riverine groups. Culina ethnohistory includes references to a recent past in the deep forest, without canoes; elderly Culina still remember these villages from the early part of the twentieth century. It appears that the Culina first avoided contact with rubber tappers who entered the region in the late nineteenth century but ultimately were attracted to the major riverways by the availability of sugar, metal tools, guns, and other Brazilian manufactured goods.
By the early decades of the twentieth century the priest and linguist Constant Tastevin had found some Culina working for rubber tappers, performing the harder manual labor around rubber-tapping camps, and hunting game for the rubber tappers. This contact with Brazilians proved dramatically destructive for the Culina, who were subjected to virtual slavery, torture, and murder. In common with other indigenous Amazonian peoples, the Culina also suffered severely from infectious diseases brought by non-Indians; as early as 1877 a measles epidemic decimated a large group of Culina on the Rio Juruá, and a similar epidemic struck as late as 1950, killing most of the young children and older Culina in the village of Cupichaua on the upper Purus.
The Culina have continued to work for rubber tappers and farmers along the rivers, although several groups have resisted extensive contact with non-Culina. Among the former, and in particular among groups living along the Juruá and Envira rivers, there is considerable contact with Brazilians and partial reliance on the local Brazilian economy. At the frontiers of Culina expansion, for example on the upper Purus, there is but occasional contact with non-Indians. In such areas missionaries are the primary Culina contacts with non-Indians: the Summer Institute of Linguistics (a Protestant group) has been active in the Peruvian village called San Bernardo, and the Brazilian Catholic mission, the Conselho Indigenista Missionário, has been active on the Brazilian Purus, Envira, and Juruá rivers. The Culina are struggling to have their territories demarcated officially as indigenous areas ( areas indígenas ) to guarantee their exclusive access to and use of these lands. The large area comprising the villages along the upper Rio Purus has already been established as the Area Indígena Alto Purus, and other territories are in the process of being demarcated.