The Matsigenka have inhabited their present territory since long before the Spanish Conquest. It may be called a "refuge zone," in the sense of being a niche in a somewhat less favorable environment than surrounding ones, where they have sought to live peaceably and to be left alone. The Matsigenka were surrounded to the north, east, and south by Arawakan and Panoan groups, among whom warfare was endemic. Evidence of Panoan pottery in the Arawakan zone indicates the groups traded with one another. At least as early as the mid-nineteenth century, the Matsigenka were described as less fierce than their neighbors and more likely to avoid violence.
Contact between the forest people of the high forest and the highland groups of the Andes predates the Inca empire. Matsigenka and their neighbors provided the highlanders with cacao, bird feathers, palm wood, cotton, herbal medicines, and tropical fruits. In return they received stone and metal tools and bits of silver used in jewelry. Otherwise, the influence of highland culture was very slight. The uninhabited cloud forest has been an effective barrier separating the highlands and the high forest. Furthermore, low population density and an absense of regional political organization made it impossible for the Inca to exercise effective control over the Matsigenka. Consequently, the Matsigenka historically were able to maintain their distance from both the Inca Empire and the Spanish Conquest. Catholic missionaries also had little influence in the region, often being martyred in raids by Matsigenka and Campa.
In the early 1900s, however, the rubber boom and slave trade had a significant disruptive impact, abetted by Matsigenka strongmen who traded their own people into slavery in exchange for shotguns and steel tools. Although the rubber boom collapsed after a few years, the practice of raiding continued on a smaller scale until the 1950s because colonists persisted in their demand for laborers and household servants. By the 1960s, Peruvian police, development agencies, and missionary programs finally curtailed the slave trade. Despite their growing dependence on Western medicine, clothing, steel tools, and aluminum pots, present-day Matsigenka retain most of their traditional culture.