ETHNONYMS: Matses, Maxirona, Mayiruna, Mayo

The Mayoruna live in widely scattered groups along the Rio Javari, which over much of its course marks the boundary between Brazil and Peru. On the Brazilian side there are several small settlements with a total population of about 250 on the upper Javari. Across the river on the Peruvian side, the Mayoruna villages, with a total population of approximately 350, are between the Javari and its tributary, the RĂ­o Galvez. In 1978, after a clash between Mayoruna factions, about 100 Mayoruna migrated far downriver and founded a new settlement some 80 kilometers above the confluence of the Javari with the Solimoes. There are believed to be uncontacted groups of Mayoruna living in the regions of both the upper and lower Javari.

The Mayoruna speak a language of the Panoan Family; only a few speak Spanish or Portuguese fluently. "Mayoruna" is apparently a name of Quechua origin, derived from the words for "river" ( mayo ) and "people" ( runa ). It was applied in colonial times to several groups similar in language and appearance that were in contact with Spanish Jesuit missions on the Solimões, Huallaga, and Ucayali rivers. Some settled at these missions, whose populations, however, were often reduced by epidemics and mass desertions. After the Jesuits left in 1769, the missions were taken over by Franciscans, and, although some Mayoruna remained settled, others became hostile, gaining a reputation as fierce nomadic cannibals who made it impossible for Whites to explore the stretches of the Javari they controlled. In 1866 the Mayoruna attacked members of the boundary commission surveying the frontier between Peru and Brazil.

At the time of the rubber boom, Peruvian and Brazilian rubber tappers moved into the Javari region. Little is known of the Mayoruna during this period; they may have retreated to the headwaters of tributaries on the Peruvian side. The account of an elderly Mayoruna indicates that they were intent on avoiding contact. After this man's father was killed around 1920 in a fight with hunters of animal skins, some of his group, which was then living on the upper Río Galvez in Peru, left to explore the vicinity of the Bio Pardo, a tributary of the Curuçá in Brazil. After some months, five men returned, relating that they had found a region without Whites and where there was plenty of game. The rest of the exploring party had remained there to clear fields and build houses. The entire group then made the long migration of over 240 kilometers, carrying with them maize seeds, banana shoots, and manioc stalks to plant in the new gardens. When they arrived after three months of travel, they found that the manioc stalks had dried up and were useless. A few young men took a canoe and paddled downriver until they came upon the homestead of a settler, from whose garden they stole fresh manioc stalks for planting.

This group lived undisturbed for forty years, until Protestant missionaries of the Summer Institute of Linguistics attempted to contact them. The missionaries' planes began to make low flights over the Mayoruna village, dropping presents such as knives, cooking pots, and cloth. At first the villagers refused to touch these things, pushing them into the river with sticks or burning them. The missionaries persisted, however, and on a day when the headman was away, some villagers, overcome by curiosity, gathered the presents.

Beginning in the early 1960s, the Mayoruna increasingly came into contact and conflict with Peruvians and Brazilians who were opening roads for logging and rubber tapping. There were killings on both sides, and the Mayoruna kidnapped several White women. The missionaries' efforts also continued, and eventually two women missionaries were able to live with a Mayoruna group and study their language. Through emissaries from contacted groups, they persuaded the Pardo group to move nearer to Peru, but in 1969 the Mayoruna again dispersed, some rejecting contact and returning to isolation.

The Mayoruna live in large communal houses, rectangular in shape, with an entrance at each end. The walls are built of vertical bamboo posts, and the palm-leaf roof has overhanging eaves. In the interior there are eating and storage areas, an enclosed sleeping area, and a separate cooking place for each wife. At the doorway of each house the Mayoruna display monkey skulls mounted on poles and bones of the game animals they have killed. These bones give clues to the prevalence of game, as the more smoke-darkened the bones the longer since the animal was killed, whereas the bones of more recently killed animals are white.

Mayoruna women seldom marry outside the tribe, except for those who are kidnapped, sometimes as children. The Mayoruna and other groups often steal children, including Whites, whom they adopt and raise as members of the tribe. A young husband lives with his wife's family for a period of time, and nowadays, as well as working for his father-in-law, he is expected to bring presents such as radios, wristwatches, and rifles, which confer high prestige among the Mayoruna, to his wife's parents. Preferred marriage is with a cross cousin, either matrilateral or patrilateral.

A boy receives his name from his father's father or from his father's father's brothers, either biological or classificatory. Girls' names are inherited from the mother's mother or from sisters of the mother's mother. A girl child was traditionally betrothed at birth to a small boy, which imposed on the boy's parents important responsibilities toward her; they were expected to provide the future bride with food up to the age of marriage, generally at puberty.

Although it is known that the Mayoruna on the Brazilian side have shamans in their villages, little is known to outsiders about their shamanistic practices, nor has Mayoruna cosmology been studied.

Hunting has always been a very important factor in Mayoruna subsistence, and movement in search of game probably contributed to their nomadism. Present-day Mayoruna hunt with bows and arrows, a practice they learned from the neighboring Marubo. The Mayoruna formerly used the blowgun, but for unknown reasons they have abandoned it. Women accompany hunting parties, helping with the pursuit of game and carrying the animals. Meat is distributed according to well-defined rules, and the meat of certain kinds of animals cannot be consumed at the same meal as that of certain other kinds. A hunter never eats the game that he himself killed. Fishing is a dry-season activity, and collective fishing parties may produce large quantities of fish, which the Mayoruna preserve by smoking. They also gather a number of different wild fruits.

The Mayoruna practice slash-and-burn agriculture, preferring dark soils on high ground. Their fields average 300 meters by 100 meters in size. Men plant manioc and maize, and women plant bananas and most minor crops except tobacco. Besides their staples, the Mayoruna grow yams, sweet potatoes, sugarcane, barbasco (fish poison), arrow canes, cotton, achiote (for skin paint), and other plants. The missionaries have introduced citrus fruits, rice, mangoes, and cacao. Women harvest maize, and men weed the gardens. The owner of the crop is the family that planted the field, but men invite other men to help them weed in exchange for some of the produce of the field. Before the Mayoruna let a field go fallow, they dig up the rest of the manioc tubers and make flour from them. The plot is then no longer weeded, but they return to pick the fruit from trees they have planted.

All Mayoruna—men, women, and children—have a line tattooed around the lips and across the cheeks to each ear. The tatoo instrument is a sharp fish bone. They also make small perforations across the upper lip and sometimes in the nostrils, into which they stick bristles. These "jaguar whiskers" give the face a feline look that is fundamental to the Mayoruna image. Faces are painted with achiote and cord anklets and wristlets are worn. All Mayoruna women make hammocks for their close relatives, and they also make pots to store water and to cook meat and sweet manioc.

The Mayoruna have occasionally worked for Whites as skin hunters or loggers, but they are still little involved in the regional economy. On the Brazilian side, the Mayoruna at one government Indian post have cut and sold timber through the intermediary of the Indian agent, using the proceeds to buy salt, kerosene, batteries, clothing, tools, and other Western goods to which they have become accustomed.

The health of the Mayoruna is probably now suffering less than that of most other recently contacted groups because, on both the Brazilian and Peruvian sides of the border, they have received some immunizations. A recent census of the Brazilian settlements shows that more than 65 percent of the population is estimated to be under 20 years old. This indicates that the population is growing rapidly, but the lack of people over 50 suggests that epidemic diseases must have taken a heavy toll in former years. On the Brazilian side of the border, the project for the Javari Indian Park, with a proposed area of over 80,000 square kilometers will, if carried out, provide land for the Mayoruna as well as for a number of other Amazonian groups.


Erikson, Philippe (1992). "Urna singular pluralidade: A etno-histĂłria pano." In Historia dos Ă­ndios no Brasil, edited by Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, 239-252. SĂŁo Paulo: Editora Schwarcz.

Erikson, Philippe (in press). "Los mayoruna." In Guía etnográfica de la Amazonia peruana. Iquitos: Centro de Investigación Antropológica de la Amazonia Peruana. Instituto Francés de Altos Estudos.

"Mayoruna." In Povos indígenas no Brasil (1981). Edited by Carlos Alberto Ricardo. Vol. 5, Javarí, edited by Julio César Melatti, 60-81. Sao Paulo: Centro Ecumênico de Documentação e Informação (CEDI).


User Contributions:

i love your'e writing it gave me so many facts about the Matses. I don't know if you had this but they use frog sweat for medicine, and use frogs for much more.Thanks for the info.

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