From Indigenous Peoples in Brazil
Photo: Priscila Matta, 2003


Where they are How many
AM 19052 (Siasi/Sesai, 2020)
Colombia 236 (, 1988)
Peru 11370 (INEI, 2007)
Linguistic family

Inhabitants of the Solimões, contact between the Kokama and non-indigenous society can be traced back to the first decades of colonization. The forced displacements and re-settlements, initially imposed by the missions and later by the various waves of extractivists, ended up creating such an adverse context of physical and cultural reproduction for these groups that it prompted them to deny their indigenous identity for many decades. Since the 1980s, though, Kokama identity has been increasingly valorized in their political fights – which include other indigenous peoples from the Solimões river – for land and access to specially targeted programs for healthcare, education and economic alternatives.

Location and population

In 2005, the known Kokama population in Brazil was 786 people (CIMI 2005), distributed in communities located on the upper and middle Solimões river in the state of Amazonas, primarily in the municipalities of Tabatinga, São Paulo de Olivença, Benjamim Constant, Amaturá, Santo Antonio do Içá, Tonantins, Fonte Boa, Tefé and Jutaí. On the other hand, the CGTT (General Council of the Ticuna Tribe), which officially worked alongside Funasa (the National Health Foundation) in providing healthcare to indigenous peoples in the Upper Solimões region, states that the Kokama number 9,000 people (data from 2003).

In Peru, the population is much higher, reaching around 19,000 people in 2003 (see Ramos). In Colombia, the population numbers 792 (Unesco 2004).

See in the right-side menu the list of indigenous territories (ITs) inhabited by the Kokama in Brazil.


The Kokama language has been classified as part of the Tupi-Guarani family from the Tupi trunk. It is very similar to the language spoken by the Omágua (Kambeba). Later studies have suggested that their origin is linked to various migrations of Tupi groups from Brazil to Peruvian regions in pre-contact periods. The language is presumed to be the result of the interaction of several indigenous groups in the region of the upper Marañón, close to the Huallaga, Napo and Ucayali rivers, with the Tupinambá language providing the main source of the Kokama language, accounting for approximately 60% of the vocabulary.

In Peru, around 2.5% of the population of 19,000 Kokama speak the native language. In Brazil, few are fluent in the language and there are no cases reported of communities that use Kokama, even as a second idiom (Ramos 2003).


The first references to the Kokama, produced by explorers and missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries, situate the main settlements on the middle and lower Ucayali river, a southern affluent of the Peruvian Amazon. At the start of the 16th century, the Kokama living in this region maintained contact with Juan de Salinaso, the first European to encounter them. The expedition of Ursua and Aguirre to the Amazon in 1560-1, narrated by Captain Altamirano, reports an encounter with these Indians at the mouth of the Ucayali. Missionization had already reached the Omágua (Kambeba) and Kokama since 1547 in the region close to the upper Amazon river, including the Marañón, lower Huallaga and Ucayali rivers and the Napo.

Jesuit missionization took firmer hold in Amazonia through the activities of Fathers Samuel Fritz and Richler, who began the work of conversion among the Omágua, Assuare, Ibanoma, Taumã, Xebeco and Kokama. In Brazil, the mission of San Joaquin de Omágua, coordinated by Fritz, was established on the Putamayo (Içá) river and another 27 missions were founded over the following decades. For a long time, the Jesuits held a dominant position in terms of formulating and executing indigenist policy in the Americas, just as they were the main agents responsible for concentrating different ethnic groups in mission settlements during this period.

At the end of the 17th century and start of the 18th, the Portuguese advanced along the Amazon river. Following the transfer of power from the Spanish Jesuit missions to the Portuguese Carmelites in 1710, the Portuguese Tropas de Resgate period began. This involved devastating incursions into the mission zone, provoking their abandonment and the removal of survivors.

In the 19th century, the imperial legislation continued to be anti-indigenous, establishing formal prohibitions, official incentives for enslaving the indigenous population and the organization of armed expeditions to push colonization into areas occupied by them. During the period 1750-1850, all the information available on the situation of the settlements on the upper Amazon confirms the instability of the indigenous nucleuses, which were undergoing brusque demographic changes.

The process of rubber extraction introduced new interests, techniques and lifestyles into the region. The situation after 1870 involved new forms of pressure on the indigenous groups of the upper Amazon. Rubber-tappers and Brazil nut harvesters occupied increasingly extensive areas, reaching regions inhabited by indigenous groups that until then had lived according to their traditional economy, based on agriculture, hunting and fishing.

The extractive process required the incorporation of new areas of land and the expansion of the available workforce – already fairly scarce following the abolition of slavery in 1888 – and the region bordering the Solimões river was a large natural reserve of rubber trees. However, with the collapse in international rubber prices at the start of the 20th century, the rubber bosses began to re-employ the indigenous workforce in timber extraction, agriculture, flour production, hunting animals with valuable skins and fishing.

At the beginning of the 20th century, part of the Kokama population inhabiting Peruvian Amazonia, close to the town of Caballocha, began to migrate towards the upper Solimões in Brazil. But most of the group undoubtedly remained in their original territory, with Kokama villages being cited in 1936 on the Ucayali between the towns of Iquitos and Contamana, as well as on the lower course of the Tapiche river. According to a document from 1943, those who had migrated to the Brazilian territory along the Solimões settled, among other sites, on the Tauaré, Panelas and Floresta inlets.

Thus external factors, such as the mission presence during the initial phase of the history of contact, allied to the extraction fronts opened up in the upper Amazon region a few centuries later, provoked the migration of many indigenous groups from their traditional areas. It was also because of the new social realities imposed on these groups that, at the end of the 19th century, a portion of the Kokama population moved from Peru and Colombia to Brazil, joining the rubber extraction economy.

The Brotherhood of the Holy Cross

Another important motive for later Kokama migrations to Brazil was the messianic movement that became known as the Brotherhood of the Holy Cross. Between 1971 and 1987 numerous Kokama families emigrated from the town of Nauta in Peru and from various settlements on the shores of the Marañón river (near to its confluence with the Ucayali) deeper into the forest. They called each other ‘brothers’ and began to form new communities while waiting for the end of the world. Then they undertook a march to a holy city on the Juí river, an affluent of the Iça (a continuation of the Putumayo) in Brazilian territory.

The movement’s leader was a Brazilian prophet, probably of mixed ethnicity, known as Francisco da Cruz. He visited communities on the principal rivers of Peruvian Amazonia (Ucayali, Amazonas, Marañón) where he preached his doctrine on the ultimate reform of Christianity and the end of the world. People say that he cured the sick, taught agricultural techniques, planted crosses and founded new religious communities, as well as dictating the norms of everyday life for those wishing to follow him.

Accompanied by a legion of followers – most of them indigenous – Father Francisco eventually reached the Peruvian towns of Pucallpa, Nauta and Iquitos, where he sought to contact civil and Catholic authorities with the intention of becoming officially recognized as the ultimate reformer of Christianity. Finally he travelled down the Amazon with the aim of entering Colombia but was detained on the border, accused of being a ‘communist’ and imprisoned by the Brazilian authorities. After a few days he was released due to the pressure from his followers, but only after agreeing to remain in the forest. Father Francisco then decided to journey upriver on the Iça (Putumayo) and founded, on one of its affluents, Juí, his definitive place of residence and the movement’s centre. He remained there with his followers until 1982 when he died and left as a successor and Indian of Tupinambá origin who later took the name of Francisco Neves da Cruz (Agüero 1994:7).  

Social organization and material culture

Kinship relations are the fundamental principle of Kokama internal organization and a strict relationship exists between physical and genealogical proximity in the layout of the houses. A community is essentially formed by groups of kin with strong bonds between them.

All the villages are organized according to the same spatial arrangement: the houses are built in rows close to each other with their fronts facing the river and their rears facing the areas of forest. Cultivated areas are found at the back and the side of the houses. The latter are built on posts so that only the pillars are submerged during the high-water season (Ramos 2003). In the past, their houses were low with a pitched roof (sloping down almost to the ground) supported on pillars and covered with palm leaves resting on poles (Agüero 1994).

Little documentation exists on Kokama social organization prior to more intense contact with the non-indigenous population. However, scattered data suggests that they lived in malocas containing extended families (a father with his sons and sons-in-law). The post-marital residential rule was probably patrilocal, therefore, while descent was patrilinear (Aguero 1994:44).

Kokama political organization is traditionally acephalous and decentralized. The chief’s authority was limited to the domestic group or extended family, expanding further only in the case of warfare.

Traditionally men's activities would be concentrated on fishing and hunting, plus the fabrication of tools such as bows, arrows, hooks and so on. Women would prepare food and drinks, as well as helping their husbands, especially in cultivating the swiddens and transporting fruits back home.

In terms of material culture, Kokama men traditionally wore – like the Omágua – a cushma, a kind of knee-length shirt with geometric designs in purple, blue, yellow and other colours. Women used a kind of cotton tunic  tied at the waist and covering down to the knee, accompanied with a shawl over their shoulders. The Kokama also used feather decorations, cotton belts, bracelets and anklets. Traditionally they made cylindrical baskets – still produced today – with hexagonal patterns and sieves made from leaves and tree bark (Agüero 1994:41).

Another aspect of contemporary culture worth highlighting is the ajuri, which involves collective work undertaken by various groups of families followed by a communal meal and the consumption of their traditional drink, pajuaru, made from fermented manioc. This practice is shared by other indigenous groups of the Solimões, such as the Kambeba and the Tikuna.

Cosmology and shamanism

Until the moment when they began to live in closer contact with non-indigenous society, the Kokama were a warrior people. According to historical sources, they would embark on war expeditions of 40, 60 or more canoes to meet their enemies. Repeating the practice of other Amazonian groups, they would cut off their enemies’ heads and hold large feasts in celebration (Figueroa 1904 apud Agüero 1994:43).

Traditionally life after death was conceived by the Kokama as a state without limitations or suffering in which the person enjoyed unbounded access to all the material goods difficult or dangerous to obtain in earthly life. In this other life they re-encountered their kin and could live the ideal of eating, drinking, singing and dancing with the heads of their enemies.

While still alive, shamans are the only ones capable of accessing these other levels of the cosmos. A report by one missionary (Figueroa 1904 apud Aguerro 1994:48) indicates four classes of shamans among the Kokama. First there were the blowers, who cured by blowing in the air, into their hands and onto the infected part of the patient’s body. They also blew on food and drink, which was then given as a remedy to the sick person. Treatment was completed by giving the person a drink made from tobacco, sometimes mixed with other herbs. All these gestures were accompanied by invocations to the spirits.

Another modality involved the singers, who stood near to the sick person chanting songs to summon spirits embodied in birds or animals and appeal for the person’s soul not to abandon him or her.

Another type of shaman was the sucker, who cured by sucking objects from the affected part of the patient with the aim of removing the spell. Finally there was the faster, who made use of rigorous fasts, also adhered to by the sick person and his or her closest relatives, in order to discover the origin of the affliction.

Among the most famous shamans were those who left the community to live in a rough shelter where they would fast and invoke spirits for several days, eventually returning with the message they had received from the spirits identifying the cause of the illnesses. Another class of shamans, better known even today, made use of hallucinogenic plants, especially ayahuasca, also called soga. The ayahuasca rituals lasted all night and involved a large number of participants (Agüero 1994:49).

As soon as he began drinking ayahuasca, the shaman would invoke the spirit out loud and urge it to listen to him. Next he would collapse in a faint and the spirit would take over his body. Finally, his soul took flight and the spirit spoke through his mouth. In other cases, the shaman’s soul would fly away, abandoning his body, and on its return described where it hade been and with whom it had interacted. This shaman is today known among the Peruvian Kokama as ‘bench,’ because the spirits sit on him.

Today, the Kokama use the term Sume for the shaman who communicates with the supernatural world through ayahuasca. The god Ini Jará, after creating the Earth and humans, rose to the sky were he looks after the latter. The Sume is his representative on earth (ibid:50).

Economy and the environment

The Kokama are essentially fisherpeople and agriculturists. They practice a subsistence economy in which the productive unit is the domestic group. The latter usually corresponds to the nuclear family, consisting of the father, mother and unmarried children. However, the domestic group may be temporarily composed of the extended family or kingroup.

Manioc is the most widely produced and consumed agricultural product. As well as forming an important part of the staple diet, manioc flour is one of the main media of internal exchange and external trade. Regionally, other products with a high market value include timber, jandaíra honey, Brazil nut, banana, fish, chickens and pigs, as well as cultivated and wild fruits. Other sources of income include the pensions received by some old people, the salaries paid by the respective municipalities to indigenous teachers and health agents, and the income from cattle breeding pursued in partnership with the regional population (Ramos 2003).

Most of the Kokama inhabit areas dominated by the floodplain ecosystem, either ‘high floodplain’ and/or ‘low floodplain.’ The first class of floodplain is inundated sporadically when the biggest floods occur. In these zones the Kokama plant perennial and semi-perennial crops such as cacao, guava, coconut, lemon, banana and so on, whose produce is intended for the subsistence of the village’s families. In the low floodplain area, which is seasonally submersed by the Solimões river, the Kokama plant short-cycle crops such as watermelon, maize, beans and pumpkin, whose produce is usually used for internal consumption with any surplus sold on the regional market. It is essential to stress the importance of tuber crops (sweet manioc, bitter manioc, yams and sweet potato), which are planted on the two types of floodplains.

On average, the Kokama use at least ½ ha to clear new swiddens. The system of work for preparing the soil and planting crops is usually divided into two stages: in the first, the indigenous families combine to clear the terrain  collectively in the ajuri (collective work followed by a communal meal). In the next stage, the different agricultural tasks are undertaken by the members of each family unit, including planting, crop tending, harvesting and ‘processing’ (such as the production of flour).

Fishing is the basic economic activity for obtaining protein, an indissociable element of the Kokama diet. It is also an important source of income through the sale of fish on the regional market. The equipment used to fish includes hook lines, arrows and curico, used like timbó fish poison. This is an exclusively male activity. The most popular and widely consumed species are pirarucu, tambaqui, curimbatá, pacu, matrinxã, pirapitinga, sardinha, piranha, surubim, tiger oscar and peacock bass.

Hunting presents an additional source of protein for the Kokama, especially in the high-water season when fish become scarce. They hunt birds such as curassows, tinamous, maguari storks and black-necked grebes, and animals such as caymans and spider, capuchin and squirrel monkeys. These animals are now mostly hunted with rifles. In addition, the Kokama breed domestic animals such as ducks, chickens and pigs for consumption, as well as dogs to help track down game when necessary.

Gathering is also an ever present activity among the group, especially close to the village. The resources most commonly used are fruits and roots, as well as timber, straw, titica vine and philodendrons, used in the construction of houses and other artefacts. Wild fruits frequently eaten by the Kokama include assai, bacaba, bacuri, ingá, camucamu, annatto and moriche palm.  

Sources of information

  • AGÜERO, Oscar Alfredo. El milenio en la Amazonía Peruana : mitologia tupi-cocama o la subversión del ordem simbolico. Lima : CAAAP ; Quito : Abya-Yala, 1994. 259 p. (Biblioteca Abya-Yala, 9)

. Social change and symbolic expression : a case of religious ethnodynamism among the Tupi-Cocama of the Peruvian Amazonia. Uppsala : Uppsala University, 1971. 135 p. (Tese de Doutorado)
  • CABRAL, Ana Suelly. Contacta-induced language change in the Western Amazon : the non-genetic origin of the Kokama language. Pittsburg : Univer. of Pittsburg, 1995. 415 p. (Tese de Doutorado)


  • FAULHABER BARBOSA, Priscila. O lago dos espelhos : etnografia do saber sobre a fronteira Tefe/Amazonas. Belém : MPEG, 1998. 215 p. (Coleção Eduardo Galvão).


  • FIGUEROA, Francisco. Relación de las misiones de la Companhia de Jesús em el país de los Maynas. Madrid : Libreria General de Victoriano Suárez, 1904.


  • FREITAS, Antonio Braga & COUTINHO Jr., Walter. Relatório de identificação e delimitação da Terra Indígena Acapuri de Cima. Brasília : Funai, 1999.


  • GOW, Peter. "Ex-Cocama" : identidades em transformação na Amazônia Peruana. Mana, Rio de Janeiro : Museu Nacional/PPGAS, v. 9, n. 1, p. 57-79, 2003.


  • PEREIRA, Henrique dos Santos. Castanha ou farinha : balanço energético comparativo das atividades agrícola e extrativista dos Kokamas. In: EMPERAIRE, Laure (Ed.). A floresta em jogo : o extrativismo na Amazônia central. São Paulo : Unesp, 2000. p. 69-78.

. Castanha ou farinha : bilan énergétique comparé des activites extractiviste et agricole chez les Kokama. In: EMPERAIRE, Laure (Ed.). La forêt en jeu : l’extractivisme en Amazonie centrale. Paris : Orstom/Unesco, 1996. p. 63-72. (Latitudes, 23)
  • RAMOS, Luciana Maria de Moura. Relatório circunstanciado de identificação e delimitação da Terra Indígena São Domingos do Jacapari e Estação. Brasília : Funai, 2003.


  • RIVAS, Roxani. La mujer cocama del bajo Ucayali : matrimonio, embarazo, parto y salud. Amazonía Peruana, Lima : CAAAP, v. 12, n. 24, p. 227-42, jun. 1994.


  • SOARES, Marília Lopes da Costa Facó. A perda da nasalidade e outras mutações vocálicas em Kokama, Asurini e Guajajara. Rio de Janeiro : UFRJ, 1979. (Dissertação de Mestrado)


  • VICTER, Rogério Santos. Carisma e rotina na sucessão de uma liderança religiosa : a participação dos índios Cocama na renovação da Irmandade de Santa Cruz. Rio de Janeiro : UFRJ, 1992. 176 p. (Dissertação de Mestrado).