From Indigenous Peoples in Brazil
Photo: Selma Gomes, 2014.


Where they are How many
AM 483 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
Linguistic family

It is already a commonplace among the regional populations and the ethnographic literature on North-western Amazonia to distinguish between the so-called 'river Indians,' speakers of Tukano and Arawak languages, and 'forest Indians,' speakers of Maku languages. While the former are agriculturists who fix their villages by the shores of navigable rivers, the Maku migrate across the watershed regions, settling temporarily wherever they find ecological conditions favourable for hunting and suitable to their traditional way of resolving their internal conflicts: "when we fall out, we spread out through the forest and stay there until the anger passes."

More informations

For further informations: Etnias do Rio Negro


There is no self-designation adopted by the Maku as a whole. In reality, they divide into six distinct groups, each one with its own territory, language and self-designation:

Self-designation Other names Location [lread "between the rivers..."]
Nukak Maku Guaviare and Inírida, in Colombia
Bara, Kakwa Maku, Pohsá, Boroa, Wirapoyá Uaupés and Papuri, in Colombia
Hupda Maku, Pohsá, Peoná, Wirapoyá Papuri and Tiquiê, in Brazil and Colombia
Yuhupde Maku, Pohsá, Peoná, Wirapoyá Tiquiê and Traíra, in Brazil and Colombia
Dow Maku, Kamã Curicuriari and Negro, in Brazil
Nadöb, Kabori Maku, Guariba Tapuya, Xiruai Negro and Japurá, in Brazil
 N.B.: Dentre as autodenominações alternativas, preferimos as que estão em negrito.


Foto: Marcos Santilli/Editora Abril, 1976
Foto: Marcos Santilli/Editora Abril, 1976

With the exception of the Bara, who use the term bara ('tayra') more than the term kakwa ('people') as a self-designation, and also the Kabori, a Nadub subgroup who call themselves kabori ('boys'), all the other Maku use the term 'people' in their respective languages as a self-designation.

The term maku is of Arawak origin, signifying 'serf' or 'savage,' and is rejected by all the Maku groups due to its obvious pejorative connotation. The term maku is maintained here as it has now become firmly established in the ethnographic literature and as there is no other term that designates these Indians as an overall group.

As for the other names, boroa and pohsá mean 'serfs' in the Dahséa and Cubeo languages, respectively, both of the Tukano family. The term peoná, also of Tukano origin, means 'owner of the pathways,' an allusion to the fact that the Maku do not travel by canoe, like the other Indians in the region, but by foot along tracks. The term wirapoyá, used by the Desana (a Tukano subgroup) to designate the neighbouring Maku, means 'ruined Desana.' The origin of the term kamã remains unknown: it also has a pejorative connotation. The term guariba is applied by the regional non-Indian population to the Nadub, in an allusion to their supposed belief that the Indians are related to the monkey of the same name. The term xiruai, 'brother-in-law' in Nheengatu, is the friendly form by which the same population refers to the Nadub.

Due to the influence of the indigenous movement in the region of the Negro River from the middle of the 1980s, the pejorative names (boroa, pohsá, wirapoyá, kamã, guariba and maku itself) are falling into disuse, but until now no generic and neutral name has surfaced.


Rio Japurá. Foto: Michel Pellanders, 1987
Rio Japurá. Foto: Michel Pellanders, 1987

The six Maku languages are related among themselves, forming what can be called the Maku linguistic family. As far as is known, this family is completely separate from the Tukano and Arawak families, excluding a few obvious loanwords.

Practically all the Maku speak their own native languages. Due to the proximity of the Tukano, the Maku of the Uaupés area (Bara, Hupdu and Yuhupdu) speak Tukano languages, giving rise to the multi-lingualism typical to the region. On the other hand, the Tukano have been a kind of barrier to acculturation for the Maku of the Uaupés, since they act as intermediaries in contact with Whites, so that only about 20% of these Maku peoples know how to speak Portuguese or Spanish. The Nukak, whose contact was very recent (1988), speak little Spanish or any other language not their own. As for the Duw and Nadub, with a long history of contact (18th century) and without the 'Tukano barrier' close by, the large majority express themselves well in Portuguese and Nheengatu (the lingua franca or Amazonian Tupi, spoken mostly by the riverside populations of the middle and lower Negro River, descendants of the Baré, who are increasingly proclaiming themselves Indian with the expansion of the indigenous movement in the region).

The Maku languages have been studied in varying degrees. Bara (Kakwa), Hupdu, Yuhupdu and Nadub were the object of preliminary studies made by SIL missionaries, as well as Duw, undertaken by ALEM missionaries. However, none of these studies resulted in material that could be used in the development of bilingual education, increasingly demanded by the Maku, in justifiable reaction to the hegemony of the Dahséa (Tukano) language in local schools funded by municipal government and run by Catholic Salesian missionaries.


The Maku population is distributed within an area bordered to the north-west by the Guaviare river (one of the Colombian affluents of the Orinoco), to the north by the Negro River, to the south by the Japurá and to the south-east by the Uneiuxi (one of the Brazilian affluents of the Negro River). This lozenge adds up to a total of approximately 20 million hectares. Obviously, not all this area is occupied by Indians. The high level of spatial dispersion of the six Maku linguistic groups within this vast perimeter is due to the predominance of enormous areas of stunted forest and scrubland, a non riverine type of forest, with extremely poor soil, little plant variation and a low concentration of game animals. The Maku occupy precisely the patches of terra firma forest where game is more abundant and the vegetation richer in species useful as foods or in the manufacture of artefacts.

Human occupation of the area during the Pre-Colombian period probably took place in two waves: first, the Maku established themselves in the interfluvial zones, in the patches of terra firma; afterwards came the Arawak and the Tukano, establishing themselves on the high banks of the rivers, in the middle of the igapó (a lowland area bordering the river, periodically inundated during the rainy season from April to September). The already fairly ancient contact between these peoples with different origins and languages, each of whom occupied different ecological niches, resulted in a complex system of commercial and symbolic exchanges. These are discussed below.

On the Brazilian side of the border, five indigenous territories were recently ratified: Upper Negro River, Middle Negro River I, Middle Negro River II, Téa River and Apapóris River, adding up to a total of 10.6 million hectares of continuous and adjoining territories. The Brazilian Maku groups - namely, the Hupdu, Yuhupdu, Duw and Nadub - are distributed in the interfluvial regions of all these areas, with the exception of the Middle Negro River II. The following descriptions primarily relate to the Maku of the Uaupés (Bara, Hupdu and Yuhupdu) and are based on the ethnographies of Silverwood-Cope (1990), Reid (1979) and Pozzobon (1984, 1992). On the Maku of the Uneiuxi and the Paraná Boá-Boá, consult Schultz (1959), Münzel (1969) and Pozzobon (1998).


The approximately three thousand Maku are distributed over a vast bi-national territory, such that it is fairly difficult to estimate the demographic parameters of the population as a whole. Due to the interfluvial nature of their habitat, which inhibited the access of pioneers, missionaries and researchers, the previous estimates, varying between 2 and 2.5 thousand, are highly precarious and far from reliable; as a result, they cannot be adequately used to estimate the populational dynamic. The studies still in progress on the demographic variables in a specific Maku group, the Hupdu, allow us to conclude provisionally that the population is stable, that is, it has neither increased nor decreased significantly in the last decades (Pozzobon, 1998). On the other hand, matrimonial exchanges with surrounding groups are numerically negligible, due to the low status of the Maku in the region's intertribal system.

Self-designation population Year Source
Nukak 378 1995 Franky et al. (1995)
Bara, Kakwa 300 1969 Silverwood-Cope (1990)
Hupda 1500 1997 Pozzobon (1997b)
Yuhupde 370 1997 Pozzobon (1997c)
Dow 78 1994 Oliveira, Meira and Pozzobon (1994)
Nadöb, Kabori ± 600 1995 ISA (1996)
Total  ± 3226    

Contact history

The poverty of the predominant scrubland, added to the waterfalls and rapids found along the rivers, was one of the obstacles to the expanding colonial fronts of the Portuguese and Spanish, who were already disputing the region in the 17th century, setting up military outposts at some points on the Negro river, from where captured natives were taken 'down-river' to the emerging urban centres (Barcelos, Manaus and Belém).

From the 18th century onwards, these 'transferrals' were intensified, so that even the Maku in their secluded interfluvial territories had some of their own kind imprisoned as slaves. However, analysis of the colonial documents confirms that among those indigenous peoples in the region, they were the least affected by the practice of 'transferral' or by the violence arising from the rubber boom at the end of the following century. In fact, the rubber boom was possibly one of the motives for the adoption of agricultural practices by the Maku: taking refuge in the interfluvial lands in order to escape the imprisonment practised by the rubber tappers, the Tukano began to live in closer proximity with the Maku, teaching them the cultivation of manioc, as well as a series of items from their material and spiritual culture, which we shall discuss later.

In 1914, in the middle of the period of economic stagnation resulting from the collapse of the rubber trade, the Salesian missionaries entered the scene, a Catholic order dedicated to education. They obtained the adhesion of all the Indians bordering the rivers on the Brazilian side - however, they encountered strong resistance from the Maku, who refused to send their children to the boarding schools at the mission centres. In the 1970s, the Salesians experimented with a few exclusively Maku mission villages (see below). Gold mining - which developed in the region between the middle of the 1980s and the start of the 1990s, a period when the indigenous movement succeeded in expulsing the invaders with the support of the Public Ministry and the force of the Federal Police - had little effect on the Maku, since it was mostly practised on land close to the rivers. The only gold mine on terra firma, in the extreme south of the Upper Negro River IT, had already been abandoned by 1986 by the mining company Paranapanema, due to its low productivity; with the intensification of the indigenous movement in the 1990s, gold became exploited exclusively by Indians.

Social organization

Aldeia Pidu Bu (Cabaris, no Rio Tiquié). Foto: Jorge Pozzobon, 1997
Aldeia Pidu Bu (Cabaris, no Rio Tiquié). Foto: Jorge Pozzobon, 1997

The traditional Maku villages had a population varying between 25 and 30 inhabitants - about six domestic groups. The Maku domestic group comprises a husband, wife or wives, unmarried children and perhaps some adjoined family members, who may be close relatives, widows or unmarried adults, of the husband or the wife or wives. Generally, each domestic group possesses its own fire hearth, around which its members gather to sleep and eat. As for the houses, these amount to wall-less huts, able to shelter between one and four domestic groups (hearths), linked by close kinship ties, that may be equally patrilateral or matrilateral. A village of 25 inhabitants usually has about three houses. These are situated in a clearing, at the top of a hill, close to a non-navigable stream or creek. The swiddens are located around the houses or in nearby clearings (from 5 to 60 minutes walking time), which in the future come to mark past village sites. Each domestic group possesses on average two 50 x 50 m swiddens, always set in communal clearings.

A cluster of proximate villages, at a distance between one hour and one day by foot, form a regional group. As a rule, the regional groups each speak a distinct dialect of the same language. Thus, each Maku linguistic group divides at least into two regional/dialectical groups. The Hupdu, for example, possess three regional groups (three dialects), separated from each other by navigable water courses, whose shores are occupied by 'river Indians'. The adult members of the same regional/dialectical group all know each other by name, as well as by the kinship relations that unite them. In contrast, the knowledge possessed about speakers from neighbouring dialects, people with whom they have no demonstrable genealogical relations, is fairly shallow. In other words, the regional/dialectical group is a strongly endogamic nexus. The average frequency of endogamic marriages - that is, between people born in the same regional group - is 80%. The average size of the regional group in the area of the Brazilian Uaupés is 260 people - about 10 neighbouring villages.

The territory of the regional/dialectical group is a result of the juxtaposition of various adjacent hunting territories, each of which surrounds a village. In effect, the men of a village of 25 to 30 inhabitants usually hunt within a radius of 7 to 10 km around the village. Radiating out from this territory are a series of paths, some linking together Maku villages. others leading to riverside villages, others still leading as far as the hunting encampments. Each village possesses an average of 8 hunt camps within a 7 to 10 km radius around it. When the village exceeds a level of 30 or 40 inhabitants, it splits into two or more villages, since in a large village the hunters are forced to travel more than 10 km in order to find sufficient game. The lengthy duration of a village at a particular site (about five years) is also a motive for change, in order to relocate the hunter's radius of activities and thereby explore new hunting territories.

The daily life of a Maku village

Preparando ipadu. Foto: Jorge Pozzobon, 1997
Preparando ipadu. Foto: Jorge Pozzobon, 1997

Women rise at first daylight, bathe and prepare the men's communal breakfast, which usually takes place in the house of the village leader. After the meal, the men depart alone, in pairs or in larger groups, depending on the spore prints seen the day before (peccaries, for example, are good prey for collective hunt trips). After they have left, the women eat with the children and soon after go to the swiddens to harvest and replant manioc. They return close to midday and prepare manioc flour, porridges and bread. Around three in the afternoon, the men return with their game and hand the catch over to their wives. Each woman cooks at her own hearth, but the meal that follows is communal, held in the leader's house, the men eating first, followed by the women and children. After this, the three or four meals that follow until sleep (around 9 p.m.) assume an increasingly domestic and individual character. In day-to-day life, male activities have an easy-going rhythm, very often interrupted by long periods of idleness in their hammocks, while the women work hard in the swiddens, preparing the meals and collecting firewood.

However, the women are not shy in complaining about men's laziness. The latter, in turn, sometimes fight among themselves, accusing each other of greed, for failing to distribute the meagre results of the daily hunt trips generously. When the situation reaches a critical point, the domestic groups disperse to various hunting camps, occupied for a period varying between two or three days and up to a month (adding up all the periods spent by a domestic group in the camps during one year gives an average of four months per domestic group per year). Here the roles are inverted: while the men spend up to twelve hours hunting without pause, the women idle in their hammocks. Also, everyone eats together: hunters, wives and children.

In a few days at the encampments, the men will have hunted much more than their domestic groups are capable of consuming. Consequently, they may decide to return to their home village, there holding a festival, smoothing over old conflicts or provoking new ones. Or they may decide to exchange the excess game for manioc flour, ipadu (macerated coca leaves) or manioc bread, supplied by river-dwelling Indians. In this case, some domestic groups may decide to stay for some time (from a few days to a month) in the riverside village, working in the swiddens and in the construction of new houses.

The relation between the Maku of the Uaupés and their river-dwelling neighbours, who speak Tukano, is fairly hierarchicalized: the former are taken to be 'slaves' of the latter. However, this is much more an ethnic ideology than an effective social practice. The Maku are free to come and go, establishing (or breaking) 'slavery' relationships with various riverside villages at the same time. At the same time, the Maku swiddens - in general 80% less productive than the riverside swiddens and incapable of meeting the demand of the Maku themselves - are spared. In reality, the Maku accept their status of 'slaves' due to the evident advantages that this brings them: they have access to cultivated products without having to assume the consequences of the sedentarization required to achieve a level of agricultural productivity similar to the Tukano (close to ten tonnes of tubers per domestic group per year, whereas Maku production is under three tonnes).

Political organization

Mobility is very important to the Maku, given that their usual means of resolving conflicts is spatial dispersion. There are no leaders or 'tribal' councils who could arbitrate the frequent misunderstandings between a village's inhabitants. The village leader is no more than a host and co-ordinator for collective hunts. In general, the position is taken by a middle-aged man, still strong enough to hunt and with considerable experience in the subject, around whom are united five or six domestic groups whose heads are his sons or sons-in-law. He has no authority for judging who is right or wrong in a dispute. A leader who attempts to pass judgement is not exempt from being struck during the fight or seeing the irrevocable desertion of a significant number of his sons or sons-in-law. Temporary spatial dispersion is thus the only form of avoiding the definitive fission of the village in the event of a conflict. But, depending on its gravity, fission may be inevitable: some domestic groups never return to their home village, but resettle instead in neighbouring villages, where they have close kin, or set up a new village.

The Maku local groups (villages) demonstrate a bilateral composition: both the leader's sons and his sons-in-law live together. The basic foundation of male friendship is the relationship between brothers-in-law, that is, men who exchange sisters. However, the term 'sisters' should be understood in a wide sense. The kinship vocabulary is Dravidian: it is based on the bipartition of cousins into those prohibited in marriage (parallel cousins, that is, children of siblings of the same sex) and those preferred in marriage (cross cousins, that is, children of opposite sex siblings). Among the Maku, the Dravidian vocabulary is associated with a system of patrilateral exogamic clans. There is a match between the vocabulary and the classification of the clans: just as cousins are split into 'brothers' (parallel cousins) and 'brothers-in-law' (cross cousins), the clans are classified into 'brother' clans and 'brother-in-law' clans, such that the universe of relatives is split in half, both from the point of view of the kinship vocabulary and from the point of view of the clan system. In this way, men who exchange real or classificatory sisters between themselves are friends (co-residents, hunt partners). The most stable local groups (villages) are those revealing this composition: a group composed of brothers-in-law assembled around a man of middle-age, father-in-law to some and father to others. This means at least two affinal clans are united in the same local group.

There are no factions, corporate age groups or elders councils among the Maku. They classify people according to three main age ranges (in the Hupdu language): the dowdu (green/unripe = children), the wudndu (mature = adults) and the wuhudndu (dry = elders). The village leaders are in an intermediary sub-class between the wudndu and the wuhudndu. The latter, apart from almost invariably performing the function of shamans, are also name-givers. In order to name a child, the elder undertakes a 'trip' (using a hallucinogen of the genus banisteriopsis) to the world of the ancestors. Arriving there, he consults the latter concerning the child's name. Each clan possesses a repertoire of names, such that the proper name already determines the person's clanic identity, as well as his matrimonial status (whether 'brother' or 'brother-in-law') in relation to the other clans.

Art, material culture and games

In comparison with their Tukano and Arawak neighbours, the Maku possess a rudimentary material culture: canoes, ritual stools, ceramic pots, body painting and sacred male initiation flutes, among others, are all items copied from their neighbours. The items of Maku origin appear to be the aturá (a very resistant carrying basket) and the blow-pipe. In fact, the latter is an instrument used in competitive target shooting tournaments, especially among the Nadub. Other games enjoyed by the Maku are whistling spinning-top, made from cocopalm and the rod from caryota rufflepalm, hunting doves with stones, and a certain enoyment in tormenting animals: a man, lying idly in his hammock, kills time offering a portion of manioc bread simultaneously to his pet toucan and his hunting dog so as to watch the bird inflict painful pecks on the snout of its rival; children amuse themselves tying flaming cinders to the tail of feral dogs, to watch them scamper off in fear, while the whole village falls about laughing. Then there is simply joking, including comparisons of penises and vulvas, with abundant deprecatory metaphors, as well as mocking comments made in a collective falsetto voice about other people's past lovers.

Cosmology and mythology

The Maku universe takes the form of an upright egg, with three levels or 'worlds': (1) the subterranean 'world of shadows' from where all the monsters come, such as scorpions, jaguars, venomous snakes, the river Indians and whites; (2) 'our world', that is, the forest and (3) the 'world of the light' above the sky, where the ancestors and the creator live - the Son of the Bone (a possible allusion to the penis, also called bone). Light and shadow are the two basic substances from which all beings are composed in varying proportions. Light is a source of life. Shadow is a source of death. In 'our world', leaves and fruit are the beings with the highest concentration of light, while carnivores have the highest concentration of shadow. For this reason, it is better to avoid eating carnivores and restrict one's diet to herbivores. In the world of light after death, people nourish themselves with delicious fruit juices and become eternal adolescents.

Mythology. The main mythological cycle of the Maku relates the epic tale of the Son of the Bone - Idn Kamni in Bara, Kegn Teh in Hupdu, Ku Teh in Yuhupdu. The tale describes the survivor of a fire that put an end to the previous creation. His attempts to recreate the world resulted in a series of blunders: conflicts, sickness, and death all result from the mess left behind. After his wife is abducted by his youngest brother, the Son of the Bone leaves this world behind forever, going to live in the world of light, above the sky and the thunder, from where he sometimes emits an expression of revenge. Coincidence or not, in real life brothers often fight among themselves, in dispute over the same women, their affines, in accordance with the clan system.

Ritual e shamanism

Aldeia do Pidu Bu. Fazendo fogo com pedras lascadas. Foto: Jorge Pozzobon, 1997
Aldeia do Pidu Bu. Fazendo fogo com pedras lascadas. Foto: Jorge Pozzobon, 1997

Apart from nomination, two other Maku rituals use hallucinogens from the banisteriopsis genus. One of these is the jurupari ritual, in which boys are initiated into adulthood. During this rite - which comprises a theatrical representation of the arrival of the ancestral anaconda at the stretches of river nowadays occupied by the Tukano - the men play the sacred flutes, which cannot be seen by women. The other rite is the kaapi wayá dance and chant, also originating from the riverine populations, in which the serpentine path of the anaconda is performed, but without the sacred flutes. In addition to these rites, there is dabocuri, again deriving from the river Indians. This is a profane festival, light-hearted and fuelled by alcohol. Among the Maku, very often this ends in veritable battles, with slapping, stick beating and early morning shouting, whose consequence - besides fairly extensive bruising - is usually the dispersion of the co-residents to various hunt camps or a strategic change of village.


In general, it may be said that all older Maku men are shamans. These, though, are of two types: the curers (bididu) and the jaguar-men (nyaam hupdu). The former cure by using spells. The latter by extracting the affliction by means of suction. Frequently, the same individual performs both functions. In neither case does the shaman inspire much fear among his peers: he is instead one of the favourite targets for mocking. But sometimes he may be accused of malice and sickness, whereupon the people who believe they have been attacked change village or "stay in the forest until the anger passes."

Note on the sources

It was the ethnologist Peter Silverwood-Cope who inaugurated field research on the Maku, more specifically on the Bara, staying among them from 1968 to 1970. His doctoral thesis was recently published in Portuguese (Silverwood-Cope, 1990) and approaches various aspects of Maku culture, such as its ecologico-economic basis and socio-political organization, as well as mythological and cosmological conceptions.

In the following decade, Howard Reid (1979) focused on mobility, the individual's developmental cycle and cultural change among the Hupdu - without, though, neglecting more traditional ethnographic topics, such as the ethnography of hunting and gathering, kinship structure, rituals and mythology. From the 1980s onwards, Pozzobon (1984, 1992) dedicated himself to the study of Maku social organization, establishing a socio-structural model applicable as a whole to the Bara, Hupdu and Yuhupdu, and based on the relations between ethnic identity, regional/ dialectal endogamy and the demography of significant social units.

Mention should also be made of the studies by Athias (1995, 1998) on the Hupdu sedentarized in mission-villages, focusing on various aspects of ecology, economy, social organization and cosmology, and above all conceptions linked to health and sickness.

On the Nukak, see the works by Franky Calvo, Cabrera Becerra and Mahecha (1995, 1999), as well as Politis (1996), dedicated to linguistic aspects, spatial mobility and the general ethnography of this people. Finally, the Nadöb are described in works by Schultz (1959), Münzel (1969) and Pozzobon (1998), which, although not resulting in in-depth ethnographies, provide important information on this little known section of the Maku people.

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