• Other names
    Muteamasa, Ukopinõpõna
  • Where they are How many

    AM111 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
    Colombia412 (1988)
  • Linguistic family

The Eastern Tukano and the Maku

The peoples of the Eastern Tukano and Makuan language families live together more intensely in the interfluvial region between the Tiquié and Papuri rivers and, to a lesser degree, between the Papuri and the Middle Uaupés (between Iauareté and the mouth of the Querari). In this area, they have developed a strategy of complementarity, given that traditionally they occupy distinct spaces and utilize specific environmental management practices. Different from the Tukanoans, who live on the larger rivers, the Maku prefer the smaller streams, located more in the center of the forest. They are good hunters, gatherers of forest fruits and know the paths in the forest quite well. The Tukano, in turn, are dedicated agriculturalists and fishers; even when they hunt, they prefer to do so in canoes, surprising wild pigs and tapirs who come to the riverbank to drink water.

From the point of view of the Tukano, the Maku form a category sui generis, to the extent they are different both from affines and from kin of the same descent groups, for they are not marriageable and are not assimilated to their kin groups through kinship terminology. The Maku represent a central reference point in the Tukano conceptual system, since they are associated with the lowest hierarchical categories.

The Maku maintain intermittent relations of trade and collaboration with the Tukano. In general, Maku domestic groups take the initiative to associate themselves with Tukano domestic groups, and it is they who also decide when they have to go back to their settlements or change Tukano “bosses". They can stay for only a week or up to several months among the Tukano, but there exist cases in which the relation is more stable and certain Maku are accustomed to performing tasks for specific Tukano domestic groups, maintaining this collaboration over several generations. Even in these cases, living together is interrupted when the Maku decide to take care of their own houses or to travel.

The Maku seek work when they are experiencing moments of greater necessity (their gardens are in general inadequate and there are periods when game is scarce). In these situations, they offer their services to the Tukano: the women work in the gardens and in the processing of manioc, and the men hunt, make coca (ipadu) or take on some particular task (changing the covering of a house, cutting down the forest for a garden, etc.). In exchange, the Tukano pay them with part of what is produced in cooking (manioc flour, manioc bread etc.), the men receive ipadu and tobacco and even used clothes, tools, hammocks, among other things.

When the Maku family is very large and the cost, in terms of exploiting the resources of the garden, is high for the Tukano domestic group that is hosting them, the Tukano group can tell them to leave. More frequently, however, it happens that the Maku themselves get fed up and feel rejected, so they leave on their own for their settlements, taking with them a supply of manioc flour and tapioca. In these cases, the Tukano complain that they leave without saying anything, from one minute to the next.

What most marks the relation between these two groups is the great autonomy of the Maku, which the Tukano cannot violate. The Maku seek out the Tukano in order to supply immediate food needs; the Tukano accept the Maku and designate various tasks for them to perform. Sometimes the Maku also participate in the collective work parties to cut or plant gardens organized by the Tukano, when caxiri (fermented manioc beverage) is offered. But on these occasions the relations between them are cold and distant, and involve no intimacy. In general, the Maku almost never eat together with the Tukano nor even sit close to them, except on the occasions when there are morning community meals and some Maku are present.

Social distance is marked by certain behaviors. When a Tukano speaks with a Maku, the Tukano stays at a certain distance, looking off to the other side. Another example: on returning the cigar that a Tukano has asked a Maku man to “pray” over (in order to cut some pain that a child or the Tukano himself is feeling), the Maku man, instead of putting the cigar in the Tukano man’s hand, squats down close to him and throws the cigar on the ground, close to the Tukano who asked him to perform the cure.

The relation between the Tukano and the Maku is celebrated in large dabucuris (rituals of offering food), held at the time of gathering certain forest fruits (such as ingá, cunuri, buriti and wild açaí). On these occasions, the Tukano prepare much caxiri and ipadu to receive the Maku, who arrive before daybreak, playing trumpets, small drums and making a lot of noise. They bring large quantities of fruits which, at first, are left on the riverbank but then are brought into the festival house, at the appropriate moment of the ritual (when there occurs a cerimonial dialogue between a pair of Tukano men and another Maku). Groups of Maku panpipe players take turns playing during the festival with groups made of up Tukano boys and men. They form dance pairs with the women, Tukano or Maku indiscriminately. The same ceremony can also be done with the offering of smoked meat; the roles can also be inverted, with the Tukano offering manioc bread and flour to the Maku. In general the festival occurs in the Tukano village.

The distancing that characterizes the relations between the Tukano and the Maku is based on the way the Tukano perceive the Maku. The Tukano describe them as different, strange and, in a certain sense, inferior. Some aspects which the Tukano mention are:


  • the Maku live in small improvised shelters, like those one makes on journeys in the forest and in the garden;
  • the Maku never are content to stay in one place, always coming and going, restless;
  • they are careless agriculturalists and, besides that, they don’t know how to cultivate, they don’t wait for the most productive time of manioc, uprooting all the unripe tubers to make caxiri; the men do the same with the coca plants, picking the leaves with no control and thus they have to ask the Tukano to get ipadu (which is a daily necessity);
  • they are not trustworthy, and not rarely are accused of robbing manioc from the Tukano gardens and then hiding their stealing by sticking the manioc stick in the soil after ripping off the root; they are also accused of making off with tools, clothes, and other things;
  • Maku local endogamy and the constant changes in the constitution of local groups are looked upon with disdain by the Tukano who even emphasize certain incestuous marriages, as though there were no definite marriage rules among the Maku;
  • the Tukano also say that the Maku have no hygiene, they don’t wash nor comb their hair, they dress like ragamuffins, with old and filthy clothes.

This view of the Maku has several practical outcomes, for example, marriage with them is expressly prohibited and a person that has some degree of Maku ancestry (whether on the father’s or the mother’s side) is stigmatized. However, the marriage of a Tukano man with a Maku woman is more acceptable than the marriage of a Maku man with a Tukano woman, which practically never occurs.

In the contact situation, which has involved the intensification of trade, evangelizing and school education, changes have occured in the relation between these peoples. The Tukano have taken on the role of intermediary in the penetration and trade of industrialized merchandise. While the Tukano have adhered to the practice, which is today quite widespread and valued, of sending their children to school until the end of basic education (the 8th grade) and, less frequently to high school in the city, the Maku have never adapted to the school system and all attempts promoted by the missionaries have failed. Even the schools established in the Maku villages, with Tukano teachers, have rarely produced good results.

Presently, the intense migration of the Tukano to the missionary or urban centers, such as the cities of São Gabriel da Cachoeira and Santa Isabel, has led to a process of the abandonment of several areas. This has made possible the establishment of Maku villages on the main course of the rivers, as is the case of the Tiquié.