Foto: Isaac Amorim Filho , 1985


  • Other names
  • Where they are How many

    AM1.700 (CTI, 2016)
    Peru2.500 (CTI, 2016)
  • Linguistic family

Formation of the Matsés people and contact history

War period

Like the Marubo, today’s Matsés population is the result of the merging of various peoples who had previously inhabited different malocas and did not always speak mutually intelligible languages. The formation of the ‘ethnic’ group defining itself as ‘Matsés’ mainly derived from the gradual incorporation of captives (principally women and children) from other groups in the region.

In the 20th century, up until the 1960s, the Matsés launched attacks on many different malocas and groups, very often speakers of Pano languages. In these attacks, the practice was to kill the men and capture women and children who were incorporated into the families of warriors as their wives and children.


Polygamy was linked to the capture of women; as a result, the Matsés increasingly became formed of families composed of Matsés fathers and ‘foreign’ mothers. During his research at the upper Choba settlement (Peru) from 1974-76, Romanoff recorded the impressive statistic that the population contained "captives from at least 10 linguistic groups, including speakers of what seemed to be dialects of Matsés (mutually comprehensible but with some distinct words), speakers of other Amerindian languages, speakers of Spanish and Portuguese.” The anthropologist cites a total of 74 captives and claims that “of the ten groups, the Matsés had wiped out at least four” (Romanoff 1984:69).

Data obtained in Brazil in 1975 refer to two captive Brazilian women and one captive Peruvian woman among the Matsés of the Lobo river (Melatti & Montagner-Melatti 2005 [1975]). Information from 1980 also records five Kulina-Pano women at the Trinta-e-Um village, as well as a Brazilian woman and a Peruvian man and woman at the Lameirão village (Melatti 1981:65).

While the Matsés say that they are a ‘mixed’ people, they also proudly emphasize features that differentiate them from the other peoples they know, stressing what we could call a ‘Matsés way of life.’ The ‘cultural hegemony’ identified among them by researchers (Erikson 1992, 1994; Romanoff 1984) is indeed notable given the heightened exogamy and the warfare pattern sustained by the Matsés over the last century.

Notable but still typically Amazonian: the goods and cultural practices of these captives were absorbed by the Matsés and today form part of what distinguishes them from other local groups. For example, they attribute the substitution of the blowgun (Matis style) by the bow and arrow to a people associated with the contemporary Marubo. Similarly, their myths tell how other cultural goods were acquired from enemies or ‘foreign’ allies: agriculture from the curassow; names from the water people; forest remedies from a people who lived downriver.

Non-Indians began to be an important part of this warfare dynamic around the 1920s when they intensified their expeditions and attacks on the headwater regions of the Gálvez, Choba, Javari and Curuçá rivers. One of the emblematic events of this period was the acquisition of firearms by the Matsés, who recount how they were taught how to use them by a woman captured from the Peruvians.

Relations with non-Indians

At the peak of the rubber boom on the Javari river, roughly between the 1870s and the 1920s, the Matsés lost their access to the river, frequented in the dry seasons to collect yellow-spotted turtle and giant Amazonian turtle eggs from the beaches. There is no mention of malocas or groups that could be Matsés in the documents produced by explorers of the Javari during this period (Melatti 1981:69). At this time, the Matsés were avoiding conflicts with whites, withdrawing to interfluvial areas, and maintained a pattern of dispersal that enabled them to keep away from the rubber extraction fronts as the latter moved up the rivers (see Mobility of local groups during the war period).

An episode narrated by the Matsés living in Brazil describes the first time their ancestors saw a rubber tapper camp. This narrative has a mythic structure marked by a succession of equivocations: the Matsés try placing gun cartridges in their ears, thinking they were ear pendants; matches were used as lip decorations; they drank the latex thinking it was manioc drink; and they scared themselves looking in mirrors and ran away. From this ‘first contact’ they took only a chicken, an animal they had never seen before.

Direct conflicts began to appear in the accounts from the 1920s onwards. In 1926, a Peruvian man working on the Gálvez river was interviewed by Romanoff (Romanoff 1984) and claimed that the rubber bosses were unable to set up on the Choba river due to the attacks by the Indians.

The response to these attacks were punitive expeditions – the so-called 'correrias’ – in which Matsés women and children were captured. Undoubtedly this only helped intensify Matsés warfare activities. Today some older people tell how their grandfathers launched a revenge raid against whites in the town of Requena. In these attacks they captured women and acquired firearms and metal tools.

Meanwhile the wars between the Matsés and other peoples continued. In Brazil, testimonies collected by Melatti and Montagner-Melatti (2005 [1975]) refer to a conflict occurring in 1933 between the Marubo of the Maronal community on the Curuçá and the Matsés living on the Pardo river (cited in the report as ‘Mayo’ and ‘Mayoruna,’ as they were called by their non-indigenous informants). During this episode, one Matsés man died and the Marubo took their women. According to this source, this group of Matsés had lived in the region since the 1920s (Melatti 1981:69).

From the 1950s onwards, the exploration of rubber in the frontier region was gradually replaced or supplemented by logging activity and the trade in forest game and skins, mainly to supply the towns of Peruvian Amazonia.

The expansion of commercial logging in the region coincided with the creation of the Peruvian Angamos border platoon (1947) and the Brazilian border platoons of Estirão do Equador (1958) and Palmeiras do Javari (1965) along the shores of the Javari river. Documents from this period confirm the involvement of the Peruvian and Brazilian military in punitive raids against the Matsés, accompanied by civilians who had lost relatives to the Indians.

In Brazil there is, for example, a record of punitive raids in response to the Matsés attack on loggers from the Sacudido river area on August 31st 1958. On this occasion, “3 civilians and 59 military personnel found and defeated 3 indigenous malocas, one in the region between the Flecheira river [affluent of the Curuçá] and Santana river [affluent of the middle Javari] and two on the Negro river [affluent of the Curuçá]” (Coutinho Jr. 1993). In 1963, a punitive expedition was conducted by the Brazilian army against the ‘Mayoruna,’ organized by the commander of the Frontier Unit (GEF) based in Manaus.

Around 1960, outbreaks of warfare were again recorded between the Matsés and Marubo: the Matsés captured three Marubo women living in the Maronal community on the Curuçá river. They fled along the Amburus creek, an affluent of this river, and were later pursued by the Marubo who killed fourteen Matsés (Melatti & Montagner-Melatti 2005 [1975]).

Also in 1960 the Matsés living on the Curuçá expelled rubber tappers working on the river. In the raid, they killed Indians called Kulina (today identified as Kulina-Pano) who were living on the Pedro Lopes river and had established peaceful relations with the rubber tappers, who fled (Melatti 1981:69).

In Peru, Romanoff (1976) cites the 1964 punitive expedition that left the town of Requena for the Gálvez-Choba interfluvial region, organized by the mayor and the town's ecclesiastical authorities. They reached a Matsés maloca were they were surprised and attacked. The injured were rescued by helicopters from the US Navy. After the rescue, Peruvian airplanes bombed the location. Some men and women who today live in Brazil, childhood survivors from the bombed maloca, have impressive recollections of this episode.

These events reveal how it is impossible to draw a neat dividing line between a traditional way of life and a way of life defined by the arrival of the whites during this period of intense warfare. Dispersal and warfare were occurring long before direct contact with non-Indians. At the same time, colonization indirectly made itself felt through epidemics and the territorial readjustments enforced on the region’s different native peoples.

From the 1970s onwards, though, the cessation in armed conflicts and the relative sedentarization of most of the Matsés – enabled through the gradual establishment of pacific relations with some whites – can be interpreted as factors that brought about profound changes, experienced as such by the Matsés themselves.

Arrival of the mission (Peru)

The Matsés are unanimous in asserting that the process defined by themselves as ‘being tamed’ began in 1969 with the arrival of American missionaries from the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). However, we should be careful not to be misled by this enemy-derived expression of ‘taming.’ Though the end of the armed conflicts coincided with the arrival of the missionaries, this was not because the Matsés adopted a Christian ‘pacific’ morality, quelling their potential conflicts with whites and other peoples. Without fully adopting the Christian ethos (evinced by their subsequent dispersal after an initial period of agglomeration around the mission), the Matsés succeeded in preventing attacks on their malocas by whites, which ceased after the arrival of SIL with the support of the Peruvian government. Given the size to which these attacks had grown (to the point, incredibly, of an aerial bombardment), the presence of missionaries in the area was undoubtedly important in terms of protecting the Indians. This fact enabled a gradual approximation of the group contacted by the missionaries (through the common practice of offering industrialized goods, left close to the Matsés houses).

Around 1963, before the decisive approximation, the two missionary women established the first contacts with speakers of the Matsés language: a Peruvian woman and her child who had escaped captivity, and a young man captured by another northern Pano group, called José (or Joe) by the women, who was found on the shores of the Javari, waving to a passing boat. The young man lived with the missionaries for a year and a half and subsequently tried to mediate with the rest of the Matsés group with whom he had formerly lived. He was killed by them, however. After this failed attempt to use an indigenous mediator, the missionaries sought direct contact. The women camped on the shores of the Javari river while airplanes transmitted messages to the malocas using loudspeakers. After initial friendly contact, Matsés families began to settle next to a landing strip located near to the upper course of the Choba. The strip was built by the Matsés under the direction of the missionaries (Romanoff 1984:54).

As is common during the first years of contact with non-Indians, a series of epidemics struck the population following the establishment of the missionary settlement. The medical care offered by SIL then became another lure for the more isolated groups who received news (and diseases) from visitors coming from the mission base. The Matsés say that some groups refused to make contact with the whites and still remain in voluntary isolation today.

During the period when anthropologist Romanoff stayed in the area, between 1974 and 1976, the SIL team (the pioneering missionaries and a couple that later joined the women) provided medical care and industrialized goods bought from the sale of craftwork produced by the Matsés. As well as the medical and commercial services, SIL’s main activities were: “linguistic research, Bible translation, evangelization (...), acting as intermediaries between the Matsés and outsiders, and teaching literacy.” The anthropologist also claims that the missionaries who worked among the Matsés had been contracted by the Peruvian Ministry of Education and therefore “also carried out administrative tasks” (1984:51).

A period of concentration in malocas near the airstrip, close to the Choba river, apparently gave way at the start of the 1980s to a period of dispersal as families began to leave the mission base and settle in houses on the Gálvez and upper Javari rivers. In these riverside communities, the extended patrilocal families (groups of brothers, their wives, sons and their wives, unmarried daughters and, sometimes, older dependent relatives) began to live in separate houses, each with a nuclear family, rather than in a single maloca (Calixto 1984:18).

Peaceful contact with Funai and the army (Brazil)

On the Brazilian side, Funai has been active in the Javari river region since 1971 following its implantation of a headquarters on the upper Amazon (the Upper Solimões Agency: Ajusol). The arrival of Funai coincided with the opening of the Perimetral Norte highway.

Around 1974 a post was installed on the Lobo river, which maintained contact with a group of Matsés. In 1975, a Funai attraction front was set up at the mouth of the Lobo, which maintained contact with three 'Mayoruna’ malocas (Melatti & Montagner-Melatti 2005 [1975]:10).

In 1978, the Palmeiras do Javari border platoon was involved in a conflict between various Matsés families living in the area covered by Funai’s local indigenous post. In 1977, a Matsés man who had left his community on the upper Lobo and lived in Atalaia do Norte, working as a manual labourer for Funai, tried to return and travel up the river, but was threatened by the group living in the malocas along its course. He assembled his relatives at the maloca on the upper Lobo and attacked the malocas on the middle course of the river. They were defeated, though. He then looked for reinforcements among the Peruvian Matsés and forced his enemies to flee to the Lobo's confluence with the upper Javari.

In January the following year, he returned to the Lobo to work but was attacked by residents from the settlement at the river's mouth. He retreated to his original village and later to the Peruvian side, once again bringing warriors back to attack the village at the mouth of the Lobo. Four men were confirmed as dying in this conflict, two on either side (Melatti 1981:71). Afraid of fresh attacks from Matsés living in Peru, the families left their settlement at the mouth of the Lobo and took refuge in Palmeiras do Javari. Although the attacks did not materialize (possibly because of the protection guaranteed by the Brazilian army), these families, unable to return to their homes, were transferred by the army and Funai to a location on the middle Javari called Lameirão (Melatti 1981:71).

During the 1970s, the logging and rubber extraction activities in the Brazilian region of the Javari basin (along with surveys conducted by Petrobrás) continued to threaten the integrity of the region’s indigenous populations, especially due to the danger of the transmission of non-indigenous diseases, in some cases fatal to the Indians.

In 1975, there were eleven rubber extraction camps on the Jaquirana (upper Javari), one on the middle Javari, also called Lameirão, and two on the Pardo river (Melatti 1981:80). In 1985, a document produced by the Javari Campaign recorded more than 170 loggers and more than 70 rubber tappers, as well as 11 river traders working regularly on the Jaquirana river and its affluents and on the Pardo and Grande rivers (the area occupied by the Lameirão community). The document also records that Matsés men were working in rubber and timber extraction (Campanha Javari 1986).

The document led to a national and international campaign in favour of demarcating an area of protection for the region's Indians. However, the physical demarcaion of the Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory was only completed in 2000 and officially approved on May 2nd 2001. Non-Indians living in the area were successfully removed, but the lack of adequate border inspection still allows loggers, hunters and fishermen to invade the area in certain regions.

Following demarcation, the Lameirão region ended up outside the boundaries of the Indigenous Territory. The families living there moved to communities on the shores of the Curuçá and Pardo rivers, where they still live today. Most of the group that remained on the Lobo river after the incident in 1978 continue to live on its shores and those of the upper Javari. The last large relocation occurred in 2006 when more than half the population of the Trinta-e-Um village, situated on the upper Javari close to the mouth of the Lobo, moved to the Pardo river due to a number of deaths caused by hepatitis B.