BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

29 October 2014

BBC Homepage

Contact Us


The Matis are classic slash and burn agriculturalists and expert hunters. They live in the vast Vale do Javari Indigenous Park, an area of 32,000 sq miles (the size of Austria) in the far west of Brazil. Despite all that's happened to them since first contact in the mid-1970s, the Matis remain a vibrant cultural force. They are a remarkably playful people for whom the longhouse remains a cultural focus and the skills needed to use a 3.5 metre-long blowpipe are deeply respected.

View the html version

Once semi-nomadic, moving their villages every few years or so when game ran low or the fields infertile, the Matis now live in just two villages. Waves of western diseases have devastated their population in the post-contact years. Crucially, after these epidemics the Matis lost confidence in their own cultural identity, believing the disaster was brought about by their own belief in the power of xo, the balance between all the sweet and bitter forces in the world. Many traditional Matis ceremonies and practices were rejected (see Matis Cultural Life below).

Time has given the Matis a better understanding of events surrounding and following first contact. A renewed cultural confidence means that some rituals have been rekindled and the old ways are no longer feared. Matis traditionalists (often elders) would like the old ways retained and reinforced. Other Matis, more influenced by modern Brazil through schooling and outside contact, want closer ties with mainstream Brazilian society. But whatever the future holds, the Matis want to shape it on their own terms.

Matis Life

Matis villages have no fixed shape, but are usually clustered around a longhouse on top of a low hill. The longhouse remains a key anchor in Matis cultural and village life. Imposing triangular structures, some 6m high and covered in a carefully woven thatch, they can be built by anyone who has sufficient political and material support. Decorated with the jaw bones of large peccary and tapir, the longhouse is where poison is applied to blowpipe darts, where blowpipes used to be kept and where a host of rituals take place (see Matis Cultural Life below).

In the past all Matis lived in longhouses. Now only a few sling their hammocks between the sturdy uprights, although cooking and communal eating is common. It was once tradition that you had to be naked to enter the longhouse. Most Matis now live in small ‘nuclear’ family groups in a one or two-roomed stilt house similar to those of the neighbouring Marubo people.

Before first contact there were five Matis villages, but now there are only two: Aurelio (around 160 people) and Beija Flor (130), both on the banks of the Itui River. Aurelio has seen more ‘development’ (a long-drop toilet, water towers and a generator - all non-functional) and each village has a small school, pharmacy, HF radio and at least one working dugout motor canoe (peque peque), most often used for hunting trips.

It’s only relatively recently that Beija Flor split off from Aurelio, but every village move is planned years in advance. Fruit trees and fields must be well-established before people build new homes. Old villages are completely abandoned, with the Matis only returning occasionally to harvest fruit trees. If there has been a recent death in the family the longhouse is burnt to the ground.

All Matis are related in the western sense, but there are very specific rules about marriage partners. Marriage itself has no formal ceremony (it’s more a matter of moving two hammocks close together) and does not preclude additional sexual partners – it was once not uncommon for brothers to sleep with each other’s wives.

Back to top »

Matis Culture

Traditionally the Matis have interpreted the world through taste, which they divided between two forms: bata xo (sweet) and chimu (sour). Bitter or sour things have great power, but it’s the balance between the two that produces xo, an excess of which can lead to disaster.

After the epidemics following first contact the Matis put a stop to their ‘bitter’ rites. These included the administration of kampo (a frog poison), whipping (the mariwin ceremony), having a painful bitter juice dropped into the eyes, being slapped with a leaf containing a powerful irritant (poces), drinking tatxi (an earthy, bitter drink made from a rare root) post hunt, tattooing and wearing facial adornments. Many of these rituals signify a man's passage to becoming a hunter and are then repeated throughout his life.

Shamanism all but disappeared with the death of Matis shaman (pajés) after first contact. It was they who had the greatest knowledge of xo, as well as the ability to breathe in venom and pain. Only recently a re-examination and reinvention of shamanism has begun.


Ritual & Adornment

Outsiders have long believed that Matis adorn themselves to imitate the jaguar, but the Matis are fed up with being referred to as the ‘Jaguar People’. Whilst they admire (and fear) the stealth and cunning of the jaguar, Matis adornments have nothing to do with the jaguar.

Many Matis rituals are about having fun in the longhouse and many involve the representation of animals. During txawa tanek (peccary dance) participants paint themselves red with urucum (anatto juice) before dancing in a line and entering the longhouse imitating the guttural and haunting sounds of the txawa (collared peccary, an Amazonian forest pig), whilst the lead dancer bangs two peccary skulls together. The ritual is designed to attract peccary to the hunters during the following day's hunt.

Mapwa tanek is the capybara ritual, a boisterous affair performed by young men who cover their bodies in wet clay and then hop around making sounds and actions of the rodents. Capybara are renowned for being destructive and the ritual often gets out of control with young women often targeted for extra attention.

In the mariwin ritual two Matis emerge from the forest as the physical embodiment of ancestral spirits. A clay horn is used to summon them to the longhouse. The bodies of the mariwin are painted black or yellow and they wear elaborate red clay masks and green ferns. The whips they carry are used to strike children who have misbehaved or are seen as lazy – Matis parents almost never chastise their children and this is the only corporal punishment children get. Hunters wishing to increase their xo are also whipped along with pregnant women in order to strengthen their unborn child. Although belief in the mariwin has waned, those putting on the costume take it very seriously.

In other dances men climb a pole in the longhouse and imitate a bird or mimic the behaviour of other animals and hunting scenes, much to the amusement of everyone.

After a baby is born special leaves are collected from the forest and placed upon the baby to protect the child against disease brought by animals. Matis are careful to avoid eye contact with the baby as this could bring harm.

The planting of corn traditionally had ceremonies associated with it. As well as being used to increase a hunter’s xo, poces leaves are hung over the entrance to the longhouse and all the men force their way in past the leaves and a guard of Matis women.

Tattooing was once a major festival with huge cultural significance, but many teenagers are not now tattooed, despite many professing a desire for it. This is a major ceremony during which mariwin spirits appear and sing. Initiates are required to hunt all day and participate in rituals all night.


Frog Poison

Kampo (frog poison known as sapo in Portuguese) is seen as a curative and purgative, an ordeal that you must go through to become fit, strong and alert. Kampo comes from the monkey frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor). The hapless creature is stretched over a fire and toxic excretions scraped from its back before it is released. Two marks are then burned onto the skin of the participant, the blister popped and the toxin (mixed with human saliva to activate it) applied. Although not hallucinogenic, the psychological response is very intense and the physical response absolutely dramatic – it’s a total stomach purge.

Researchers claim that the anti-bacterial peptides of kampo can be used to cure many diseases. The gene from the frog has already been added to a disease-resistant potato

Back to top »


Matis blowpipes are extraordinary works of art some 3.5 metres long. They have a hollow mouthpiece, but the main body is made from seven strips of a palm called isan or a tree called iwi kimbo which are bound together, covered in resin, inlaid with eggshells and have the tooth of a capybara (mapwa, the world’s largest rodent) as a sight. Blowpipes are used for canopy game (such as monkeys) as the length and weight makes them difficult to use at anything more than 20 degrees off vertical. In the hands of the Matis they’re accurate up to 30 metres and, unlike shotguns, are silent killers enabling a Matis group to take troops of monkeys at a time.

Blowpipe darts are also complex constructions. Thin palm stems are tipped with poison extracted from the curare vine (the basis of modern anaesthetics). The vine is scraped with a stick embedded with monkey teeth and the mixture then boiled and reduced in water for around two weeks. The poison has an extremely large amount of xo (see Matis Culture section above) and has many associated taboos. For example, you are not supposed to see the process unless you are going to be part of the hunting expedition.

Before a dart is fired, kapok (like cotton wool) and damp clay are wrapped around the dart to make an air-tight seal and piranha teeth used to score around the tip so the poison head will break off when it hits the prey.

Bows and wooden arrows are used for more robust game like white-lipped or collared peccary (forest pigs called unkin and txawa in Matis) and tapir (awat, ‘the bull of the jungle’), but shotguns are becoming the weapon of choice. Little status is attached to the use of this weapon and shells are very expensive for the Matis.

Hunting proficiency with a blowpipe is a highly-respected male trait and to bring a woman meat is a big compliment. Conversely the Matis don’t have a grand tradition of fishing (it’s something old men and children do!), but they do make komo poison from the awaka plant which will poison fish in a whole stretch of river.

Back to top »

First Contact

FUNAI is the Brazilian agency in charge of protecting the interests of indigenous peoples. It was they who began the official process of contacting the Matis between August 1975 and December 1976.

At first Matis men would only spy on the FUNAI station on the River Ituí, but they soon overcame their fears and were visiting it openly, receiving axes, machetes, dogs and hens for their trouble. It wasn't until 1978 that FUNAI employees began visiting the five Matis villages.

During the 1970s FUNAI had a policy of attraction and integration of uncontacted groups. What persuaded them to make contact with the Matis were the actions of fishermen, hunters, loggers and seringueiros (rubber gatherers) who’d began encroaching on Matis territory.

Sadly there were to be terrible consequences from contact with outsiders, including FUNAI staff and the neighbouring Marubo who were acting as translators. In the late 1970s and particularly the early 1980s there were a series of epidemics. Devoid of natural immunity or any remedies for western diseases, by the mid 1980s the Matis had lost perhaps a third of their population. There are no truly reliable figures on the death toll from foreign diseases wrought on the Matis, but a FUNAI census in 1985 found that only seven Matis were over 40 and only three were over 50. The Matis say that at times there were not enough fit people to bury the dead and they direct much of the blame at FUNAI. For a culture without a written history, this loss has had a profound effect on the dynamics of Matis life. It was the worst of times for the Matis, which only began to change in 1987 when FUNAI formed the Department of the Isolated Indians.


A Change of Policy

Sertanistas are the men who make a living out of protecting the isolated indigenous peoples in the Brazilian jungles. Sydney Possuelo, former head of FUNAI, is the most famous of a dwindling bunch. He is largely responsible for changing FUNAI’s policy on first contact. Gone are the efforts to bring isolated tribes into the modern world, efforts that invariably led to the epidemics and massive cultural change suffered by the Matis. “Once you make contact, you begin the process of destroying their universe,” says Possuelo. Today, Brazil has a network of indigenous parks that isolate indigenous people from outsiders and FUNAI policy is to map the territorial boundaries of uncontacted tribes to protect their lands and then leave them alone. “The best thing we can do is stay out of their lives,” says Possuelo.

Against considerable local resentment FUNAI demarcated the Vale do Javari Indigenous Park in 1996 and then actively removed settlers and loggers from the area. The policy of setting up vast reserves has given many cultures room to make their own way in the world, but has faced strong resistance in Brazil, despite the government signing up to the United Nations' Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2006.

Today there are tough restrictions on who can come in and out of the park, which protects the territory of at least a dozen tribal groups, only half of them contacted – FUNAI suggest that there may be as many as 1350 uncontacted people in the park and a total of 60 uncontacted tribes in the whole of the Brazilian Amazon.

Past Contact?

The peoples of the Amazon Basin did not develop in a cultural and economic vacuum. Contemporary evidence suggests that the region was once a vast, complex and cross-cultural trading network, with a population of millions. The isolation of Amazonian tribes is a reasonably recent phenomenon and a result of aggressive Andean empires and Spanish conquest as much as anything else.

The Matis often talk of occasional meetings with rubber tappers during the 19th century rubber boom. One Matis story recounts the remarkable tale of two Matis women enslaved by Europeans and kept in captivity for several years before escaping. They then managed to make their way from town back to their village, where the smell of their western clothes was too much for their relatives, who had the garments burnt immediately.


The Korubo

Sydney Possuelo of FUNAI made contact with a small splinter group of Korubo (so-called ‘head bashers’ because of their use of clubs) in 1996 after they came into contact with outsiders. The bulk of the tribe still live in the forest downstream of the Matis and have a history of conflict with outsiders, with considerable loss of life on both sides – when travelling along this stretch of river you are not allowed to stop as a precaution. A generation of local people have grown up in fear of the Korubo. In a way the aggression of the Korubo has protected the Matis and other peoples in the region.

Back to top »

The Future

Matis society has changed over the last 30 years thanks to demographic change and acculturation. Many children are now being educated in town, learning Portuguese, listening to Brazilian music and gathering material possessions. Elders may complain that young men don't hunt, they just play football, but more authority is shifting to young Portuguese speakers, who can take the lead in negotiations with outside authorities.

The health of the Matis remains a concern. There is a serious increase in the prevalence of hepatitis B within the Matis population, which given the nature of their society and reliance on western medicine, is a grave concern. At the same time the more sedentary nature of the Matis means that good hunting grounds are farther away and only accessible by motorboat, which in turn requires money to operate and thus the need to sell craft goods or take low-paid work in town. At the same time many Matis understand that living in the town all the time constantly requires money. Many Matis think that the food is not great and you become lazy, which is simply not the case in the forest.

Much depends on the next generation of adults. For the culture of the Matis to survive the young Matis must want to define themselves as something other than young Brazilians, which in the vibrant melting pot of modern Brazil is no easy thing. However, 30 years after first contact the Matis are growing in self-confidence, re-inventing and reviving their social and cultural traditions, therefore their future is far from determined.

Back to top »

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy