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. The Matis language belongs to the Pano linguistic family.



Village 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.

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.

Agriculture & Subsistance

Hunting with the bow, blowgun and rifle is the most highly valued male activity among the Matis. The animals hunted include peccaries, tapirs, sloths, monkeys, macaws and caymans. Animals are hunted at salt licks; traps are also used. Blowguns are preferred to kill monkeys. The poison used for the blowgun dart, curare, is prepared from a vine extract. Fishing is also a popular activity.

Agriculture among the Matis involves cultivation of crops on shifting areas of cleared and burnt forest (slash-and-burn agriculture). These swiddens are cleared, burnt, cultivated and gradually abandoned as yields diminish. It is important to emphasize that these ‘fields’ are not permanent: each swidden is planted just once. However, as each swidden comprises various crops, the harvest extends for various years in each part of the cultivated area. The staple products of these swiddens are manioc, banana, peach palm and maize; consumption of the latter crop is essentially ritual.

The Spirit World

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.

Sho is a characteristic and shamanic substance – and even a source of power – of shamans and important men. Ambivalent par excellence, this substance presents both positive and negative aspects. In beneficial form, it is transmitted formally during rituals or ‘by contagion’ when someone lies in another person’s hammock, for example. Likewise, pathogenic sho can also be voluntarily sent (via tiny blowgun darts), or involuntarily, through exhalation, for instance. The Matis can therefore impute sicknesses to the whites without really blaming them and seeking revenge.  

Information Referenced from the Instituto Socioambiental | Povos Indígenas no Brasil and the BBC

Date accessed 20.07.15

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