Matsés Tribe

Photo Gallery I

Matses Women Matses Cat Woman Female Body Painting Piercings
Traditional Medicines Tattoos Abducted Women Clans
Jaguar Facial Tattoos Body Painting Amazonian Life
Woman Hunters Native Men Jaguar Clan Jaguar Teeth Necklace
Native Warrior Bows and Arrows Ceremonial Dress Archery
Amazonian Rituals Phyllomedusa bicolor Frog Poison Kambo Traditional Medicine


Matses women still practice traditional body painting and decorations as do many other indigenous Amazonian natives. By tradition, female members of the Matsés tribe put decorations in the alae of their noses in an attempt to imitate the look of feline whiskers, consequently their tribe being frequently called the "Cat People." The “whiskers” are actually fabricated out of rigid palm leaf fibers. The women do not always wear these decorations, an example being after having a death in their immediate family, in which case the woman does not sport these decorations during a bereavement period of several months. To complement the nose piercings, women often wear a piece of wood in a piercing below the lower lip. Younger women often enhance their appearance by using longer sticks than the older.

Matses woman often wear their traditional piercings with female body painting. Like the majority of Amazonian tribes in the Amazon River Basin, the Matses employ a red pigment extracted from the annatto tree (Bixa orellana) in order to paint their bodies. At times, the Matses women will mix this red pigment with animal fat and the resultant combination creates a brilliant-red body paint. Female body painting was particularly important because Matses women did not put on clothing before making permanent contact with European cultures, as was the custom of most pre-Columbian Amazonian tribes. In addition to having piercings and practicing female body painting, Matses women traditionally have permanent tattoos on their faces.

In contrast with some modern-day cultures, older Matses women are greatly esteemed in Matsés culture for their intimate knowledge of nature and society. In general, it is older woman who process foliage (harvested by men) and heal with herbal remedies. Older Matses women have much understanding of traditional remedies and their relationship to the animal spirits. Like most Amazonian natives, the Matses are animists, believing that animal spirits play an important role in illnesses and determine one’s wellbeing.

Matses society is divided into two principal social groups, the Worm Clan and the Jaguar Clan. These two affiliations are hereditary and members of the Matses tribe are generally either “jaguar-kind” or “worm-kind” people as determined by the clan of their father (i.e., patrilineal). One’s clan determines one’s role in Matses society, with only one clan being able to perform certain tasks. A good example of a clan-specific task is the cultivation of maize. Only the Worm Clan can grow maize because the Matses believe that if a person from the Jaguar Clan was to do so, that the animal spirits would be offended, causing the maize to dry up and die. These two moieties of Matses society are intimately integrated, shaping one’s actions and way of life.

Despite their difficult past, the Matses Indians can be a surprisingly welcoming and cheerful indigenous Amazonian tribe.  Related tribes, for instance the Matis, Shipibos and Marubos, are known for being very sociable and demonstrate a harmonious Amazonian lifestyle. However at one time, relations between the Matses and outsiders were very inhospitable, with a virtual state of war existing between their communities and the outside world. To understand the Matses people and what caused these hostile relations between them and the outside would, you need to understand the history of the colonization of the Amazon, particularly the period of the rubber boom and its devastating effect on the indigenous people living there.

Similar to other Amazon tribes in the Javari River Valley, Matses men are fearless in many ways and their way of life and rituals frequently entail undergoing pain. However, Matses men are not violent and examples of one man dying at the hands of another are very rare. Quarrels between Matses men are normally settled in ritual wrestling contests rather than by violent confrontations. Most quarrels between men involve women and the relations between the sexes are complicated by the fact that the Matses are polygamous with an older man typically having several wives.

Older Matses men can still remember when they raided outside communities for metal tools and women. These attacks came about in response to their need for resources to survive in their interfluvial rainforest environment. The attacks by the Matses on outsiders and other Amazonian tribes peaked in the 1960s with the Matses attacking far away communities on the Ucayali River. The members of some of these communities (e.g. Requena) formed militias composed of civilians, law enforcement, and military personnel. These Peruvian militias attacked the Matses communities in the border region of Peru with Brazil, burning their homes and destroying their crops. The Matses fled deep into the interfluvial forest, making their survival even more difficult living away from the more abundant resources found near the major rivers. In 1969, the Matses finally made peace with the outside world when they allowed two female linguist-missionaries (Hattie Kneeland and Harriet Fields) from the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) to enter their territory.

Presently, the Matses are experts in the manufacture and use of bows and arrows. However, this was not always the case and before the invasion of their lands by westerners, the Matses are thought to have exclusively used blowguns. Anthropologists believe that the Matses tribe switched to bow and arrows as a result of a need to defend themselves against intrusions into their territory by rubber barons during the rubber boom era. Before he became infamous for his abuse of Amazonian indigenous tribes on the Putumayo River, the rubber baron Julio Arana was active in the Javari River Valley. It was in response to these invading rubber barons and the necessity to protect their communities against them that the Matses entirely abandoned the use of blowguns and equipped themselves with bows and arrows.

Similar to neighboring Amazonian Indian tribes, the Matses have many rituals that involve the giving of “energy” from one person to another. With few exceptions, these rituals are extremely agonizing and are used by the Matses to increase one’s endurance and skill. Examples of these rituals are blowing “snuff” (në-në) into one’s nose, whippings with urticating plants, being stung by ants, or receiving injections of frog venom (Phyllomedusa bicolor). Typically, the energy donor is an older male that possesses much energy while the receiver is most commonly a male youth. The Matses believe that the energy receiver will become more energetic and possess enhanced work and hunting skills. The utilization of this frog venom (referred to as sapo, kambo, kampu, or acate) is shared by numerous other Amazonian tribes, including the Matis, Kanamari, Kaxinawa, Katukina, Kulina, Yaminawa, Marubo, and Ticuna tribes.

Please be aware that currently it is not possible to enter the Matses Native Community with commercial tour guides who have recently been prohibited by the Matses chiefs from entering their indigenous territory.  However, it is still possible to meet the Matses people by having the Matses themselves act as your hosts.  If you would like to obtain more information and resources (books, maps, and articles) on the Matses people and learn how you can meet them, please email info(at) 

For more information about the Matsés, please contact info(at)

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