Maku Indians

Native to the northwest portion of Brazil, tucked away in the Amazon close to the border of Peru, the Maku tribal group is one of the last of the nomadic peoples in that great rainforest. Presently, they occupy an area bordered by the Guaviare River to the northwest, the Negro river to the north, the Japura River to the south, and the Uneiuxi River to the southeast. The combined area is roughly 20 million hectares of land, which the Maku share with other settlements of people, native and non-native alike.

Within this vast expanse are six distinct tribal groups noted by differences in dialect; this is due in large part to the dispersion amidst the large tract of land they occupy forced by the low quality of the land. Within this region, the Maku people have at their disposal large areas of stunted forest and scrublands, very poor soil and low concentration of game coupled with poor plant variation. Consequently, the Maku groups seek out and make their temporary homes in areas which support more rich and abundant varieties of plant and animal life.

The Maku people are the last of the nomads in the Amazon, and as a result their culture does not have space for concepts of property or wealth as we view them. They keep very few possessions and live in extremely small groups, generally as little as nine to as much as thirty people in a unit. They tend to live in the very deep forest and avoid outside contact as much as possible. Their homes tend to be constructed very simply and of light materials like wood and palm leaves. These structures are mostly designed to provide a roof over a sleeping hammock. Each family unit has their own hearth, which they use for warmth, food preparation, and to chase away insects with the assistance of special herbs they burn.

maku spear

Their men hunt using a blowgun with a poisoned dart. The darts are dipped in curare poison, which is formed through a combination of up to five different plants, and are used mainly to hunt game found in the forest canopy, predominantly monkeys. The weapons themselves are constructed from the trunks of the Stilt Palm. Sometimes they are fashioned with one tube connected into another to form blowguns of impressive length. The quivers they fashion to store their poisoned darts are made out of a bark cloth bearing a protective flap to keep the darts from weather. They also consume fish, turtles, fruits, nuts, vegetables, insects, and honey.

The Maku are currently under threat from external pressures. Since their first frequent contact in the late 80s, the tribe has seen a dramatic decline, losing over half their tribal population. They are one of thirty-two Columbian tribes under immediate risk of complete extinction. Particularly challenging at the present time is their placement in one of the primary coca growing regions. They are caught in a storm between the Columbian army, left-wing guerrilla fighters, and right-wing paramilitary troops battling it out over the rights to the source material for the lucrative cocaine industry.

They are one of the last groups of nomadic tribal peoples in the Amazon. It is only a question of a decade or two before their traditional trekking lifestyle is eroded into the sedentary agricultural village life. This drastic cultural change is happening under the influence of the Western culture.

Blowguns and Quivers

They use long blowguns with darts dipped into the curare poison to hunt in the forest canopy, mostly for monkeys. The blowguns are made from the straight trunks of the Stilt Palm, sometimes inserting one tube inside another until the length can reach 8 feet. Their quivers are made of bark cloth with a protective flap to cover the darts.

Handmade bark cloth quiver filled with many blowgun darts.

quiver maku darts

Blowgun with quiver

Additional Information

Ethnologue: Language Family Index – Maku
The Use of Psychoactive Plants Among the Hupda-Maku
Maku vocabulary, 2, 3, 4
Folklore video
Hit by disease, deforestation and war, Colombia’s last nomadic tribe faces extinction – AP

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