Early explorers confused the Matis as belonging to the Mayoruna or Marubo. There is little chance that the Matis had avoided earlier contact. The Matis originate from the Amazon rainforest in the region of the Javari Valley, which is found along the border of Peru near Brazil. These tribal people are striking in appearance, utilizing facial tattoos, piercings, and painting to take on aspects of creatures they admire. They have been known as the ‘Jaguar People’ to many, though this is somewhat a misconception about their facial decor. They are primarily a hunter-gatherer society and have a rich and beautiful spiritual world. They are extremely knowledgeable about the local plantlife and use it to great effect in their daily lives.
The Matis are masters of curare. Of the Amazon groups that use it, each have their own magical method for making this venom. Curare arrived in the Old World on the tongues of a thousand legends and tales. First known as “Wourali”, it was brought to Queen Elizabeth by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1584. It was Charles Waterton (1782-1865) who introduced curare to our medical world. Today the synthetic is used on a daily basis as an anesthesia around the world. It is one of the greatest contributions and gifts given by the Amazon Indians.
Within the last few generations, the Matis have undergone a spiritual crisis resulting from the devastation that contact with the outside world has wrought to their health and way of life. Initially, many Matis blamed their spiritual beliefs on the harm that had visited them and rejected traditional rituals and shamanic teachings. More recently, they have begun to return to these customs and embrace them as heartily as they did in the past.
These customs include a number of vibrant and playful rituals that are usually performed in the central longhouse and often include altering their physical appearance to take on the guise of various animals. In one ritual, ‘Mapwa tanek’ or capybara ritual, the young men will paint their bodies in wet clay and mimic the sounds and behavior of the large rodents. In another ritual, the ‘txawa tanek, ‘ they adorn themselves in bright red annatto juice and engage in a boisterous line dance imitating the haunting call of the collared peccary, or txawa. The purpose of this ritual is to draw the pig to the hunters planning to go out the following day.
Small masks are used in a ritual for children. This tradition was stopped for many years. Recently they started to produce them again.
Like many Amazonian tribes, the Matis utilize curare poison in blowdarts for hunting. Their blowdarts are often intricate and beautiful works of art that are highly adapted to hunting the game in the canopy of the Amazon. These weapons can accurately fire up to 98 feet away with complete silence. They can kill a hummingbird in flight that has a defense reaction of 1/20th of a second.
When hunting game that requires more force, they traditionally favor bows with wooden arrows, though shotguns are becoming more prevalent in modern times. Game killed by shotgun does not carry as much status as game conquered by more traditional means.
The Matis also use their knowledge of local plantlife for more than just the poisoned darts; they utilize a poison known as ‘komo’ that can draw all the oxygen from a region of water, suffocating the fish within. Fish killed in such a manner then float to the surface, allowing the fishing Matis to simply gather them up at will. This is usually reserved for children and elderly men.
The Matis tribe has been devastated by contact with the outside world, shrinking down to a mere two villages. This has forced them to leave behind a semi-nomadic lifestyle of generations past as malaria and hepatitis wipe out their numbers. Village life is moving away from communal habits, though meal preparation and eating remains so most of the time.
Marriage for the Matis is as simple as slinging one’s hammock next to an intended mate, and holds no restrictions on sexual partnerships. Instead, marriage for the Matis is more about a desire to share household duties together than sexual exclusivity. At one time, it was common for brothers to share each other’s wives sexually to ensure a stronger link to any conceived children.