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Matsigenka and Colonos – Lowland, Peru

all pictures: © John Bunce and Caissa Revilla Minaya


  • Co-senior Researchers: John Bunce and Caissa Revilla Minaya
  • Began research at site: 2010

Site Details

The Matsigenka are a lowland Amazonian indigenous group of Southeastern Peru whose language is part of the Arawak language family. The population of approximately 1000 (contacted and “uncontacted”) people who live in the tropical forests of the Manu River basin inside Manu National Park practice swidden horticulture (growing primarily manioc and plantains), as well as hunting, fishing, and gathering. In Manu, Matsigenka social life is generally organized around the clan (extended family), which is usually matrilocal (but with increasing exceptions), with clearly-defined gender and age-specific roles. Matsigenka of the region were persecuted and enslaved during the Rubber Boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and many fled deep into the headwaters of the Manu and Urubamba river systems to escape slave raids. An unknown (to us) number of these Matsigenka in “voluntary isolation” still reside there. The evangelical Christian Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) arrived in the region in the 1960s and attracted many Matsigenka families from the headwaters to settle in the community of Tayakome, on the Manu River, where they offered Western schooling, healthcare, and access to Western goods. SIL was expelled from region when Manu National Park was founded in 1973. This UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the largest national parks in Amazonia and contains some of the world’s highest biodiversity. Under Peruvian law, people living inside protected natural areas may remain if they were living in the area before protected status was bestowed. However, they are subject to certain restrictions. The Matsigenka of Manu are allowed to stay in the Park only if they maintain “traditional” subsistence activities, which are defined (by the Park) to preclude the use of firearms, domesticated animals (other than chickens and dogs), and the sale of anything produced inside the park (excepting handicrafts). These restrictions are a continuing source of tension. Currently, the Peruvian State maintains health posts, as well as kindergartens and primary schools in some communities. Many Matsigenka work for several months of the year outside the Park in tourism and logging, and many children attend boarding secondary schools outside the park. Matsigenka residents may leave and return to their communities inside the Park anytime they wish, provided they have community authorization. However, non-Matsigenka may only enter the Matsigenka communities temporarily on official business, and with the authorization of the communities themselves and the Park administration.

Surrounding Manu National Park are a number of non-indigenous towns, as well as Native Communities of Matsigenka, Yine, and Harakmbut who hold official title to their land. Residents of non-indigenous towns include many people who migrated down from the Andean region (especially the Departments of Cusco, Puno, and Apurimac) to colonize the lowlands starting around the 1940s, as well as their descendants, and a few local indigenous people, including Matsigenka. For convenience here, we label non-local residents as “Colonos” (colonists), although most don’t consistently use any single term to refer to themselves. Life in Colono towns is focused around the nuclear family, whose members engage in small-scale economic activities, including tourism for the park, attending small general stores, logging, cash-cropping (mostly plantains), and boat-building. Most residents maintain strong family and economic ties with distant urban centers, such as Cusco and Puerto Maldonado. Many of the wealthier residents visit these cities regularly for healthcare needs and send their children to be educated there, despite the presence of local health posts, and primary and secondary schools in the towns. More information about the Matsigenka and Colonos can be found in the publications and website links below.


John studies cultural dynamics in the Matsigenka and Colono populations. He is particularly interested in cultural norms, i.e., peoples’ beliefs about what constitutes appropriate behavior in contexts such as child-rearing, inheritance, labor, healthcare, and education. We have shown, unsurprisingly, that Matsigenka and Colonos tend to hold different norms in many such contexts. However, the distributions of these norms will almost certainly change over time, especially for the Matsigenka, as their interactions with Colonos outside the park in contexts such as commerce, wage labor, and education steadily increase. Our research suggests that certain types of Matsigenka-Colono inter-ethnic interaction, such as boarding secondary-school education, may have a stronger effect on the loss of Matsigenka-typical cultural norms than do other forms of inter-ethnic interaction, such as wage labor. We developed several hypotheses to explain the observed pattern of norm distributions, including differences in the bargaining power of Matsigenka relative to Colonos during individual-level coordination interactions. To test these hypotheses, we are conducting a longitudinal study of cultural norms and inter-ethnic interaction in the Matsigenka and Colono communities, as well as among Matsigenka boarding-school students and their teachers in Colono towns. One goal of this work is to contribute to a robust mechanistic theory of cultural change at ethnic boundaries. A second, and equally important, goal is to empower minority ethnic groups, like the Matsigenka, to develop strategies for the sustainability of cultural norms that they, collectively, would like to preserve, while at the same time facilitating desired inter-ethnic engagement.

Caissa’s research interests are related to human conceptualizations of, and interactions with, the environment. In particular, her study among the Matsigenka of Manu explores cultural understandings of non-human beings and the role of these understandings in people’s environmental behavior. Her research employs mixed methods, combining qualitative ethnographic and quantitative data collection, to examine the population-level variability and distributions of Matsigenka notions of plants, animals, and other non-human beings, as well as the dynamics of cultural change. She plans to complement her current research by studying these notions among residents of the non-Matsigenka Colono towns around Manu National Park, as well as by studying the processes of acquisition and transmission of environmental conceptualizations, in order to explore the mutual cultural influence of Matsigenka and Colonos. Caissa is also interested in exploring how environmental conflicts that emerge in particular socio-political contexts may be related to encounters between people with conflicting conceptions of the world, and the practices associated with such conceptions.

Both John and Caissa are committed to integrating long-term ethnography with quantitative field methods, and using insights from this empirical work to inform the development of theory, including mathematical models of cultural dynamics. In addition to our primary research interests above, we also study growth patterns (e.g., height and weight trajectories), as well as the material and oral culture of the Matsigenka. Importantly, we are committed to the welfare of the people with whom we work, as they choose to define it.

Selected Publications

Revilla-Minaya, C (2019) Environmental Factishes, Variation, and Emergent Ontologies among the Matsigenka of the Peruvian Amazon. Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, USA. [Link]

Bunce, JA and R McElreath (2018) Sustainability of minority culture when inter-ethnic interaction is profitable. Nature Human Behaviour 2:205-212. [Link]

Bunce, JA (2018) Field evidence for two paths to cross-cultural competence: implications for cultural dynamics. SocArXiv. December 7. doi:10.31235/osf.io/468ns. [Link]

Bunce, JA and R McElreath (2017) Inter-ethnic interaction, strategic bargaining power, and the dynamics of cultural norms: a field study in an Amazonian population. Human Nature 28(4):434–456. [Link]

Bunce, JA (2014) Creating one’s own postdoc position: an NSF-funded investigation of cultural change in Amazonia. Anthropology News 55(7):e18-19.