Families of the Forest

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ANTH 418
Final Paper
This paper will be discussing the ethnography by Allen Johnson titled Families of the forest. The ethnography describes the Matsigenka people of Shimaa that live in the Peruvian Amazon. The paper will examine the Matsigenka culture, the needs and resources of the culture, and proposed projects to meet the needs of the culture.

The Matsigenka of Shimaa live in isolation along river valleys and forested mountains in the Peruvian Amazon (Johnson,1999, p.24). They live in small villages of about 7 to 25 people, that make up three to five nuclear family households (Johnson, 1999, p 3). The Matsigenka prefer to live in these hamlets and avoid interacting with people outside of their immediate family. The Matsigenka live a family level society and this helps them to avoid being exploited or to encounter enemies (Johnson, 1999, p. 6). Their isolated hamlets are very self-sufficient; “good land for horticulture is ample, however, and the low population density and widely scattered small settlements has meant only minimal competition between family groups for what wild foods do exist” (Johnson, 1999, p. 21). They live off of fishing, foraging and horticulture and the most important food to the Matsigenka is insect larvae. This provides them with protein and dietary fats, which they can get year round from moths, butterflies, beetles, bees and wasps (Johnson, 1999, p. 36).

The cultural values of the Matsigenka are not to far from that of Western culture. Much of their religious beliefs are stemmed from folklore and spirits which promote proper behaviors within the group. They can be calm, quiet, gentle, but also mean, aggressive, and violent. They might be less sociable in large groups, but “they are more courteous and thoughtful in individual interactions. They are less attracted to the lure of commerce and new value systems. Their commitment to freedom of the family unit is truly remarkable” (Johnson, 1999, p. 50). The Matsigenka are a people that are at their happiest when left alone from outsiders and in their isolation. Much of their happiest in isolation stems from the fear of outsiders bringing in infectious diseases, which happened in the 1950s and 1960s when they first encountered Peruvians and Euro-Americans (Johnson, 1999, p. 75). They maintain societal standards for their hamlets that require independence and being able to live peacefully within a group. They do not have or give proper names to one another and when they do name a person it is usually referring to a deformity or amusing incident (Johnson, 1999, p. 20). “Somehow individual men and women must be highly self-reliant, motivated to do the necessary thing according to their own judgment with little encouragement (or interference) from others, and yet at the same time be generous in the family and avoid the impulsive expressions-- especially of sex, aggression and greed-- that can shatter even the strongest interpersonal bonds in closely-cooperating family groups” (Johnson, 1999, p. 110).

“Courtship is generally open and a topic of delighted conversation at large. For many couples, courtship is a more or less public expression of mutual interest as they test the possibility of marriage” (Johnson, 1999, p. 120). A married couple within the Matsigenka culture have established roles, they are partners with skills in separate areas of surviving. They seek to marry well and make sure to not marry a lazy person. They think that this will lead to an unequal marriage and the lazy person will always be dissatisfied (Johnson, 1999, p. 121). “Matsigenka husbands and wives spend much time together in evident harmony and enjoyment of each other’s company. We frequently find them sitting side by side at home, working quietly at some task, talking and laughing together. At times they become playful and giggle or wrestle erotically” (Johnson, 1999, p. 120). Anger does not play a large role in their marriages, but it does happen occasionally when...
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