Families of the Forest: Lifestyle of the Matsigenka Amazonian Natives

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Final Paper

Washington State University

Political Science 418 Fall 2012 Section 1

Professor Robert Quinlan

December 6, 2012


This paper is written almost exclusively with information taken directly from the book Families of the Forest by Alan Johnson about the lifestyle of the Matsigenka Amazonian Natives. Information regarding the Matsigenka is almost solely derived from the work of Johnson unless noted otherwise. The purpose of this paper is to introduce the Matsigenka people, their needs as a community and finally pose a development project that meets the needs described. Realistically this is only one possible solution posed by an inexperienced undergraduate student. The author is student who has never set foot in South America or even has had any experience with a development project. The ideas expressed in this work are purely an academic exercise. The author does not assume that the Matsigenka do not already know and or practice some of the ideas shared in this assignment.

Overview of the Matsigenka
The Matsigenka, a native people of the Amazon Basin, live in what Johnson describes as an “angular landscape, along river valleys surrounded by forested mountains”. The Matsigenka have a peripheral environment on the outside edge of conquest lands. They originally settled in to a as a bid to avoid conflicts with other groups. The land is not ideal but good enough to live on while not ever being sought as territory for annexation by other groups. They are very isolated and their living choice has the consequence scarcity. Many of the best crops, fish, and game are not as bountiful as they are in other areas. They have plenty of land for their type of farming and their small population means they do not compete between themselves for resources. Their settlements are small and spread far apart.(Johnson)

To understand the Matsigenka they must be seen in their own unique context of their daily lives. As with any parent, the task of raising a child is to raise them to be able to live in the world on their own one day. For the Matsigenka this means raising children who will become accustomed to living in their own nuclear family and thrive while in relative isolation.(Johnson) The Matsigenka’s ability to be independent and desire to remain independent has been disheartening to missionaries and some schoolteachers. Attempts at organizing and building communities have largely been failures. The Matsigenka are happy to be free from directions and rules that stem from a missionary or any other persons attempt to convert or normalize them.(Johnson) From the very beginning their upbringing determines who they are as a people.

From the start the emphasis on independence is apparent. No one is invited or comes to visit when a child is born. At birth a newborn is left alone on a mat while the mother is attended to. After a few minutes, the baby is then bathed with hot water causing discomfort making it cry. (Johnson) The procedure is done to strengthen the child for the hard independent life to come. The Matsigenka parents test the child’s limits, expecting more and more self-reliance at an early age. In the home, mothers commonly tether toddlers to a stake keeping them from wandering into danger. The method is no more a cruel “leash” than a baby gate used in American homes could be considered a cruel cage. (Johnson) Tethering allows the child freedom and independence without the danger of physical harm.

The Matsigenka’s diet is varied and extensive. Their types of food production are farming, fishing, hunting, and foraging with some small use of domesticated animals. They can eat anything from raw foods found anywhere in their environment or eat feasts involving days of preparation. The people eat insect larvae of many bugs all during the year as source of dietary fats and protein. Larger game birds, monkeys, peccary, and tapir are the favorites. Farming small gardens is the most...
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