Makuna Tribe: Unraveling Colombia’s Ancient Tales

Makuna Tribe: Unraveling Colombia’s Ancient Tales

The Makuna people are a Tucano-speaking group living in the eastern Amazon Basin, near the confluence of the Pira Paraná and Apapolis rivers in the Colombian Department of Vaupes and the Brazilian state of Amazonas.

Makuna, are roughly six hundred people strong, and in this part of the Amazonian rainforest the humidity and temperature are high all year round.

The neighboring Maku and Tukano speak similar languages, while other surrounding peoples include the Banyanin, Tutuyi, Tanimuka, and Yauna. The latter two are traditional foes of the Makuna.

Little is known about the early history of the Makuna people, other than oral accounts of their violent past with their southern neighbors, particularly the Yauna and Tanimuka Indians.

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Makuna view themselves as a group of clans united by intermarriage. Traditionally each clan inhabited a longhouse, a maloca, with its own leader.

Makuna religion is a kind of sciosophy. They consider certain places to be sacred and their shamans carefully mediate the reciprocity among humans, fish and game animals to keep it in balance. Makuna carefully manages their environment and do not plunder or destroy it.

In Makuna cosmology, the world is periodically destroyed. Many believe that such destruction is underway now and there will soon be no room for the Makuna. This fear is aggravated by the gold mining operations destroying some hills near the headwaters of the Comena, a catastrophic development since the Makuna believe these hills are their ancestors holding up the world. Furthermore, gold is the light necessary for the vision of the shamans, so by removing the gold the shamans will no longer see visions or be able to foretell the future.

Makuna shamans attribute healing mainly to the power of words and thoughts, rather than to medicinal plants. Words and thinking can also change the course of events, such as heading off raiding guerrilla incursions.

When commercial exploitation of rubber began in the Colombian Amazon in the late 19th century, contact with outsiders became more frequent and had negative consequences. Men were forcibly taken to work, a situation that continued into the 1940s.

From the late 1970s to the early 1980s, the cultivation of coca leaves for illegal production brought a new boom to the area. This brought large amounts of trade, goods and money to the indigenous peoples who worked for the white patrons established in the area. By the mid-1980s, coca leaf production ended as abruptly as it had begun, but soon after gold was discovered along the Talaira River, just a few days travel away from Makuna territory.

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Thousands of miners entered the territory, mostly through Makuna lands and the Makuna used the situation as a new source of trade, goods and coins. In addition, many young people in the group went to the goldfields for weeks or months in search of gold, either on their own or under the temporary employment of white patrons.

Nevertheless, the Makuna people primarily make a living from slash-and-burn cultivation, hunting, fishing and collecting forest products. The main crop is corn, but plantains, sweet potatoes, bananas and sugar cane are also grown.

Meat comes from game such as paca, tapir, peccary, large birds, monkeys and caiman. The fur trade, particularly jaguar, ocelot and otter skins, played an important role in the Makuna economy until it was banned in the 1970s.

In the 1990s, the Colombian government created two Indian reservations that included most of Makuna‘s land, giving them greater control over their territory.

The Makuna face continued threats to their lifestyles and cosmology. Gold mining not only threatens the Makuna‘s sense of cosmological well-being, but also their traditional livelihood by the indiscriminate cutting of forest, polluting of rivers and killing of fish. Other secular threats came from the cocaine industry. Involvement with cocaine dealers brought money into Makuna society and thus economic differentiation.

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The Makuna face continued threats to their lifestyles and cosmology. Gold mining not only threatens the Makuna‘s sense of cosmological well-being, but also their traditional livelihood by the indiscriminate cutting of forest, polluting of rivers, and killing of fish. Other secular threats came from the cocaine industry. Involvement with cocaine dealers brought money into Makuna society and thus economic differentiation.

The Makuna support themselves by hunting, gathering, and slash-and-burn agriculture. Most land is communally owned and clan affiliation determines what is allocated to whom.

The Makuna cultivate the cleared areas prepared by the men while the women plant, cultivate, and harvest all crops except the ritually important ones of tobacco and coca.

Certain types of food gathering, such as termite catching, are undertaken as a group, but the men and initiated boys hunt and fish. The Makuna use canoes and have elaborate fishing technology. They eat a variety of fish, although some species are taboo to particular clans. Makuna hunt tapir, puma, and ocelot for meat, again except when prohibited by individual or clan taboos.

Many Makuna still maintain their traditional lifestyles, while a few now pursue more modern livelihoods.

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Certain types of food gathering, such as termite catching, are undertaken as a group, but the men and initiated boys hunt and fish. Makuna use canoes and have elaborate fishing technology. They eat a variety of fish, although some species are taboo to particular clans. Makuna hunt tapir, puma and ocelot for meat, again except when prohibited by individual or clan taboos.

Many Makuna still maintain their traditional lifestyles, while a few now pursue more modern livelihoods.


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