Village Life of the Machiguenga

To access the large version of each photo (only about 60k), simply click on the thumbnail photo. These were taken by Ethan Russo, a neurologist who spent two months in Eastern Peru, searching for botanical treatments for headache. Russo travelled with Glenn Shepard, a PhD candidate in anthropology at UC Berkeley, and local guides.



Mishi, a young ocelot, Felis pardalis, adopted briefly by Aleja, Mateo's wife. This animal is critically endangered elsewhere throughout its range. It can reach 15 kg. at maturity. Mishi is Machiguenga for "cat."


Mishi, with Mateo and Aleja. She attempted to feed it as they do their children, captive birds, etc., by chewing sekatsi, and spooning it into his mouth. Mishi seemed to have trouble with this diet, probably due to a lack of amylase to digest the starch. He did better with the tuna and meat scraps Glenn and I scrounged for him.


Machiguenga girls with ballons outside our hut. I have never seen such joy out of a $2 purchase in my life.


Spools of native cotton, grown in the village. Prior to the advent of T-shirts and shorts, the tribe made all their own clothes.


Arrows are fashioned from reeds, Gynerium sagittatum. The feathers are taken from captive or game birds. Points are made from bamboo or hard palm wood depending on the prey. The fish points require one day's labor apiece.


Marcos playing the pegompi, a mouth violin. This is a frequent accompaniment to the chants of the kamarampi ritual, and produces a haunting drone effect.


Mariano, as artisan. He is employing a tree bark as a tint to decorate a cushma, a traditional tunic whose design was borrowed from early contact with Incan tribes.


Cushma decorations, close-up.


Village child, with coatimundi, Nasua nasua, a raccoon relative. Members of a related species are occasionally seen as far north as Arizona. Like their cousins, they make mischievous pets. This one and I became quite close. He would sleep in the rafters of the hut. One morning he scurried down a post, wrapped himself around my neck as I was waking up, and gave me kisses behind the ear.


Veterinary medicine for hunting magic, Machiguenga-style. Mateo holds the dog as Elias administers an infusion into its nose incanting, "Help us now. Our family is hungry. Chase the peccary. Run fast. Don't stop. Bite peccaries, don't bite people." The dogs are treated in this manner monthly, and it is fervently believed that this assures subsequent success in the hunt.


Hunting magic mixture, a combination of various barks, herbs, occasionally supplemented by the scent gland of the prey species. It is obviously psychoactive; afterward the animal appears "spaced out" and staggers ataxically for a few moments. Glenn and I surmise that it hallucinogenically and indelibly imprints the dog on its prey.


The patient- after. Her pupils are dilated. The Machiguenga dogs are unusually stoical and passive, despite seeming mistreatment by Western standards. That notwithstanding, they are tenacious in the hunt, often sustaining fatal wounds in their battles with the razor sharp tusks of their peccary quarry.


Machiguenga woman, Elias' wife. The people of the tribe are very handsome, and for the most part enjoy good health once the dangerous first year of life has passed. Western infectious diseases pose the greatest threat, and are an area in which their normally effective pharmacopeia has fallen short.


Seri, Nicotiana tabacum Solonaceae
These tobacco leaves are toasted over the embers by Cesar as an accompaniment to the kamarampi session. Seri is an integral part of Machiguenga ritual, and seems not to be an agent of abuse. The Machiguenga term for shaman is seripegari, or "he who uses tobacco".


The Seri leaves are then carefully pounded in a clay pot with a pestle to a very fine powder.



The Seri is sifted, and combined with the bark ash of an exceptionally rare tree, possibly a new species of Beilschmiedia. What its role is to the Seri is unclear. It may prevent caking, or increase bioavailability of the nicotine alkaloid. The result is stored in a moonsnail shell.



Oscar blows Seri into Elias' nostrils through a pipe fashioned from the leg bone of the Razor-billed Currasow. The author will attest to its noteworthy potency. The Machiguenga do not smoke tobacco traditionally. When presented with a cigar, old Quispe, inebriated on too much obuiroki, attempted to put the lit end in his mouth!


Obuiroki, placed in a palm husk for fermentation. The Sekatsi roots, Manihot esculenta Euphorbiaceae, were previously peeled cooked, mashed and chewed by the women to begin the process. A weak, but nutritious brew results in a couple of days. It tastes much like lassi, the Middle Eastern yoghurt drink.

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