By Glenn Shepard Jr., Medical Anthropologist and Ethnobotanist
All text and photos copyright © 1997 by Glenn Shepard Jr.

The Machiguenga are an ethnic group of the Arawakan linguistic family. They are distant linguistic relatives of the Arawak tribes who once inhabited the Caribbean at the time of Christopher Columbus, but have since been wiped out by diseases and assimilated. The Machiguenga live in the upper montane rain forest of Southeastern Peru, mostly in the Urubamba river drainage and the Madre de Dios river drainage, including Manu. The Machiguenga practice long-fallow swidden agriculture, growing manioc, bananas, maize, sweet potatoes, cotton, peanuts, chili peppers and a variety of other crops in small gardens cleared out of the forest. They supplement their diet with fish, game, fruits and other foods gathered in the extensive forests and small streams of their environment.

The Machiguenga live in dispersed settlements clustered according to a matrilocal pattern of residence: a man marries out of his home village and goes to live with his wife's family. Villages sometimes maintain a loose political integration under traditional leaders called curacas. The word curaca was apparently borrowed from the Quechua language during pre-Hispanic contact with the Inca empire. As the Catholic Church, the Peruvian nation, and more recently, Evangelical missionaries have penetrated into the hinterlands, Machiguenga villages have tended to gravitate toward mission outposts or government school houses. These serve as centers not only for evangelization and education but also for highly valued Western trade goods and medicines. Machiguenga people in more accessible areas have taken up the extraction of timber and the cultivation of coffee, cacao, achiote, peanuts and other cash crops.
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