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From Head-Ball to Hunter-Gatherers: The True Story of the Mashco-Piro

Upon finding that one of the outsiders who was making contact with the Mashco-Piro people was half Mashco-Piro the situation became more complex.
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ICTMN recently reported on the discovery by FENAMAD during a patrol that tourism boats were leaving clothing and food behind for the Mashco-Piro people. One of the discoveries from that patrol, was finding a Piro woman named Nelly interacting with Mashco-Piro youth. When questioned about her activities, she replied that she has been taking bananas to the Mashco-Piro because they ask her too.

RELATED: Mashco-Piros: Missionaries and ‘human safaris’ initiate contact in Peru

However the situation becomes more complex once we understand that Nelly is in fact half Mashco-Piro herself: her father was captured and kidnapped in the forest by the people of Diamante in the 1970s as part of their attempt to “civilize” the Mashco-Piro, whom the Piro view as distant, wayward brethren. Re-baptized with a Spanish name, Nelly’s father was raised among the Piro and never went back to his people; indeed he has no more memory of his life among them. Nelly has allied herself with a local evangelical missionary group, including a pastor and his wife who now reside in Diamante, in the hopes of helping “her people” overcome the hunger, isolation and fear they supposedly now live in.

Around 1981 the Piro captured two more Mashco-Piros, an adult man and a young boy, and held them for most a day trying to convince them to “come out of the forest.” However the Mashco-Piro did not converse, refused all food and even water, and after they were released, they left all the presents they had received (clothes, pots and pans, metal tools) strewn throughout the forest. In later interactions, the Mashco-Piro fired arrows at Piro men who approached them.

Shaco Flores, a Matsigenka man from the village of Diamante who was fluent in Piro, had been attempting to pacify and contact the Mashco-Piro since the 1980s. He had developed a certain degree of communication with the group, though always at a distance, and even obtained a few objects of Mashco-Piro material culture, including a necklace, a rustic arrow-sharpener made from an agouti tooth, and a rubber sphere used in their characteristic head-ball game.

However in December of 2011, he was killed by a single arrow fired by a Mashco-Piro bowman in the small garden where he had been letting the Mashco-Piro eat crops, and where he had previously interacted peacefully with them. Spanish ornithologist Diego Cortijo, who was visiting Shaco that December, took striking, now world-famous photographs of the Mashco-Piro near the same locale where Shaco was killed just a few days later.

However the Mashco-Piro are no savage, “Stone Age people” living in a pristine state of primitive harmony since time immemorial. In the late 19th century, the Mashco-Piro resided in large agricultural villages on the upper Manu River. The Mashco-Piro and other regional groups such as the Piro, Matsigenka and Ashaninka are cultural heirs to the Arawakan-speaking peoples who occupied a vast region in pre-Colombian times from the Caribbean to southern Brazil. The Arawaks were known as the “civilizers” of the Amazon since they established sedentary agricultural life based in circular villages, built vast earth works in some regions, established networks of inter-ethnic trade and disseminated a tradition of competitive sports using rubber balls, possibly the ancestor to all subsequent ball sports in the world. Several modern Arawakan peoples continue the tradition, including the Pareci and Enawene-Nawe of Brazil. As unlikely as it may seem among a nomadic hunter-gatherer people, the Mashco-Piro continue making rubber balls and playing the sport to this day.

But rubber also bears tragic connotations for the Mashco-Piro’s fate. The infamous “King of Rubber,” Carlos Fermin Fitzcarraldo, whose story inspired Werner Herzog’s famous film, entered the region in the 1890s to establish rubber-tapping camps. In an episode related by Brazilian geographer Euclides da Cunha in 1892, Fitzcarraldo tried to intimidate the chief of the “Mashcos” with his weapons. In Cunha’s words:

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Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s film “Fitzcarraldo”

 “The sole response of the Mashco was to inquire what arrows Fitzcarraldo carried. Smiling the explorer passed him a bullet... The Native... tried to wound himself with it, dragging the bullet across his chest. Then he took one of his own arrows and, breaking it, thrust it into his own arm. Smiling and indifferent to the pain he proudly contemplated the flowing blood that covered the point. Without another word he turned his back on the surprised adventurer, returning to his village with the illusion of a superiority that in a short time, would be entirely discounted. In fact, a half hour later, about a hundred Mashcos, including the recalcitrant and naïve chief, lay slaughtered on the river bank whose name, ‘Playmashcos’ (‘Mashco beach”) remembers this bloody episode to this day.” - Susana Hecht, The Scramble for the Amazon and the ‘Lost Paradise’ of Euclides da Cunha, translated from Um Paraiso Perdido, pg. 164).

The surviving Mashco-Piro apparently fled to the forest, abandoning their gardens, and took up an entirely nomadic life of hunting and gathering. Given their traumatic experience with rubber tappers and their indigenous henchmen, it is no mystery why the Mashco-Piro so vehemently avoided contact, and repelled any attempts at approximation by neighboring groups throughout the 20th century.

In the 1970s, three Mashco-Piro women, apparently exiled by the group, appeared in front of a park guard station in Manu National Park. They had apparently been living for some time without fire or anything but the most basic tools, subsisting on palm nuts and raw turtles. The park guards provided them with matches, clothes and tools, and the three women (referred to by locals as “The Three Marias”) resided in a rustic hut along the banks of the Manu River through the mid-1980s, when they were taken in by (and purposely separated among) Diamante and another nearby Matsigenka Native community. The older woman (apparently the mother) has since died, but the two Mashco-Piro sisters now live among the Matsigenka and occasionally even play head-ball in the forest.

A previous unknown group of Mashco-Piro appeared on the northwestern bank of the Manu River in 1996 (the group discussed above lives southeast of the Manu River, along the margins of Manu National Park), shooting warning arrows at an approaching tourism boat. They had apparently been disturbed by petrochemical prospecting activities in their territory along the Rio de las Piedras being carried out at that time by Mobil Oil. Anthropologist Glenn Shepard and biologist Douglas Yu had a surprise encounter with a small group of Mashco-Piro in 1999 while carrying out botanical surveys near the Native community of Tayakome. They followed the example of their Matsigenka companions by running away as fast as possible, since, as one man stated in Matsigenka parlance, “arrows hurt.”

In 2005, a much larger group of some hundred or so Mashco-Piro made a bold trek along the banks of the Manu River, camping out near the well-known biological station of Cocha Cashu on the Manu River for several days (the scientists evacuated the station) before heading further upriver towards the community of Tayakome. At the very same beach where Cunha described the massacre by Fitzcarraldo over a century prior, a group of Matsigenka fisherman encountered this large group of Mashco-Piro fording the Manu River towards the interior of the park’s protected area. They tried to approach and show their friendly attentions, but the Mashco-Piro repelled them with a shower of arrows. When they ran out of arrows, they used signs to communicate to that even though they were out of arrows, if the Matsigenka came any closer, they would use rocks to break their bones. Matsigenka school teacher Mauro Metaki took a photograph of the Mashco-Piro warriors at “Playamaschos” and recovered several of their large, distinctive arrows.

More recently, people from apparently the same Mashco-Piro group were captured on dramatic video footage asking for food and metal tools from the indigenous community of Monte Salvado on the Piedras River.