Machiguenga: Peruvian Hunter-Gatherers

“In His Footsteps” explores the diets and health of native peoples, as experienced by Westerners who have visited them, much as Weston A. Price did in the 1930s.

In 1995 I was able to pursue a long-term ambition to take part in an ethnobotanical expedition in the Amazon. Thanks to the able help of an anthropology graduate student who was fluent in their language, we spent a couple of months living with and studying the plant medicines of the Machiguenga. This Arawakan-language tribe inhabits southeastern Peru, east of Machu Picchu near the borders of Brazil and Bolivia. Our hosts resided in a small village in the middle of Parque Nacional del Manú, a Massachusetts-sized reserve in the Amazon jungle that is off limits except to indigenous peoples and researchers on government-approved projects. Manú is renowned worldwide for its biological diversity of plant and animal life.

Residents of Yomuibato village (“the river that rises and falls”) chose some years ago to break away from a missionary settlement so that they might pursue a traditional life-style. Although some have spent time outside the park to work for cash, most Machiguenga in Yomuibato choose to follow the ancient ways of their culture.

The average Machiguenga is short and lean, but very strongly built, with broad facial structure. Out of a band of some 100 people that I encountered, only two were obese, and one of those followed a very Westernized diet.

As part of my responsibilities with the tribe, I provided what limited “modern medicine” I had available to the tribe, and had the opportunity to examine many people. Whereas the Machiguenga are highly susceptible to infectious diseases brought in from outside the park, they are otherwise very healthy, and have their own uniquely effective pharmacopoeia of native plants. Their teeth are generally widely spaced, and very well formed. There were some caries, but most often in people who had spent time away and cultivated a taste for sugar cane, white flour, and other nontraditional foods.

The Machiguenga culture is hunter-gatherer with swidden agriculture in small plots that are cut and burned out of the rain forest. The primary crop is Manihot esculenta, or sekatsi (elsewhere known as manioc, or cassava), a starchy root vegetable. Also grown are bananas, plantains and a variety of chiles, while an amazing abundance of fruits are available in the jungle including pineapple, papaya, cherimoya, and ice cream beans. The latter contain a gelatinous seed covering in the pods of this leguminous tree, and are commonly eaten on the trail, or brought to camp to share as snacks throughout the day.

The Machiguenga are avid seekers of protein, which they obtain through hunting of paca (a delectable rodent), tapirs, monkeys and a large variety of fowl. Hunting is more actively pursued in the wet season, and the Machiguenga will say that this is because there is more fruit available and, consequently, the monkeys are fat during that interval. In the dry season, or when the river is low, protein is sought through fishing. They employ a fish poison (containing rotenone) as a biodegradable method of stunning large volumes of river fish, before shooting them with arrows. There are 2000 species of fish in the Amazon Basin and almost all are edible by tribal standards. Although Americans might eschew many of these as too fatty or bony, virtually nothing is wasted by the Machiguenga. Lest anyone think that these practices are ecologically suspect, the Machiguenga have lived in the same relatively compact area for some 20 years without depleting the local supply of fish, game and plants.

During my sojourn, I noticed a striking parallel between the people’s mood, and the available protein supply. When weather conditions prohibited hunting or fishing, and there was little meat, a subdued ennui prevailed, whereas a successful hunt or communal fishing party resulted in an uplifted festive air. Current research reveals humans to be excessively sensitive to fluctuations in dietary tryptophan intake, so it is doubtful that this is merely a “psychological” phenomenon.

Some chickens are kept, but are not specifically fed. Rather, they are left to themselves to range freely, raise their broods and forage for scraps, seeds and especially insects. When other protein sources are unavailable, a cock is frequently sacrificed to the stew pot. This gives new life to the term “tough old bird.” The native fowl, in contrast, are delicious and tender. Given their foraging habits, it is likely that the meat is rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

When abundant, fish are smoked over the fire for preservation, but most protein is stewed for many hours with bones in place, and frequently internal organs included. Brains and other lipid tissues are savored.

Although the diet traditionally employs no added fat, the foods eaten contribute good amounts of both saturated and unsaturated types. It is likely that large amounts of vitamins A and D are ingested in the many animal foods including such esoterica as turtle eggs, frogs and insects. The most representative of the latter are suri, or palm grubs, Rhynchophorus palmarum. These are actively sought whenever a downed palm tree is encountered in the forest. These large 2-inch larvae are ingested raw, stewed or, for the few who employ cooking oil, fried. The aroma and flavor is extremely rich and unique. The adult beetles are also enjoyed by removing legs, wings and carapace. I found their flavor reminiscent of sesame tahini.

Unfortunately, there is no current assay data on this particular insect species, but we do have some information from related African ones, which seem to provide good protein and fat content with low levels of carbohydrates and fairly rich supplies of calcium, phosphorus, iron, thiamine, niacin and riboflavin.

Unripe tagua palm nuts (Phytelephas macro-carpa) and especially large volumes of peach palm fruit (Bactris gasipaes) are an additional source of fatty acids in the Machiguenga diet. The latter are prepared by briefly plunging in hot water and peeling off the scaly covering. A soft fibrous fruit is then eaten off the large seed, and savored communally by all. The fat, as expected for a palm, consists mostly of saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, averaging about 41 percent saturated (mostly palmitic acid), and 58 percent monounsaturated (mostly oleic acid.) This simple snack appears to be a nutritional powerhouse but has a short shelf-life due to a tendency to mold after a few days.

Although the manioc is an important source of calories, its use is not confined to the boiled root. Rather, it is commonly cooked, chewed to initiate amylase breakdown of the starch and then fermented several days to make obuiroki, elsewhere known as chicha or masato. This methods employs ambient microflora to yield a beverage that is nutritionally enhanced and universally shared and enjoyed. A similar banana fermentation from Ecuador was found to contain Pichia yeast and Rhizopus spp. molds. The latter is common in fermented foods throughout the world, and is known to be a lactic-acid-producer. The alcohol yield of obuiroki seemed to me to be quite modest and its taste is similar to lassi (a dilute yoghurt) or kefir.

An interesting feature of the Machiguenga diet is a relative paucity of greens. In the midst of one of the greenest places on Earth, there are no salads, and no leaf material in the diet. One reason is that leaves are commonly thought of as medicine and many contain alkaloids or other chemicals that render them unpalatable, but pharmacologically powerful. An exception to the green-free rule is avocado, which is eaten plain as other fruits, and relished for its taste, as well as for its abundant protein and healthful fat content. For obvious reasons, the avocados are enjoyed not only by the people, but are a favorite quarry of their scavenging dogs.

An unofficial accounting of the Machiguenga vitamin and mineral intake indicates that they are well supplied. Vitamin C and carotenoids are contained in their many fruits. B vitamins are present in their meats, organ meats and seeds. Vitamin E is well represented in a variety of plant foods; vitamins A and ; and omega-3 essential fatty acids in the meat, lipids and organs of fish and game.

Interestingly, red chiles (Capsicum frutescens) are considered “meat” in the Machiguenga world view, and are often stewed in large amounts as a special dish in their own right. Perhaps this is a reflection of their unique nutritional contribution.
Machiguenga families are unusually stable. Women often marry at about age 16, and average 10 pregnancies. Infant mortality is high in the first year, but as best that I could judge, Western infectious disease seems to be the key factor. Aside from this, Machiguenga children are intelligent, extremely placid yet curious, and the best adjusted I have encountered in any culture.

The tribe does follow an unusual eating hierarchy for set meals: men eat first, followed by women and children who settle for what remains. The rationale may be that the hunters require the most energy and should be nutritionally supported. Everyone snacks and distributes their food, however, so that no one is deprived. Their cosmology and spiritual life revolve around survival in a harsh environment with a spirit of sharing and mutual support. I was uplifted by my experiences with them.

References

  1. Auerbach, P S. Wilderness Medicine: Management of Wilderness and Environmental Emergencies, Mosby, St. Louis, 1995
  2. De Foliart, G R. “Hypothesizing about Palm Weevil and Palm Rhinoceros Beetle Larvae as Traditional Cuisine, Tropical Waste Recycling and Pest and Disease Control on Coconut and Other Palms – Can They Be Integrated?” Principes 37(1):42-47, 1993
  3. Duke J A and du Cellier, J L. CRC Handbook of Alternative Crops, CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, 1993
  4. Russo, E G. An Ocelot for a Pillow: Researching Headaches, Hallucinogens and Hunting Magic Among the Machiguenga of Manu. Unpublished manuscript, 1995.

This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2000.

Ethan Russo, MD, is a clinical neurologist and a clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He is also adjunct professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Montana. He is the author of Handbook of Psychotropic Herbs and editor-in-chief of Integrative Healing Press.

Leave a reply

© 2013 The Weston A. Price Foundation for Wise Traditions in Food, Farming, and the Healing Arts.