Deep in the farthest reaches of the Amazon rainforest, the last remaining elder shamans of the Matsés tribe came together from distant villages in a quest to save their ancestral knowledge from the edge of extinction. This meeting concluded over two years work and culminated in the first encyclopedia of indigenous knowledge written by Amazonian tribal shamans ever produced.
On May 16th, after more than two years of work, the leaders of Acaté and the Matsés met to finalize the Matsés Traditional Medicine Encyclopedia. This historic meeting was held over a period of five days in the Matsés village of Puerto Allegre on the Rio Yaquerana, one of the most remote villages and the last settlement before the river’s headwaters, a vast territory that contains at least one ‘uncontacted’ tribal group living in voluntary isolation.
The meeting was lead by Daniel Vella Collantes, High Chief of the Matsés People and the Matsés Council. Chiefs from 11 of the Matsés communities attended along with 6 Matsés elder healers and the team members from each of the Encyclopedia chapters. Acaté was represented by Co-Founders Christopher Herndon and William Park, together with Field Coordinator David Fleck.
In typical Matsés fashion the introductions were short and the meeting turned to the first agenda item “How do we preserve and transmit the invaluable medicinal knowledge of the elders to the next generation as a living system of health provision.”
The health of Amazonian peoples has always depended on the wisdom of their elders. Passed down through the centuries, the knowledge of medicinal plants and techniques of treatment that have been accumulated are a product of their deep spiritual and physical ties to the natural world. The Matsés live in one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world and have mastered knowledge of its healing properties.
It is hard to overstate just how quickly this knowledge can be lost after a tribe makes contact with the outside world. Once extinguished, this knowledge, along with the tribe’s self-sufficiency, can never be fully reclaimed. Historically, what follows the loss of endemic health systems in many indigenous groups is near total dependency on the rudimentary and extremely limited external health care available in such remote and difficult-to-access locations.
The knowledge of the Matsés is still largely intact as sustained contact with the national cultures only occurred within the past half century. This presents a rare opportunity in the 21st century to be proactive. All the remaining elder healers were adults at the time of initial contact and had already mastered their knowledge before being told it was useless by missionaries and government workers. Sadly, due to these outside influences none of the elders have apprentices or younger Matsés interested in learning from them. Yet, at the same time, most villages still depend on and actively utilize the medicinal plants of the remaining few elder healers, most of whom are estimated to be over the age of 60. Their knowledge and the accumulated wisdom of generations stands on the very precipice of extinction. One of the most reknowned Matsés healers died a few years ago before his knowledge could be passed on.