Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Matses Bow and Arrows

I've just been asked to describe the Matses Indian Bows and Arrows: How they're made and from what they're made. For most of you this might be something to skip. For a few others this might be great. Here goes, from my experience:

The bow is made from interior wood of the aguaje tree--a black, spined-palm whose fruit, is enjoyed by humans and the favorite food of both sahino and wangana--the two edible peccary's in the Peruvian Amazon. The wood is strong, and pliable, though it keeps its strength for years: While arrows are generally used once or twice, the bow, which takes several days to make, is used for as long as a year. And that's with daily use.
The bow, generally about 2 meters long, is strung with chambira, a palm fiber utilized by indigenous and mestizos alike for weaving hammocks. If the chambira breaks, restring with regular bow string. (In traditional use, chambira is replaced almost daily).
The Matses arrows are a work of art. Reeds are plucked from swamp, then held over a fire and slowly turned: Those that bend, pop, or crack are discarded. Of 100 reeds selected, perhaps 5 or 6 will finally be made into arrows.
Arrow making is generally done on rainy days, and the process of selection of the reeds can take hours. At the same time, it's generally done by more than one hunter at the same time so that it becomes a social activity--around which food is served and hunting stories told.
The arrows are actually made in four parts: The shaft is a reed: at one end of the shaft a split feather is affixed: a feather cut in two is set on opposite sides of the shaft and tied into place with a single strand of chambira, interlaced in the individual hairs of the feather. That is covered with copal, a tarrish tree-sap that's heated to boiling--turning it black. Once boiling, the copal is applied to the chambira, sealing it to the shaft. At the end of the feathered end of the shaft a coil of chambira--or more frequently these days, colorful sewing thread, is wound around the shaft's end, keeping it from splitting and lending a touch of balancing heft to the arrow.
At the business end of the arrow, a short, 4-6 inches, section of blond wood--generally from a hardwood branch is inserted into the hollowed end of the reed. To this is affixed the arrow's point: a sharpened piece of wood cut from either bamboo or ugurahi--a blond palm. The point is affixed to the hardwood connector section using chambira, though sewing thread will also work.
Arrow heads range between 6 and 12 inches long, depending on the type of game being hunted. For birds the arrow head is generally short and flat. For jaguar the head must be hollowed out to a half circle to allow for blood letting while piercing dense muscle.
Arrow heads, once in place, are sharpened by using the long, curved tooth of an agouti, a jungle rodent, attached to a two-meter long thin, round shaft of aguaje wood. The agouti tooth is notched with a machete to allow it to run up and down the length of the arrow head to make an exacting blade on either side.
Interestingly, the Matses also utilize different bird feathers for different arrows. For general monkey and bird hunting the black feathers fo the Puca Cunga, a type of jungle turkey, are utilized. For hunting ground animals with some body mass, the feathers of the Trompetero, another jungle turkey, are utilized. And for hunting jaguar, the feathers of the aguilar, the eagle, are used. The colorful feathers from the guacamayo--the maca--are also occasionally used. Those can be utilized for anything but a jaguar as they don't allow the arrow to gain full velocity at short distance, the only distance at which a hunter would have a chance of wounding a jaguar.


Arbol said...

Thanks for this data Peter, I was thinking about this today and then I check your Blog and it appears...I'm really thinking Aya creates telepathic pathways in the brain. To much synchronic events happening.

esoter1c said...

What are the Jaguar hunted for ?

Food ?

Peter Gorman said...

Jaguar are hunted when they encroach on human terrain or actually kill a human. Once a cat draws blood from a human, other cats will approach, so they have to be dealt with. Nasty, but reality

Paul de Boer said...

Thank you for this information. The 3 bows and 6 arrows I bought from your friend Pepe also have different feathers, I thought this was just because they would use whatever feathers were available, but now you explained exactly why.
I think it is nice if tourists buy these kind of original souvenirs as it will stimulate the matses to keep producing their original tools, so their knowledge does not get lost but gets more valuated by the future generations of matses. Paul de Boer

Unknown said...


Great info. I enjoyed reading it. Question: Are the bows and arrows the Matses sell to outsiders made to the same specification as the ones they actually use for hunting? Same materials and workmanship?

If so, I'd really like to get Pepe's contact info, myself, if that would be possible. I'd like to inquire about pricing for a Matses bow and arrows and the protocol for purchasing them.

I can be contacted privately at usdefcon (at) gmail (dot) com. If you or Pepe contact me by email, I can also provide my cell/mobile number.

Thank you.