This 1994 film documents the beliefs, traditions and everyday life of the Matsigenka—The People—an isolated tribe of the Upper Amazon in the Manu region of Peru. The documentary opens with breath-taking scenes of the rainforest and moves into the story of a particular village. It relates the communal focus, hunting practices—and a matrilineal culture, unusual for most parts of the world.
We’re provided a look into exchanges between Glenn Shepard, an American anthropologist then living with the Matsigenka, and elder healer Mariano, who is also a gifted storyteller, an important role since their tradition is completely oral. In a walk through the rainforest, Mariano points out medicinal plants and shares their use. The film is packed full of interesting material on the ritual use of plant spirits: how shamans leave their bodies to gain knowledge and see the future. Even the dogs are given plant medicine to help in a hunt. And it relays warnings on how witches can steal people’s souls. One of my favorite jungle sounds is the primeval roar of the howler monkey. So I was particularly taken when I discovered here that the Matsigenka believe they carry a shaman’s soul.
Another interesting note was contact the Matsigenka had with the Inca. For me, that piece of information brought back fond memories. I arranged for half my 2009 spiritual travel program in Peru with Don Américo Yábar to be spent in Manu. I invited three Q’ero spiritual leaders to accompany us; the Q’eros being the descendants of Inca priests and holders of that ancient tradition. Since my friends live at very high altitude, going to the jungle took them way out of their element. They were quite excited and it was a delight to watch them, particularly when they found bamboo. They spent much of the time making flutes and testing them out! We didn’t meet any Matsigenka but it was a return trip to the rainforest for these Inca descendants.
But back to “The Spirit Hunters.” Truly, this film is worth your time. It’s a glimpse into an Indigenous people who live a simple life, but it doesn’t romanticize the lifestyle or protect our Western eyes from the perils. More than anything it reveals a rich imprint, a complex belief system that guides their days.
Written and produced by Kim MacQuarrie. Narrated by James Earl Jones. The film is 50 minutes. Watch the complete film on Culture Unplugged. To learn more on the Matsigenka here’s an article by Glenn Shepard: “The People of Manu.”