The Makushi

Background (Schacht 2013)DSC03665

The Makushi are a Carib-speaking people living in the Rio Branco-Rupununi Savannahs in northern Brazil and southwestern Guyana. The forested Kanuku Mountains, which run east-west, provide a natural dividing line of the Rupununi savannahs with the Makushi generally found in the north and the Wapishana in the south. Linguistic, cultural, and ethnohistoric evidence places the Makushi in the tropical forest culture complex, with their origin centered in the Xingu basin of western Amazonia. The groups from this area all share a complex of subsistence traits that include hunting, fishing, and gathering, as well as the cultivation of cassava through shifting (slash-and-burn), cultivation, and a seminomadic lifestyle. Makushi settlements historically were dispersed and politically decentralized. Individuals and households were highly mobile, leading to temporary and distant settlements.

Picture or Video 363

Farming

Makushi farming practices are in response to their environment, which is punctuated
by two seasons: the rainy and dry. The Makushi generally make their homes in the savanna areas, but because of the poor nature of the grassland soil and its exposure to weather extremes, including flooding in the rainy season and severe parching in the dry, the savannas are inadequate for growing crops. As such, farming is primarily done at the foot of the
jungle-covered Kanuku Mountains as well as in forest galleries along rivers where
the soil stays moist year round. Farming practices do vary among the Makushi, but each household has at least one bitter cassava field. Each field varies in size but they are generally no smaller than one-half acre and rarely larger than two acres. The Makushi have historically harvested only what they needed for survival. Today, however, although most are still subsistence farmers, crop surpluses are often carried to the market to be sold. Many farmers have a second field where they grow plantains, bananas, and other fruiting trees such as
papaya. This field also commonly includes additional root vegetables, pepper plants, watermelon, pineapple, sugarcane, and pumpkin.

Migration

As elsewhere in Guyana, migration has been affecting the family dynamics for decades, and has led to considerable between community variation in sex ratio, as men and women search for economic opportunities. Principle activities for men are mining, cattle ranching, agricultural work and logging, activities which occur mainly in the more remote areas of the Rupununi or in the forested regions at the center of the country, whereas women are attracted to urban areas (such as the capital of Roraima in neighboring Brazil) and the larger interior Guyanese towns (such as Lethem) in search of shop and domestic work.

Study site villages

Here is a video from 1911 showing Makushi activities.

Here is a more recent video of women singing of Makushi activities.

 

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