The Nukak Makú: Driven from Paradise

Nukak hunters

We are fortunate to have living examples of foragers in the twenty-first century. At least two tribes of hunter-gatherers are still active: Maku, Nukai, and Hupdu bands between Brazi and Colombia. Both of these groups of people prefer to be nomadic, stopping only briefly in temporary shelters beneath the forest canopy. They lead remarkably good lives.

According to Nukak oral tradition, and ethnographic information, they are a branch of the Kakua that emigrated to the North. One of the reasons for this displacement to their present territory was to evade the rubber merchants who used the indigenous peoples as slave labor at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In the twentieth century, the Nukak remained isolated from their native territorial neighbors and agents of national society, among other reasons because they were afraid of alleged cannibalism by white people and other natives.

Nukak Makú Man
Nukak-Maku Man-child

A Look at Their Culture and Way of Life


The Nukak’s knowledge of forest resources is astounding, and they are very skilled hunters. Anthropologists were amazed when they learned about the Maku’s deep understanding of their environment and their rich mythology and culture. They live in small family groups, prefer the deep forest to the rivers, and are constantly on the move. they never stay in one place for more than a few days. As they are so mobile, it means that they can have few possessions, and what they have must be easily portable.

At a minute’s notice, therefore, they can wrap up their fibre-string hammocks (which are their only real furniture), put their pots and a few remaining items in homemade rucksacks, and move on… The Maku eat fish, game, turtles, fruit, vegetables, nuts, insects, and honey. Indeed, it is hard to think of a healthier or more balanced diet.

When the Maku abandon a campsite, they know that their detritus will sprout into their favorite trees and plants. So when they return, months later, they camp alongside but not on top of the forest they have manipulated. An archaeological site that yielded evidence of very early foragers from over 7000 BC is Pena Roja (Red Outcrop), and this is near the forests of present-day Maku, on the Caqueta affluent of the Amazon in Colombia.


group 2

The Evolution of the Rainforest: Human Influence Over Millennia


Flying over these pristine forests, one is struck by huge patches of palm trees. They were probably altered by millennia of human interference, for excavations at Peña Roja showed quantities of seeds of popular palm trees, buriti, miriti, mauritia, bacaba, and najá alongside flaked stone implements.

Palms are wonderfully useful for foragers. They are easy to fell. The tall and stately buriti/moriche supplies building material for houses, carbohydrate food, cork for bottles, fiber for weaving, a fermented beverage, logs for rafts, and diverse other products important in tribal economies. The tucumã/cumare has hideous porcupine-like spines up its entire trunk to repel climbers, but it’s the Indians’ great friend. Its leaflets yield a tough fiber that makes the best hammocks and cords, the spines have myriad, the orange fruit is fish bait, and the wood is good for boats and houses.


Nuka Makú Huts
Nukak Hunters

Down on Marajó island, the best-loved palm is açaí, which yields clusters of purple fruit the size of large blueberries. Amazonians have always been voracious drinkers of açaí juice, second only to manioc and fish; this is a staff of life in the region. Local people are right: modern nutritionists see açaí as “the world’s most complete natural food” – full of thirty times as many antioxidants as red wine and all the vitamins of olive oil, and it tastes wonderful.

In a world where sustainability is increasingly crucial, the Nukak Maku people give us an inspiring example of what living harmoniously with nature means. Their nomadic lifestyle, deep understanding of the forest, and minimal ecological footprint serve as a powerful reminder of the importance of preserving traditional ecological knowledge. As we face the challenges of modernity, let us draw inspiration from the wisdom of indigenous communities like the Nukak Maku and strive to cultivate a more sustainable relationship with our planet.

Ilegal Palm oil plantation X2
Nukak walking

Invasion, Devastation, Displacement: From Eden to Exile

During the eighties, in the areas bordering the northwest frontier of the Nukak territory, colonization increased due to the rising price of the coca leaf. This illegal crop attracted waves of peasants, trades-people, and adventurers.

Organized crime groups see the absence of the government in the region as a “signal to invade and to do as they please. Sometimes the indigenous tribes are forced to work in the coca fields and flee their land

Palm oil companies have been linked to land grabs in Colombia for a long time. Massacres, murders, dismemberment, torture, disappearances, and displacement of local inhabitants were part of the grisly reality of life around oil palm cultivation and extensive cattle ranching.

Eventually, due to the conflict between the government and the FARC, they were forced to flee their territory. It had become a battleground of guerrillas and armed soldiers. The Nukak have had to bear the full burden of violence in the region

Encroaching criminal groups further threaten their safety, making their forest home increasingly perilous. Despite the challenges, the Nukak strive to maintain their cultural traditions, gathering for rituals and ceremonies. However, food scarcity is a harsh reality, with resources often stretched thin among the community. Forced labor in coca fields and exposure to diseases like malaria have taken a toll on their population, pushing them to the brink of extinction

Nukak Makú 2 young men 3
Nukak Makú Woman
Despair and Sorrow: The Price of Contact for the Nukak Makú


The first time a group of Nukak appeared in public was in April 1987, in a peasant village named Calamar. It was a much-publicized sensation and soon after, these groups gradually started visiting the colonized areas.

Interactions with the peasants became increasingly inevitable because of the overlapping of the areas that both groups occupied. Being in contact with outsiders has unfortunately brought many devastating diseases such as malaria and flu among the indigenous community causing a 50% decline in their population.

Displaced from their territory for over a decade, they now face precarious living conditions, with some resorting to scavenging for food. In the Nukak Makú community, food is so scarce that a single chicken often has to be shared between more than 20 people.

As a result of this situation, their chief Mao-Be committed suicide in 2006 by drinking the poison the tribe uses in hunting jungle prey. According to friends, he took his life in desperation at being powerless to protect the tribe from these threats. Several of their numbers live in temporary settlements at San José del Guaviare to escape the chaos in their homeland. Not knowing when they can return, however, they try to carry on with their traditional lives.

nukakmaku 2
woman and child
The Fight for a Return Home


Today, 30 years after the Colombian Government recognized the existence of the Nukak, they are now becoming sedentary and only one of the local groups in the eastern sector of the territory still maintains its nomadic treks through the forest in a permanent way. Most of them have built houses and have cultivated plots of land near the settled areas of their territory, mainly occupied by peasants who grow coca leaves. This activity is also a main source of employment for the male Nukak population and has contributed to displace activities such as hunting and gathering.

The Nukak tribe is listed as being at an ‘imminent risk of extinction’ among other 32 tribes, including Wachina and Wipiwi in Colombia. And thanks to the painstaking job of non-profit organizations such as ONIC and Survival International in 1997 the Colombian government decided to extend the Nukak territory up to 1 million hectares of forest

In the face of existential threats, they persist in their demand for a return to the territory where they once hunted, fished, and tended orchards of peach palm, chili, yam, sweet potato, achiote, and calabash — orchards where, in the past, there was no room for oil palms, cattle, and coca plantations.

The Nukak’s story is yet another reminder of the devastating impact human greed has on the environment and indigenous cultures. The relentless pursuit of financial gain has fueled the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, causing the displacement of communities and pushing them to the brink of extinction.

We seem to have lost the ability to live in harmony with nature. Short-term economic benefits are prioritized over the long-term health of our planet and its inhabitants. Unless we change course, countless other indigenous groups and the irreplaceable ecosystems they and we all depend on will without doubt face a similar fate.

We must acknowledge the interconnectedness of all life and commit ourselves to meaningful action in support of environmental conservation and indigenous rights.

Perhaps the Nukak’s story can serve as a wake-up call, urging us to find a more sustainable path, one that respects the delicate balance between humanity and the natural world.

Nukak boy X
Nukak Makú Boy X
The time to act is now


It is now more important than ever that we become aware of the multitude of threats to the health of our planet and direct our attention to the worldwide destruction of nature, as well as the decimation of indigenous cultures who depend on the rainforest for survival. We also rely on the preservation of nature to sustain our lives.

Discover our exclusive selection of Amazonian Art, where 20% of each purchase directly supports the protection of the Amazon Rainforest.



written by Rolf Friberg


Photos © David Hill/Survival, J.P. Gutierrez

Related Articles


Amazonian Art from the Stone Age: Chiribiquete

Amazonian Art from the Stone Age: Chiribiquete

Chiribiquete, also known as the “House of Jaguars,” is an imposing plateau that rises majestically into the Sky within the Sierra de la Lindosa, an extensive region of dense jungle in the Amazon Rainforest in southern Colombia. It stands out not only for its exceptional natural beauty…

Amazonian Art from the Stone Age: Chiribiquete

Amazonian Art from the Stone Age: Chiribiquete

Chiribiquete, also known as the “House of Jaguars,” is an imposing plateau that rises majestically into the Sky within the Sierra de la Lindosa, an extensive region of dense jungle in the Amazon Rainforest in southern Colombia. It stands out not only for its exceptional natural beauty…

Amazonian Art from the Stone Age: Chiribiquete

Amazonian Art from the Stone Age: Chiribiquete

Chiribiquete, also known as the “House of Jaguars,” is an imposing plateau that rises majestically into the Sky within the Sierra de la Lindosa, an extensive region of dense jungle in the Amazon Rainforest in southern Colombia. It stands out not only for its exceptional natural beauty…


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *