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The river echoes with laughter: A child-centered analysis of social change in Amazonia


Children play an active role in indigenous society’s changing relationship with the environment

This paper is based on ethnographic research conducted by the author with Matses people in Peru. The discussion focuses on children’s perspectives and activities but does so in relation to the broader social and political-economic context of this indigenous community. The aim of the paper is to demonstrate how children shape and influence the world in which they live. This child-centered analysis of social change differs from traditional theories of socialization in which adult practices and worldviews are seen as passively accepted and reproduced by children. In this more child-centered analysis, children are viewed as active agents shaping possible future directions of Matses society.

The shift from a hunter-gatherer, forest-based society to a more riverine lifestyle is already taking place in the Matses community; and children are playing a critical role. While Matses adults (especially males) spend most of the day trekking in the forest to hunt animals and to collect fruit and medical plants for their family, the children spend their time engaged in “play-work” at the river. Play-work consists of play-based activities in which children develop the necessary skills for contributing to the family’s needs. At the river, children from a very young age learn to canoe and fish, often without adult supervision or guidance. The children’s engagement with the river is both physical and emotional. While their parents are comfortable in and attached to the forest environment, the children are developing a different form of attachment with their surroundings. Their play-work in the river is not a matter of simply reproducing adult skills, practices, and worldviews. They are in the process of becoming different types of adults and forming a different kind of society.

The lives of the Matses people – as well as other indigenous societies — are impacted by social, environmental, and political-economic changes (including urbanization, deforestation, and food depletion). Children are impacted by these changes, but are also purposefully participating in and reformulating them in their daily lives. As demonstrated by the Matses children, young people can play an active role in setting a direction for people’s changing relationship with the environment.


Morelli, C., (2017). The river echoes with laughter: A child-centered analysis of social change in Amazonia. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 23, 137-154.


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