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Out of Contact

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Nicolas Reynard/National Geographic Stock
Sydney Possuelo (right), founder and director of Brazil’s Department of Isolated Indians, with members of the Korubo tribe in the Amazon River basin, 2002

Princeton graduate student Carol Mitchell looked up from her work and was transfixed by the sight of eleven naked men walking toward the thatch-roofed building in which she was compiling her field notes. Carol was alone that afternoon, since the other researchers at the station were off in the surrounding forest. Her startled indecision quickly turned to indignant impulse when some of the men began to gather up drying clothes from a nearby line. She rushed out of the building with a loud exclamation and snatched the clothes away from the now equally startled men. Returning briskly to the building, she slammed the door and deposited the rescued clothing on a table. There then ensued a standoff, Carol inside and the men outside, each staring at the other through the screen that served in lieu of a wall in the tropical climate. Thus did we come to know the Yaminahua or Yora people who lived upriver from us and who had terrorized their (and our) Matsigenka neighbors for at least a generation.

Carol didn’t know what to make of the delegation, but it was clear that they had come in peace, because they were not carrying weapons—bows and arrows. Multiple possibilities flashed through her adrenalin-fueled thoughts. It was clear from the hesitation on both sides that the station was not under attack, so Carol decided that hospitality would be the best policy. She came out of the building and, motioning for the men to follow, walked over to the dining hall next door. She then passed out cups and poured refresco (akin to Kool-Aid) for all to enjoy. The men, now gathered in the close quarters of the station’s dining facility, solemnly drank their portions.

With conversation impossible, silence reigned until the leader indicated that it was time to go. The men got up, but before they left, they gathered in a tight cluster only inches from Carol’s face and sang her a song. They then filed out of the building and continued their journey. We didn’t see any of them again for many months. These events took place in 1985 in the heart of Perú’s Manu National Park in the southwest Amazon at a rustic biological station where I have been conducting research with students and colleagues since 1973.

Neither we nor our Arawak-speaking Matsigenka neighbors could understand a word of what we later learned is a Panoan language. Thus the motives that inspired the Yora to come downriver where they had never previously ventured were unknown to us at the time. We later learned that an epidemic had swept through their community and that many had died, prompting survivors to seek help in the outside world. Some years later, the entire Yora community moved out of the park to an adjacent watershed where they have become wards of a Dominican mission. It has been years since I saw any of them.

Incredible as it may seem, and there may be no greater anachronism on earth, there are still “wild” human beings living in some of the remotest corners of the tropics. Known or suspected locations of “uncontacted” groups are mapped and identified at www.uncontactedtribes.org (click on “Where are they?”). Most are around the fringes of the Amazon in the border regions of Brazil, especially in neighboring Perú where there are suspected of being at least fifteen uncontacted groups. Outside of South America, the only remaining uncontacted humans are in the Andaman Islands and Indonesia’s West Papua province (the western half of the island of New Guinea).

“Uncontacted.” What does the term mean? Although definitions would certainly vary, basically it refers to human societies that have no regular intercourse with the modern world, though they might have second- or third-degree contact through trading partners or colinguists. They live with few or no manufactured implements other than perhaps the odd machete or ax acquired through trade. Most speak languages not understood by anyone else. Hence they are isolated by linguistic barriers as well as the physical barrier of remoteness.

In the Amazon, remaining uncontacted groups are isolated by a third barrier, that of abject fear stemming from the horrendous atrocities of the rubber boom. Those events of a hundred years ago remain very much a living memory that is indelibly inscribed into the consciousness of every child living in isolation. Uncontacted Amazonians live a fugitive existence in the farthest headwaters of tributary streams, often above cataracts and beyond where even a small dugout canoe can pass. Here they live in perpetual fear of being detected and enslaved or killed by the white man.

One starry evening, after we had both had a few beers, an Amazonian acquaintance of mine loosened up and recounted to me the life he had led as a child before his extended family established contact with the outside world. They moved their camps frequently, and when they did, they took pains to cover up the evidence of their presence, especially the fireplace. The ground was smoothed out, the ashes were scattered widely, and the charred spot was hidden under a cloak of dead leaves. When the family crossed a stream, they erased their footprints behind them to leave no trace. Anyone they might chance to meet who wasn’t one of their little group was assumed to be a mortal enemy.

And so it is with the Flecheiros (the Arrow People), a group of uncontacted Amazonians living in the headwaters of the Itaquaí and Jutaí rivers on the Brazilian side of the Perú–Brazil border. Feared by their Amazonian neighbors and possessing a reputation among outsiders for unprovoked ferocity, they had resided in isolation in their headwater redoubt since the collapse of the rubber boom.

Scott Wallace’s engaging adventure story The Unconquered presents a chronicle of his experiences as a journalist on a grueling seventy-six-day expedition through the wilderness to assess the status and condition of the Flecheiro people. The expedition was organized and led by Sydney Possuelo, founder and director of the Department of Isolated Indians within FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Índio), Brazil’s Indian agency. In the remote frontier regions of Brazil, landgrabs are routinely justified by the claim that the area in question is unoccupied. Possuelo’s agency was thus under constant pressure to demonstrate the presence of indigenous inhabitants in areas undergoing development.

The ostensible purpose of the expedition was to provide information to FUNAI about the size of the uncontacted population, the location of villages, the extent of the area used for hunting and foraging activities, and perhaps clues to their ethnic and linguistic identities. In fact, much of this information could be obtained more easily and safely through overflights and interviewing members of contacted tribes whose lands bordered on those of the Flecheiros. Thirteen Flecheiro villages had previously been pinpointed by GPS and photographed during aerial reconnaissance. The number of structures in each village could indicate the size of its population. The stated motive for the expedition thus appeared rather flimsy.

There was, however, a parallel motive, which was to draw attention to Possuelo and his efforts to protect people who had no representation in the halls of Brasília. This motive offers a better explanation for why two Americans with limited jungle experience, Scott Wallace and Nicolas Reynard, a photographer assigned by National Geographic, were invited along to document the expedition. Possuelo was in need of money to support his activities and a feature article in a major international magazine could provide a boost to his fund-raising.

On June 8, 2002, the expedition departed from Tabatinga, a tiny port where the Amazon passes into Brazil from Perú and Colombia. The flotilla of three riverboats carried a remarkable multiethnic party of about three dozen men, including members of three local indigenous groups. Although the intention was to skirt several Flecheiro villages to assess the extent and intensity of their use of the land, an unintended encounter could not be discounted. In the intense stress of such a moment, having members of the party who were capable of speaking all of the region’s known languages could be a lifesaver.

The expedition journeyed upriver on the Itaquaí as far as it could prudently be navigated at a season of receding water and continued by motorized dugout until the river became too shallow and littered with fallen trees for any kind of boat. From this point, the plan was to trek overland into the adjacent watershed of the Jutaí. The party would then hike down the Jutaí until it reached a point at which the river could be navigated by dugout canoe. The plan then called for a two-week sojourn during which two dugout canoes would be crafted from live trees. These were not the kind of canoes two people might use to shoot rapids; one was sixty feet long and the other forty-seven feet. The two together carried more than thirty men with all their gear and supplies. Wallace’s description of how the crew built the canoes is one of the highlights of the book.

Danger was a constant companion. Of course there was the possibility of being attacked by Flecheiros, but even greater hazards lay in the journey itself. For more than two weeks, the heavily laden men struggled across the divide between the Itaquaí and Jutaí. This was highly jagged terrain incised by innumerable creeks with vertical banks that had to be scaled or slithered down (up to twenty-five in a day’s march). Frequent rains ensured that the track became a mudslide after the first several men had passed. Never mind the snakes and jaguars; these are much overrated. The real danger was that of slipping and breaking a limb or falling and being impaled on the Punji sticks left by the machete-wielding trailblazers at the front of the line.

If one of the inexperienced Americans—or anyone—had been incapacitated by injury, this would have had dire consequences for the entire group, for there was no way to get a person out. The boats that had brought them to the headwaters of the Itaquaí had returned to port. There was only the way forward and that required a fifty-day feat of stamina and mental fortitude that stripped thirty-three pounds from the author’s frame. Possuelo carried a satellite telephone, but that offered only an illusion of security because the irregular terrain and unbroken forest canopy precluded the landing of a helicopter.

On a lengthy expedition of this kind, food supplies are a critical issue, not simply for energy but for morale. No one can carry fifty days’ rations on top of a hammock, clothing, and other essential equipment. Daily hunting made up the shortfall. Naturally, returns were better on some days than others. When a herd of peccaries could be assaulted, the bounty allowed everyone to eat his fill and retire contented. But there were many days when the hunters could bag only a few monkeys. A bowl of thin monkey broth simply couldn’t compensate for a long day’s march and left everyone in a sullen mood.

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