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Out of Contact

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.

Scott Wallace
A member of the Amazon expedition described in Scott Wallace’s book helping to make a dugout canoe from a tree

Wallace tells the story well, embellishing it with verbal snapshots and vivid portraits of his wilderness-wise companions, from the close-knit group of just-contacted Matis to the redoubtable Sydney Possuelo himself. The chronological account maintains a steady pace, climaxing in the tension-filled middle chapters when the expedition stumbles into a close encounter with the Fle- cheiros and Possuelo’s contingency plan falls apart. Wallace captures the flavor of the trek, the heat, the rain, the biting insects, the daily exhaustion, and the mental effort needed to sustain a positive attitude in the face of discomfort, loneliness, exhaustion, and fear.

Wallace portrays Possuelo as a man possessed, a prime subject for a Werner Herzog movie, autocratic and uncompromising. He led through intimidation, not persuasion, demanding that his orders be carried out to the letter. Even insignificant failings were met with harshly, earning him the enmity of those who bore the brunt of his wrath. He could be tender and sympathetic, usually to the least sophisticated Indians in the party, but he was more typically aloof, lecturing his men rather than befriending them.

Nevertheless, by its own criteria, the expedition succeeded. It kept to the intended route and schedule, documented evidence of Flecheiro occupation over a large area—without actually meeting with the people themselves—and everyone survived. But what did it really accomplish? That is less clear. Are the Flecheiros any better off now that a global audience has been informed about them? Wallace is more ambivalent about these deeper questions.

What indeed will be the fate of the Flecheiros and others like them? Possuelo’s vision is that they will continue to live in isolation until, like the Yora in Perú, they decide on their own to do otherwise. Wallace makes clear the Sisyphean task ahead of maintaining isolated human groups. They must be actively protected against the incursions of land seekers, loggers, gold miners, and other opportunists. Rural Brazilians, many of whom have no land they can call their own, are resentful that a handful of Indians have exclusive domain over a huge “exclusion zone” (where all outsiders are excluded by law). The zone occupied by the Flecheiros encompasses a wilderness the size of Maine, yet holds only 4,500 people.

Two years before the expedition, an angry, liquored-up mob of some three hundred men brandishing shotguns attempted to breach the exclusion zone by force. Possuelo himself was present that day at the tiny control post that marked the entrance. He radioed the Federal Police, and by a rare stroke of luck, they had a helicopter in the area. Soon it was circling overhead, doors open and guns pointing down at the surly group below. The would-be invaders retreated. But will they next time? Without force majeure at the ready, the lawless frontier will advance into yet another wilderness retreat of Native Americans. Whatever the eventual fate of FUNAI’s exclusion zones, one must admire the huge commitment Brazil has made to its indigenous people, contacted as well as uncontacted, allocating to reserves more than 365,000 square miles. This is an area larger than California, Washington, and Oregon combined, five times larger than the Oklahoma Territory into which President Andrew Jackson exiled the Cherokee and other tribes.

The current FUNAI policy of isolating uncontacted people in formal exclusion zones is a third-generation policy. Two previous policies were abandoned after failure. The first began with Marshal Cândido Rondon, for whom the state of Rondônia is named. Rondon became famous for successfully directing the construction of telegraph lines across Mato Grosso far ahead of the settlement frontier. He was a charismatic and highly principled military man who regarded the Indians as human beings worthy of respect and humane treatment. The work of constructing the telegraph lines brought him into contact with numerous ethnic groups whose cooperation he obtained through nonviolent means. Rondon lived by the motto “Die if you must, but never kill.” He was convinced that the only future for the Indians lay in assimilation, so he made efforts to bring them education to help them assimilate into society. In 1910 he was named director of the SPI (Indian Protection Service) and given a mandate to integrate Indians into Brazilian culture.

The policy of assimilation eventually foundered because Rondon’s vision was not shared by many of his countrymen. Indians were viewed as second-class citizens or worse, and treated with derision by the settlers who were pushing ever farther into the interior. The Indians’ culture of survival that had served them so well prior to their encounter with Western society had little relevance or value afterward. The lure of “things” (including alcohol) was irresistible and led to dependencies. Missionaries forbade them to go naked, thus requiring them somehow to obtain clothing. With the convenience of matches, one quickly loses the knack for starting a fire. Shotguns decisively outperform bows and arrows, but cartridges must be bought at a good price.

Such newly acquired dependencies fundamentally altered the life of the Indians, who were compelled to work for wages instead of spending their days hunting, fishing, and tending their gardens. Exploited by settlers and unscrupulous merchants, and with little prospect of achieving a level of prosperity, independence, and self-respect that would have carried them over the cultural divide into real assimilation, many indigenous communities became trapped in a state of demoralization and profound cultural poverty, being neither what they once were nor what Rondon had envisioned for them.

After Rondon, the SPI lacked vision and leadership and fell into a mire of bureaucracy, apathy, and corruption. The condition of indigenous people in Brazil became so deplorable that the Ministry of Interior appointed a high-level commission in 1967 to investigate it. Its five-thousand-page report exposed a nightmare of murder, torture, slavery, sexual abuse, and land appropriation and resulted in the creation in 1970 of FUNAI, led by Cláudio and Leonardo Villas Boas. Like their predecessor Rondon, the Villas Boas brothers were charismatic, media-savvy, and highly sympathetic to the Indians. But this time, the vision was different. In 1970, Brazil was beginning to construct the Transamazon Highway, a vast network of roads designed to integrate the Amazon into the national economy. Its routes, projected as lines on a map, crossed great swaths of terra incognita that was the homeland of numerous tribes, many uncontacted and some whose very existence, much less their ethnic and linguistic affinities, was entirely unknown.

If Indians living in the path of the Transamazon Highway weren’t contacted (“pacified” was the term of choice) and relocated, the consequences for them would have been disastrous. Conflicts with surveying and construction crews were inevitable. So were Western diseases—measles, influenza, dysentery, malaria. Isolated people have no resistance to such diseases and first contact with Europeans frequently results in demographic losses in excess of 80 percent. After demographic collapse, many tribes simply ceased to exist as organized entities.

To ward off these horrific prospects, the Villas Boas brothers organized a crash program, carried out by highly trained sertanistas—team leaders—to establish contact and then pacify and relocate entire villages and tribes. Pacification was accomplished through the proffering of Western goods, including machetes, axes, metal pots, fishhooks, matches, mosquito netting, and clothing. The seductive appeal of such things was nearly irresistible, for each of these items can make a quantum improvement in a sylvan lifestyle. Acquisition of several or all of these goods is a transformative experience that makes contact essentially irreversible. Once a person knows such things exist, then that person and his entire community are irrevocably changed. Missionaries trying to make contact to save souls know this and exploit it to lure people into a trap of dependency. Dependency instantly demotes proud, confident, and independent people to a mendicant status that is pitiable to behold.

Sertanistas carried out FUNAI’s pacification policy with vigor and dedication, but with severely qualified success. Newly contacted groups invariably contracted Western diseases and suffered heavy mortality. Entire ethnicities were moved to a huge reservation on the Xingu River where they were thrown in with other ethnic groups, sometimes including former enemies. Relocation accompanied by heavy mortality fractured families, leaving bewildered, disoriented, and dispirited survivors. Eventually the sertanistas themselves became disillusioned. Dissatisfaction with the pacification policy on the part of the people responsible for carrying it out, and completion of the Transamazon Highway project, combined to lay the groundwork for a third policy. Ample experience demonstrated that Indians can’t be contacted and moved about without killing and demoralizing them.

The best solution, Possuelo argued, is to leave them alone in situ. Find out where they live, create reserves for them in absentia, and keep the rest of the world out. By dint of charisma, reputation, and force of personality, Possuelo argued, cajoled, and eventually persuaded the government to create a new category of reserve, so-called “exclusion zones” where uncontacted tribes could live in their traditional way without risk of either guns or germs. Rondon’s policy was designed to advance the frontier, whereas Possuelo’s had the opposite effect, that of freezing the frontier.

Forced acculturation and pacification both failed as policies, whereas the jury is still out on Possuelo’s policy of isolation in exclusion zones. Wallace recounts some of the history but he doesn’t take on the difficult task of suggesting what should be done to prevent future disasters. With development pressures mounting by the year and rampant lawlessness on the frontier, exclusion zones can be regarded at best as a temporary expedient. In time, they are certain to be breached by resource seekers with all the adverse consequences the exclusion zones were created to avoid.

Here’s an example of what can be expected. Illegal logging is rampant throughout the Amazon and nearly uncontrollable. It takes place within parks and other nominally protected areas as well as on private, indigenous, and state lands. Well-intentioned international efforts to prevent the extinction of bigleaf mahogany led to a sharp rise in its price in the early 2000s. There followed a gold rush–like assault on mahogany stands in the newly created Alto Purus National Park in Perú, a vast forested wilderness occupied by several uncontacted indigenous groups. The large-scale intrusion of men, chainsaws, and heavy equipment terrified the park’s inhabitants, causing some groups to flee across the border into Brazil and others to seek refuge elsewhere in Perú.

At one time there were estimated to be five thousand loggers in the park, completely overwhelming the handful of guards assigned to protect the area. Feature articles on the sacking of the park’s mahogany appeared in Perú in the most prominent national media—newspapers, magazines, television. The identities of the wholesalers responsible for most of the export of mahogany logs were well known to the public, yet to my knowledge no arrests were ever made. One would have to have faith in a much more assertive level of law enforcement to think that strict reserves for nonvoting indigenous people could remain inviolate for long.

On a more philosophical level, do we want to keep people in a “cultural museum,” a time warp as it were? Putting aside the practical questions of how this would be accomplished, is it morally the right thing to do? This is a question of values and some of my anthropologist colleagues would say yes. But the morality of this question has to be considered in the light of our own cultural origins. Once upon a time, the ancestors of each and every one of us lived in a premodern culture. Those cultural origins have now been completely erased from our collective memory. Do any of us regret the loss of this memory? Would any of us prefer to return to our ancestral condition, rather than to live in the modern world? Few, if any, would say yes. To live in isolation is to live a short, hard life in the absence of modern medicine and in complete ignorance of history, geography, science, and art.

To my admittedly biased way of thinking, the modern world offers a vastly richer existence—intellectually, culturally, physically. Not only do we live nearly twice as long on average, but we are able to travel, to experience the accomplishments of a cultural history that goes back three thousand years, and to savor the best creations of a highly diverse global cuisine. Recently contacted people I’ve met in both New Guinea and the Amazon were grateful for contact. For the first time, they were able to move freely without the burden of anxiety that comes from living in a state of hostility with neighbors or the outside world. Really, it’s no contest, and many of the Amazonians I know, especially of the younger generation, are eager to immerse themselves in Western society.

The question is, how to make the leap? The cultural gulf is both wide and deep and there is no easy way to jump over it. Three generations of FUNAI policy have all failed to answer the question of how successfully to assist isolated people negotiate the leap into modern life. A native Amazonian does not know how to function in contemporary society. He or she speaks an unwritten language and is possessed of jungle skills that are of little value in the money economy. Add to these handicaps the almost universal tendency of frontier societies to exploit and discriminate against the members of less acculturated ethnic groups, and the barriers are almost insurmountable. Social ostracism, demoralization, and alcoholism comprise the barren netherworld between cultural states.

It was this trap that Rondon failed to perceive when he promoted a policy of assimilation. Yet in my view, assimilation offers the only moral and permanent option. The cultural gap can be bridged, but only by education. Yet the educational services provided to unacculturated natives are usually abysmal. Here might be the starting point for a fourth-generation policy that would break new ground while benefiting from insights gained through the experiences of thousands of Amazonians who paid for the mistakes of the past with their lives.


A Man of the Amazon June 7, 2012

The Fate of the ‘Unconquered’: An Exchange May 24, 2012

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