‘Uncontacted’ Amazon tribesmenMembers of one of the world’s last “uncontacted” peoples were spotted and photographed from the air in a remote part of Brazil’s Acre state near the Peruvian border. The flights were undertaken by the Brazilian government to prove the existence of uncontacted tribes in a region under danger from illegal logging. One of the images, released May 29, shows two men covered in bright red body paint poised to fire arrows at the aircraft. Another photo shows about 15 near thatched huts, some also preparing to fire arrows at the aircraft.
“We did the overflight to show their houses, to show they are there, to show they exist,” said José Carlos dos Reis Meirelles Júnior of FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency. “This is very important because there are some who doubt their existence.”
Meirelles says the group’s numbers are increasing, but that other uncontacted groups in the region whose homes have been photographed from the air are in severe danger from illegal logging operations encroaching from Peru. Logging is driving uncontacted tribes over the border and could lead to conflict with the estimated 500 uncontacted indigenous people living on the Brazilian side.
“What is happening in this region [of Peru] is a monumental crime against the natural world, the tribes, the fauna and is further testimony to the complete irrationality with which we, the ‘civilized’ ones, treat the world,” said Meirelles.
There are more than 100 uncontacted tribes worldwide, with more than half living in either Brazil or Peru. All are in grave danger of being forced off their land, killed and decimated by new diseases. Survival International, which has placed the photos on its website, has launched an urgent campaign to get their land protected.
Survival’s director Stephen Corry said: “These pictures are further evidence that uncontacted tribes really do exist. The world needs to wake up to this, and ensure that their territory is protected in accordance with international law. Otherwise, they will soon be made extinct.” (Reuters, Survival International, May 28)
Meirelles told AP that anthropologists know next to nothing about the group, but suspect it is related to the Tano and Aruak peoples. He said it is among four uncontacted tribes monitored by the government for some 20 years. It is thought to number 500 people, who roam over an area of about 1.6 million acres (630,000 hectares). Over the 20 years he has been working in the area, Meirelles said the number of their malocas, or communal thatched huts, has doubled—suggesting that the tribe’s policy of isolation is working and its population is growing.
Last year, a previously unknown tribe, the Metyktire, with about 87 members, was found to be living within the 12.1-million-acre (4.9-million-hectare) Menkregnoti indigenous reserve (Para state), when two of its members showed up at a Kayapo village in the reserve. (AP, May 30)
The Metyktire are a subgroup of the Kayapo tribe, and speak a “purer” or “archaic” form of Mebengokré, the Kayapo language. The World Rainforest Movement reported the two Metyktire tribe members walked for five days across 100 kilometers of jungle, crossing the border from Mato Grosso state (see map), before unexpectedly appearing in the Kayapo village.
The World Rainforest Movement wrote: “It should be noted that this contact was not the result of a free decision but because of loggers invading their territory, forcing them to flee and make this long and difficult journey until they reached this village.”
The Metyktire were initially contacted in 1950 but retreated deeper into the forest and remained in voluntary isolation. Until their reappearance at the Kayapo village, they were believed extinct. They were received at the village with rejoicing, singing and dancing by the Kayapo. No pictures were allowed to be taken, and outsiders were kept away from the village for fear of exposing the Metyktire to diseases against which they have no immunities. But their songs were recorded and played over the local radio. Reports said the Metyktire were in good health, tall and strong, with long hair and each with a botoque (lip plate) on their bottom lip. (AP, June 1, 2007; WRM, June 2007)
The New York Times quoted Robert L. Carneiro, an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, who questioned claims that the new photos are really of an uncontacted people. He noted that the men wore bamboo headpieces that looked like crowns, with strips of thinly cut bamboo around their waists—attire similar to that of the Amahuaca people he studied in the 1960s. “I’m not saying these people in the pictures are Amahuaca, but they could be,” he said. “Or they are a closely related group.” (NYT, May 31)