|Amazonian tribesmen aim their bows at a helicopter somewhere near Brazil-Peru border.|
In isolated pockets around the world there still live some 100 tribes which shun contact with modern civilisation. These tribes account for roughly 50,000 individuals. About 70 such tribes live in the Brazilian rainforest. In Amazonia they are called isolados (isolated, uncontacted). Isolados know about the existence of the outside world of clothes, aeroplanes and metal tools yet they do not wish to be a part of it. They feel that contact with civilisation can lead them to ruin.
In 2008 the world was treated to pictures of tribal warriors painted red and black launching spears and arrows at a helicopter flying overhead. On board the helicopter was Jose Carlos Meirelles from the Brazilian government agency FUNAI, which protects the rights of indigenous peoples. "When they saw us the women and children ran into the forest. They thought the helicopter was a giant bird. In such a remote location as this, no-one had ever flown over before. On another day we appeared over the village at a later time, just as the men were returning from a hunt. When I saw that they were painted red I was happy. Red is the colour of war, it means that the Indians are happy, healthy and ready to defend their territory" says Meirelles.
In the photo of the village one can make out a child with a steel machete and a metal dish. This shows that the tribe, who live somewhere on the Brazil-Peru border, have indirect contact with the outside world through trade with other tribes. However, it is clear that they do not want any direct contact with civilisation.
Rumours quickly spread that the existence of this tribe had been know about since 1910 and that Meirelles had set out to find them, rather than come across them accidentally. There was also criticism which claimed that use of helicopters was traumatic for the Indians and could interfere with their traditional way of life. FUNAI workers were quick to explain that they had taken the photos to draw the world's attention to the existence of such tribes, many of whom are threatened. The former president of Peru, Alan Perez Garcia, once claimed that uncontacted tribes were merely a figment of the imagination dreamed up by anthropologists and environmentalists. The photos prove otherwise. There is large-scale deforestation taking place in Peru so isolados have been moving across the border into Brazil where things are much more peaceful. However, the newcomers have to fight against the local tribes who are determined to defend their territory, and so the isolados face extinction. Meirelles swears that he would never reveal where exactly the tribe in the photo live, even under torture.
Meirelles is one of only 5 Brazilian sertanistas-- experienced researchers who search for uncontacted tribes, register them in a secret archive and use satellites to monitor thier territory to ensure that they remain unmolested. It can be a dangerous job. Meirelles was once wounded by an arrow. Nicolas 'Shaco' Flores, an indian from the Matsigenka tribe, spent 20 years looking after the Mashco-Piro tribe of Peru. On the boundaries of their territory he would leave gifts-- knives, pots, machetes. He created a garden from which the Mashco-Piro could pick edible plants. In November 2011 he died in this garden, killed by a tribesman's arrow.
The sertanistas, however, are willing to take such risks. They know that modern civilisation represents a grave danger for the isolados. As recently as the 1960s rubber-tappers used automatic weapons to massacre almost the entire Cintas Largas tribe. Brazilian newspaper 'O Globo' reported in November 1966 that to destroy the tribe's last remaining village, which was inaccessible, the rubber-tappers dropped sticks of dynamite from a Cessna light aircraft. They did so during the indian's Quarup festival, to ensure the highest possible casualties. The survivors managed to flee and hide but they were tracked down 5 weeks later and a massacre ensued. One of the perpetrators, Ataide Pereira, was so angry that he had not been paid the promised 15 dollars per victim that he confessed all to a Jesuit priest named Edgar Smith. "Our leader, Chico Luis, hung an indian woman upside down from a tree with her legs open and then cut her in half, top to bottom, with his machete. He almost managed to do it with one stroke. The ground in the village was soaked with blood as if it was an abbatoir. We threw the bodies in the river.... Personally, I have nothing against indians but the fact is that they occupy valuable land and they do not know how to exploit it" Pereira told the priest.
Isolados also die from diseases, as they have no immunity against illnesses introduced by settlers, loggers and garimpeiros, or illegal gold prospectors. Influenza and measles have ravaged Amazonian tribes. On the Brazil-Venezuela border live the Yanomami people. Their territory encompasses an expanse of dense rainforest roughly the size of Switzerland. They first encountered modern civilisation in the middle of the last century. In the 1990s uranium and gold were discovered in the Yanomami's territory. The tribal lands were invaded by up to 65,000 primitive and brutal garimpeiros. The intruders poisoned rivers, carried diseases and their diggings filled with water, creating ideal conditions for malarial mosquitoes. The gold prospectors, armed with modern weapons, also killed indians deliberately. In 1993 16 Yanomami were massacred at Haximu. The Brazil's Federal Supreme Court recognised this massacre as an act of genocide. As a result of the gold rush, 1 in 5 Yanomami perished. The tribe still survives, numbering around 20,000 individuals, but their situation is difficult. Central authority is remote, the police are powerless to protect them. "The garimpeiros have brought alcohol, prostitution and disease. Our people are dying" despairs Dario Yanomami, son of one of the tribal leaders.
|Sentinelese people on the beach, North Sentinel Island, Andaman archipelago.|
Uncontacted tribes lived, and still live, in the Andaman archipegalo, which is administered by India. The native people used to be called negritos or Asian Pygmies. Their ancestors migrated from Africa to Asia about 60,000 years ago. The last remaining descendants living the traditional lifestyle are to be found on North Sentinel island, the most westerly of the Andamans. Access to the island is hindered by coral reefs and no outsider has ever set foot there. The Sentinelese, numbering 100 to 250 individuals, live as people did in the Stone Age and are considered to be the most isolated society in the world. They still manage to enjoy some benefits of the outside world, however. They scavenge any shipwrecks and debris which washes up on their beaches, often using metal to make arrowheads. Nontheless, they fiercely protect thier freedom and isolation. Anyone attempting to approach the island is met with a hail of arrows. After the 2004 tsunami which devasted much of the region, they fired arrows at search-and-rescue helicopters. In January 2006 they killed 2 Indian fishermen who, under the influence of alcohol, had not realised that they were drifting towards the island. The victims' bodies were not recovered.
The Sentinelese walk about naked, catch fish and hunt lizards and turtles. They gather coconuts which are washed up onto the shore. It seems that they only have 2 numbers: 1 and 'more than 1'. Thanks to thier hostility they have been left alone to live as they wish. They are lucky that thier island does not have any mineral resources, and that is not suitable for cash-crop plantations. Other native tribes in the Andaman islands have been less fortunate. The Onge people from Little Andaman island will almost certainly disappear in the near future. In 1900 there were 672 Onge, in 1931 there were 250 and today there are less than 100. Diseases brought by settlers from continental India and changes in diet and lifestyle are the chief factors contributing to the tribe's decline. In Onge culture there is a legend about a huge wave which kills countless people. During the 2004 tsunami all the Onge-- 94 people-- therefore fled to shelter and managed to survive. However, in 2008 8 Onge men died after drinking poison which they had found in a bottle on the beach. This incident was the last nail in the tribe's coffin. The gene pool of the remaining Onge is too poor to allow long-term survival. 4 out of 10 Onge couples have no children. Infant mortality is around 40%. The Onge work on coconut plantations. The women still wear traditional loin clothes. Indian traders sell items such as buckets, umbrellas and plastic penis covers to the men. This last item has led to hygene problems amongst Onge men.
The Jarawa tribe of the Andamans avoided contact with civilisation for years. Thanks to this they had maintained their lifestyle and customs. The Jarawa were aware of the fate of the Jangil people, who they think of as thier ancestors. The last Jangil died in 1907. The tribe was decimated by diseases introduced by British colonisers.
A road is currently being built through the Jarawa's territory, however. The Indian government has ignored the decision of India's Supreme Court which has ordered construction to be halted. Outsiders are starting to encroach on the Jarawa's land. In 1998 a few Jarawa, probably tempted by the strange sights of civilisation, emerged from the forest. The results have been tragic. The tribe has been ravaged by disease, they started wearing clothes and became addicted to alcohol. Their number currently stands at around 250. Tour agencies organise illegal trips to the Jarawa territory, a human safari. Tourists throw biscuits and bananas from their jeeps to the Jarawa begging on the roadside, as if they were feeding animals. In January 2012 a video appeared in which a policeman forces a Jarawa woman, stripped to the waist, to dance for tourists.
Author: Jan Piaseczny Taken from 'Przegłąd' magazine nr.14 (640) 09/04/12
From the archives: Apocalypse Then: Haiti circa 1502 AD.