Lost and found in Amazonia
Tribal worlds and the modern world will both have to change in order to surviveBy John Ryle • 22 June 1998 • City of Words • The Guardian • Unnatural Selection: The Yanomami, the Kayapo and the Onslaught of Civilisation by Linda Rabben • Expanded • Posted 2016 • 1,006 words
Two weeks ago the latest lost tribe of the Amazon—two hundred strong and living in a dozen communal huts concealed beneath the forest canopy—was discovered by Brazilian officials in the state of Acre, on the border between Brazil and Peru. This unnamed group is the latest in a long line of hitherto sequestered communities whose existence is announced, breathlessly, to a global audience intrigued by the idea of the endurance of the primitive.
In the last few decades, since the beginning of large-scale destruction of forest-dwelling Indian communities in the 1950s, there has been a new tribal group identified in the Amazon almost every year. The official of the Brazilian Federal Indian Agency (FUNAI) who located the settlement in Acre says he thinks there could be fifty more still to be identified.
That is to say, fifty communities of Indians who do not want to be found, who have no expressed desire to consort with non-Amerindian people. This is the meaning of “lost”, “uncontacted” and “undiscovered”. Such groups of indigenous people may not yet have had missionaries, gold-miners, anthropologists or officials of FUNAI in their midst, but they know about them: so-called uncontacted tribes interact with other Indian groups whose members are themselves in routine contact with the wider world. So even if they have never seen a white person they will be familiar with the artefacts of industrial civilization—trade goods such as metal tools and cooking pots. They hear bulldozers; they see planes flying overhead. It’s just that they don’t go where non-Amerindian people are. Or, if they do, they kill them.
That is what the lost tribe of Acre did, according to the FUNAI official. Coming upon a settler who had gone fishing in their part of the jungle, they shot him— with arrows, in the antique Indian manner. Domingos Neves was his name. May he rest in peace. But an isolated act of violence like this must be set against the hundreds of Amerindians who have been killed in clashes in the last few years with gold-prospectors and loggers in the northern Amazon—and the millions who have died at the hands of settlers in the centuries since the beginning of European colonization.