How could a tribe remain undiscovered in the Amazon in the 21st century?

By: Contributors
Seniors of diverse cultures playing instruments.
Raoni Metyktire, leader of the Kayapo Indian Amazon tribe, and Brazilian environmentalist Paulo Pinage speak at a press conference in 2007. Some Amazonian tribes remain uncontacted by the outside world, but all tribes are threatened by deforestation.

We're called upon to do an awful lot of crusading these days. Protect polar bears from extinction. Stop global warming. Keep gorillas. These images are meant to elicit our sympathy and compel us to action. But when we saw recent pictures of an uncontacted tribe in the Acre State of the Amazon rainforest, many of us were simply shocked.

In today's interconnected, plugged-in, linked-up world, it seems incomprehensible that a whole band of people could've gone unnoticed for so long. And there's a reason for that disbelief: It's not exactly true.


This group of people has actually been on the Brazilian and Peruvian governments' radar for about 20 years. What's more, these photos were taken nearly a month before they were released to the public. A crew flew over the tribe's tiny village (which lies on the border of Brazil and Peru) for 20 hours between April 28 and May 2, 2008, documenting the people. The photos were published in major news outlets around the world on May 29 and 30.

The photos pictured about 15 different tribespeople: men, women and children. Some men and women were painted red and black. They appeared agitated -- the men pointed bows and arrows toward the planes hovering above their village, which appears to be comprised of six malocas, or huts with thatched roofs made of grass.

But this sighting wasn't what anthropologists refer to as first contact. That occurs when an isolated tribe is physically approached by an outside party. Sometimes first contact is made by anthropologists who want to study a tribe's ethnicity and culture; other times, encroaching loggers, companies scouting for oil or missionaries reach the tribes first.

According to Survival International, an organization that helps protect tribal people and promote awareness about them, there are about 100 uncontacted groups in the world. Nearly 50 percent is estimated to live in Brazil and Peru. Why here? The Amazon rainforest provides a thick, dense retreat for these people. However, rapid deforestation threatens to expose these long-isolated groups.

Is exposure such a bad thing? And if it is, then why would the Brazilian government release images of the tribe? Find out on the next page.


The Uncontacted Tribe Pictures: Purpose or Propaganda?

Brazilian rainforest deforestation
The Anapu region in Northern Brazil shows the effects of deforestation in April 2005. Uncontacted tribes are retreating further into the diminishing forest to preserve their culture and protect their health.

Every picture tells a story. And whether it's a $15 million shot of Brangelina's twins or a married politician spotted on the town with another woman, the public responds to images and clamors for the details behind the shot.

The aerial photographs of the mysterious Amazonian tribe are no exception. But as of yet, there's not much to report. Anthropologists suspect they could be related to tribes like the Amahuaca, Aruak or Tano. We can infer that they wore body paint to display aggression toward the crews flying overhead. Other than that, we're stumped. And if the Brazilian government has its way, that's how we'll stay.


José Carlos dos Reis Meirelles, tribal expert at FUNAI (Brazil's National Indian Foundation), said that the purpose of releasing the photos was to show disbelievers that there really are uncontacted tribes living in the world today and that the ranching, logging and oil industries are a threat to them. While the Amazon rainforest means big business in terms of valuable woods (like mahogany and cedar) and oil (about 75 percent of Peru's rainforest is thought to hold reserves), it's also one of the last sacred spaces for people who wish to remain sheltered from the rest of the world [source: Guardian].

Survival International explains that these tribes make a deliberate decision to stay uncontacted. The impression that many tribespeople have of outsiders isn't very favorable: Loggers, ranchers and oil prospectors raze their land and homes, forcing them to retreat deeper into the forest. And even outsiders that come in peace, like missionaries, threaten tribes with chicken pox, influenza and the common cold. While a bad bout of the flu may keep us in bed for a week, it could mean death for someone who doesn't have our reinforced immune systems. Miriam Ross, a Survival International spokeswoman, explains that first contact with a tribe typically results in half the group dying within a few months.

While the Brazilian and Peruvian governments are working to preserve the land that these tribes live on, many loggers enter the forests illegally and wreak havoc. Another complication is presented by the possibility of tapping Peru's rich oil supply. While Peru has worked to keep prospectors away from lands populated by uncontacted tribes, the French company Perenco intends to search for oil in Northern Peru, where two tribes are known to live. What's more, the company is within its rights -- it obtained access to this region of the country when it bought the U.S.-owned Barrett Resources in early 2008. Perupetro, the organization that governs oil prospecting in Peru, is trying to help preserve lands inhabited by tribes, which complicates President Alan Garcia's vision of Peru becoming a petrol-producing giant by 2011 [source: Economist].

In the grand scheme of history, this isn't a new conflict. Preservation has long dogged progress, and vice versa. The conflict just has a new face. But will the air of mystery behind these new and unfamiliar faces garner sympathy? That remains to be seen. The photographic proof of such a tribe's existence forces us to accept the fact that with each falling of a tree, people are driven one step further into an ever-dwindling forest. And if there really are 99 more uncontacted tribes left in the world and half that number in the rainforest, we might find a lot more startling images in our newspapers in the future.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • How Deforestation Works
  • How Aborigines Work
  • How Rainforests Work
  • How Easter Island Works
  • How the Flu Works
  • Geography of Brazil
  • Geography of Peru
  • History of Brazil
  • History of Peru
  • History of South America
  • Maya Indians
  • Aztecs
  • Incas

More Great Links

  • BBC News in Pictures: Brazil Tribe. 30 May 2008 (3 June 2008).
  • "Brazil reveals 'uncontacted' Amazon tribe." AP. 30 May 2008 (3 June 2008).
  • "Isolated tribe spotted in Brazil." BBC News. 30 May 2008 (30 May 2008).
  • "Oil and gas in Peru: A warm welcome." 10 April 2008 (4 June 2008).
  • Sturcke, James. "Hidden tribes of the World." 30 May 2008 (3 June 2008).
  • "Uncontacted tribe photographed near Brazil-Peru border." Survival International. 29 May 2008 (3 June 2008).
  • "Uncontacted tribe photos spur government into action." Survival International. 3 June 2008 (4 June 2008).
  • "'Uncontacted tribe' sighted in Amazon." 29 May 2008 (3 June 2008).
  • Wilford, John Noble. "Isolated in Amazon, Visible from the Air." 31 May 2008 (3 June 2008).