Deep in one of the remotest parts of the Brazilian Amazon, in a clearing at the headwaters of the Envira River, an Indian man looks up at an aeroplane.
He is surrounded by kapok trees and banana plants, and by the necessities of his life: a thatched hut, its roof made from palm fronds; a plant-fiber basket brimming with ripe pawpaw; a pile of peeled manioc, lying bright-white against the rain forest earth.
The man’s body is painted red from crushed seeds of the annatto shrub, and in his hand is a long wooden arrow — held, in seeming readiness, close to its bow. At his side, children, naked but for cotton waist-bands, gaze up in amazement.
One of the world’s last uncontacted tribes who are under increased threat from loggers over the border in Peru, according to tribal people’s charity Survival International.
It is a photograph of one of the last uncontacted tribes in the world, taken in June 2010 by FUNAI, Brazil’s Indian Department, together with what is thought to be the first-ever film footage. Survival International published the images in order to help protect the lives of the tribe by proving their existence. They were also broadcast in the “Jungles” episode of the BBC’s new landmark series, “Human Planet”.
The viewing numbers to date are extraordinary. The moment they were published, thousands of people per minute were looking at the images on Survival’s website; since then, over 2 million have seen them. The footage and photographs have appeared in more than 1,000 media outlets; over 4.4 million people watched the BBC’s program.
Importantly, the Peruvian Government announced within 2 days of publication that they would work with Brazilian authorities to stop loggers entering isolated Indians’ territory along the two countries’ joint border, testament to the belief of José Carlos Mereilles, FUNAI’s uncontacted expert, when he said, “One image of them has more impact than a thousand reports.”
Toby Nicholas of Survival International, who is responsible for Survival’s website and has been monitoring the traffic and statistics, said, “The pictures spread across the world within minutes, and produced a wave of support for uncontacted tribal peoples greater than anything we’ve ever seen before. Huge numbers of people were able to take small steps like signing a petition — and they did.”
That they have captured the imagination of millions can be seen from international posts of awe and outrage left on Facebook, You Tube, Vimeo and other sites. Messages about respect and diversity, about their right to stay free from oppression and the avarice that pushes loggers, miners and other extractive corporations further into their territories; about their ecological awareness and their absolute right to live in the way that they choose. “If these tribes and rain forests aren’t saved, the rest of mankind will follow,” read one post. Another just simply said, “Il n’y a pas de mots” ["There are no words"].
Today, there are over 100 uncontacted tribal peoples worldwide. This means that from the Amazon to the Andaman Sea and the remote highland rain forests of West Papua, more than 100 tribes still live — and live successfully — in isolation from the mainstream society of their country.
Very little is known about them. We know that the uncontacted Indians seen in this part of the Amazon move across the rain forest at different times of the year, living in the heart of the forest when water levels are high, and camping on the beaches that form in river bends during the dry seasons. We also know that the Sentinelese have lived on North Sentinel, a small Indian Ocean island surrounded by coral reefs, for up to 55,000 years, and are thought to have been part of the first successful human migrations out of Africa.
There are many myths that circulate, of course: that they are “lost” tribes (nothing but sensationalism); that they are “backward” for their alternative ways of life or nakedness, or “stone-age” for their lack of material possessions (it’s the ideas that are outdated, not them); that they have tried and failed to keep up with the “modern” world (a conceit that presupposes that the western society is the pinnacle of human aspiration and that all other cultures are striving to reach it).
We also know that they have little understanding of cars, hospitals, banks or the Internet and that they are, in the words of José Carlos Mereilles, “the last free people on earth” — free from the influence of governments, the subliminal powers of advertising and the media and the thoughts of others.
All else about their lives — their languages, their names, their gods, how they raise their children and what they hope for — is speculation.
One thing, however, is certain: the future of this uncontacted community depends on the protection of their lands. And in turn, the protection of their lands depends, as Jose Carlos Meirelles said, “on our conscience”.
Marcus Veron, the late leader of the Guarani-Kaiowá people, said of the forests and plains of Brazil that were his home, “This here is my life, my soul. If you take this land away from me, you take my life.”
Veron was not alone in this profound attachment to his homeland; a strong practical and emotional connection felt by most tribal peoples.
The idea for my book We are One — A Celebration of Tribal Peoples was born out of spending a week spent with the Hadzabe tribe in northwest Tanzania. The Hadzabe are a hunter-gatherer people who live in Yaeda Chini, an area of bushland on the floor of the Great Rift Valley. The Hadza men hunt with bows and arrows made from giraffe tendons, the women gather roots and tubers from the arid ground.
This land around the shallow soda waters of Lake Eyasi has been theirs for thousands of years. “Our grandparents lived here; I am part of the land,” a hunter told me one morning, as we sat on a rocky outcrop scanning the acacia trees below for wart-hog. “Without the land, we have no life. This place is my home.”
This place is my home. It was this one comment that stayed with me. It made me consider my own yen for the strong sense of home I’d known as a child, and on a far wider level, I found it humbling to imagine how strong the sense of belonging to place a people must feel after 10, 20, or even 55,000 years rooted to one part of the Earth.
To the Hadzabe, the Yanomami, the Inuit, and the uncontacted tribes, the African savannah, the Amazon, and the Arctic, are home. “It is hard to describe how connected my people are to nature,” said Davi Kopenawa, spokesman of the Yanomami people. “You can’t uproot us and put is in another land; we don’t exist away from the forest,” thoughts echoed by a Cherokee statement: “We cannot separate our place on the Earth from our lives on the Earth, nor from our vision and our meaning as a people.”
The Amazon rainforest is Urihi to the Yanomami, a forest-land covered with the mirrors of dancing spirits; the snow peaks of Colombia are “temples” to the Arhuaco; the larch-covered hillsides of Mongolia are the ancestral migration routes through which the Tsaatan people move with their reindeer; the immense sandstone plateaus of the Guyana Highlands are the ancestral lands of the Akawaio people. “This land keeps us together within its mountains,” said one Akawaio man. “We come to understand that we are not just a few people … but one people belonging to a homeland.”
They belong: to a place, and to each other. Dependent on their community for survival in remote and often harsh environments, many tribal peoples have lived — and often still live — in complex societies, where the solidarity of the group is of utmost importance. “The great difference between the indigenous and the western world is that we live in communities,” said Evaristo Nugkuag Ikanan of the Aguaruna people. “The individual is important as a measure of the whole. Together, we are strong.”
Now that loneliness (and its associated emotion, depression) in industrialized societies is so prevalent (recent figures show that there are over 200 million single-person households worldwide), this consideration of the individual only as part of a dynamic whole is perhaps particularly compelling. “In our relentless search for ‘development’ and material progress it is possible we have alienated ourselves from our deepest human needs, which surely lie in our connections to each other and the Earth,” says Stephen Corry, director of Survival International. ‘‘Tribal peoples still perhaps understand those connections better than most.”
As much as the story of uncontacted peoples is about home and belonging, it is also about choice and tolerance. Specifically, their choice: for if uncontacted tribes choose to remain isolated, they will have good reasons to do so (most uncontacted peoples in the Amazon are probably descendants of people who fled massacres caused by the rubber boom). Equally, if they choose different ways of life from the dominant society, it is because these ways have always worked well.
Their lifestyles are not inferior for their lack of “modern” technology, material goods or formal education. Nor do the people who practice them need civilizing or “developing.”
To paraphrase the words of Wade Davis, ethno-botanist and Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic, while we have been flying to the moon and inventing the microchip, it’s not as if other cultures have been idle: they have expressed their latent human ingenuity in different ways. “But we are educated in the things we know,” said Daquoo Xukuri, a Bushman from Botswana. “We can pass our knowledge to the rest of the world.”
It is also about tolerance of their choices, for perhaps the true meaning of what it is to be “civilized” lies not in accruing power and wealth but in respecting the differences of others and accepting the value of human diversity. “The world needs human diversity as much as it needs bio-diversity,” says Stephen Corry.
As the world becomes increasingly homogenized, it is possible that the collective reaction to the uncontacted tribe amounts to relief that there peoples exist who still live in harmony with their environments, who measure time by the cycles of the moon, who can gauge the type of Arctic ice by looking at patterns in the clouds, or who use the song of an African bird to guide them to bees’ nests in baobab trees. “It is amazing that they still in exist in the 21st Century,” said Jose Carlos Meireilles.
For when the props, crutches and conveniences of “modern” life have been stripped away, tribal peoples — both uncontacted and contacted — show us that humanity is still part of nature, and that we ignore this at our peril. “The world needs to listen to the cry of the Earth, which is asking for help,” said Davi Kopenawa. They understand that once the forests, trees and mountains have been depleted, mutilated or polluted too severely, no technological quick fixes will restore them.
Tribal peoples are, of course, not ecological saints, but their largely sustainable and communal ways of living do act as a counterpoint to the damaging excesses and solo living of many “modern” societies, showing us that humanity is about “we”, not “I”, belonging not ownership, human values not economics, balance with nature, not destruction. “I do know that the measure of a civilization is not how tall its buildings of concrete are, but rather how well its people have learned to relate to their environment and fellow man,” said Sun Bear, a Chippewa Indian.
The uncontacted community at the headwaters of the Envira River remind us that just as 500 years ago, when Chrisopher Columbus arrived in the “New World”, there were isolated peoples who thrived in the Brazilian Amazon, so there are today. And that until they choose otherwise, they must be allowed to live in peace, not condemned to suffer from the mindless repetition of history — destroyed by those interested not in their unique cultures and values, but in the minerals beneath their soil, the trees around them and the gold that washes through their rivers.
As we gaze in to the mirror they hold up to us, they remind us, as José Carlos Mereilles said, “that it is possible to live in a very different way.” A woman on Facebook responded to this, saying “And we have a universal moral obligation to them.” As their destruction would be to the detriment of humanity, this obligation is surely to ourselves as well.
Joanna Eede is a writer, author and editorial consultant to Survival International with a particular interest in the relationship between man and nature and tribal peoples. She has created and edited three environmental books, including Portrait of England (Think Publishing, 2006) and We are One: A Celebration of Tribal Peoples (Quadrille, 2009). Joanna writes for newspapers and magazines on subjects such as the repatriation of wild Przewalski horses to Mongolia, the whales of the Alboran sea, the chimpanzees of the Mahale rainforest, uncontacted tribes of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza hunter gatherer people of Tanzania. Future ideas include a book about Tibet’s nomads.
The views expressed in this guest blog post are those of Joanna Eede and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Readers are welcome to exchange ideas or comments, but National Geographic reserves the right to edit or delete abusive or objectionable content.
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