For the first time, anthropologists working for the Peruvian government will attempt to make contact with members of a remote tribe living in the Amazon jungle. The move follows growing concerns about the behavior of the Mascho Piro people, which has included attacks and raids on neighboring communities.
South America, and in particular the vast Amazon region, is home to some of the world’s last remaining “uncontacted” tribes — indigenous communities that, for whatever reason, have managed to exist almost entirely outside the purview of the nation-states in which they technically live. Experts fear a whole slew of risks that may follow should these tribes come into full contact with the outside world, from exploitation by rapacious mining and logging companies to the devastating transfer of pathogens to which they have no immunity.
In recent decades, some governments have taken a protective stance, working to shield these communities from outside contact mostly because of the health risks involved. After all, some estimates suggest contact with outside diseases killed up to 100 million indigenous people following the European arrival in the Americas.
Peru bars contact with about a dozen “uncontacted” Amazonian tribes living within its borders, a positive departure from an earlier time when the government would not even recognize their existence. Brazil has its own federal agency responsible for indigenous peoples. In 2011, it allowed cameras to document unprecedented aerial footage of its observations over the jungle.
Rights groups and activists have long campaigned in the defense and protection of indigenous lands in the Amazon, fighting against the predatory interests of oil companies as well as a tragic history of violence that saw tribal peoples victim to generations of settlers, loggers, and traffickers.
Survival International, which campaigns for the rights of tribal and indigenous communities worldwide, says that Peru and Brazil are not doing enough to safeguard these “uncontacted” tribes. Last year, the organization warned against tourists carrying out “human safaris” near Mascho Piro land.
Jeffrey Kluger, Time magazine’s science editor, recently recounted a study in Science magazine that detailed the challenges and ethics of how to treat “uncontacted” tribes. This included this chilling anecdote of how vulnerable some of these tribes are to outside contact:
Goods that go from body to body should be entirely off-limits. [Journalist Andrew] Lawler spoke to Peruvian villager Marcel Pinedo Cecilio, 69, who was born in the forest but later emerged. Cecilio recalls his first contact with an outsider—thought to have been an ethnographer and photographer—who left the villagers with a gift of a fishbone necklace. Shortly thereafter, much of the tribe came down with a sore throat and fever and 200 of them died. In the 1980s, up to 400 Peruvian villagers died from passing contact with crews of Shell oil company workers.
As a result, the current investigation into the Mashco Piro tribe in Peru has earned its concerned critics.
“Authorities should restrict boat transit and keep people from approaching,” Klaus Quicque, president of FENAMAD, a regional indigenous federation in Peru, told Reuters.
The urgency of the contact was spurred by an incident in May, when some members of the tribe attacked another local community, killing a young man with an arrow. The officials enlisted to make contact will engage the tribe through interpreters who speak the Yine language, which they believe shares similarities to the tongue spoken by the Mashco Piro people.
In 2013, the Mashco Piro earned global attention when dozens of members of the tribe appeared on the banks of Amazonian tributary near a small Yine town, and demanded rope, machetes and bananas. FENAMAD rangers stationed there dissuaded them from crossing the river, but the standoff was tense, with some of the men from the tribe carrying bows and long wooden lances.
Nearby villagers, Christian missionaries and the occasional tourist have all reported meeting Mashco Piro people.
“We can no longer pretend they aren’t trying to make some sort of contact,” Luis Felipe Torres, a Peruvian official working on state tribal affairs, told Reuters. “They have a right to that, too.”
Experts say the phrase “uncontacted” is something of a misnomer, given that all communities on the planet are aware of their neighbors and have some sense of the wider world outside their homes.
“People have this romanticized view that isolated tribes have chosen to keep away from the modern, evil world,” said Kim Hill, an anthropologist at Arizona State University, in an interview with the BBC last year. But that’s rarely the case.
“There is no such thing as a group that remains in isolation because they think it’s cool to not have contact with anyone else on the planet,” said Hill.
Writing in Science magazine last month, Hill and colleague Robert Walker reiterated this point, suggesting that many of South America’s “uncontacted” communities had “chosen isolation out of fear of being killed or enslaved” and that, like most human beings living in constrained circumstances, “they also wanted outside goods and innovations and positive social interactions with neighbors.”
The academics suggested the best path forward is a policy of “controlled contact” with these communities, carefully managed to avoid the spread of disease, but also enable the building of trust and providing aid and medical help if needed. The current Peruvian mission may serve a test case for this sort of endeavor.