Uncontacted Indian Tribe Surfaces in the Amazon

Long before I ever moved to Brazil, I was in a relationship with a Brazilian anthropologist who, at the time, did a lot of field work with Brazil’s indigenous peoples. I remember being quite awestruck when he confessed to me that deep within the Brazilian Amazon there were “uncontacted” Indian groups that had never, ever been exposed to what we ambivalently (and somewhat optimistically) refer to as “civilization.”

To imagine that in the age of viral videos and Tweeted genitalia there could be self-sustaining communities living peacefully within the planet’s largest rainforest, completely oblivious to the rest of the world, seemed a purely fantastical (or Hollywood) notion. This week, however, I was reminded once again just how much fact can take on airs of fiction when I came upon a National Geographic article announcing the “discovery” of a previously unknown community of uncontacted Indians, found living in the western reaches of the Brazilian Amazon.

This newly “discovered” tribe is only one of an estimated dozen of uncontacted indigenous communities that inhabit the Javari Valley Reserve, in the state of Acre.

Satellite pictures taken earlier this year had alerted the Brazilian government’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) to the possible existence of the group. Yet only recently did researchers conduct a series of flyovers that confirmed the tribe’s existence. Aerial photos revealed four long, straw-roofed, communal huts, known as malocas, assembled in a trio of clearings that had been carved out of one of the densest and most remote parts of the Amazon forest.

Because the sound of an airplane usually sends Indians running for cover in the forest, the images failed to capture any humans (an exception to the rule was this photo of painted Indians shooting arrows up at a plane, which made world headlines when this Amazonian tribe was located in 2009). However, the photos did reveal the presence of crops such as corn and bananas, as well as low bushes resembling peanuts or cassava plants. Based on the size and number of dwellings and the quantity of crops, researchers estimate that the community boasts a population of around 200 people.

This newly “discovered” tribe is only one of an estimated dozen of uncontacted indigenous communities that inhabit the Javari Valley Reserve, in the state of Acre. A government designated reserve in the Amazonian rainforest whose area is around the size of Austria, the region is home to the largest concentration of uncontacted tribes on the planet.

Administered by FUNAI’s Unit of Uncontacted Indians, the Javari Reserve reflects Brazil’s commitment to locating uncontacted tribes – and protecting them from us (i.e. the outside world). As history has tragically demonstrated, if exposed to outsiders, uncontacted Indians risk being contaminated by disease-bearing germs from which they have no immunity as well as suffering from cultural dislocation and the destruction of their natural habitat, all of which can easily destroy their livelihoods and lives.

In an attempt to safeguard these communities from intruders—the most threatening of which are illegal loggers, gold miners, and energy companies seeking oil—FUNAI operates control posts along the major rivers that lead into the depths of the reserve. As an extra security measure, the precise whereabouts of these groups are maintained as closely guarded secrets.

To date, FUNAI has confirmed the existence of over 24 uncontacted tribes within Brazil, more than any other country in the world. And there are dozens more reports of other hidden tribes that have yet to be confirmed. Hypothetically speaking, it really is too bad we can’t contact any of these groups. As we strive to make our lives less stressful and more sustainable, to reduce consumption and increase communion with Nature and with each other, it’s easy to imagine that these peoples have a lot valuable lessons they could share.


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