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Isolated Tribes

Last call to save the isolated tribes

In the deep valley of Amazon rainforest, a different world exists. A world far from modern civilisation, where inhabitants live like early humans from the Stone Age. For thousands of years, “the uncontacted”—a name given by the outsiders—have lived in the woods, relying on nature and wildlife for their livelihood. No one knows about their exact population, location, or their culture.

There were rumours about the existence of uncontacted tribesmen, but very few dared to follow the whispers in the treacherous landscape of Amazon, the abode of wild animals. Those who went seldom found any evidence. Until one day, in 2014, the uncontacted Indians made the ‘first contact’ with the outside world that was captured in a film by a local anthropologist from FUNAI, Brazil’s National Indian Foundation.

In broad daylight, a small group of tribesmen emerged on the banks of Envira river near the Simpatia village of the Brazilian state of Acre. Wearing nothing but a waistband that held machetes, and holding bows and arrows, the tribesmen shouted and sang in an unknown language. The sight was frightening for the villagers and experts present there. The ‘first contact’ turned even more frightful when the tribesmen crossed the river and broke into the villager’s houses.

Anthropologist José Carlos Meirelles, who has studied and explored indigenous tribes for four decades, was in Simpatia when the surreal event unfolded. He attempted to communicate with the tribesmen through different local languages. But nothing he said made sense to them, neither did he understand what they were saying. When all attempts failed, the tribesmen snaffled some clothes from the houses and disappeared into the forest they had come from.

It took FUNAI several months to learn their language through the help of linguistics. When they finally made a breakthrough, they learned that the tribesmen were actually crying for help. They were trying to say that drug traffickers in Peruvian Amazon were hunting and killing them, and had already reduced their tribe to half of their strength. Scared for their lives, the tribesmen had no other choice but to leave the woods and seek help from outside. Determined to protect and provide shelter, FUNAI sent a team to locate them. But when the team of anthropologists and doctors found the tribesmen, they were already dying—not due to any bullet wounds but a respiratory disease, which they caught during the first contact. Thanks to the team’s agility, all the tribesmen received timely treatment and were saved.

These tribesmen are our reflection from 10,000 years ago when most of the Earth’s population wandered in the woods.

Life of all indigenous people living in isolation is as difficult, if not worse. The Amazon rainforest of Brazil is home to more uncontacted tribes than anywhere in the world. According to FUNAI, there are at least 100 isolated tribes in the rainforest, still ‘living in the past’. These tribesmen are our reflection from 10,000 years ago when most of the Earth’s population wandered in the woods. They hold the key to countless mysteries about human evolution and progression—how man lived, how they managed to thrive in the presence of wildlife, what they thought of life, god, and the world. Several people are curious about them, countless experts from around the world have tried to contact them, but in vain. As a tribe, they are now endangered, thanks to the more evolved humans.

First, the uncontacted tribes have become prey to drug traffickers, illegal activities, miners and deforestation. The rate of genocides in the rainforests has soared drastically, reducing the population of indigenous tribes to the fringes.

Akuntsu is one such tribe that once were hundreds in number, but today, only a handful of people are left in their community. Akuntsu people lived in seclusion for centuries in the Brazilian rainforest of Amazon, near the Bolivian border, before industrial practices destroyed their lives. Farmers and loggers enrolled by an illicit organisation murdered almost every Akuntsu and stole their land. Later, the killers buried their bodies and bulldozed their houses to destroy the evidence of the massacre. When FUNAI found them, there were only five Akuntsu people who had survived. But since no one spoke their language, it was impossible to fathom the exact details of the annihilation.

Secondly, contagious infections threaten the lives of isolated tribesmen. They don’t have immunity against diseases such as influenza, measles and chicken pox. So, when one tribesman catches the disease, the whole tribe gets infected. In Peruvian Amazonia, more than two-third of the previously-uncontacted Nahua tribesmen lost their lives to mercury poisoning following oil explorations on their land. Another isolated tribe Murunahua, met with the same fate when the tribesmen caught an infection from illegal loggers in the region. A Murunahua survivor, Jorge, who lost an eye due to the disease told a researcher, “The disease came when the loggers made contact with us, although we didn’t know what a cold was then. The disease killed us. Half of my people died. My aunt died. My nephew died. The old people especially. When the old people came out of the jungle they had no resistance to the disease.”

The risks of airborne infection were one of the main reasons why the Indian government stopped pursuing the Sentinelese of the Andaman Islands. The Sentinelese are believed to be the direct decedents of early humans. Their historical importance has dazzled many, compelling experts from across the world to venture into their territory, and learn about their mysterious lives. But every time they came close to the island, they faced a volley of arrows and spears from the other side, which was the Sentinelese’s way of saying, “Leave us alone!” Last attempts to contact the tribe were made in 1997, after which the government of India banned explorers from carrying out any research.

The only way to help the tribesmen living in isolation is to let them live in isolation. They don’t need us. They have lived peacefully for thousands of years in the remotest parts of the world. And, they will continue to do so, if they remain untouched by human greed. José Carlos Meirelles shared his concern, “If they (people in power) don’t make things secure for whoever turns up there, unfortunately we’ll repeat history and we will be jointly responsible for the extermination of these people.” Protecting the isolated tribes is not just preserving our rich human diversity, but every value these tribes stand for—unity, peace, respect for nature and compassion for wildlife. Saving them, is saving humanity.

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