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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes

Air Date: Week of
Scott Wallace interviews Sydney Possuelo in the midst of the trek. (Photo: © Scott Wallace)

There are as many as 60 uncontacted tribes living in the Amazon rainforest. National Geographic writer Scott Wallace spent three months in the Amazon, looking for signs of native people living there. He talks about his new book “The Unconquered” and tells host Bruce Gellerman about his trek through the forest.


GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. The Amazon is the world’s largest and biologically richest rainforest. It covers an area nearly the size of the continental United States and spans nine South American countries. The tropical climate is wet and warm, and the land is laced with hundreds of rivers – fast and deep. The combination creates an ecosystem unlike any other. The Amazon region is home to more than two and a half million species of insects, tens of thousands of plants and animals - many found nowhere else. It’s a veritable Noah’s ark - for people too.

Archeologists say people have lived in the Amazon for more than 11 thousand years. After the Portuguese conquered the land in the 16th century, many indigenous people died from Old World diseases or were killed by the invaders, but some tribes, deep in the rainforest, remain undiscovered and unconquered.

Matis indigenous scout Kwini Marubo (Photo: © Scott Wallace)

“Unconquered, In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes” is the title of the new book by journalist, Scott Wallace. It's based on his assignment for the National Geographic Society. And, Scott, welcome to Living on Earth.

WALLACE: Thank you very much, it's a real pleasure to be here.

GELLERMAN: I want to begin 100 years ago back in 1910 - you write about the Indian Protection Service that got started in Brazil, and the first motto of the protection service:

WALLACE: Yes: 'die if you must, but never kill'. The Indian Protection Service in Brazil was founded by Colonel Cândido Rondon - the motto was… kind of encapsulated the spirit of the Protection Service, which was the people that we are in charge of protecting should never die on our watch.

GELLERMAN: But there was a long history of the Portuguese and other explorers coming into the Amazon and essentially exterminating the tribes.

WALLACE: Yes, and Rondon really was a departure from that tradition, he led the policy in a new direction from plunder and exploitation and annihilation to one that really was a humanitarian effort.

GELLERMAN: Let’s fast forward in your book - it started about ten years ago - you get a call, a last minute call, from National Geographic saying: Hey, can you pack up your gear and go to the Amazon?

WALLACE: That’s exactly right. They wanted, actually National Geographic was interested in doing a profile of Sydney Possuelo, who is the main character of my book and the leader of this expedition I joined. And they wanted a profile of Possuelo because he had actually taken Rondon’s policy which was, you know, go to the deep bush to contact the Indians to save them - to saving these last uncontacted tribes without contacting them. And Possuelo was about to embark on an open-ended journey into the deep Amazon to track one such uncontacted tribe in order to protect and bolster protections for its lands and their way of life.

Surrounded by Matis scouts, expedition leader Possuelo checks his GPS (Photo: © Scott Wallace)

GELLERMAN: This guy - Sydney Possuelo - what a character he is! He’s got this jungle hat, he wears a speedo swimsuit, flip flops and then he charges into the jungle - he knows every inch of this place.

WALLACE: He is an amazing explorer, but also a tempestuous, brooding, unpredictable, explosive character. Great for literature, not so great to spend three months with in the middle of nowhere ! But indeed he did know what he was doing, where he was taking us and how he was going to get us out of there alive.

GELLERMAN: So, Scott, what’s Sydney Possuelo’s goal on this trip? I mean, if he doesn’t want to contact these people, why go to where they live?

WALLACE: This is part of the fundamental work that the Department of Isolated Indians does, is to try to ascertain the dimensions of the territory that an uncontacted tribe uses. The only way that you can protect an uncontacted tribe and keep them uncontacted is by conserving, preserving the pristine rainforest where those people roam.

GELLERMAN: Why not just leave them the hell alone?

WALLACE: (Laughs.) There is a good case to be made for that, except that the pressure on these lands, throughout the Amazon, is incredibly intense. Everyone wants to get at these territories for the timber, for the oil and gas underneath the soil, for the gold, for the land to clear it for agriculture, and the most effective way of keeping those kinds of intrusions at bay is to prove beyond a doubt that these lands are occupied by indigenous people who have been there since time immemorial.

GELLERMAN: You had a perfectly miserable trip! The narco-traffickers that were in the area, the lumbermen, the miners, the rubber tappers, let alone the snakes, the caiman.

Expedition members built dugout canoes (Photo: © Scott Wallace)

WALLACE: (Laughs.)

GELLERMAN: You’re laughing, but in the book, it’s a horror show!

WALLACE: There are hazards at every step.

GELLERMAN: I was surprised that of all the things, it was the ants that got to you.

WALLACE: It was. They are everywhere and they are nasty. We ended up camping on a number of occasions in areas overrun by ants - those were the only places we could find. Their nests would be high up in the trees, so wherever we slung our hammocks, we’d soon find our hammocks invaded by ants,very nasty, vicious, biting ants. You’d try to cross a log and your hand would be beset by ants - you’d look down and there was like blood streaming down your hand.

GELLERMAN: Scott, I want you to read a passage from your book - it starts on page 85 - it starts with: “I’d been completely onboard.”

WALLACE: "I’d been completely onboard when it came to Possuelo’s quest. But now, I was left wondering - what exactly were we doing here? Five men surrounded by a boundless forest crisscrossed by drug traffickers and head-bashing tribesmen. Another five even further upriver - only static blasting on the two-way radio. If Possuelo was capable of a lapse of judgment when it came to the expedition, what did it say about his larger quest to save Brazilian’s Indians?

Was he, as some critics alleged, attempting to play god with the indigenes, harboring them in a kind of exotic theme park for his own gratification while denying them the benefits of modern life? It was far to early to formulate any kind of authoritative answers - but one things was certain: there was no way Possuelo would attempt any of it without an exceptionally powerful inner voice, some would say ego, that called him to the quest.

GELLERMAN: And you followed this guy - three months - into the jungle!

WALLACE: Yeah, yeah, insanely, but he was the guy to follow.

GELLERMAN: And he brings you out alive.

WALLACE: That was thing - you know, there were several moments every day for quite a while where I wondered if we were going to get out of there alive.

Expedition boats move upriver (Photo: © Scott Wallace)

GELLERMAN: But you did have a magic letter from the National Geographic Society - and you call it the dazzler.

WALLACE: The dazzler is a letter of assignment from the National Geographic Society - it’s meant to impress. It’s got ribbons on it - tri-color ribbons - and a gold seal - it’s meant to impress. It impresses upon any person who happens to read it, the urgency and the import of the bearer’s mission.

GELLERMAN: So, you and Sydney Possuelo and the men head off into the darkest corners of northwest Amazon.

WALLACE: Fast on the Peru border, this is one of the most remote areas in the Amazon - in the world probably - one of the areas of most difficult access - which is where these uncontacted groups whose lands we’re going to explore - the Arrow People - are hiding. That’s how they’ve managed to remain uncontacted into the 21st century is by withdrawing, retreating into these most inaccessible redoubts of the Amazon.

GELLERMAN: Now, they're called the Arrow People because - it's not that they’ve not had any contact - people know that they have these poisonous arrows and these bows - so they have been contacted, yeah?

The Matis scouts led the expedition through the rainforest. (Photo: © Scott Wallace)

WALLACE: We don’t really know. There’s so little known about them - we don’t know their name, we don't know what they call themselves. The Arrow People is the name that others have pinnned on them because of their disposition to use their arrows to repel intrusions into their territory. To that extent there has been contact - one of flying bullets in one direction and flying arrows in the other. But that’s it - there’s never been any peaceful contact.

So we still don't know what language they speak or what ethnicity they are. We just know that they are implacable warriors who resort to using their arrows to defend their forest from intrusions.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, you write: "No one knows about the violence perpetuated against the Indians because it has no echo here; their screams are smothered by the jungle."

WALLACE: That’s right - there are so many uncontacted groups that have been wiped out before their existence was ever documented.

GELLERMAN: So how many uncontacted tribes do you think are out there?

WALLACE: So, all told, maybe somewhere around 40-60 uncontacted groups in the Amazon. And so part of the quest here is to document their existence, hopefully for the purpose of perpetuating their existence.

GELLERMAN: Scott Wallace’s new book is called “The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes.” Well, Scott, thank you very much. It's a terrific book.

WALLACE: Thank you very much. It's been a real pleasure speaking with you.



Scott Wallace's Website


Unconquered at Amazon.com


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