By Angus Macqueen
20 February 2016
(Guardian) – Footage of a man handing bananas to two naked men in the middle of an Amazonian river went viral in late June 2014. At the time, the Brazilians claimed it was a once in a generation event – that the moment of “first contact” was caught on camera. These were some of the last so-called “uncontacted” peoples left on the planet – men and women who live with no direct contact with the outside world. Experts suggest there are perhaps 70 such groupings left, numbering anything from 2,000 to 3,000 people in total, nearly all of whom live in the headwaters of the Amazon.
The emergence of this group of 35 of the Sapanahua tribe in 2014 has raised serious questions about how we should approach these people. In making our film, First Contact: Lost Tribe of the Amazon, we not only got the first access to the 35 to find out why they made contact and what their lives were like, but we went over the border to reserves in Peru, where we discovered a much bigger crisis. For some reason, different uncontacted tribes and groupings are coming out on all sides of the reserves. The conventional, often correct, explanation is that they are being driven out by confrontations with illegal loggers and drug traffickers. But there is evidence that something more fundamental is happening. What is certain is that the authorities are struggling to cope.
In Brazil the story of the 35 has been a success so far. The 14 men, nine women and 12 children are flourishing. They are living under the protection of Funai, the Brazilian department of indigenous peoples, at a camp they are creating four hours upriver from where they emerged. They seem to have overcome the most immediate danger: lack of immunity to our common diseases. It is now thought that simple influenza and the common cold, brought by outsiders from the Spanish conquistadors onwards, wiped out the vast majority of the indigenous peoples in the Amazon over the centuries.
So Funai flew in an expert doctor who vaccinated all 35, after gaining enough trust to persuade them that the injections were not designed to kill them. That trust is difficult. Misunderstandings abound. More than 100 Funai agents have been killed by tribes in the past decade. Funai proudly claims that this is the only time no one on either side has died after first contact, although some anthropologists and NGOs worry that members of the 35, when they disappear off hunting, could meet other members of the tribe and pass on deadly germs. […]
While with them we discovered that it was a confrontation with armed men deep in the rainforest that finally drove them out. There had been a massacre in which fathers and mothers had been killed. The ones who first emerged were young and incredibly brave to seek peaceful contact with “the whites” who have always brought them death. Their leader, Xina (pronounced Sheena), told us that his parents always talked about how “the whites had always wanted to kill us”. Indeed a few days with the Funai anthropologists made clear that these rivers are not quite so untouched as they seem; nor were these tribes quite so isolated. They were almost certainly refugees from the horror that was the rubber boom of the early 20th century, when tribes that did not agree to work as slaves were hunted down and exterminated. These were the ones who ran away. And have stayed away until now.
What we also discovered from them, and also from others when we travelled south into Peru, was that they are not living in some prelapsarian Eden, innocent and untouched by the burdens of modern life. They continue to live in an almost constant state of terror. And fear. Fear of both their own world and fear of the outside. [more]