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Culture: The Uncontacted Frontier

 

On the border of Peru, Brazil and Bolivia lives the highest concentration of uncontacted tribes on Earth. They know no borders, crossing between countries as part of their nomadic routes. They include the Isconahua, Matsigenka, Matsés, Mashco-Piro, Mastanahua, Murunahua (or Chitonahua), Nanti, Sapanawa and Nahua, and many more whose names are unknown.

Not much is known about them. But we do know that they have rejected contact, often as a result of horrific violence and diseases brought in by outsiders. Some chose isolation after surviving the rubber boom, in which thousands of Indians were enslaved and killed. Many fled to the deepest parts of the Amazon and have evaded long-term contact ever since.

On the very rare occasions when they are seen or encountered, they make it clear they want to be left alone. Sometimes they react aggressively, as a way of defending their territory, or leave signs in the forest warning outsiders to stay away.

How they live 

The Amazon Uncontacted Frontier, a large area on the Peru-Brazil border that is home to the highest concentration of uncontacted tribes in the world.
The Amazon Uncontacted Frontier, a large area on the Peru-Brazil border that is home to the highest concentration of uncontacted tribes in the world.
© Survival International

These uncontacted tribes are not backward and primitive relics of a remote past. They are our contemporaries and a vitally important part of humankind’s diversity.

Almost all are nomads, moving throughout their territories according to the seasons in small, extended family groups. In the rainy season, when water levels are high, those who generally do not use canoes live away from the rivers deep in the rainforest.

During the dry season, however, some camp on the beaches and fish and collect turtle eggs. Some live in communal houses and plant crops in forest clearings, while also hunting and fishing. Others, such as the Mashco-Piro, are hunter-gatherers who can quickly build camps and abandon them. They hunt animals such as monkeys with long bows and arrows.

Abandoned hut, believed to belong to the uncontacted Mashco-Piro, taken during a FENAMAD trip to Tayacomme, Manu National Park, Peru.
Abandoned hut, believed to belong to the uncontacted Mashco-Piro, taken during a FENAMAD trip to Tayacomme, Manu National Park, Peru.
© FENAMAD

 Outsiders are moving in

There are many outsiders who seek to force contact in the Uncontacted Frontier. Missionaries, for example, want to evangelize tribes as they consider them to be primitive. Some academics are calling for uncontacted tribes to be forcibly contacted as they consider their existence to be “not viable in the long term”.

Other outsiders have shot the Natives, and even massacred whole villages, when engaged in illicit activities such as drug trafficking. Very often, however, contact occurs simply because outsiders want to take the tribes’ lands and resources. Tribal peoples believe they are guardians of the environment and as a result, their lands are resource-rich. The timber from their forests is incredibly profitable. So too is the oil and gas that lies beneath their feet.

When contact does occur, often whole populations are being wiped out by diseases like flu and measles to which they have no resistance.

First contact with the Matis in the Javari Valley in Brazil occurred in 1978 and rapidly killed over half of them. They stopped practicing their ceremonies and, like many Natives suffering from the trauma of first contact, stopped having children. By 1983 only 87 Matis survived. Today the shattered remnants of the Matis are regrouping but suffer from the impacts of introduced diseases such as malaria and hepatitis.

In the early 1980s, exploration by Shell led to contact with the isolated Nahua tribe. Within a few years around 50% of the Nahua had died. To this day, the surviving Nahua suffer from a variety of diseases such as tuberculosis and Hepatitis B, and receive little help from the government.

The problems do not stop after contact. Sometimes governments try to forcibly integrate and mainstream indigenous peoples by settling and integrating them. Officials believe that the tribes need “modernizing” but the fact that these societies are not industrialized does not mean they are not already part of the modern world, with just as much right to choose the way in which they live as any other society.

 

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