The Uncontacted Frontier: Tribes of the Amazon Want To Be Left Alone
The Amazon rainforest is home to more uncontacted tribes than anywhere else in the world. It is hard to imagine that even today, there are more than 100 tribes who have never seen anything outside their home in the jungle.
Although most people in the world now live in industrial and post-industrial societies, there are communities in remote areas who still live the way that humans have lived for thousands of years. One of these areas is the western Amazon.
Deep within the Amazon rainforest are many people-groups that, rather than being incorporated into industrial civilization, have chosen to isolate themselves from the outside world. This is because of past pain and suffering that has resulted from contact with outside peoples. The rainforest is, however, at risk and will need to be protected if these tribes are to continue to maintain their traditional lifestyle.
Historical Background of the Amazon
Humans first settled the Amazon around 13,000 years ago. Although the Amazon is often thought of as a pristine wilderness, there is actually evidence that the biodiversity of the Amazon has been shaped by human activity. Archaeological investigations reveal evidence of numerous towns and possibly even cities which once existed in the Amazon.
Furthermore, many of the most common trees in the vicinity of archaeological sites are domesticated species. This is not uncommon for archaeological sites of course, but it suggests that at least some of the wild vegetation in the Amazon today was significantly influenced by the presence of humans. Although the Amazon appears to be a pristine wilderness, it may in part be a human creation.
Amazon River, Amazon. ( Grispb / Adobe)
The human population in the Amazon appears to have been much larger in prehistory. It is possible that entire civilizations once flourished within the vast 6 million square kilometer rainforest.
The good fortune of the people of the Amazon changed with the arrival of Europeans as many native Amazonian peoples were subjugated, enslaved, or killed in war or from disease. Because of these unpleasant experiences, some Amazonian peoples have chosen to withdraw altogether into the rainforest to escape from the horrors of the past. These are called the uncontacted groups or uncontacted tribes.
Lifeways of Uncontacted Peoples
The uncontacted peoples are hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers living deep in the western Amazon. Unlike the eastern Amazon, the western Amazon is a relatively stable ecosystem with enormous diversity in plant life as well as mammal, amphibian, and bird species. The uncontacted people live by fishing along the rivers, collecting turtle eggs, and hunting animals in the forest. Some groups will also practice subsistence agriculture, farming at least part of the year. Some are nomadic while others live in small settlements.
Because they rely heavily on their natural environment, they prioritize taking care of it. For this reason, it has been argued that protection of uncontacted peoples, as well as indigenous people living off the land in general, is important for conservation because many of them make great conservationists.
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Hunting instrument in Tena Amazon. (Fionashek22 / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Threats to Uncontacted Peoples
Since the discovery of tribes living in voluntary isolation, governments nearby these areas have made attempts to honor the desire of these people and the rights they have to their ancestral lands. In parts of Brazil and Ecuador, for example, the lands of uncontacted tribes have been made legally off-limits to loggers, oil companies, and other outsiders.
In addition to the danger that logging, and oil exploration pose to the environment on which uncontacted people depend for their livelihood, contact can also be very dangerous for the uncontacted people themselves. Most of these uncontacted populations have never been exposed to modern diseases.
The Nahua were a tribe accidentally contacted by a Shell exploration team in the early 1980s. Within a few years of contact, 50% of the Nahua had died from diseases such as hepatitis B and tuberculosis. Another group called the Matis were contacted in Brazil in 1978. This contact quickly led to most of the Matis dying from introduced diseases. By 1983, all but 87 individuals had died. This disaster caused them to stop practicing their ceremonies and having children out of grief. The Matis survive to this day, but they are still bearing the consequences of that event.
Indigenous man in the jungle of Brazil. ( filipefrazao / Adobe)
Because of these past tragedies it has been suggested that whenever contact is made, a team of medical experts should be sent to stay nearby and monitor the health of the people within the recently contacted group.
The danger posed by contact is one of the reasons that uncontacted peoples living in voluntary isolation tend to be hostile to outsiders and not just avoidant. There have been cases where people entering their lands have been killed without provocation. In 2008, an illegal logger in Ecuador was killed by being speared by a member of an isolated tribe because he entered their territory. To uncontacted indigenous people, the appearance of outsiders often means death, suffering, and impending doom for their people.
Uncontacted indigenous tribe in the Brazil defending their territory. (Arthur to / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
An Uncertain Future
Although the western Amazon is faring better than the eastern Amazon, which has been subject to extensive deforestation, the western Amazon is also at risk. The western Amazon is known to have abundant oil and timber reserves. Loggers and oil companies are very interested in gaining access to these resources.
The governments of nations within the western Amazon have made certain areas off limits to oil exploration and logging, but some of the zones in which oil companies and loggers are allowed to do business overlap with the territories of indigenous people, including those living in voluntary isolation. This has led to indigenous groups and international humanitarian organizations taking action to help protect the land of these uncontacted groups living in isolation. These people have chosen to live apart from industrial civilization, but will industrial civilization let them?
Top image: An uncontacted tribe in the jungle of Brazil ( CC by SA 2.5 )
By Caleb Strom
Finer M., Jenkins C.N., Pimm S.L., Keane B., Ross C. 2008. Oil and Gas Projects in the Western Amazon: Threats to Wilderness, Biodiversity, and Indigenous Peoples . [Online] Available at: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0002932
Panko, Ben. 2017. The Supposedly Pristine, Untouched Amazon Rainforest Was Actually Shaped By Humans . Smithsonian.com. [Online] Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/pristine-untouched-amazonian-rainforest-was-actually-shaped-humans-180962378/
Wade, Lizzie. 2014. Searching for the Amazon’s Hidden Civilizations . Science Magazine. [Online] Available at: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/01/searching-amazons-hidden-civilizations
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