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Anthropologists to visit remote Amazon tribe

Conflict has led to concern among officials

Mashco Piro tribe members in southeastern Peru in 2011.
Mashco Piro tribe members in southeastern Peru in 2011.Jean-Paul Van Belle/reuters

WASHINGTON — For the first time, anthropologists working for the Peruvian government will attempt to make contact with members of a remote tribe living in the Amazon jungle. The move follows growing concerns about the behavior of the Mashco Piro people, which has included attacks and raids on neighboring communities.

South America, and in particular the vast Amazon region, is home to some of the world’s last remaining ‘‘uncontacted’’ tribes — indigenous communities that, for whatever reason, have managed to exist almost entirely outside the purview of the nation-states in which they technically live. Specialists fear a slew of risks that could follow should these tribes come into full contact with the outside world, from exploitation by rapacious mining and logging companies to the devastating transfer of pathogens to which they have no immunity.

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In recent decades, some governments have taken a protective stance, working to shield these communities from outside contact mostly because of the health risks involved. After all, some estimates suggest contact with outside diseases killed up to 100 million indigenous people following the European arrival in the Americas.

Peru bars contact with about a dozen uncontacted Amazonian tribes living within its borders, a positive departure from an earlier time when the government would not even recognize their existence. Brazil has its own federal agency responsible for indigenous peoples.

Rights groups and activists have long campaigned to protect indigenous lands in the Amazon, fighting against the predatory interests of oil companies and a tragic history of violence that saw tribal peoples victimized by generations of settlers, loggers, and traffickers.

Survival International, which campaigns for the rights of tribal and indigenous communities worldwide, says that Peru and Brazil are not doing enough to safeguard these uncontacted tribes. Last year, the organization warned against tourists taking safaris near Mascho Piro land.

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The need to contact the tribe was spurred by an episode in May, when members of the tribe attacked another community, killing a young man with an arrow. The officials enlisted to make contact will engage the tribe through interpreters who speak the Yine language, which they believe shares similarities to the tongue spoken by the Mashco Piro people.

In 2013, the Mashco Piro earned global attention when dozens of tribe members appeared on the banks of Amazonian tributary near a small Yine town and demanded rope, machetes, and bananas. Rangers stationed there dissuaded them from crossing the river, but the standoff was tense, with some of the men from the tribe carrying bows and long wooden lances.

Nearby villagers, Christian missionaries, and the occasional tourist have all reported meeting Mashco Piro people.

‘‘We can no longer pretend they aren’t trying to make some sort of contact,’’ Luis Felipe Torres, a Peruvian official working on state tribal affairs, told Reuters. ‘‘They have a right to that, too.’’

Specialists say the phrase ‘‘uncontacted’’ is something of a misnomer, given that all communities on the planet are aware of their neighbors and have some sense of the wider world outside their home.

‘‘People have this romanticized view that isolated tribes have chosen to keep away from the modern, evil world,’’ said Kim Hill, an anthropologist at Arizona State University, in an interview with the BBC last year. But that’s rarely the case.

‘‘There is no such thing as a group that remains in isolation because they think it’s cool to not have contact with anyone else,’’ Hill said.

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Writing in Science magazine last month, Hill and colleague Robert Walker reiterated this point, suggesting that many of South America’s uncontacted communities had ‘‘chosen isolation out of fear of being killed or enslaved’’ and that, like most human beings living in constrained circumstances, ‘‘they also wanted outside goods and innovations and positive social interactions with neighbors.’’

The academics suggested the best path forward is a policy of controlled contact with these communities, carefully managed to avoid the spread of disease, but also enable the building of trust and providing aid and medical help if needed. The current Peruvian mission could serve a test case for this sort of endeavor.