"Uncontacted" Amazon Tribe Actually Known for Decades

June 19, 2008

Recent photos of an uncontacted tribe firing arrows at a plane briefly made these Amazon Indians the world's least understood media darlings.

Contrary to many news stories, the isolated group has actually been monitored from a distance for decades, past and current Brazilian government officials say.

No one, however, is known to have had a face-to-face meeting with the nomadic tribe, which lives along the Peru-Brazil border. And no one knows how much, if anything, these rain forest people know about the outside world.

The tribe—whose name remains unknown—was first discovered by outsiders around 1910, according to José Carlos Meirelles, an official with Brazil's Indian-protection agency (FUNAI).

It was Meirelles who released the photos on May 29 through the indigenous-rights advocacy group Survival International.

Meirelles said he made the photos public to prove the group exists. Activist and former FUNAI president Sydney Possuelo agreed that—amid development and doubt over the existence of such tribes—it was necessary to publish them.

Taken in May, the photos became a sensation and spurred debate over how best to protect isolated tribes. Many indigenous-rights advocates see such groups as under threat from oil, gas, and logging interests that covet in the Indians' resource-rich homelands.

Despite such apparent threats, the recently photographed group's population has nearly doubled in the last twenty years, Meirelles added.

(See "Oil Exploration in Amazon Threatens 'Unseen' Tribes" [March 21, 2008].)

How They Live

A few things are known about the enigmatic people, Meirelles said.

They have shaved foreheads but long hair. They plant cotton—or perhaps find it growing in the jungle—and spin it into cloth for skirts.

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