They are the people that some South American governments would prefer to ignore. Sometimes the very existence of uncontacted tribes in the dense Amazon rainforest is denied – especially by the loggers, drug traffickers and oilmen who make money from the land on which these people have lived for hundreds if not thousands of years.
But this week we could see for ourselves what it is like to make first contact with a group of indigenous people in a remarkable video showing vulnerable, naked figures emerging from the lush undergrowth of an Amazonian riverbank seemingly curious and nervous about the strange people they could see on the other side of the water.
They were carrying huge bows and arrows and wore nothing but what appeared to be tight-fitting loin clothes kept in place by neat waistbands. Some of them shouted excitedly and at one point they even broke into a small song, as if to underline their peaceful intentions.
The encounter took place near the Envira River on the border between Peru and Brazil. The seven Indians had apparently been forced to flee their homeland on the Peruvian side of the border in a violent confrontation with armed outsiders who had burnt their homes and shot their older relatives.
They spoke a language that belongs to the Panoan linguistic group, which could just about be understood by a member of local Jaminawa tribe acting as interpreter. They shouted words like “chara” meaning “good” and complained of being hungry, sometimes slapping their thighs or chests for emphasis.
The Jaminawa interpreter believed that the group belonged to an uncontacted tribe he called the Chitonawa, who are believed to live a hunter-gatherer existence on the other side of the Brazil-Peru border, possibly cultivating forest gardens to grow staples like manioc and banana.
At one point, two young, fit-looking men from the group waded across the river and nervously accepted bunches of bananas from one of the members of the delegation sent by the Brazilian government’s Indian affairs department, Funai.
The encounter took place last month and came about as a result of Funai being alerted to the presence of uncontacted people by the local Ashaninka Indians, a settled, contacted tribe, who had complained of their gardens being raided and metal tools being taken from their village.
Funai was set up in 1987 to deal more humanely with isolated groups of Indians within Brazil after a series of disastrous “first contacts” in the 1960s and 1970s led to virtual pogroms as native Amazonians quickly succumbed to introduced infections such as flu, measles and diphtheria, to which they had no immunity.
It is not unusual for 50 per cent of an uncontacted tribe to be wiped out by flu or other infections on first contact with outsiders – so compromised are they to the opportunistic infections we can normally shrug off.
This particular group who appeared on the banks of the Envira River showed signs of an acute respiratory infection – some had developed persistent coughing. A short video taken of an incursion into the Ashaninka village shows one of the Chitonawa taking a blue T-shirt left out to dry, which alarmed the Funai team because clothing is thought to transmit infections.
The seven members of the uncontacted tribe were treated for flu by a doctor travelling with the Funai team and after several days they disappeared back into the undergrowth on the other side of the river – the brief encounter over.
Funai estimates there are at least 77 isolated groups of indigenous peoples in this part of the Amazon, who for whatever reasons have decided to remain uncontacted. It is believed that many of them may be the descendants of Indians who had previously been enslaved or murdered by rubber-plantation owners of the past who considered this part of the Amazon their own.
“It’s very clear in many cases that these people do not want contact. There may well be a historical memory of the time when their ancestors were enslaved by rubber barons and they are extremely wary of any contact with outsiders,” said Fiona Watson, research director of Survival International.
The enlightened policy nowadays is never to force contact on an isolated tribe, unless it becomes absolutely necessary because of a significant impending threat, but to give them the time and more importantly the space to make their own decision, Ms Watson said.
“We’re not saying they should be kept in some kind of zoological park. They should be allowed contact as and when they really want to. But it is crucial to respect their land rights,” she said.
It is clear that some isolated peoples have no interest in making contact with the rest of the world. In the Andaman Island of the Indian Ocean, for instance, the Sentinelese people routinely repel any attempts to land on their remote island, aiming their bows and arrows at any low-flying aircraft – the same kind of defensive reaction displayed by some uncontacted tribes in the Amazon when photographed from the air.
Survival International is organising a petition to help uncontacted peoples retain the one thing that is undeniably theirs – the land on which they and their ancestors have lived.
“We are urging the Brazilian and Peruvian governments to protect the land of uncontacted Indians, and called on the authorities to honour their commitments of cross-border cooperation,” Ms Watson said.