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The writer ventured into the deep jungles of Colombia. (Dominic Bracco II / Prime)

The Lost Tribes of the Amazon

Often described as “uncontacted,” isolated groups living deep in the South American forest resist the ways of the modern world—at least for now

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(Continued from page 2)

In contrast to the Ticuna, the Yuri and Passé tribes have been running from civilization since the first Europeans set foot in South America half a millennium ago. Franco theorizes that they originated near the Amazon River during pre-Columbian times. Spanish explorers in pursuit of El Dorado, such as Francisco de Orellana, recorded their encounters—sometimes hostile—with Yuri and Passé who dwelled in longhouses along the river. Later, most migrated 150 miles north to the Putumayo—the only fully navigable waterway in Colombia’s Amazon region—to escape Spanish and Portuguese slave traders.

Then, around 1900, came the rubber boom. Based in the port of Iquitos, a Peruvian company, Casa Arana, controlled much of what is now the Colombian Amazon region. Company representatives operating along the Putumayo press-ganged tens of thousands of Indians to gather rubber, or caucho, and flogged, starved and murdered those who resisted. Before the trade died out completely in the 1930s, the Uitoto tribe’s population fell from 40,000 to 10,000; the Andoke Indians dropped from 10,000 to 300. Other groups simply ceased to exist. “That was the time when most of the now-isolated groups opted for isolation,” says Franco. “The Yuri [and the Passé] moved a great distance to get away from the caucheros.” In 1905, Theodor Koch-Grünberg, a German ethnologist, traveled between the Caquetá and Putumayo rivers; he noted ominously the abandoned houses of Passé and Yuri along the Puré, a tributary of the Putumayo, evidence of a flight deeper into the rainforest to escape the depredations.

The Passé and Yuri peoples vanished, and many experts believed they had been driven into extinction. Then, in January 1969, a jaguar hunter and fur trader, Julian Gil, and his guide, Alberto Miraña, disappeared near the Río Bernardo, a tributary of the Caquetá. Two months later, the Colombian Navy organized a search party. Fifteen troops and 15 civilians traveled by canoes down the Caquetá, then hiked into the rainforest to the area where Gil and Miraña had last been seen.

Saul Polania was 17 when he participated in the search. As we ate river fish and drank açaí berry juice at an outdoor café in Leticia, the grizzled former soldier recalled stumbling upon “a huge longhouse” in a clearing. “I had never seen anything like it before. It was like a dream,” he told me. Soon, 100 Indian women and children emerged from the forest. “They were covered in body paint, like zebras,” Polania says.

The group spoke a language unknown to the search party’s Indian guides. Several Indian women wore buttons from Gil’s jacket on their necklaces; the hunter’s ax was found buried beneath a bed of leaves. “Once the Indians saw that, they began to cry, because they knew that they would be accused of killing him,” Polania told me. (No one knows the fate of Gil and Miraña. They may have been murdered by the Indians, although their bodies were never recovered.)

Afraid that the search party would be ambushed on its way back, the commander seized an Indian man and woman and four children as hostages and brought them back to the settlement of La Pedrera. The New York Times reported the discovery of a lost tribe in Colombia, and Robert Carneiro of the American Museum of Natural History in New York stated that based on a cursory study of the language spoken by the five hostages, the Indians could well be “survivors of the Yuri, a tribe thought to have become extinct for more than half a century.” The Indians were eventually escorted back home, and the tribe vanished into the mists of the forest—until Roberto Franco drew upon the memories of Polania in the months before his flyover in the jungle.

***

A couple of days after my boat journey, I’m hiking through the rainforest outside Leticia. I’m bound for a maloca belonging to the Uitoto tribe, one of many groups of Indians forced to abandon their territories in the Colombian Amazon during the rubber atrocities early in the past century. Unlike the Yuri and the Passé, however, who fled deeper into the forest, the Uitotos relocated to the Amazon River. Here, despite enormous pressure to give up their traditional ways or sell themselves as tourist attractions, a handful have managed, against the odds, to keep their ancient culture alive. They offer a glimpse of what life must look like deeper in the jungle, the domain of the isolated Yuri.

Half an hour from the main road, we reach a clearing. In front of us stands a handsome longhouse built of woven palm leaves. Four slender pillars in the center of the interior and a network of crossbeams support the A-frame roof. The house is empty, except for a middle-aged woman, peeling the fruits of the peach palm, and an elderly man wearing a soiled white shirt, ancient khaki pants and tattered Converse sneakers without shoelaces.

Jitoma Safiama, 70, is a shaman and chief of a small subtribe of Uitotos, descendants of those who were chased by the rubber barons from their original lands around 1925. Today, he and his wife eke out a living cultivating small plots of manioc, coca leaf and peach palms; Safiama also performs traditional healing ceremonies on locals who visit from Leticia. In the evenings, the family gathers inside the longhouse, with other Uitotos who live nearby, to chew coca and tell stories about the past. The aim is to conjure up a glorious time before the caucheros came, when 40,000 members of the tribe lived deep in the Colombian rainforest and the Uitotos believed that they dwelled at the center of the world. “After the big flooding of the world, the Indians who saved themselves built a maloca just like this one,” says Safiama. “The maloca symbolizes the warmth of the mother. Here we teach, we learn and we transmit our traditions.” Safiama claims that one isolated group of Uitotos remains in the forest near the former rubber outpost of El Encanto, on the Caraparaná River, a tributary of the Putumayo. “If an outsider sees them,” the shaman insists, “he will die.”

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About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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