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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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A torrential rain begins to fall, drumming on the roof and soaking the fields. Our guide from Leticia has equipped us with knee-high rubber boots, and Plotkin, Matapi and I embark on a hike deeper into the forest. We tread along the soggy path, balancing on splintered logs, sometimes slipping and plunging to our thighs in the muck. Plotkin and Matapi point out natural pharmaceuticals such as the golobi, a white fungus used to treat ear infections; er-re-ku-ku, a treelike herb that is the source of a snake-bite treatment; and a purple flower whose roots—soaked in water and drunk as a tea—induce powerful hallucinations. Aguaje palms sway above a second maloca tucked in a clearing about 45 minutes from the first one. Matapi says that the tree bark of the aguaje contains a female hormone to help certain males “go over to the other side.” The longhouse is deserted except for two napping children and a pair of scrawny dogs. We head back to the main road, trying to beat the advancing night, as vampire bats circle above our heads.

***

In the months before his reconnaissance mission over Río Puré National Park, Roberto Franco consulted diaries, indigenous oral histories, maps drawn by European adventurers from the 16th through 19th centuries, remote sensors, satellite photos, eyewitness accounts of threatening encounters with Indians, even a guerrilla from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia who had seen the Indians while on a jungle patrol. The overflights, says Franco, engendered mixed emotions. “I felt happy and I also felt sad, maybe because of the lonely existence these Indians had,” he told me on our last morning in Leticia. “The feelings were complicated.”

Franco’s next step is to use the photographs and GPS coordinates gathered on his flights to lobby the Colombian government to strengthen protection around the national park. He envisions round-the-clock surveillance by both semi-assimilated Indians who live on the park perimeter and rangers within the park boundaries, and an early warning system to keep out intruders. “We are just at the beginning of the process,” he says.

Franco cites the tragic recent history of the Nukak tribe, 1,200 isolated Indians who inhabited the forests northwest of Río Puré National Park. In 1981, a U.S. evangelical group, New Tribes Mission, penetrated their territory without permission and, with gifts of machetes and axes, lured some Nukak families to their jungle camp. This contact drove other Nukak to seek similar gifts from settlers at the edge of their territory. The Indians’ emergence from decades of isolation set in motion a downward spiral leading to the deaths of hundreds of Nukak from respiratory infections, violent clashes with land grabbers and narco-traffickers, and dispersal of the survivors. “Hundreds were forcibly displaced to [the town of] San José del Guaviare, where they are living—and dying—in terrible conditions,” says Rodrigo Botero García, technical coordinator of the Andean Amazon Project, a program established by Colombia’s national parks department to protect indigenous peoples. “They get fed, receive government money, but they’re living in squalor.” (The government has said it wants to repatriate the Nukak to a reserve created for them to the east of San José del Guaviare. And in December, Colombia’s National Heritage Council approved an urgent plan, with input from the Nukak, to safeguard their culture and language.) The Yuri and Passé live in far more remote areas of the rainforest, but “they are vulnerable,” Franco says.

Some anthropologists, conservationists and Indian leaders argue that there is a middle way between the Stone Age isolation of the Yuri and the abject assimilation of the Ticuna. The members of Daniel Matapi’s Yukuna tribe continue to live in malocas in the rainforest—30 hours by motorboat from Leticia—while integrating somewhat with the modern world. The Yukuna, who number fewer than 2,000, have access to health care facilities, trade with nearby settlers, and send their kids to missionary and government schools in the vicinity. Yukuna elders, says Matapi, who left the forest at age 7 but returns home often, “want the children to have more chances to study, to have a better life.” Yet the Yukuna still pass down oral traditions, hunt, fish and live closely attuned to their rainforest environment. For far too many Amazon Indians, however, assimilation has brought only poverty, alcoholism, unemployment or utter dependence on tourism.

It is a fate, Franco suspects, that the Yuri and Passé are desperate to avoid. On the second day of his aerial reconnaissance, Franco and his team took off from La Pedrera, near the eastern edge of Río Puré National Park. Thick drifting clouds made it impossible to get a prolonged view of the rainforest floor. Though the team spotted four malocas within an area of about five square miles, the dwellings never stayed visible long enough to photograph them. “We would see a maloca, and then the clouds would close in quickly,” Eliana Martínez says. The cloud cover, and a storm that sprang up out of nowhere and buffeted the tiny plane, left the team with one conclusion: The tribe had called upon its shamans to send the intruders a message. “We thought, ‘They are making us pay for this,’” Franco says.

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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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