Deep in the amazon jungle, i stumble along a sodden track carved through steamy undergrowth, frequently sinking to my knees in the mud. Leading the way is a bushybearded, fiery-eyed Brazilian, Sydney Possuelo, South America’s leading expert on remote Indian tribes and the last of the continent’s great explorers. Our destination: the village of a fierce tribe not far removed from the Stone Age.
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We’re in the Javari Valley, one of the Amazon’s “exclusion zones”—huge tracts of virgin jungle set aside over the past decade by the government of Brazil for indigenous Indians and off limits to outsiders. Hundreds of people from a handful of tribes live in the valley amid misty swamps, twisting rivers and sweltering rain forests bristling with anacondas, caimans and jaguars. They have little or no knowledge of the outside world, and often face off against each other in violent warfare.
About half a mile in from the riverbank where we docked our boat, Possuelo cups his hands and shouts a melodious “Eh-heh.” “We’re near the village,” he explains, “and only enemies come in silence.” Through the trees, a faint “Eh-heh” returns his call.
We keep walking, and soon the sunlight stabbing through the trees signals a clearing. At the top of a slope stand about 20 naked Indians—the women with their bodies painted blood red, the men gripping formidable-looking clubs. “There they are,” Possuelo murmurs, using the name they’re called by other local Indians: “Korubo!” The group call themselves “Dslala,” but it’s their Portuguese name I’m thinking of now: caceteiros, or “head-bashers.” I remember his warning of a half-hour earlier as we trudged through the muck: “Be on your guard at all times when we’re with them, because they’re unpredictable and very violent. They brutally murdered three white men just two years ago.”
My journey several thousand years back in time began at the frontier town of Tabatinga, about 2,200 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro, where a tangle of islands and sloping mud banks shaped by the mighty Amazon forms the borders of Brazil, Peru and Colombia. There, Possuelo and I boarded his speedboat, and he gunned it up the JavariRiver, an Amazon tributary. “Bandits lurk along the river, and they’ll shoot to kill if they think we’re worth robbing,” he said. “If you hear gunfire, duck.”
A youthful, energetic 64, Possuelo is head of the Department for Isolated Indians in FUNAI, Brazil’s National Indian Bureau. He lives in the capital city, Brasília, but he’s happiest when he’s at his base camp just inside the JavariValley exclusion zone, from which he fans out to visit his beloved Indians. It’s the culmination of a dream that began as a teenager, when like many kids his age, he fantasized about living a life of adventure.
The dream began to come true 42 years ago, when Possuelo became a sertanista, or “backlands expert”—drawn, he says, “by my wish to lead expeditions to remote Indians.” A dying breed today, the sertanistas are peculiar to Brazil, Indian trackers charged by the government with finding tribes in hard to reach interior lands. Most sertanistas count themselves lucky to have made “first contact”—a successful initial nonviolent encounter between a tribe and the outside world—with one or two Indian tribes, but Possuelo has made first contact with no fewer than seven. He’s also identified 22 sites where uncontacted Indians live, apparently still unaware of the larger world around them except for the rare skirmish with a Brazilian logger or fisherman who sneaks into their sanctuary. At least four of these uncontacted tribes are in the JavariValley. “I’ve spent months at a time in the jungle on expeditions to make first contact with a tribe, and I’ve been attacked many, many times,” he says. “Colleagues have fallen at my feet, pierced by Indian arrows.” Since the 1970s, in fact, 120 FUNAI workers have been killed in the Amazon jungles.
Now we’re on the way to visit a Korubo clan he first made contact with in 1996. For Possuelo it’s one of his regular check-in visits, to see how they’re faring; for me it’s a chance to be one of the few journalists ever to spend several days with this group of people who know nothing about bricks, or electricity, or roads or violins or penicillin or Cervantes or tap water or China or almost anything else you can think of.
Our boat passes a river town named Benjamin Constant, dominated by a cathedral and timber mill. Possuelo glares at both. “The church and loggers are my biggest enemies,” he tells me. “The church wants to convert the Indians to Christianity, destroying their traditional ways of life, and the loggers want to cut down their trees, ruining their forests. It’s my destiny to protect them.”
At the time the portuguese explorer Pedro Cabral strode ashore in A.D. 1500 to claim Brazil’s coast and vast inland for his king, perhaps as many as ten million Indians lived in the rain forests and deltas of the world’s secondlongest river. During the following centuries, sertanistas led white settlers into the wilderness to seize Indian lands and enslave and kill countless tribespeople. Hundreds of tribes were wiped out as rubber tappers, gold miners, loggers, cattle ranchers and fishermen swarmed over the pristine jungles. And millions of Indians died from strange new diseases, like the flu and measles, for which they had no immunity.