Out of Time

Less than a decade after their first contact with the outside world, the volatile Korubo of the Amazon still live in almost total isolation. Their fiercest champion, Indian tracker Sydney Possuelo, is trying to keep their world intact. But how long can he, and they, hold out?

On the lookout for enemies, a warrior named Ta'van leads a patrol through the jungle. Several hundred Indians—some never seen by outsiders—live in the Amazon's Javari Valley. (Paul Raffaele)
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The next morning we return to the maloca, where Ta’- van and other warriors have painted their bodies scarlet and flaunt head and armbands made from raffia streamers. Possuelo is astonished, never having seen them in such finery before. “They’ve done it to honor your haka,” he says with a grin.

Shishu summons me inside the maloca. Jumi, rifle at the ready, follows. The low narrow entrance—a precaution against a surprise attack—forces me to double over. As my eyes adjust to the dim light, I see the Korubo sprawled in vine hammocks strung low between poles holding up the roof or squatting by small fires. Stacked overhead on poles running the length of the hut are long slender blowpipes; axes and woven-leaf baskets lean against the walls. Holes dug into the dirt floor hold war clubs upright, at the ready. There are six small fireplaces, one for each family. Magna bustles about the hut, performing rudimentary medical checks and taking blood samples to test for malaria.

Maya, the hut’s dominant presence, sits by a fireplace husking corn, which she’ll soon begin grinding into mash. She hands me a grilled cob; delicious. Even the warriors are cooking and cleaning: muscular Teun sweeps the hut’s earthen floor with a switch of tree leaves while Washman supervises. Tatchipan, a 17-year-old warrior who took part in the massacre of the white men, squats over a pot cooking the skinned carcass of a monkey. Ta’van helps his wife, Monan, boil a string of fish he’d caught in the river.

“The Korubo eat very well, with very little fat or sugar,” says Magna. “Fish, wild pig, monkeys, birds and plenty of fruit, manioc and maize. They work hard and have a healthier diet than most Brazilians, so they have long lives and very good skin.” Apart from battle wounds, the most serious illness they suffer is malaria, brought to the Amazon by outsiders long ago.

The men squat in a circle and wolf down the fish, monkey and corn. Ta’van breaks off one of the monkey’s arms complete with tiny hand and gives it to Tatchipan, who gnaws the skimpy meat from the bone. Even as they eat, I remain tense, worried they could erupt into violence at any moment. When I mention my concerns to Magna, whose monthly medical visits have given her a peek into the clan members’ lives unprecedented for an outsider, she draws attention to their gentleness, saying, “I’ve never seen them quarrel or hit their children.”

But they do practice one chilling custom: like other Amazon Indians, they sometimes kill their babies. “We’ve never seen it happen, but they’ve told us they do it,” Magna says. “I know of one case where they killed the baby two weeks after birth. We don’t know why.”

Once past infancy, children face other dangers. Several years ago, Maya and her 5-year-old daughter, Nwaribo, were bathing in the river when a massive anaconda seized the child, dragging her underwater. She was never seen again. The clan built a hut at the spot, and several of them cried day and night for seven days.

After the warriors finish eating, Shishu suddenly grips my arm, causing my heart to thump in terror. “You are nowa, a white man,” he says. “Some nowa are good, but most are bad.” I glance anxiously at Ta’van, who stares at me without expression while cradling his war club. I pray that he considers me one of the good guys.

Shishu grabs a handful of red urucu berries and crushes them between his palms, then spits into them and slathers the bloody-looking liquid on my face and arms. Hunching over a wooden slab studded with monkey teeth, he grinds a dry root into powder, mixes it with water, squeezes the juice into a coconut shell and invites me to drink. Could it be poison? I decide not to risk angering him by refusing it, and smile my thanks. The muddy liquid turns out to have an herbal taste, and I share several cups with Shishu. Once I’m sure it won’t kill me, I half expect it to be a narcotic like kava, the South Seas concoction that also looks like grubby water. But it has no noticeable effect.

Other Korubo potions are not as benign. Later in the day Tatchipan places on a small fire by the hut’s entrance a bowl brimming with curare, a black syrup that he makes by pulping and boiling a woody vine. After stirring the bubbling liquid, he dips the tips of dozens of slender blowpipe darts into it. The curare, Shishu tells me, is used to hunt small prey like monkeys and birds; it’s not used on humans. He points to his war club, nestled against his thigh, and then his head. I get the message.


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