Out of Time- page 5 | Travel | Smithsonian
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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)

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?

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As the sun goes down, we return to Possuelo’s base; even Possuelo, who the clan trusts more than any other white man, considers it too dangerous to stay overnight in the maloca. Early the next morning we’re back, and they ask for the Maori war dance again. I comply, this time flashing my bare bottom at the end as custom demands. It may be the first time they’ve ever seen a white man’s bum, and they roar with laughter at the sight. Still chuckling, the women head for the nearby maize and manioc fields. Shishu, meanwhile, hoists a 12-foot-long blowpipe on his shoulder and strings a bamboo quiver, containing dozens of curare darts, around his neck. We leave the clearing together, and I struggle to keep up with him as he lopes through the shadowy jungle, alert for prey.

Hour slips into hour. Suddenly, he stops and shades his eyes while peering up into the canopy. I don’t see anything except tangled leaves and branches, but Shishu has spotted a monkey. He takes a dab of a gooey red ocher from a holder attached to his quiver and shapes it around the back of the dart as a counterweight. Then he takes the petals of a white flower and packs them around the ocher to smooth the dart’s path through the blowpipe.

He raises the pipe to his mouth and, aiming at the monkey, puffs his cheeks and blows, seemingly with little effort. The dart hits the monkey square in the chest. The curare, a muscle relaxant that causes death by asphyxiation, does its work, and within several minutes the monkey, unable to breathe, tumbles to the forest floor. Shishu swiftly fashions a jungle basket from leaves and vine, and slings the monkey over a shoulder.

By the end of the morning, he’ll kill another monkey and a large black-feathered bird. His day’s hunting done, Shishu heads back to the maloca, stopping briefly at a stream to wash away the mud from his body before entering the hut.

Magna is sitting on a log outside the maloca when we return. It’s a favorite spot for socializing: “The men and women work hard for about four or five hours a day and then relax around the maloca, eating, chatting and sometimes singing,” she says. “It’d be an enviable life except for the constant tension they feel, alert for a surprise attack even though their enemies live far away.”

I see what she means later that afternoon, as I relax inside the maloca with Shishu, Maya, Ta’van and Monan, the clan’s friendliest woman. Their voices tinkle like music as we men sip the herbal drink and the women weave baskets. Suddenly Shishu shouts a warning and leaps to his feet. He’s heard a noise in the forest, so he and Ta’van grab their war clubs and race outside. Jumi and I follow. From the forest we hear the familiar password, “Eh-heh,” and moments later Tatchipan and another clan member, Marebo, stride into the clearing. False alarm.

Next morning, after I’ve performed the haka yet again, Maya hushes the noisy warriors and sends them out to fish in dugouts. Along the river they pull into a sandy riverbank and begin to move along it, prodding the sand with their bare feet. Ta’van laughs with delight when he uncovers a buried cache of tortoise eggs, which he scoops up to take to the hut. Back on the river, the warriors cast vine nets and quickly haul up about 20 struggling fish, some shaded green with stumpy tails, others silvery with razor sharp teeth: piranha. The nutritious fish with the bloodthirsty reputation is a macabre but apt metaphor for the circle of life in this feisty paradise, where hunter and hunted often must eat and be eaten by each other to survive.

In this jungle haunted by nightmarish predators, animal and human, the Korubo surely must also need some form of religion or spiritual practice to feed their souls as well as their bellies. But at the maloca I’ve seen no religious carvings, no rain forest altars the Korubo might use to pray for successful hunts or other godly gifts. Back at the base that night, as Jumi sweeps a powerful searchlight back and forth across the river looking for intruders from downriver, Magna tells me that in the two years she’s tended to clan members, she’s never seen any evidence of their spiritual practice or beliefs. But we still know too little about them to be sure.

The mysteries are likely to remain. Possuelo refuses to allow anthropologists to observe the clan members firsthand— because, he says, it’s too dangerous to live among them. And one day, perhaps soon, the clan will melt back into the deep jungle to rejoin a larger Korubo group. Maya and her clan broke away a decade ago, fleeing toward the river after warriors fought over her. But the clan numbers just 23 people, and some of the children are approaching puberty. “They’ve told me they’ll have to go back to the main group one day to get husbands and wives for the young ones,” says Magna. “Once that happens, we won’t see them again.” Because the larger group, which Possuelo estimates to be about 150 people, lives deep enough in the jungle’s exclusion zone that settlers pose no threat, he’s never tried to make contact with it.

Possuelo won’t bring pictures of the outside world to show the Korubo, because he’s afraid the images will encourage them to try to visit white settlements down the river. But he does have photographs he’s taken from a small airplane of huts of still uncontacted tribes farther back in the Javari Valley, with as few as 30 people in a tribe and as many as 400. “We don’t know their tribal names or languages, but I feel content to leave them alone because they’re happy, hunting, fishing, farming, living their own way, with their unique vision of the world. They don’t want to know us.”

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