He lived in isolation within the Amazon, the sole surviving member of an Indigenous tribe that may have been killed off by ranchers advancing onto uncultivated rainforest lands. Known as “the Man of the Hole” for the deep pits he left across his territory, he subsisted on plants that he cultivated and animals that he caught. When approached by well-meaning advocates, he made it clear that he was not interested in contact with the modern world.
But during a recent patrol of the Tanaru Indigenous Territory, in the Brazilian state of Rondônia, officials were able to approach the man’s hut, where they found him in a hammock, dead of apparently natural causes.
As Flávia Milhorance and André Spigariol of the New York Times report, the man’s death marks the first recorded disappearance of an uncontacted tribe in Brazil. Activists fear it will not be the last.
Little was known about the man—not his name, his ethnicity or the language he spoke to his fellow tribe members when they were still alive. Funai, Brazil’s federal agency for Indigenous affairs, says in a statement that it had tracked 53 huts the man made over the past 26 years. At his abandoned campsites, officials found corn, manioc, papaya and bananas, according to Survival International, a human rights group. Some of the many holes he dug contained sharp spearheads, probably used to catch animals; others, dug into his huts, appear to have been made for protection in the event of an attack.
In 2018, government officials captured a video of the man chopping down a tree, but he was largely elusive and responded aggressively to outsiders.
“We can only imagine what horrors he had witnessed in his life, and the loneliness of his existence after the rest of his tribe were killed,” says Fiona Watson, Survival International’s research and advocacy director, in a statement. “[B]ut he determinedly resisted all attempts at contact, and made clear he just wanted to be left alone.”
The man appears to have been about 60 years old at the time of his death. Officials found no signs of violence or struggle at his campsite, and his body was found covered in feathers, Marcelo dos Santos, an Indigenous expert, tells the Times.
“Was he waiting for his death? Who knows,” says Santos. “There was never communication, not even with another ethnic group, to know more about him. So we can’t be sure of the reason.”
Funai officially created the Tanaru reserve in 2007, after becoming aware of the man’s existence, reports NPR’s Rachel Treisman. Survival International describes the territory as “a small island of forest in a sea of vast cattle ranches, in one of the most violent regions in Brazil.” The organization believes that the man was the only one to survive an “annihilation” of his tribe by “gunmen hired by colonists and ranchers who invaded the land from the 1970s onwards.”
Today, Tanaru is among seven territories in Brazil that are protected by land-use restrictions created for Indigenous groups living in voluntary isolation. But Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has been explicit about his desire to pursue economic development within the Amazon and “exploit” Indigenous territory. “Where there is Indigenous land,” he once said, “there is wealth underneath it.”
After taking office in 2019, Bolsonaro began “dismantling a system of protection for Indigenous communities enshrined in Brazil’s Constitution,” wrote Ernesto Londoño and Letícia Casado for the New York Times in 2020.
To activists, the “Man of the Hole” represented a resilient but tragic figure—a symbol of isolated Indigenous cultures that are being lost to rapacious commercial interests and the violence that comes with them.
“[W]ith his death, the genocide of his people is complete,” says Watson. “For this was indeed a genocide—the deliberate wiping out of an entire people by cattle ranchers hungry for land and wealth.”
And if Bolsonaro and his allies get their way, Watson continues, “this story will be repeated over and over again until all the country’s Indigenous peoples are wiped out.”