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Rare Footage Shows the Last Surviving Member of an Uncontacted Amazon Tribe

The man appears healthy, but like other indigenous people of Brazil, his way of life is in danger

smithsonian.com

Since the 1990s, Brazilian officials have been tracking a man who is believed to be the lone surviving member of an isolated indigenous tribe. Though he is infrequently seen, the man leaves traces of his life in the Amazon jungle: a footprint here, a chopped tree there, holes for trapping prey, patches of planted fruit and vegetables.

Recently, as Sarah Dilorenzo of the Associated Press reports, officials released a short video of the unnamed man, offering a rare glimpse of one of the Brazil’s uncontacted tribespeople.

Brazil's National Indian Foundation, or Funai, recorded the brief video clip in 2011, but only made it public recently. Shot from a distance, the footage shows the man hacking at a tree with an axe. There is only one other known image of the man, captured by a documentary filmmaker in the 1990s, which shows his partially obscured face peering out from behind a cluster of thick foliage.

Anthropologists believe the man, who appears to be between 55 and 60 years old, has been living on his own in the jungles of Rondônia State for more than 20 years. The other members of his tribe were likely killed by ranchers, according to Ernesto Londoño of the New York Times. Funai has made several attempts to contact the man since, but he made it clear that he is not interested, even wounding an official with his arrow in 2005.

So Funai has been trying to help the man from a respectful distance. Officials have left him seeds and tools, and they are working to ensure that the area where he lives remains protected.

Altair Algayer, coordinator of the team that keeps track of the man, tells the AP’s Dilorenzo that officials wavered over releasing the tape because they could not ask the man for his permission. Ultimately, however, they decided to make the footage public, in the hope that it will reinforce the need to maintain legal protections of indigenous territories and call attention to the precarious existence of Brazil’s uncontacted peoples.

As logging, mining and farming industries push deeper into the Amazon, the more than 100 isolated tribes that live in Brazil have been facing acute threats to their existence. A major concern, according to the advocacy group Survival International, is disease. Isolated tribes are highly susceptible to flus and other infections transmitted by outsiders, and “it is not unusual” for 50 percent of a tribe to be wiped out by foreign illnesses within the first year of contact, Survival states.

Some indigenous groups have also been abandoning their land, driven away by noise and pollution. And some tribes have been deliberately attacked by ranchers and other industry workers vying for their land. Last year, for instance, 10 members of an uncontacted tribe were reportedly massacred by illegal gold miners in a remote region along the Jandiatuba River.

The Tanaru indigenous reserve, where the man in the video lives, is currently surrounded by ranchers and loggers, Slate reported in 2010, and Funai is struggling to keep the man and others like him safe. Budget cuts have forced the organization to shutter some of its monitoring stations, and Londoño of the Times reports that some of its outposts have been attacked by miners and loggers.

For now, however, the mysterious man in the video appears to be faring quite well. In May, the team that monitors him saw signs—footprints and a cut tree—indicating that he is still alive.

“He is the ultimate symbol of resilience and resistance,” Fiona Watson, research and advocacy director at Survival International, tells Londoño. “But we are witnessing genocide in real time. Once he’s gone, his people will have disappeared forever, along with all their history and knowledge.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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