Why Would Isolated Indians Kill Their Point of Contact With the Outside World?
Authorities are scrambling to establish security in a remote Amazonian frontier region following recent attacks by isolated tribesmen that have left one man dead and another wounded in the wilds of southeastern Peru. The attacks — in October and November of last year — come amid an upturn in the number of sightings of nomadic Mashco-Piro Indians along major waterways in the dense forests bordering the Manu National Park, posing an increasingly volatile situation for communities, travelers, and the isolated tribespeople.
Witnesses say the victim of the November attack, a Matsigenka Indian named Nicolas “Shaco” Flores, was killed when struck in the heart with a bamboo-tipped arrow as he tended a garden on an island in the middle of the Madre de Dios River, just outside the community of Diamante on the edge of the Manu National Park.
The rights group Survival International released dramatic photographs earlier today of the same group of Mashco-Piro that is believed to have launched the attack that killed Flores.
The photos were taken by Diego Cortijo, a member of the Spanish Geographical Society, while on an archeological expedition along the Madre de Dios River in search of ancient rock art. Cortijo and his colleagues had hired Shaco Flores to serve as a guide, said Cortijo in a phone call from his home in Madrid, and Flores later invited the Spaniards to spend a few days at his home, about a two-hour boat ride from the settlement of Diamante.
One morning a group of Indians appeared on the riverbank across from Flores’ house and called out to him by name. Cortijo said he made the photographs with a long lens and that he and Flores did not approach the tribe members. Six days later Flores was killed.
Who Was Shaco Flores?
“It was a complete shock,” said Cortijo, recalling the moment when he heard the news of the death on two-way radio at a ranger’s control post downriver. “I couldn’t believe my ears.”
Sources familiar with the local dynamics and players involved in the area described Shaco Flores as a kind-hearted “go-between” who had long played the role of intermediary between the nomads and the outside world. Flores had facilitated access to trade goods for the tribe, such as machetes and cooking pots, and was tending crops he may have intended to share with the Indians at the time of his death.
Anthropologist Glenn Shepard, who experienced a hair-raising brush with the Mashco-Piro in the same region 1999, was puzzled by the attack. Flores was an old friend, he said, who had married a Piro woman and spoke enough of her language to make himself understood in occasional conversations shouted from a distance with the Mashco-Piro. He noted various theories that may account for the heightened volatility of the uncontacted Indians in the area, including a growing epidemic of illegal logging and a notable increase in low-flying air traffic linked to expanding oil and gas exploration. Additionally, he said, the Indians — who were decimated by illnesses introduced by outsiders — may have gotten spooked by Flores’s persistent efforts to make contact.
Natives of Diamante told Shepard they believe that possible discord among the Mashco-Piro — between those who want more contact with the outside world and those who fear it — may have triggered the attack. The faction resistant to contact, Shepard says, “may have cut off the ‘point-man’ who was pulling them closer to decisive contact.”
But Cortijo suggested another possibility: that the Mashco-Piro may have reacted in anger to a recent decision by Flores to withhold further trade goods from the tribe.
“They want me to go over there and give them machetes,” Flores told Cortijo as they watched the Indians signaling from the far side of the river. “But I’m not going.” That was because, Flores told Cortijo, he had been advised in recent weeks by the regional indigenous federation to desist from making efforts to contact the Mashco-Piro, warning of the dangers of violence to him and his family on the one hand, and of unwittingly spreading disease to the tribe on the other.
Isolated tribes like the Mashco-Piro have little or no immunity to illnesses, such as influenza, measles, or even the common cold. Contact with the outside world typically results in high rates of mortality among isolated indigenous groups, one of the reasons why some countries — most notably Brazil — have adopted policies to shield such groups from outside contact.
A Bloody Backstory
With a population estimated in the hundreds, the Mashco-Piro are among 14 or 15 isolated tribes still roaming the Peruvian Amazon. They have long been considered among the Amazon’s most implacable warriors, resisting contact and subjugation. Most of the tribe was slaughtered on the upper Manu River in 1894 by a private army in the employ of the notorious rubber kingpin Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald, lionized in German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s classic movie, “Fitzcarraldo.” The survivors of those bloody engagements retreated into the most impenetrable reaches of the western Amazon’s upland forests. As outsiders pry their way deeper into these last redoubts in pursuit of timber and other riches, the descendants of those previous traumas are now coming under mounting pressure themselves.
“Their history of contact,” says Shepard, “has always been fraught with the fear of violence and exploitation.”
Recent sightings of the Mashco-Piro include an appearance along the Manu River videotaped by tourists and released to the public last October by Peru’s Ministry of the Environment (see “Peru Releases Dramatic Footage of Uncontacted Indians.”) A park guard suffered an arrow wound in the shoulder at a control post on the Manu River last October, around the time the videotape was released. Authorities have since tried to limit access to outsiders and have embarked on a campaign to educate residents about the dangers of attempting to make contact with the isolated tribes.
The Need for Outsiders to Stay Away
The French news agency AFP reported on Tuesday that Peruvian officials urged outsiders to stay away from isolated Amazon basin rainforest natives after pictures of ”uncontacted” tribe members were published online.
Mariela Huacchillo with the Peru’s office for Natural Protected Areas (SERNANP) told AFP that even indirect contact with the indigenous people could spread deadly viruses that do not exist in the region. As has happened too often recently, the natives could also be hostile, she warned. Read the full AFP report.
Scott Wallace writes about the environment and indigenous affairs for National Geographic and other publications. He is the author of The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes (Crown, 2011). For more information about his work, please visit www.scottwallace.com.
National Geographic Live!: The Unconquered: Brazil’s People of the Arrow
In the video below, journey with author Scott Wallace deep into the Amazon rain forest in search of one of the last uncontacted tribes on Earth.
[Updated February 3, 2012]