Land of the 'Lost'

When a so-called "uncontacted" tribe was spotted last week in Brazil shooting arrows at a passing plane, global curiosity was piqued. Who were these people covered in black, red and orange paint? And how could they be completely ignorant of modern society?

But according to anthropologists and activists, this group is one of many in the Amazon that have chosen isolation as development encroaches upon the land that Indians have called home for centuries.

Brazil released the photos, which were shot in late April and early May, on Friday. Taken from a plane passing overhead, the photos show several nearly-naked Indians painted head to toe and brandishing bows and arrows. Experts know little about the group, a Brazilian Indian protection group told the Associated Press.

These uncontacted Indians of the Ethno-Environmental Protected Area along the Envira river, in the Brazilian state of Acre, were photographed during a flight in May 2008.

This wasn't the first time that a so-called "lost tribe" was spotted from the air. In September 2007, scientists spotted members of what they believed to be the Mascho Piro tribe in Peru while looking for evidence of illegal logging. Survival International, an indigenous rights group, estimates that there are more than 100 uncontacted groups in the world and about 60 in the Amazon.

Others argue that there's no definable number. "That's a number pulled out of almost thin air," said Beth Conklin, an associate professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University who works with the Wari' group in western Brazil. "There certainly are a number of groups in several specific area. No one knows how many people, how many different groups there are."

While the term "uncontacted" is often used to describe these Amazonian tribes, multiple experts say that these groups are fully aware of the outside world, but choose to opt out of it.

The Nahua, a once isolated tribe in Peru, were first contacted in the 1980s when Shell begin looking for oil on the tribe's land. Up to half the population died of disease, according to Survival International.
Credit: J. Mazower/Survival International

"The uncontacted people who still remain in the world today are people who have at some point in the past made the conscious decision to avoid direct relationships with the outside world," Conklin said. "It's very common that part of [a] group will decide to flee deeper in the forest to avoid the disease and violence that comes with contacts from outsiders."

Since Spanish conquistadors arrived in the New World, indigenous people have experienced death by either violence or disease that the group had never been exposed to before, anthropologists said.

"When they get hit, the entire group gets sick," Conklin said. "There's wisdom in the decisions that these groups [make] to avoid contact with outsiders."

But not all groups have chosen to exclude themselves.

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