"Over the centuries, some of those people were drawn out or contacted with the rubber boom and the search for gold," cultural anthropologist Alaka Wali said from Contamana, Peru, a remote community near the Brazilian border where the group was seen. "Some chose to settle down on part of the rivers and forest where they were in contact with Western society as it was developing. But other people in the Amazon didn't want anything to do with Western society. The people who, like the ones in the news today, are people who chose to retreat into the depths of the forest precisely because they don't want to be in touch with other cultures or with Western society."
In the past 30 years, the settlements of the Matses has become more permanent. Like many so-called "uncontacted" groups, the Matses fell in and out of contact with Western civilization for years. What finally lured them away from their seminomadic lifestyle and out of the jungle was a missionary group.
Credit: Field Museum
As the director of the center for cultural understanding and change at Chicago's Field Museum, Wali, who eschews the term tribe because of the primitive images it conjures up, studies the effect that modernization has on indigenous communities in Peru and Ecuador.
In addition to bringing disease to the Amazon, contact with Western society has also long been detrimental to these groups culturally, Wali said.
"Even if the people themselves were not out and out killed as a result, the cultural fabric is torn apart," Wali said. "It's been very hard for the cultures to maintain some sense of autonomy or distinctiveness. … A lot of indigenous people are aware of the issues and in touch with national society and have struggled to be part of national society, but also to maintain their own identity and culture autonomy."
A prime example of a group that has transitioned is the Matses, a community Wali has worked with extensively that is on the Peru-Brazil border. The Matses came out of isolation only 40 years ago.
Though many of the world's uncontacted groups live in the Amazon, experts say there are remote groups in other parts of the world. The Sentinelese, a group that lives on the Andaman Islands, is famously isolationist.
Credit: Anthropological Survey of India, HO/AP Photo
Like many "uncontacted" groups, the Matses fell in and out of contact with Western civilization for years. What finally lured them away from their seminomadic lifestyle and out of the jungle was a missionary group that started schools for their children in the 1960s.
"They tell us it's a complicated history. They've been in and out of contact over the centuries. It's not like they were uncontacted and didn't know anything" about Western culture, she said.
Similarly, the Matses are still in contact with groups that are linguistically related, but choose to remain remote.
"They tell us, 'They don't want to come and settle down like we did,'" she said.
In recent years, isolated groups, particularly in Peru, have faced danger from a new kind of explorer: in this case, companies looking for oil and timber.