Land of the 'Lost'

Kemperi is a powerful Huaorani shaman, known for his ability to capture the powers of the Jaguar. He has a history of interaction with the uncontacted groups in this part of Ecuador, mostly by trading for feathers and axes. He is renowned throughout the Huaorani for his past exploits as a warrior. Photographer David Gilbert Lived with the Huaorani in 2006.
Credit: David Gilbert

That's what David Gilbert found in 2006, when the Fulbright scholar spent a year living with and photographing the Huaorani, a remote group that lives in "la zona intangible," a government-protected area for indigenous groups, in Ecuador, alongside three uncontacted groups.

Gilbert saw members of two uncontacted tribes while he lived with the Huaorani: Tagaeri, a family clan related to the Huaorani, and the Taromenani. Hemmed in by oil and logging companies, both of which are illegal in the protected zone, the tribes had begun fighting over ever-diminishing resources, Gilbert said.

"These groups are aware enough of the general situation of the Huaorani," Gilbert said by phone from Indonesia, where he is working with the Asia Foundation documenting indigenous groups and illegal logging. "By coming across dead bodies and even talking to the Huaorani about their experiences — they do sometimes have trading meetings — the risk of coming out to the world just isn't worth it. And they know enough to say, 'We don't want to get involved.' And they can hopefully avoid polio and these wars that break out in the forest with people shooting at each other with shotguns."

Gilbert's guide through the experience was Penti Baihua, the Spanish-speaking leader of the Huao village Bameno.

"He was my guardian and spokesman and even bodyguard sometimes with other Huaranis down there," Gilbert said of Baihua. "He really has been fighting a small-scale war against illegal loggers. … Through his point of view the outside of world can offer him some protection and can help him in his struggle against illegal loggers."

According to Survival International, within eight years of a gold rush on their land during the 1890s, 20 percent of the Yanomami tribe died.
Credit: Robert Caputo/Aurora/Getty Images

The challenge that the Huaorani face — losing land to development — is a common one, according to Survival International.

"The main [challenge] to tribal peoples is loss of their land," spokeswoman Miriam Ross said. "Tribal people's lives are intricately wound up with the land for hunting, gathering [and] fishing, but also … their culture."

Not everyone is convinced that these "lost tribes" exist, however. In the Amazon, oil and logging companies have often called into question the existence of these tribes because very few have been seen. An executive at a government-run oil company in Peru reportedly compared rumors of their existence to the Loch Ness monster.

But for activist groups, the most recent photos out of Brazil are proof.

"Photos like what we're seeing today are evidence that they do exist," Ross said. "[Companies] really have to acknowledge that these people are there and stay off their land and leave them alone."

Vanderbilt anthropologist Conklin agrees.

"These people are living perfectly well," she said. "They're not asking us to come in and rescue them."

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