Protection Group Knew About 'Lost' Tribe

Last month, the world marveled over photos of a "lost" tribe in Brazil shooting arrows at a passing plane. Who were these people covered in black, red and orange paint? And how could they be completely ignorant of modern society?

Now, however, according to a recent article in the British newspaper The Guardian, the Brazilian official who took the photos, José Carlos dos Reis Meirelles, admitted that he has been studying the group for more than two decades and that the "chance" meeting was no accident.

"When we think we might have found an isolated tribe, a sertanista like me walks in the forest for two or three years to gather evidence and we mark it in our [global positioning system]. We then map the territory the Indians occupy and we draw that protected territory without making contact with them. And finally we set up a small outpost where we can monitor their protection," Meirelles told Al-Jazeera, according to the Guardian.

The Brazilian government released the photos, which were shot in late April and early May, at the end of last month. Taken from a plane passing overhead, the photos show several nearly-naked Indians painted head to toe and brandishing bows and arrows.

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, the indigenous rights group that pushed the photos to media outlets, disputes the article's characterization of the photos and the tribe as a hoax.

"The [Guardian] article claims to 'reveal' that the tribe photographed was neither 'lost' nor 'unknown.' The reality is that neither Survival nor the Brazilian government claimed they were," Survival International's director Stephen Corry said Tuesday in a statement. "When Survival published the photos, we quoted [Meirelles], the Brazilian official who released them, saying, 'We did the overflight to show their houses, to show they are there…' As Mr Meirelles said when the Brazilian government released the photos, the Indians' territory has been monitored for 20 years."

"'What is, and remains, true, is that so far as is known these Indians have no peaceful contact with outsiders," Corry continued. "The publication of the pictures has pushed the Peruvian government into investigating their plight, a huge step forward given that just a few months ago Peru's President publicly questioned whether uncontacted Indians exist at all."

According to anthropologists and activists, instead of being "lost," the 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.

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 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 areas. No one knows how many people, how many different groups there are."

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