It began with a rumor, a scrap of conversation picked up by a health worker delivering antimalarial medicine in the scattered villages of southern Amazonia. In the middle of 1996, he stopped at a lumberyard in Brazil’s Guaporé River Valley, near the Bolivian border. Loggers there spoke of a wild man who roamed the surrounding rain forest, which they occasionally ventured into in search of mahogany trees. The man was a naked savage, they said, probably an Indian. But he didn’t appear to be part of any tribe. From what they could see, he lived all alone in a tiny thatched hut, with no apparent ties to another human soul.
That’s where their story dead-ended. The few who claimed to have caught a blurred glimpse of the man said he was as quick and crafty as a jaguar—get near him, and he’d vanish into the forest’s dappled shadows. Describing encounters with him apparently was like trying to remember an elusive dream: they were pretty sure it happened, but they couldn’t quite grasp the details.
It was a flimsy splinter of jungle lore, but it stuck with the health worker when he left the lumberyard and eventually made his way to the town of Vilhena, where Brazil’s federal agency in charge of Indian affairs maintained a regional outpost. He previously had met the man who ran that office, Marcelo dos Santos, while delivering medicines to one of the region’s indigenous reserves.
If anyone could dismiss the rumor outright and label it a tall tale unworthy of a second thought, it was Marcelo. His job was to locate Indian tribes that remained isolated in the forest, completely cut off from the main current of Brazilian society. His small team of field agents was called the Guaporé Contact Front, one of five regional exploratory teams within the Isolated Indians Division of Brazil’s National Indian Foundation, known as FUNAI. The Isolated Indians Division was less than a decade old, created just before the country ratified a new constitution in 1988. The new national charter specified that if Indians lived on a patch of rain forest, that land was theirs—not a single tree could be touched by an outsider. But a fundamental shortcoming threatened to completely undermine the document’s intentions: no one knew how many tribes actually lived in Brazil’s massive portion of the Amazon, or how much land they potentially could claim. So if a rancher stumbled across a previously uncontacted tribe in a part of the forest that he wanted to clear for grazing, the rancher had a natural incentive to chase the Indians off the property before the government could document their presence. The contact fronts were created to defuse the threat of clashes between settlers and tribes.
Marcelo was forty-two when he took the reins of the exploratory team in 1994, after twenty years as a field agent with FUNAI. One look at him and it was clear he didn’t really fit in with the clean-cut farmers who dominated Vilhena’s social circles. He cut his hair only when he felt like it, and he’d kept the blond beard that he grew in college, letting it go wherever it wanted, untrimmed. From his left earlobe dangled a loop of carved bark, a handmade earring common among members of the Nambiquara tribe he’d lived among for more than a decade. Give him a choice, and he just might walk down the street barefoot. Some of the farmers called him a hippie. A few turned the screws on the insult a little tighter: they called him a hippie who wanted to be an Indian. They weren’t entirely wrong.
Marcelo’s right-hand man was Altair Algayer, a twenty-three-year-old who had worked for Marcelo’s predecessor. Altair had spent much of his life in or around the state of Rondônia’s forests. He had a fourth-grade education and a mind like a thirsty sponge. If the truck broke down, Altair could fix it. If the team needed to build a permanent jungle encampment complete with shower and latrine, Altair could sketch the plans and build it. If they needed to be fed, he could track, shoot, and butcher a wild boar. He was lanky and lean, but as strong and durable as a packmule. Marcelo rarely went on an expedition without him.
Less than a year before, in September 1995, Marcelo and Altair had encountered two small Indian tribes that had never before been contacted peacefully by outsiders. The discoveries were hailed in the international press as the first of their kind in more than a decade in Brazil. For the Brazilian government, the experience had underscored the value of the contact fronts, and FUNAI was working to legally declare the newly demarcated territories as a single indigenous reserve. For Marcelo and Altair, the experience proved that the jungle, nearly five hundred years after outsiders began exploring its depths, was still capable of hiding mysteries.
So when the health worker arrived in Vilhena with the rumor about the spectral wild man believed to be an Indian, Marcelo paid close attention. The health worker passed along the name of a man at the lumberyard who might be able to tell him more.
Marcelo and Altair decided to pay him a visit. All they had to lose was a day or two, enough time to drive there and back.
Marcelo sat behind the wheel, steering the battered Toyota four-by-four across miles of dirt roads that were furrowed with wheel-deep ruts. Altair jostled beside him on the truck’s unforgiving bench seat. The sun burned hot, and the wind rushing through the opened windows brought little relief, just dust and the throaty roar of the truck’s engine. The noise was enough to turn a conversation into an exhausting shouting match, which is why they always traveled with a box full of cassette tapes, and the stereo cranked up loud.
The opening chords that blared from the dashboard speakers would have been instantly recognizable to almost any Brazilian: Jorge Ben’s “País Tropical.” The title of the song means “Tropical Country” in Portuguese, and it was something like an unofficial national anthem for many Brazilians, especially those of Marcelo’s generation who’d gotten hooked on a back-to-the-land credo that flowered in the late 1960s. Marcelo shouted “Jorge!” as if calling out to an old friend:
I live in a tropical country,
Blessed by God and beautiful by nature.
(But oh, what beauty!)
Nature had been uncommonly generous in this riverine corner of Brazil, painting the landscapes according to a maximalist aesthetic that placed little value on restraint. This was nature in the extreme, laid on thick, without apology. The flora was irrepressible, accommodated by a rain forest that had enough room for just about anything—giant hardwood trees, ropy lianas, trembling ferns, fluorescent lichens, heavy fruits on bending limbs. The animals provided an equally gaudy display, if you had a keen enough eye to spot them behind a thousand shades of green: ocelots, toucans, tapirs, sloths, monkeys, peccaries, armadillos, caiman, and untold legions of insects that filled the forest with the hum of life. Scientists and environmental activists liked to say that between one third and one half of the world’s total species—plant, animal, and microbe—could be found in the Amazon rain forest, but that was just a guess, because it was impossible to catalog them all. But even if the claim couldn’t be proved, the spirit behind it rang true: there was a profusion of vitality in this region, and it was more than enough to overwhelm the most ambitious taxonomist.
Not everyone considered that a good thing. This part of Amazonia long ago had earned itself the nickname “the Green Hell” by those who likened it to a miasmal sump that didn’t brim with life so much as fester with it. In the rain forest, the unremitting cycles of life and death are so tangled together that their differences quickly blur. By the time something dies, it has already started to become something else; the trunk of a dying tree is overtaken by fungi, and soon the tree becomes those fungi; the flesh of a peccary carcass instantly swarms with beetles, until beetles are all that’s left. Individual distinctions grow nebulous, which can rattle the nerves of anyone who prefers a world defined by neatly ruled borders. The wilderness then becomes something that demands to be tamed and conquered, and civilization is separated from savagery.
Marcelo and Altair rejected that view. When they sang along with Jorge Ben on the truck stereo, they were singing about the forest, a place that was neither paradise nor perdition, but one they penciled in closer to heaven than hell on their private maps of the world. This overgrown domain was their país tropical.
But some of the landscape they drove through on the way to the lumberyard didn’t fit the lyrics of the song. It wasn’t tropical, and it wasn’t beautiful. It was dead.
For miles on all sides, an ashen graveyard of charred stumps plotted the void where the forest recently stood. The land had been clear-cut with tractors and chains, then burned. The horizon was no longer obscured by treetops, but instead was washed out by a dirty white haze. Smoke was rising from live fires at the forest’s sizzled edge, a frontier that crept a little farther from the road each day.
Every so often the slender trunk of a denuded acuri palm, with its armor of fire-resistant bark, stood tall among the encrusted termite mounds that blistered the burned crust of the earth. Some of the fields were littered with disorderly piles of sawed trunks, ready to be stacked onto enormous flatbed trucks. Marcelo and Altair had been passing those trucks all day; they were the same ones that had chewed up the roads for dozens of miles in every direction.
They regularly passed clusters of splintery gray shacks strewn along the roadside, fragile hovels that looked as if they’d collapse into kindling with one swift kick. The shacks housed the peasant laborers employed by the cattle ranches that were multiplying with bacterial efficiency throughout the region. Rondônia was still less than twenty years old, and in a single generation it had gone from a mostly unpopulated forest to the center of an agricultural explosion. As new roads began to fan throughout the region, this part of Amazonia was experiencing a rural migration that rivaled the conquest of the American West.
Boomtowns were popping up all over: little bursts of activity that invariably announced their presence with a roadside beer joint consisting of little more than a corrugated roof, a few plastic chairs, and an old pool table. Marcelo and Altair drove past such a bar when they approached the town of Chupinguaia on the way to the mill. A year before, the town couldn’t be found on any map; the state had declared it a new municipality just a few months prior. The locals called it a “bang-bang town,” one of several on the ragged fringe of Brazil’s Wild West, and outsiders stopped at their own risk. Chupinguaia’s population was anyone’s guess—probably at least a few hundred—but it swelled on weekend nights, when the region’s ranch hands hit the bars. Sunday mornings were a spectacle to behold. Walk through the barren central square just after dawn, and you literally had to step over dozens of bedless ranch hands spread-eagled in the dirt, exactly where they’d passed out the night before. Everyone who called this place “lawless” was guilty of a slight imprecision of language: when Rondônia was granted statehood in 1981, plenty of laws went on the books; it’s just that the government lacked the resources to enforce them.
That anything-goes atmosphere extended to the forest itself. Ranchers in the area had been known to fly over the trees in private planes spraying 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid, the internationally banned defoliant in Agent Orange. Worse, empty plastic drums of the chemical had been scavenged by at least one of the local Indian tribes, which had been using the containers to store water, unaware that the small print on the barrels warned against reuse. Frontier justice being what it was, the deeds went unpunished.
Marcelo and the other members of the Contact Front weren’t cops, but when they witnessed illegal deforestation or other environmental crimes, they blew the whistle, calling federal prosecutors to complain. That didn’t mean the police did anything about it. Hard evidence, such as earthmovers and chainsaws registered to a specific owner, could easily be moved before police were able to reach the areas in question. Outright denials of responsibility by landowners were so common that Marcelo had begun to invite Vincent Carelli, a former FUNAI agent with a passion for documentary film, to accompany the Contact Front on expeditions and document evidence with his video camera. Those whistle-blowing expeditions rankled a lot of ranchers and loggers. The Contact Front was quickly earning a reputation throughout Rondônia as an obstacle to progress.
Even before Marcelo and Altair decided to drive to the lumberyard to investigate the rumor of the lone Indian, some of the region’s ranchers were publicly accusing the Contact Front of putting the interests of a few Indians above the overall economic health of the region. When the Contact Front had discovered those two isolated Indian tribes just months before, the ranchers who had already laid claim to those tribal lands banded together in defiance, hired a lawyer, and resolved to fight the government’s demarcation of 193 square miles of land as an indigenous reserve, off-limits to development. Those ranchers had taken a clear stand. They had declared the Contact Front their enemy.
On September 3, 1995, Marcelo and Altair had made first contact with an isolated group of Kanoe Indians. The tribe had been reduced to only five survivors.
That peaceful encounter also had begun with a rumor. Before Marcelo and Altair had set out to find the Kanoe, Indian trackers believed that members of an isolated tribe lived in the area, but no one had seen them. Marcelo suspected that if a tribe was living there, its continued survival might be jeopardized by the chainsaws that were eating deeper into that tract of forest with each passing week.
Marcelo and Altair—with Vincent Carelli and his video camera following in their footsteps—explored the forest near the banks of the Omerê River. Marcelo walked in front, following a slender trail worn through the thick undergrowth. The trail appeared to be a natural inlet through the forest used by wild boar and other animals, but there was more to it than that. Some of the branches and stems flanking the path had been snapped in places that stood more than four feet off the ground. Few animals native to this forest stood that tall. More than likely, it meant that other humans had walked that trail before them.
For three days Marcelo’s team had been hiking, crossing streams and following trails that led them deeper into the middle of nowhere. But on that third morning, they reached an area that had been partially burned. The ground had been reduced to soft white ash, and in the middle of that powdery residue they found the fresh imprints of bare human feet. The team twisted their shoulders out of their heavy backpacks and ventured deeper into the bush, carrying only the essentials. Altair propped a .22-guage Winchester rifle over his left shoulder. In his right hand he held a machete, which he waved in front of him in lazy arcs, clearing vines and branches to untangle the overgrown trail.
They inched through the forest with a measured vigilance, because making first contact with a tribe that is unaccustomed to visitors is risky business. Throughout Brazil’s history, stories of first contacts were too often chronicles of violence and mayhem. In Rondônia in the early 1980s, the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Indians attacked an expedition from FUNAI with a fusillade of arrows, their barbed tips coated with poisonous curare. That was just one story of hundreds similar to it that loomed over the jungle’s history like black clouds. But much of the violence wasn’t started by the Indians. Wildcat miners in Rondônia, for example, had savagely beaten, robbed, and tortured Kithaulu Nambiquara Indians to get access to the gold they believed could be found on the tribe’s reservation. Stories about pistoleros hired to clear prospective ranches of Indians were common in every bang-bang town.
“Look at this.”
Marcelo stopped walking and inspected a tree. On its trunk he found one of the most common signs of Indian presence: someone had stripped the bark and hacked a wedge in the hollowed trunk to extract honey from a beehive inside. He continued up the path, then froze in his tracks and held a finger up, a signal for the others behind him to be quiet. He leaned forward, bending at the waist, listening. The others began to approach him, but he quickly turned and motioned for them to stay put.
“Wait! Back up!”
Someone was up ahead on the trail. Tentatively, Marcelo took a step forward, careful not to make too much noise in the leafy undergrowth.
There were Indians ahead, camouflaged by the foliage, but he didn’t know how many. Maybe just one or two, maybe an entire tribe of a dozen or more. Maybe they were calm, or maybe they were poised in defense, with arrows notched and drawn. This was the most critical point of any first contact, the fulcrum upon which success or tragedy often teetered. Since the 1970s, 120 FUNAI workers had been killed in the Amazon, many at the hands of Indian tribes. Somehow Marcelo needed to try to let these Indians know that his team was friendly.
“Whooo!” Marcelo hooted, a sublinguistic greeting meant to get the attention of whoever was lurking at the end of the trail, something to let them know that he knew they were there. No response. He whistled.
About fifty feet ahead of them, two faces peered out from the leaves and palm fronds. A woman and a man stepped onto the path, padding toward the group. Both held bows and carried quivers of arrows.
“Amigo,” Marcelo called to them.
The two Indians’ faces were expressionless but wide-eyed and alert. Marcelo waved his hand, motioning for them to come ahead. He smiled warmly, trying to convey an aura of peace. The female Indian said something to the man, and they stopped on the trail. Marcelo walked slowly toward them, and the male lifted his bow slightly. The gesture didn’t seem threatening, just cautious. Marcelo and the others continued to proceed at a ceremonial pace. The Indians observed them with tense stoicism, then offered Marcelo exactly what he’d been seeking: careful smiles.
Marcelo’s shoulders dropped, and he chuckled.
The Indians held their hands out, palms up. Marcelo and Altair raised their hands in response and stepped forward. Each side of the encounter—the Indians and the members of the Contact Front—stood on the trail for a moment with their fingertips lightly entwined in a delicate, lingering handshake. Marcelo noticed that the hands of the male Indian, whose name they would learn was Pur´, were shaking. He appeared to be in his early twenties. Pur´’s sister, Tiramantú, looked a couple of years older. Both wore short wooden pegs through their noses. In their earlobes and around their necks, they wore jewelry made from shells. Two-inch-thick bands fashioned from fibrous plants were tied around their upper arms. Large red feathers protruded from the tops of each of those bands, and a foot-long fringe of dried grass hung below. Each wore a two-piece hat made from deerskin and palm fibers—one piece was a tight skullcap, the other a ring-shaped brim that fitted over it. They also wore shorts fashioned from scavenged salt bags that had been left for cattle on the pasturelands bordering their patch of forest. Though the Indians had never before had extended contact with the outside world, the design of their clothing suggested they had, at one time or another, experienced glancing contact with the rubber tappers, miners, or ranch hands who had been traipsing through parts of these forests for centuries.
The two Indians took Marcelo and Altair by the hand and led them to their small village, deeper in the forest. The Indians fed them papayas and introduced them to the other three members of their tribe. Pur´ and Tiramantú talked in the shrill quarter tones of a sharp, chirpy language.
“Ba-tu, ba-tu,” Tiramantú said, looking Marcelo in the eye before she broke up in enigmatic laughter. He smiled helplessly. He could speak the tribal language of the Nambiquara, a tribe native to the forests on the other side of the Guaporé Valley, but this language wasn’t similar. He couldn’t decipher a single word.
About a month later, scholars studied their language and determined that they were part of the Kanoe, a tribe that most believed had disappeared completely from the region after clashes with rubber tappers in the 1940s.
Vincent’s footage of the encounter proved invaluable in contradicting local landowners who had insisted that the presence of an isolated tribe was nothing more than a fanciful myth, a romantic misconception standing in the way of agricultural development. The video prompted newspaper articles and television reports all over the world. Time magazine’s piece was titled “An Amazon Discovery,” and it quoted Sydney Possuelo, Marcelo’s boss in Brasília, who explained that the Kanoe encounter was the first new discovery of an isolated tribe in Brazil in a decade. “We only make contact when the situation is dramatic,” said Possuelo, who explained that the Kanoe might have been completely extinguished by the advance of land developers if the Contact Front hadn’t taken action.
In the months following that initial encounter, the five Kanoe led Marcelo and Altair to another previously uncontacted tribe with a village about four miles through the jungle from theirs. That tribe was called the Akuntsu, and it had only seven surviving members. They were completely naked save for earrings, body paint from urucum berries, and armbands and anklets made of palm fibers. The Akuntsu and the Kanoe had been traditional enemies, but the pace of deforestation in the area had forced them to try to set aside their differences in the name of survival. In time, the explorers would learn that both of the tribes had been thinned out by pistolero raids. For decades, sweeping global forces had been converging upon the forest where they lived, ratcheting up local tensions to deadly extremes. The tribes had observed an undeclared truce in the face of a common enemy.
* * *
Since the discovery of the Kanoe and the Akuntsu, Marcelo and Altair were finding that more of the wooden gates erected at the borders of the ranches were padlocked. Some of the ranchers had gone so far as to station guards armed with machine guns at the gates. The Contact Front had earned a reputation as a nuisance to avoid.
But nothing blocked the dirt roads they followed around the ranch that sat at the entrance of the lumber mill. They drove over a rickety wooden bridge constructed with planks that were barely big enough for the Toyota’s tires. One slip of the steering wheel, and they’d fall in the stream below.
The lumberyard was buzzing when they arrived. A warehouse stood in the middle of the yard, and the afternoon sun streamed through the cracks in the walls’ irregularly spaced slats. The workers inside wore heavy white aprons, stained with the same airborne grit that they carried home in their lungs and throats. Forklifts ferried ten-foot sections of peroba trunks, some of them measuring five feet in diameter, toward an enormous conveyor saw. Using a heavy iron hook, two of the employees would position the trunks on a wheeled gurney, which fed the wood into the whirring blade of a large band saw. They sheared off the rounded edges of the trunk, squaring it down to its rosy heartwood, then slicing it into long, flat planks. The workers loaded the planks onto a lift and stacked them head-high in the yard. Like most of the wood that was trucked out of Rondônia daily, those planks could have ended up just about anywhere: as chairs in a dining room in São Paulo, or as kitchen cabinets in New York, or as coffee tables in London.
Across the road from that yard, Marcelo veered around the flatbed cargo trucks and found the building he’d been looking for: a collection of unfinished planks that had been nailed into a crude kitchen and commissary on the lumberyard’s edge. Technically, the building was part of the logging mill, but the man inside wasn’t officially employed by the ranch. His name was Gilson, and he’d been contracted to feed the loggers and ranch hands who worked its grounds. Essentially, Gilson was the company cook. And according to the health service worker who’d originally told Marcelo the story of the mysterious lone Indian, Gilson himself had seen the Indian’s hut.
Gilson looked to be about thirty years old, with a peninsular hairline and a thick black beard trimmed with precision. He offered his visitors a seat at a plywood table in the middle of the room and he settled onto the stool across from them.
“So how did you find out about this Indian hut?” Marcelo asked.
Gilson said that the lumberyard employed men who scouted the forest for new cutting grounds, and two of those scouts told him they’d encountered an Indian. They didn’t get a clear view of him, but saw him flee when they approached. Behind a nearby tree, they found bamboo arrows on the ground.
Those scouts got scared and left the area, afraid of being shot by a man who might still have been hiding nearby. But they returned the next day, and Gilson tagged along. Together they found the small thatched hut that appeared big enough for just one person.
Gilson told Marcelo and the others that he could show them the place, if they wanted to see it.
Marcelo told him that they most definitely did.
They followed Gilson to the sharply defined border between farm and jungle, and stepped into the bush. Over the next few days, they’d visit the site numerous times, searching for clues that might reveal who had built the hut and lived inside.
About a third of a mile into the forest, they came to a tree that had a wedge-shaped hole cut out of its trunk—the same type of honey cut they’d found just before they’d encountered the Kanoe. On the ground near the tree trunk, Marcelo found a bundled wig of sticky liana twine. He told the others that Indians often used that kind of twine as a sponge; they stuff it into the hole in the tree to absorb honey, then wring it out.
A few meters from that tree, they ducked under some leafy branches and emerged into a clearing big enough for a single hut. It stood about nine feet tall at the roof’s peaked center, and it covered an area of about seven square feet. The walls were made of bundled palm wood, and the hut was roofed with dry, brown fronds. The leafy roof sloped down on all sides, forming eaves that ended within a couple feet of the ground. From the looks of the hut, it might have been the nest of some enormous ground-dwelling bird. The camouflaging effect of the materials was uncanny: if they hadn’t been looking for it, they might have walked right by.
They ducked under the eaves and peered into a small opening in the wall before stepping inside. Gilson had been right: if more than one person had lived here, it would have been a tight fit. The dirt floor was littered with white ash from a small campfire in the corner. Judging from the coals, it hadn’t burned in weeks.
The strangest part of the hut was the rectangular hole in the center of the floor. It was about three feet long, fifteen inches wide, and five and a half feet deep. It wasn’t big enough to sleep in and didn’t appear to be used for storage. It was unlike anything they’d ever seen in the huts of any of the other tribes in the region.
After that visit, Marcelo wasted no time preparing for a longer expedition. He believed that if the Contact Front didn’t find the man soon, it was just a matter of time before someone else—maybe pistoleros hired by local land-grabbers—got to him first. He had no way of knowing how far the hunt would take them, or how consuming the mystery of the man’s existence would prove.
All that the members of the Guaporé Contact Front knew for sure was that the rumor was more than a baseless fairy tale. Whoever had built the hut had recently decamped, retreating deeper into the forest. They chose to follow.
© 2010 Monte Reel
The Epic Quest to Save a Lone Man in the Amazon
The Last of the Tribe
The Epic Quest to Save a Lone Man in the Amazon
Resentment of Indians can run high among settlers, and the consequences can be fatal. The discovery of the Indian prevented local ranchers from seizing his land, and led a small group of men who believed that he was the last of a murdered tribe to dedicate themselves to protecting him. These men worked for the government, overseeing indigenous interests in an odd job that was part Indiana Jones, part social worker, and were among the most experienced adventurers in the Amazon. They were a motley crew that included a rebel who spent more than a decade living with a tribe, a young man who left home to work in the forest at age fourteen, and an old-school sertanista with a collection of tall tales amassed over five decades of jungle exploration.
Their quest would prove far more difficult than any of them could imagine. Over the course of a decade, the struggle to save the Indian and his land would pit them against businessmen, politicians, and even the Indian himself, a man resolved to keep the outside world at bay at any cost. It would take them into the furthest reaches of the forest and to the halls of Brazil’s Congress, threatening their jobs and even their lives. Ensuring the future of the Indian and his land would lead straight to the heart of the conflict over the Amazon itself.
A heart-pounding modern-day adventure set in one of the world’s last truly wild places, The Last of the Tribe is a riveting, brilliantly told tale of encountering the unknown and the unfathomable, and the value of preserving it.