'Uncontacted' Amazon Tribes

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

Take a good look at this photo... The Brazilian government says it was taken to prove the existence of "uncontacted" tribes living in the Amazon... And since they've been proven, now their lands can be protected from industrial development. There is also concern that the people themselves may not be resistant to many diseases. It's fascinating, and I can hardly get beyond the existence of the photo, much less the people. I keep looking at it and wondering what their lives are like, what they used to paint themselves in such brilliant colors, how they explain the existence of the plane. National Geographic writer Scott Wallace has trekked South America to discover uncontacted tribes like this one, and joins us today.

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I love the idea that there is still uncontacted tribes living in this world but I also like the idea that they are infact UNCONTACTED. The need to remain this way and not be disturbed by our hostile world. Our need for knowlede is not more important that the beauty of people living they way the world we know began. I think we should leave them alone and make sure they can live this way for centuries to come.

Sent by Maria D Haagensen | 2:16 PM | 6-17-2008

Don't you wonder if the uncontacted people now have a website set up for UFO's?

Sent by Wayland Jackson | 2:27 PM | 6-17-2008

Leave them alone. Modern society has ruined enough of the planet. Let them live as they are, they "look" interesting and I'm incredibly intrigued, but not enough to encourage disrupting their beautiful way of living.

Sent by Tortoise | 2:35 PM | 6-17-2008

Knowing that there are still native people in a world full of rampant technological innovations is quite inspiring. Would it be possible to monitor these tribes from satellites or unmaned droans? I think this would be the best way to keep from disturbing their culture.

Sent by Marcus Mason | 2:35 PM | 6-17-2008

What about remote sensing technology to monitor and learn about these peoples without contacting them directly. Sterilized, miniaturized remote microphones, video cameras etc. could be deployed without them even being detected.

Sent by Dennis Swena | 2:37 PM | 6-17-2008

As a culture of disputable "progress" we could respect these people who obviously do not need us and learn that we have gone too far in the continued "building" of the modern society. Why do we put these people behind glass as if they are any different than our core selves? Shame on us! We could learn from these people without contacting them...they are alive after all these years without oil, cars, computers, medical insurance, processed foods ect. It really makes me wonder between their "primitive" ways and our modern ways who has the right answer to peace and contentment. Yes we really can live without all the things that businesses and governments tell us we can't live without. We are a society of conveinience and gluttony and we can't wait to stuff an ipod in their hands and ruin an example of the possibility to live without excess! My hope is that they are left alone so at the very least when we destroy everything else including ourselves they will still be there living like they always have and then maybe..just maybe there will be a chance for a simple non-destructive society and a healthy Earth.

Sent by Eric Fugate | 2:41 PM | 6-17-2008

You want to know what happens after "Contact", for what ever reason ? Look at what has happened to the native Hawaiian population, for better? or worse!

Sent by Kawika | 2:47 PM | 6-17-2008

I'm Nick, the caller that asked about what we might discern from studying the human behavior of those contacted tribes. I wanted to expand on my question by saying that, through the process of studying ancient peoples, especially hunters and gatherers and early agriculturalists, there are a lot of unanswered questions about how those people lived, behaved, communicated, and survived. It seems to me that there is an inherent scientific value to studying these lost tribes that might answer some of those questions. However, studying these people without disturbing or contaminating their culture might be difficult, and the fact that they are descendants of people whose culture was contaminated by outsiders, their value to understanding ancient peoples might not be as great as I had previously thought.

Sent by Nick Bashour, Wayne State University, Detroit | 2:58 PM | 6-17-2008

Why do we treat these isolated tribes as though they were some kind of animals, specimens or pets? These are people. I agree that certain types of exposure could be harmful. But, as fellow HUMAN beings, we owe them the benefits of modern civilization, a connection to the world in which they live, a choice... I am so irritated when I hear experts talk romantically about these "primitive" tribes as if we were superior zookeepers, keeping people in the dark as if they were rare, exotic breeds on a nature preserve. How do you know they would not appreciate a different world view, antibiotics better shelter?

Sent by Carol | 3:04 PM | 6-17-2008

The knowledge that there are untouched people and I believe the inevitable contact with these types also acknowledges that we are one more step closer to the return of our Lord.

Sent by Donna McDaniel | 3:12 PM | 6-17-2008

REALLY LOOK at the photo...is that guy wearing tennis shoes? HMMMMM

Sent by Sage Gibson | 3:14 PM | 6-17-2008

Carol,
I think it's quite the opposite. I think that those experts (at least some of them) are approaching it from the perspective of trying to protect these people. The process of exposing an isolated people to the infections of our world is not an easy process, and that's just the biological contamination. The cultural contamination can just as easily destroy who these people are.

Also I don't think that this is a matter of not giving them a choice, but rather making sure that they do have a choice. These people can choose to come and contact us. We are, by no means, trying to prevent them from doing that. What we are doing is trying to prevent our culture from being forced on them. In short, we're leaving the choice in their hands. If they're happy, and don't feel overly curious about the rest of the world, why should we force them to expand their horizons.

Sent by Geoff | 3:19 PM | 6-17-2008

I know my position is not PC, and I do not suggest that we do "expose" them. I am sure our very appearance frightens them - we are aliens in their world. However, I cringe when I hear the word "protect". Again, we should recognize that in protecting them we also choose to withhold 1,000 years of progress from our fellow man. These are not elves, hobbits or pixies. They are people. The very idea of "studying" them as if they were a different species is insulting to them as fellow humans and their culture. Allow them the same dignity we would extend to any different culture - without acting like they are a novel curiousity that must be preserved.

Sent by Carol | 3:41 PM | 6-17-2008

we need to be loyal to the "prime directive".

Sent by Joey Kulch | 4:12 PM | 6-17-2008

A previous poster wrote: "... we owe them the benefits of modern civilization..."

As a Brazilian biologist who in fact works in the Amazon, I find this view incredibly condescending and unfortunately so typical these days (both in the U.S. and in Brazil). Who are we to presume that our way of life is "better" than theirs? What benefits of modern civilization are we talking about? As Scott Wallace correctly pointed out on the show, native Amazonians have been living in harmony with their environment for centuries without our so-called help. It is us who could learn a thing or two from them.

Sent by Anita Stone, Grand Rapids MI | 4:22 PM | 6-17-2008

I say give them the choice. Show them automobiles, and suburban shopping, and grocery stores, and internet commerce; then let them make an informed decision.
I'm sure they'd rather double click the mouse for home delivery of some filet mignons than to forage for some inferior game or foul. Who wouldn't?

Sent by Sue | 4:35 PM | 6-17-2008

Leave them alone.

Sent by William Hassig | 7:33 PM | 6-17-2008

I see presumptive comments about the culture, feelings, and thoughts of these people all over the place with no basis in truth, only a wild guess. "Peace, contentment, harmony with their environment.." Why are we assuming these romantic ideals? Tribal people have many problems within their own society, just as we do in ours. The superstitions in tribal cultures often steal from them that supposed harmony and peace as they live in unnecessary fear. And on a very practical level, who's to say they wouldn't appreciate some of the conveniences we have today, such as store-bought food(actually already dead, sliced, and packaged), or the benefit of an education about such things as math, science, and language? Do they NEED it to survive? Of course not. But I think it's important to recognize in these arguments people are trying to make (with good intentions I know), that to allow openness with other cultures is not to destroy theirs, which I admit may happen in time. However, to say even in principle that we SHOULD withhold the modern world from them is, I agree with a previous blogger, condescending and in itself a very arrogant idea. I'm not saying they SHOULD encounter the modern world, but I also will not presume that they SHOULD not.

Sent by Angela Davidson | 10:55 PM | 6-17-2008

Carol, what "benefits of modern civilization" would you be refering to? I am sure Mr. Jobs would be quite happy to have a few more potential customers for iphones. Read a bit of American history, the native americans benefited greatly from our diseases, ignorance and oppression. Here is one civilized modern person who would gladly trade a bit of my civilization for some sanity and a decent tomato...

Sent by Ender Wiggin | 2:02 AM | 6-18-2008

As a Cherokee (anigaduwagi), I say LEAVE THEM ALONE! Learn some lessons from the past. Our origin stories say we came from people in the South, not from the land bridge in the North like we are taught in the public school system. Many years ago I saw a documentary on PBS about isolated tribes in the Amazon. At that time, Sydney was taking people into the Amazon to offer immunizations to the tribal people. I remember that one of the Indian people on his team said he had just become a Christian and he wouldn't help the other Natives unless they covered themselves. So the next thing we see are the Native people in T-shirts and such. I was horrified. This lead to a personal change in my life, and made me question my place in the world as a Native person and all that has been imposed upon us. Some years later, I learned that Sydney became an activist for Native peoples in the South, that the "help" that was offered to the Native people was actually hurting them in terms of disease that they were exposed too. Can you learn something from Native people, you bet. As I come to understand my history better, I believe that I come from an advanced and high quality thinking people. Native people have a connection to the Earth, the natural and supernatural. Yes, we may have iphones but I'll bet these people have an amazing social structure and community. Wado (thank you) Sydney for your work on behalf of native people.

Sent by Dawnena Saloli | 3:32 AM | 6-18-2008

The plane must have taken a few passes over the tribe because the members of the tribe had eough time to get their arrows ready.

Sent by Monica TFP | 7:53 AM | 6-18-2008

osiyo nigadaquu tsigiduwagi tsitsalagihno I too am Cherokee/Keetoowah. I am a Cherokee Language teacher and am faced with the challenge of cultural survival and communication of our cultural relevance. It is true that these people are not Cherokees, but they are our relatives. As a person that participates daily in our Traditional Ceremonies it is clear to me that the symbolic significance of theose folks' appearance is a very strong factor of their identity. They are of a completely different system from the western world and it is clear that the average westerner would have very different perspectives from that indigenous population. We can assume - they know, as did previously "discovered" people, that there is a different world out there. Tribes they trade with have heard of us and in some cases may have experienced trade with globalized technilogical societies. They have already chosen their way of life. Let them keep the integrety of that decision. There is nothing that we have to offer them that they truely need. Materialism included. wado ale gali'elitsisi degadageyusesdi, wahde galisgewi.

Sent by wahde galisgewi Ryan Mackey | 9:40 PM | 6-18-2008

It is so sad to hear that so many want to impose "protection" because you're horrified to see them in t-shirts or have more options in life (a more effective weapon for killing food might be extremely welcome). If they ultimately choose to accept gifts from civilization, it should be their choice. The option does not equate to force. Besides, I don't see any of the "don't approach" crowd stripping off their clothes, moving to the wilderness, and living off the land--oh, to live in such harmony! Do it!

Sent by Angela Davidson | 9:42 AM | 6-19-2008

The sheer amount of nonsense in the commentary here saddens me. Talking about their "beautiful way of life" as a reason to avoid making contact.

Yes, I know all about Tasmania. Yes, I understand culture shock. But I also have a good guess that their infant mortality rate and life expectancy are far behind ours. Some say, what right do we have to intervene? I say: what right do we have to do nothing?

They should be introduced to, and welcomed to, the civilization that inhabits the rest of the world. If they then wish to opt out, we should respect their wishes. But somehow I think when they see our magical tools that save lives, protect ourselves from predators, and secure ourselves against our environments, they'll leave their "beautiful way of life" behind in a hurry.

It reminds me of that MTV show where fatuous teen idols like Cameron Diaz visited villages where there is no running water and raved about how "cool" it was to be back-to-nature, completely missing the sad irony of such commentary coming from modern, pampered children. I assure you, mothers living in that village would much rather have clean water so their children didn't die of cholera quite so often, rather than their authentic ancient traditions or whatever.

Again, I'm not saying modernization should be *imposed*. That was the cruel mistake made with the American Indians. But it is definitely not right to simply leave them to struggle onwards in the stone age when we could give so much help. The offer must be made.

Sent by Kasreyn | 10:17 AM | 6-19-2008

Before European contact, the Cherokee had a judicial system, government system, healthcare, agriculture, worship and thanksgiving everyday to one creater not a number of "gods" as people imagine and a matriarchal and matrilineal society (women's movement only occuring in the 70's in the U.S.). We have over 500 years of Native and Western History to research. You might want to ask the Aboriginee in Australia, the Maori in New Zealand, the Hawaiians, tribal people in Africa what the effect of colonialism is on their cultures. "Authentic ancient traditions or whatever," "magical tools," "gifts from civilization" in the two previous comments are simplistic and reflect the idea of paternalism. The U.S. government instituted policies that were designed to assimilate Indigenous peoples, policies that we still struggle with today. Sydney has a better understanding than anyone the situation that is taking place and his response is to shield this tribe from the rest of society. He use to look for lost tribes for a living and even headed up the equivilent to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the U.S. and stepped down to work for for the protection of tribes. This is a very serious matter.

Sent by Dawnena Saloli | 2:37 PM | 6-21-2008

The reason that their arrows were ready might be that the plane was expected...

It would seem that this tribe was actually "discovered" in 1910, and is now being rediscovered to stop timber harvesting. http://www.news.com.au/perthnow/story/0,21598,23911019-948,00.html It might be advisable to be a bit more credulous about amazingly heretofore unseen things. Mr. Barnum had a rather pithy comment along these lines.

Talk about straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.

Sent by Phil | 8:59 PM | 6-24-2008

When they were "discovered" is secondary to the imminent threat of "civilization."

Sent by Dawnena Saloli | 11:25 PM | 7-2-2008