A few months ago, I reported how Google is using its drones and Google Earth technology to monitor an uncontacted Amazonian tribe. Now, there’s convincing evidence that the same tribe has come in contact with non-indigenous locals, then with western researchers in the most unfortunate of circumstances. One, the contact was initiated by criminals operating illegal narcotrafficking whose routes apparently pass through the tribe’s territory. Allegedly they’ve been threatened and might be forced to relocate, something inconceivable for the locals. Second, the contact might result in dramatic consequences as some members were infected with influenza, a potentially fatal disease for the indigenous population since their immune system lacks non-native adaptation.
Third degree contact
Researchers from Brazil’s Indian affairs department (FUNAI) encountered natives who emerged from the forest along the Upper Envira River while returning from a raid on another remote, but settled tribe. The tribesmen and researchers spent three weeks together. In this time, an invaluable cultural experience took place. Can you imagine what would it be like to meet people from the future? I’m putting my money this is how the natives must have felt, too. But the researchers weren’t the first ‘extraterrestrials’ they’ve met, though.
The team have good reasons to assume the tribe members were fleeing illegal loggers and cocaine traffickers, yet right now the ‘civilized’ criminals are the least of their worries. According to a FUNAI announcement, the members were infected with influenza. The flue is something most of us can handle – sure, we might get stuck in bed with terrible headaches, but it won’t kill us. The same can’t be said for tribesmen in Brazil’s Acre.
In case after case, contact has proved tragic as diseases like flu and measles almost obliterated previously isolated tribes. History makes a valid point of just how dangerous this kind of situation can become. In 1519, Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztecs and decimated the grand empire’s populace with a force less than 250 strong. While horses, which terrified the natives, and gun powdered offered them a godlike allure, it was the diseases the Spaniards brought with them to an unadapted population that tipped the scales in their favor.
A government medical team is reported to have treated the tribesmen for their flu, but apparently the contacted people slipped back to their village shortly after receiving their shots.
“We can only hope that [the FUNAI team members] were able to give out treatment before the sickness was spread to the rest of the tribe in the forest,” says Chris Fagan, executive director at the Upper Amazon Conservancy in Jackson, Wyoming. “Only time will tell if they reacted quickly enough to divert a catastrophic epidemic.”
According to Adam Bauer-Goulden, president of the Rainforest Rescue Coalition, the tribe in question may be part of a larger group of Chitonahua people. A village of 40 to 100 people was recently photographed not far south of the contact area, and the body ornamentation and haircuts of these villagers closely resemble those of the newly contacted group as seen in the feature photo for this article.
It’s a worrisome situation, says anthropologist Robert Walker of the University of Missouri, Columbia. “We are just hearing of one of the many contacts that are going on in this region,” he says. “If you think of how many loggers and narcotraffickers there are in this region, and that there could be as many as 3000 to 4000 uncontacted people there, the potential for contact is huge.”