ActivismAfternoon InquisitionSkepticism

AI: Remote Tribes in the Amazon

Brazilian authorities claim to have pinpointed the location of a community of ancient and uncontacted tribespeople in one of the most remote corners of the world’s largest rainforest.

This should not be shocking news, as uncontacted tribes are located and make headlines relatively frequently. There are an estimated 68 isolated civilizations in the Amazon alone. What is disturbing, however, is that governments apparently need to be convinced that these isolated tribes actually exist.

You see, there is a lot of revenue to be generated from developing land and from harvesting natural resources in remote areas, but to do that, the indigenous tribes would have to be removed from their lands, and would face being being thrust into a more modern culture, or being wiped out completely. It’s easier for a body, like a government seeking development contracts and licensing fees and other revenue from logging, mining, etc., to pretend the tribes don’t exist. That way, they don’t have to contend with the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) in Brazil and other organizations concerned with protecting lands traditionally inhabited by these communities.

What are your thoughts on this issue?

Are there really uncontacted tribes in the Amazon? Should FUNAI and other such organizations and individuals be so concerned with preserving these tribes? Is there benefit to the tribe to be moved into a more modern setting? Does the need for resources outweigh the need to accommodate a handful of tribespeople?

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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20 Comments

  1. As long as there is a demand for the forests and lands of the Amazon, those forests will fall. Awareness is no longer a goal. We know and we know what will happen when they are gone. As individuals we can care, we can change our lifestyles, but our impact will be negligible.

    It really doesn’t matter if we empathize with the people of these tribes. Signing the petition might buy them a few years. At best, it will buy enough time for the governments of the Amazon basin to find other, less harmful resources to export.

  2. Of course Brazil should (and should have, and so should have the United States and every other nation in the Americas) respect the tribal lands of the remaining indigenous people. The fact that they’ll be “forced” as a side effect to leave some land in a relatively pristine state during the rush to development is an added benefit and will be understood as such in the future when some bits of Brazil aren’t consumed by gated communities and favelas.

  3. I’ll be honest; I am more worried about the rain forest than the tribe.

    It’s interesting that groups of uncontested people can show such little progress over what is presumably a long amount of time. It makes me wonder if either (A) their culture inhibits progress (if it is build around tradition & mysticism) Or (B) Outside contact & thus trade is a keystone ingredient of progress. (C) Their area does not have the necessary recourses / due to the pressures of food gathering they are not able to invest the time needed for innovation.

    1. “It’s interesting that groups of uncontested people can show such little progress over what is presumably a long amount of time.”

      There is an excellent book attempting to answer this very question: “Gun, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond. (He was inspired to write it by a Papua New Guinian asking why Europeans had turned up in ships to his stone age culture, rather than vice versa.)

      Diamond’s answer: it is due to geography, flora and fauna. E.g. Eurasia is extended east-west, so whatever latitude you are at, there are lots of other places at the same latitude connected to you by land, from where you might acquire crops or domesticated animals which will do well in your climate. By contrast, the Americas are extended north-south, so your neighbour’s animals/crops likely won’t be suitable for you.

  4. well, remote tribes that have had no interaction with “modern man” are rarer than you think. There have been cases of “Faking”. No I’m not kidding.
    http://www.mattwardman.com/blog/2008/06/22/brazilian-lost-tribe-photo-was-a-fake
    I mean even the photo up top there is a “fake”. Yes it is important to know if the tribe is “real” or not.

    http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/hoax/Hoaxipedia/Stone_Age_Tasaday/

    this was in the Phillipines, but very sad example of why there is doubt about “lost tribes”

  5. It’s a vast conspiracy to fool the public I tell you! A vast conspiracy! Just like fake moon landing photos!

    Oy vey, do I have to choose between being a dupe and a conspiracy theorist?

  6. I do think it might be nice to mention that the photograph was faked. Because it sort of detracts from the point of the article by using a faked photograph. “are these tribes real?” with a faked photograph sort of implies they aren’t real. Im sure there are many far better photographs that could be used that are real.

    1. I think your comments have served to draw attention to the photo’s worth.

      I will note, however, that it appears the photo wasn’t the hoax. The hoax was the claim that the tribe pictured was previously uncontacted by the outside world. It seems the tribespeople in the photo are indeed members of a remote tribe, but FUNAI thought that claiming they were uncontacted would drive home their point that remote areas need to be protected.

      Also, Ive added a question to the post to braoden the Inquiry.

  7. “dpeabody
    06.23.2011
    REPLY
    I’ll be honest; I am more worried about the rain forest than the tribe.
    It’s interesting that groups of uncontested people can show such little progress over what is presumably a long amount of time. It makes me wonder if either (A) their culture inhibits progress (if it is build around tradition & mysticism) Or (B) Outside contact & thus trade is a keystone ingredient of progress. (C) Their area does not have the necessary recourses / due to the pressures of food gathering they are not able to invest the time needed for innovation.”

    It’s B. Do you expect a few thousand people on their own to go from the stone age to the space age?

    1. There’s no particular reason that it couldn’t also be A, however. Or C.
      What’s happened, in many cases, is they’ve reached technological equilibrium… the ways they do things works. It uses the resources they have, and is currently efficient for their needs. They’re a cultural island ecosystem, not changing because there are no outside factors forcing change. Even if they’d be almost helpless outside their specialized ecosystem (cultural or technological), it doesn’t particularly matter because they never go outside their specialized ecosystem. When aliens (i.e. new cultures and technologies) come into their specialized ecosystem, then they have to adapt to them. And like biological adaptation, they’ll do it with the tools at hand. They’ll use their brains, their culture, and their understanding of how the world works to fit these new pieces together.

  8. @redjenny and dpeabody

    I think redjenny is probably right, and it’s a numbers game.

    However, there is another option to consider.

    (D) The tribe does not need anything.

    If everyone in the tribe has their material needs fulfilled then there is no drive to innovate.

    That’s a pretty big ‘if’ to consider. It might not be true, or it might be partially true, or it may be false. I don’t know.

    But its worth considering all the same. We should not assume that a technological culture like ours could meet the needs of that particular tribal community better than their own current culture.

    Mind you – I also think we shouldn’t assume that that tribe’s needs are entirely met either… For example, are their problems in the tribe relating to curable diseases? If there are, would we be ethically obligated to offer medical assistance? What are the risks that we are ridden with bacteria or viruses to which we are immune, but which would decimate this particular tribe?

    It’s an interesting conundrum… I don’t think there’s an easy answer.

  9. Do we really know so little more about contacting more “primitive” people than the Spanish did 500 years ago? I fear that is the case. Such contact seems invariably to be disastrous to the contacted people, not just the destruction of their culture but as individuals their lives are destroyed and many end up victims of disease, poverty, alcoholism, violence. Stephen Hawking has used this as an argument why we should not be eager for extraterrestrial contact.
    .
    Is it possible to ethically experiment with first contact? Or would any such experiments be intrinsically unethical? Without experimentation, is it possible to learn anything and not cause so much harm in the future? This situation raises far more questions than answers.
    .
    It seems to me the key variable is time. To go slowly, not force contact with these people, but to allow them to learn about us at their own pace. Of course, since they are sitting on valuable resources, modern exploitative civilization almost certainly won’t permit this. We are much better at violating the Prime Directive than Kirk or Picard ever thought of being.

  10. thanks Sam. It’s tempting for groups wanting to protect lands to claim these tribes have had no contact at all with “modern man”. Some contact seems to have the image of “tainting” their pure culture. Frankly, I have been to France and while I enjoy their cheese and can say a few words in French, it doesn’t make me any less of an “American”. This insistance on “purity” seems a bit much to me. I could imagine someone going to college and thinking ‘You know I was much happier living in the rain forest” and doing just fine. Now, do these tribes own the land that is going to be developed? I rather think so, and it should be up to them if it’s developed or not..or if they want compensation (and they should be protected from exploitation). Sadly, there are cases where tribes have been attacked by people wishing to develop their land. Find gold where a tribe lives and soon enough arrows will not be protection enough. As with the Tasaday, the media loves a good “tribe unknown to the modern world” story, and once the word is out… it’s not long before someone tracks them down. Once an unknown tribe is “known” it’s already too late to just “ignore” them. They need help and protection.

  11. I wonder if there should not be a pre-emptive attempt to vaccinate these sorts of tribes. (How you would ever convince them…I have no clue.) As contact is inevitable and with it come diseases that will kill many of their members.

    It is a fascinating conundrum, to contact or not. The chances are right now they live short hard lives, who knows what things go on in their societies which we would deem a violation of human rights. On the other hand we do not have a good track record with native peoples. We tend to exploit and kill natives. To be honest I don’t think I could even have an unbiased view on this as I am someone that does not even like camping, so the idea of living in the wild with no modern luxuries is probably a disproportionate evil in my mind.

  12. I am told by a source that I trust that “uncontacted” is a bunch of bull. These tribes contact other tribes who are in contact with the Western Imperial forces; they know we exist, they just haven’t sought us out.

    Regardless, it is worrying that governments might be willing to say “We have no record of people living in [place people plainly live in]” and hence destroy it.

  13. I have to say I am kind of appalled by some of the comments here that smack of colonialist sentiments. It’s baffling. The very questions posed by this post are ethnocentric and colonialist-sounding.

    The use of the word “uncontacted” is a poor choice of words, most definitely. Most of the members of these tribes have a horrendous history with outsiders and willfully avoid outsiders. Any familiarity with colonialism should be sufficient for understanding this sentiment.

    To dpeabody in particular:

    “It’s interesting that groups of uncontested people can show such little progress over what is presumably a long amount of time.”

    What, exactly, do you mean by “progress”? Why do you assume that all people will, can, or should “progress” in the same way? Why is this even an important point of comparison?

    “It makes me wonder if either (A) their culture inhibits progress (if it is build around tradition & mysticism)”

    Aren’t all cultures built around tradition? Culture by definition is shared and learned. And if “mysticism” (whatever that means) inhibits “progress,” how did “progress” ever occur?

    “Or (B) Outside contact & thus trade is a keystone ingredient of progress.”

    Contact and trade definitely influence culture change, though I’m not sure they necessarily lead to “progress.”

    “(C) Their area does not have the necessary recourses / due to the pressures of food gathering they are not able to invest the time needed for innovation.”

    This is based on a few false assumptions: (1) They care about “innovation” or “progress”; (2) subsistence-based (i.e. forager) economies are full of starving people barely getting by; (3) forager economies lack free time. There’s a whole host of anthropological literature addressing all of your false premises.

    Daniel recommended a (D) that tribes do not need anything. I agree with him, that that may or may not be true. I would propose an option that is based on a careful reading of history and anthropological literature: (E) the members of these tribes simply do not want to be involved with the world outside of their tribe. Why does it not occur to people (in general) that these people are smart, have a history, and can make decisions regarding their own existence?

    You later said…

    “I wonder if there should not be a pre-emptive attempt to vaccinate these sorts of tribes. (How you would ever convince them…I have no clue.)”

    It greatly depends on whether or not they would want to be (or need to be) vaccinated. And there is also a vast literature in medical anthropology concerning ways to go about convincing indigenous peoples of the benefits of biomedicine. Generally, you would want to do it in the most culturally and socially sensitive ways possible, as just going in and forcing people to do things against their will or without informed consent generally does not have the greatest outcomes.

    “It is a fascinating conundrum, to contact or not. The chances are right now they live short hard lives, who knows what things go on in their societies which we would deem a violation of human rights.”

    What evidence do you have to support these assertions? Why would you assume that just because they are isolated that they are any more violent than our society? Do you think they are just too stupid to govern and take care of themselves? That’s how it comes across.

    Again, the anthropological literature shows that foraging societies have a tendency to be much more egalitarian than more complex societies. Whether or not they have “short hard lives” I suppose is a matter of opinion (however, many indigenous people in forager societies do not think so).

    “On the other hand we do not have a good track record with native peoples. We tend to exploit and kill natives. To be honest I don’t think I could even have an unbiased view on this as I am someone that does not even like camping, so the idea of living in the wild with no modern luxuries is probably a disproportionate evil in my mind.”

    Well at least you can admit your biases. ;) But you should really try to step back from that and read up on the anthropological literature on these topics. A lot of it is counterintuitive to Western minds. There’s plenty of literature in medical, environmental, and economic anthropology that addresses all of your points/assertions.

    Finally, I’ll point everyone to a great post over at Neuroanthropology about this topic: http://blogs.plos.org/neuroanthropology/2011/02/09/‘the-last-free-people-on-the-planet’/

    Particularly this quote: “Although the thought may be mind-bending to us, some people in small groups around the planet opt out completely of a material, social and economic reality that many of us think is inevitable. Offered the option of joining us, they emphatically demonstrate they want no part of our world; they just prefer to be left alone. What we do to them, those who withdraw or opt out, says more about us than it does about them.”

    1. You make some good points. I’ll think about it some more and maybe read that link when I have time. My gut reaction is that I also am not sure it is fair to assume that “Offered the option of joining us, they emphatically demonstrate they want no part of our world” Unless they have a very good understanding of what they are walking away from. Our way of life surly seems as weird and incomprehensible to them as camping does to me.

      “Why would you assume that just because they are isolated that they are any more violent than our society?” I apologise for my statement on this. While I am probably correct in assuming that their life expectancy is less due to lack of access to science based medicine, the assumption that they are more violent or break human rights is not warranted at all. I am equating the horrible things our society has done in the past such as not having equal rights for men and women and instigating harsh punishment for minor transgressions with their present situation. (I cringe at my statement)

    2. Thank you so much for saying this. I was appalled at some of the comments myself, and was going to say something similar.
      .
      I, too, found it difficult to believe that we had progressed so little, where indigenous people are concerned. They don’t have to live up to your expectations, culture, standard of living, or anything else. In fact, I think it’s nifty that some non-western cultures are out there. Isn’t that what we’ve been saying about diversity? That we all benefit from people not being a homogeneous group? Is it all just talk?

  14. @dpeabody

    Earlier you speculated as to how we could deliver vaccinations to such a tribe and also receive their permission to do so.

    I think there’s been some research recently into genetically modifying fruit to express proteins and chemicals that can act as vaccines. One example that springs to mind is the (appallingly named) MucoRice.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18974620

    So that’s one way it could possibly be done.

    Then again, that might turn out to be entirely wrong depending on the culture of the tribe.

    Would genetically modified food be seen as a good thing or a bad thing? Better or worse then needles?

    Hells – we’re the culture that can produce genetically modified foods, and we can’t seem to sort out a straight answer to that one. Why suppose an isolationist tribe could? Why suppose they couldn’t?

    Finally, one further point to be made.

    Reading over my current and previous comments, I realize something.

    There’s also a certain amount of chauvinistic arrogance in play when we consider, oh-so-carefully, how cautious we would have to move when engaging in simple communication with the oh-so-delicate and oh-so-primitive isolated tribes.

    Again: Why suppose that such a tribe would have any more difficult a time with our existence and culture than we have with theirs?

    Well… Other than the insanity that is the meeting place between our economic drives and military capacity, of course.

    Thanks to everyone commenting here, as well as Sam.

    Read a few new thoughts here I hadn’t come across before. Thought up a few as well. Good stuff.

  15. @Will

    I’ve just followed up on that link of yours, and now I’m blushing over my over-use of the notion of establishing communication.

    Ah, learning is painful.

    In my defense, I’m trying my best. I won’t make that mistake again.

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