Lost and Found
Alumnus Scott Wallace treks a South American jungle to locate the last uncontacted tribes.
Scott Wallace, MA ’83, joins a 34-man expedition led by jungle explorer Sydney Possuelo deep into the Amazon. The mission: to track one of the planet’s most isolated and dangerous indigenous tribes, the mysterious “Arrow People.” Almost nothing is known about the Indians, other than their reputation as deft archers who defend their lands by showering intruders with deadly arrows before melting back into the forest shadows. The team will gather crucial information about the Arrow People, and return to civilization without contacting the group. At least, that’s the plan. As head of Brazil’s Department of Isolated Indians within its Indian affairs agency, FUNAI, Possuelo has used every trick to make contact with remote tribes. Now he uses those same techniques to shield the tribes from contact, and from the ravages of the encroaching frontier. Still, he must enter their world — one of permanent twilight beneath the jungle canopy — to get the information he needs to protect them.
Much like Lewis and Clark’s exploration of North America 200 years earlier, the team includes members of three friendly tribes — Matis, Kanamari and Marubo — who serve as guides and possible intermediaries in the event of inadvertent contact with the Arrow People. As the team hacks its way into virgin jungle, the chance of encountering hostile natives mounts with every step.
And then, in a most unexpected and understated manner, we discovered we had entered the land of the Arrow People. In a small clearing, several palm fronds were spread out on the ground beneath a large tree, some parallel to one another, others perpendicular, done with an intentionality that bespoke the hands of human beings. The leaves were brown, though not yet brittle, and they were indented lengthwise in the way a body leaves its mark in the mattress of a cheap motel.
“They slept here,” Possuelo said, pointing to the palm leaves.
“How long ago?” I asked.
“Not very long. Several days, probably. This season, for sure.”
As we stood there examining this place where strangers had slept, it felt as though we were cops intruding on a scene where no crime had been committed. Not far away, we found scraps of a purplish-black palm fruit, called patuá, scattered amid the leaf litter. They were small, with fleshy white meat surrounding a dark pit the size of an olive. Several had been half-chewed, then spit out.
It felt as though we were cops intruding on a scene where no crime had been committed.
“They must have brought them here from somewhere else,” said Soldado, his brown eyes probing the branches overhead. He quickly rolled a cigarette and jammed it in his mouth. “No patuá trees around here.” From somewhere in the canopy, a screaming piha let loose its shrill, four-note cry. It ricocheted through the trees against the low thrum of crickets and cicadas. “O capitão do mato,” Soldado said, the Jungle Captain. It rang out again, and from the distance came an identical response, fainter and overlapping, like a forlorn echo through a long canyon.
“Hey, check this out!” Ivan Arapá called in a whispered shout from 30 feet away. He was standing over what looked like a crude, conical-shaped bird cage, fashioned from a dozen 3-foot-high sticks gouged into the moist earth, then bound together at the top with vine. “For jabuti,” Ivan suggested. “To keep tortoise.”
“Or for any kind of bicho,” Possuelo nodded, “Agouti, maybe, or small birds they’ll take home and raise.” Sun had broken through the clouds, and a soft yellow light streamed down in broken shafts. He surveyed the scene around him, scratching his beard. Most likely, an overnight bivouac for a family on its way to a more permanent fishing camp, he surmised. Possuelo peered out far beyond the trees that encircled us, as though directing his gaze into a looking glass focused across a great distance, eons away. “These Indians are very close to the way Vespucci would have found them,” he pronounced, his voice rapt with marvel and admiration. “They live from hunting, fishing and gathering.”
Encountering such vestigios — the vestiges of isolated tribes — was the lifeblood of Possuelo’s work, and it was hard not to share his enthusiasm. If there was any such thing as time travel, this was about as close to it as you could get. Five hundred years of world history hadn’t touched these people. Or if so, barely. Here we were at the dawn of the third millennium, the world more interconnected by the day. Instant communications, bar codes and keystrokes tracking individuals from birth to death, surveillance cameras and satellite dishes sprouting from every rooftop. Yet here in this forest, nomads were afoot, drawing their daily sustenance entirely from its land, trees and rivers, as their forebears had done for a thousand years, their names unknown to us, even the name of their tribe unknown to us.
“Are they Arrow People?” I asked.
“It’s an indigenous group you can presume to be the flecheiros,” Possuelo nodded. “We’re in their territory now.”
The Matis scouts led the way forward. They pulled up in their tracks and pointed ahead, toward a cluster of trees beyond the saw grass. Possuelo raised his hand for silence.
From off in the distance came a muffled, excited babble, unintelligible but unmistakably human. With hushed commands, Possuelo called for the Kanamari to come to the front of the column. Word was relayed back into the thicket, and soon Márcio and Remi appeared.
“Call to them in Kanamari,” Possuelo instructed. “Tell them we’re friends, and we mean no harm.” The Indians cupped their hands and shouted toward the tree line. We strained our ears to listen. The distant murmuring ceased. Possuelo signaled the Matis to follow suit. They called out, but there was no response. Finally, the Marubo took a turn. Again, nothing but the forlorn cry of the screaming piha.
It was an odd combination: gifts on the one hand, guns on the other.
Suddenly, without command and without explanation, our ranks broke. Everyone lurched forward, trouncing through the high grass in hot pursuit. In the excitement to catch a glimpse of the wild Indians, all discipline and sense of reason fell away. The sunlight danced like liquid gold on the river as we ran, ricocheting sideways in blinding flashes through the silhouettes of trunks and branches. Soldado and Paulo Welker cut left and made straight for the river, some 200 yards off to the left. Possuelo held straight to the parallel course. I was torn: Whom to follow? In a split second, I decided to follow Possuelo. Bad choice. Within moments, we heard shouts behind us, coming from the direction of the water. It was Paulo Welker. “Over here!” he yelled. “Over here, they’re crossing the river!”
Soldado and Paulo Welker were heaving deeply, hands on their knees, by the time we reached the bluff above the river. Behind them rose the upended roots of an enormous tree that had fallen into the water. Another tree of similar dimensions had fallen from the opposite bank, some 30 yards distant, and the two trunks met halfway across the river to form a single span, in the shape of a shallow V, like a bridge that had taken a direct hit in the midsection and had collapsed into the water. Vines had been strung between the barren branches that protruded vertically from the prostrate logs to form a makeshift handrail. Clearly, this was a regular transit point for the flecheiros.
“I saw one!” Welker gasped, still struggling to recover his breath. “He was naked, with long hair. Broad shoulders. Strong. He ran across the bridge. Disappeared into the woods.” He pointed across to the far side of the river.
“There were two of them,” corrected Soldado. “They were naked — but for a string tied around their waists.” As he had done before, Possuelo commanded the Indians to call out toward the high trees across the river. He cupped his hands and hooted, the Indians pleaded, but there was no response.
“Who’s carrying those small pots we brought along for gifts?” Possuelo called out. José, Soldado’s son-in-law, stepped forward. “Take three of those pots and shine them up right nice,” Possuelo said. “String them here at the bridgehead. It will be our way of saying thank you.” Soldado yanked a creeper from a nearby tree, and then strung it through the handles of the cooking pots. He and José pulled the cord taut and tied off both ends to low-hanging branches. The pots dangled invitingly, about waist-high off the ground.
When it came to the business of giving gifts to “untamed” Indians, the presentation could be just as important as the presents themselves. Positioning them up off the ground made it clear that they were actual gifts, offerings of peace to their intended recipients, not merely discarded objects. It was also a sign of respect, a symbolic way to hand over the presents without physically doing so.
But the shiny aluminum pots were not intended as the prelude to contact, simply to avoid attack, not to seduce the Indians into giving up their way of life. “Will it work?” I asked. “Hard to say,” Possuelo replied. “Many times they destroy the presents to demonstrate their rage at the white man.”
The anger would hint at some previous atrocity perpetrated on the Indians, for which the FUNAI team bore no blame, other than the fact of being emissaries from the same outside world. Wooing natives from the bush took finesse, requiring scouts like Possuelo to decipher the varied responses to their overtures — and to adjust methods accordingly. Indians might take knives and machetes, for example, but refuse a sack of sugar, hinting at the possibility that ill-intentioned whites may have poisoned them with arsenic-laced sweets in the past. They might leave crude relics of axes or scissors carved in wood, to signal their desire for more of these commodities. Besides smashing gifts, Indians might show resolute repudiation by leaving behind a dead animal at the offering hut, perhaps even a monkey for its obvious resemblance to the human form, heart impaled with an arrow like a voodoo doll.
Once the pots were in place, Possuelo rose to his feet. He wanted to put distance between us and the Indians, as quickly as possible. “Embora!” he barked. “Let’s get moving!”
We followed the river, cutting in and out of the woods between patches of shadow and dazzling sunlight. We trudged across the sandy bed of an incoming creek through a swirling cloud of orange and yellow butterflies. We dashed up the banks and stumbled back into the forest twilight. We’d been on a fast march for a half hour when Possuelo ordered the column to halt at a bend in the river that looked down on a long white beach.
“The Arrow People have three malocas up ahead — there, there and there,” he said, pointing across the river at scattered intervals to the north and northeast. “We could keep walking for hours and not get any farther away from their villages. We’d better just camp here.” He was certain the two Indians who’d crossed the bridge were shadowing us from the far side of the river, following our every move. They would soon head for their village, he was sure, to report every detail of what they’d seen.
“Listen up!” he shouted for all to hear. “Everyone down to the beach, on the double! And bring your rifles!”
On the reconnaissance flight over the area prior to the expedition, Possuelo had made note of the locations of every clearing he’d observed and how many huts were in each. Extrapolating from the number of huts and their relative sizes, he figured each village to hold no more than 50 or 60 people. That made for seven or eight able-bodied men in any one settlement — probably too small a number for them to risk a strike. Of much greater concern was the chance that the Arrow People could mass forces from several outlying malocas for a more concerted and deadly assault. That would take more time, but the clock was already ticking. “There is nothing to keep them from setting up an ambush for us farther downriver,” he said. He hoped to preempt such notions right now, by showing the Indians what we had — in terms of men and weapons.
Gaunt as scarecrows in our tattered fatigues, we stumbled out of the woods, the expeditionaries lugging their rifles. “Spread out down the beach,” commanded Possuelo. “Let them see that we are many.” We staggered along the shoreline, feet slipping in the loose sand. We turned to face the towering wall of trees on the opposite bank, no more than a hundred feet away. “Stand up straight, look strong! Hold your guns up high!” Possuelo ordered. “Let them see how well armed we are.” Rifles came up off hips and shoulders, tilting toward the manila tufts of evening clouds that drifted overhead. Of course, Possuelo had no intention to turn our rifles on them. He’d sooner have died than fire upon the Arrow People. But he needed them to think that we might. It was an odd combination: gifts on the one hand, guns on the other.
We stared across the river into the trees beyond the far bank. We saw nothing but the high wall of jungle, but we could feel their eyes upon us. All we could hear was the incessant flow of the water and the rush of blood pounding in our ears.
In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes
© 2011 by Scott Wallace
Crown Publishing, 2011
excerpt for MIZZOU magazine