Those Who Choose Isolation

The footage above was released recently by Brazil’s government agency for indigenous people, the FUNAI. It shows a group of isolated indigenous people, who live in the forest rejecting contact with modern society and much of the reality that we experience. These people have come out from the woods on the Brazilian – Peruvian border to appeal for help.

The video quickly went viral, and was reported around the world as “first contact” with an unknown people. It’s a thrilling story for a journalist, most bluntly conveyed (unsurprisingly) by the Daily Mail, which boldly claimed they were an “Amazon tribe who had never met other humans”.

The only problem with this is that among the possessions they were found to have on them were artefacts that prove this is not the first time they have dealt with the outside world. These included light bulbs, screws and nuts, a .32 caliber cartridge and perhaps the most unmistakable calling card of capitalist modernity, branded packaging.

The isolated indigenous peoples' possesions

The isolated indigenous peoples’ possesions

They made contact at the end of June with a settled village of the Asháninka, another people indigenous to the area but who are more settled and integrated with the surrounding world. When you see them in the footage, it is obviously not something they have done lightly. Ze Correia is a local indigenous person who understood them clearly enough to act as an interpreter, and the story he tells in Terra Magazine is one of horror: they were attacked by Peruvian whites, who massacred most of the elderly, leaving so many corpses that there weren’t enough of their people left to bury them properly, and they were eaten by vultures.

Speculation has swirled on whether those responsible for these attacks could be illegal loggers, or cocaine producers pushed ever further into the forest in search of coca plots. They would only be the latest in a long line of people from outside who have entered these woods to plunder their wealth. In the 19th and 20th centuries the most horrific were the rubber slavers, who in search of the raw material key to industrialisation subjugated whole peoples and turned the forests into a violent hell in a process that was intimately connected to our tyres, clothing, shoes, adhesives and tubes. Rubber allowed modern technology to do things it could never have done before, but this was not to the benefit of the enslaved tappers.

The isolated peoples of the Peru – Brazil border have been in the news globally several times in recent years, again sparking these same complex issues around how to describe them. Clearly, the most exciting story is of a people who have never seen others and know nothing of the outside, living in some kind of ‘Lost World‘ totally unknown to us, hopefully replete with Dinosaurs. This is the tale that sold papers and got virally shared when previous images of the peoples of the region emerged in 2008 and 2011.

Aerial photos of isolated people in the same region, taken in 2008

Aerial photos of isolated people in the same region, taken in 2008

But as an excellent article on neuroanthropology reported during the last flurry of interest (in 2011), these episodes cause conflict in the academic and activist circles that take an interest in indigenous peoples. One of the main charitable organisations worldwide working to defend their interests is Survival International (SI). They undoubtedly do vital work, and in the case of isolated peoples they campaign for their right to resist contact, and their autonomy. But they have been criticised for using the term “uncontacted”, a this can lead to a backlash when we are disabused of our media fantasy, and learn that in fact, these peoples have been known about for a long time, and have their own histories of contact with what we think of as the modern world.

In the photos that emerged in 2008, once FUNAI and the anthropologists who had released them made clear that they had been aware of the people they showed since 1910 at least, some newspapers went as far as to accuse Survival of perpetrating a hoax. This is patently ridiculous. However, some anthropologists have argued that SI invite such misinterpretation and disappointment by using the very word “uncontacted”. This can generate heated responses, as campaigners counter that academics are unwilling to engage with the mass media and advocate on behalf of isolated peoples in terms people understand, and that they must use the words that get coverage.

The truth today is that there are virtually no peoples left that have no awareness of the outside world. They have had contact. But they choose isolation. This is the other side of the myth of their being completely unknown: they cannot know of our world, or else why would they choose to live as hunter-gatherers in the jungle? It’s a short step from this to saying that indigenous rights activists are holding these peoples back, and that they should have the right to “develop” as we have.

But that’s a blindly privileged view of what reality in the world today is. The people who shot arrows at planes in 2008 weren’t rejecting iPods, supermarkets or cheap flights. The peoples who choose isolation do so because they are running from the expanding wave of killing, torture and enslavement that follows with the endless incursion of the settled, capitalist world on to their territories. They have had contact, but our world has been represented by the frontline of brutal extractive industries (rubber, timber, coca, fossil fuels, diamonds. . .) and their paramilitary footsoldiers.

“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 . . .These ‘uncontacted’ groups have had to fight tooth and nail, keep constantly on the run, to preserve (or re-establish) their isolation. ‘Contact’ is pervasive, nearly unavoidable, and dangerous . . .

We easily believe that a band of hostile Indians confronting an airplane from a clearing do so out of ignorance and fear. But the likely truth is harder to face: The tribe might have threatened the observers precisely because they had encountered some of the worst aspects of our culture before, and suffered grievously. These images of a people courageously standing against us are not symbols of their ignorance, but of ours.” (neuroanthropology)

That's close enough for the people of North Sentinel Island

That’s close enough for the people of North Sentinel Island

The people widely regarded as some of the most isolated in the whole world are the people of North Sentinel Island, among the Andamans in the Bay of Bengal. Their story easily lends itself to becoming a great tale – they have had a long history of actively and violently resisting any attempt to land on their island. Their islands are believed to have been a key stepping stone as humans expanded our from Africa towards Asia, and have been continuously inhabited by the same peoples for tens of thousands of years.

Although they are formally under the protection of the government of India, in practice this means that India works to ensure nobody attempts to go there. As a result, the North Sentinelese are in practice completely autonomous from the outside world, and live off the resources of their own territory.

Where is North Sentinel Island?

Where is North Sentinel Island?

But even then, these isolated people are clearly without any awareness that there is an outside world. There are numerous references to the islands in Indian historical sources, and they at one time were used as a naval base. Then, during British imperial times, some North Sentinelese peoples were abducted, as SI report:

“In 1879 an elderly couple and some children were taken by force and brought to the islands’ main town, Port Blair. The colonial officer in charge of the kidnapping wrote that the entire group, ‘sickened rapidly, and the old man and his wife died, so the four children were sent back to their home with quantities of presents.’ Despite being responsible for the deaths of at least two people, and quite possibly starting an epidemic amongst the islanders, the same officer expressed no remorse, but merely remarked on the Sentinelese’s ‘peculiarly idiotic expression of countenance, and manner of behaving.’”

North Sentinel Island seen from space

North Sentinel Island seen from space

Today, the North Sentinelese are, as far as we can tell, thriving. There are between 50 and 400 of them, exact numbers are obviously hard to work out. Throughout the 20th century the Indian government had a campaign of regularly visiting and attempting to make peaceful contact, with some limited success. But this has now been abandoned, in respect of their clear wish to be left alone. In contrast, other islands in the Andamans have seen roads built and settlers come in, with disastrous results for the indigenous peoples. As is the same all over the world, they are massively impacted by foreign diseases that they have no immunity to, economically exploited, and there is sexual exploitation. The policy of respecting autonomy of those who choose isolation is clearly more successful.

Even excluding the direct violence visited on them, any contact at all can be deadly for people who live in isolation. Our lifestyle breeds health problems and diseases unknown among hunter gatherers, and when they have first exposure they tend to see apocalyptic casualty rates. This is a key concern for the people in the video above, as they seem to already be having problems with influenza, which in the past has destroyed whole peoples.

FUNAI themselves for decades had “outreach” programmes of trying to make contact with isolated peoples. But these are now abandoned, after their own workforce realised and argued that the best thing to do was protect them from unwanted contact. Their release of this footage, and the pictures that preceded it over recent years has two key functions. Firstly, it demonstrates the physical existence of these peoples. In Peru in particular there is a history among political leaders and oil executives of trying to declare isolated peoples a myth, in order to deprive of them of any kind of legal protection of their lands. Secondly, the fact that these people are now “coming in” to seek help isn’t evidence they’ve finally seen the light about modernity – it’s a measure of their desperation. The global economy is violently pushing its way into every remaining corner of the planet, and can leave no room for the indigenous peoples.

The way we live now is not inevitable or eternal. Right now, in 2014, there are other ways to live a life that has purpose and meaning. It is hard for us to understand, but people who choose to be isolated are not stupid. They are people just like us, who have made a conscious choice based on their experiences: “decades of direct contact, centuries of influence, and millennia of attenuated interconnection with their fellow human beings.” Instead of wanting to see them change their lives to become like us, I dream of a civilisation that can properly accommodate and respect the wish of some parts of the human species to withdraw.

If you found this interesting, then you should definitely check out the neuroanthropology piece, which covers all of these issues in more detail.

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