Earth’s Last Uncontacted Tribe?

When photographs of an uncontacted and unknown Brazilian tribe were released in May 2008, the world went a bit nutty with the photographs making front pages everywhere.

Now, however, it seems the story was quite different to what was reported.

The photos of grass-roofed shelters and hostile, body-painted Indians brandishing bows and arrows spread like brushfire around the globe. Survival International, an indigenous rights advocacy group, described the group as “uncontacted,” summoning celluloid fantasies of lost savages who had never seen civilization. Reporters began to describe them as “Earth’s last uncontacted tribe” who reacted violently to the “bird god” in the sky. But then the story collapsed. Meirelles stated in an interview that he had been following the group for two decades. The tribe was neither lost nor undiscovered — the outside world had known of them since 1910. It should have been clear from the beginning; the initial Portuguese reports never claimed the group was “uncontacted.” Introduced by sloppy reporting, this error fanned suspicions that the photos were just a hoax.

The crucial issue raised by these photos of a remote group isolated from our society is not whether, in an age of worldwide connectivity, surveillance satellites, and explosive population growth, we might still have undiscovered neighbors on a shrinking globe — we don’t. In fact, one of Meirelles’s friends first noticed the clearing where the tribe was found while browsing Google Earth. In truth, our reactions to and perceptions of these people reveal far more about us than about them. 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.