The 7 billion people on this planet have never been so connected. People in Shanghai can communicate instantaneously with people in Sioux City — which makes it all the more remarkable that there still exists a few thousand people in the Amazon rain forest who have never had contact with modern civilization.
In 2002, National Geographic asked journalist Scott Wallace to chronicle the trip of a 34-man team to search for the perimeters of a people known as the flecheiros — or the Arrow People.
The Unconquered is the story of the team's paradoxical quest: to study the Arrow People without coming into contact with them, for the safety of the explorers and the tribe.
"They are known as tenacious defenders of their land," Wallace tells NPR's Scott Simon. "People who have tried to enter their territory have been repelled with poison-tipped arrows. There was no way they could understand our presence in their land as anything other than a hostile intrusion, although we would leave a gift here and there — cooking pots, machetes, ax heads — [to] demonstrate our peaceful intentions."
But the dangers the explorers posed to the Arrow People were far more insidious. The tribe has no immunity to the germs from the outside world. Common contagions — the cold, influenza or measles — could be devastating.
Furthermore, the expedition was assiduous in making sure the tribe's way of life would be preserved.
"As soon as you get close enough to them to try to help them, you're introducing this host of competing values and creating desires in them that they didn't have before," Wallace says. "They begin to forget how to hunt traditionally; they want shotguns, they want shotgun shells, blankets, all sorts of stuff. Right now, as they are, they can live in the jungle completely free of the world's money, economy and thrive quite well."
At the center of The Unconquered is the explorer Sydney Possuelo, who led the expedition. In his former capacity as head of FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation, he also persuaded the Brazilian government to protect the land and privacy of these isolated tribes.
Wallace describes Possuelo as an easy man to admire and a difficult man to like.
"He had a remarkable rapport with the Indians," says Wallace, "but [he] was something of a tyrant when it came to dealing with his fellow white men."
The journey began with two weeks of travel by river, "up a tributary of a tributary of the Amazon," Wallace says.
Then the team left their boats and walked into the closed-canopy forest. For three weeks, they walked in single file, machetes in hand, bushwhacking a path in the virgin jungle.
And then they began finding ways of understanding the Arrow People from a distance. Like detectives, they built narratives out of clues.
Wallace recalls the first time the team saw physical evidence of the Arrow People: "We came upon an abandoned camp where they had left leaves on the ground, and you could see the indentation of bodies that had slept there. Then, we began to get really close and found footprints that were really fresh."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
There are now more than 7 billion people in the world. People in Shanghai can send instantaneous text messages to people in Sioux City. So it may be all the more remarkable that there are a few score of tribes, maybe a few thousand people, in the Amazon who've never had contact with the outside world - with so-called modern civilization.
In 2002, National Geographic asked Scott Wallace, a journalist who's made many treks into forbidding places, to chronicle the trip of a 34-man team into the Amazon rainforest to search for the perimeters of a people known as the flechieros, or the Arrow People, said to turn back all interlopers with a shower of poisoned arrows. His new book is "The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes." Scott Wallace joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.
SCOTT WALLACE: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
SIMON: And we should understand from the outset, the orders on your mission were to avoid contact with the uncontacted.
WALLACE: Exactly right. But it's quite a, you know, paradoxical kind of quest because we have to approximate to get close to the Arrow People, and there's always the danger of an inadvertent contact in that situation.
SIMON: And the greatest danger for the Arrow People wouldn't even be any of the guns you were packing for a variety of reasons but something a lot harder to detect.
WALLACE: Yeah. The germs. Yes. The Arrow People have no immunity to the germs that we carry. Common cold, influenza, measles; these things can devastate an uncontacted Indian tribe. And as soon as you get close enough to them to try to help them, you're introducing this host of competing values and creating desires in them that they didn't have before, desires in their psyche.
They begin to forget how to hunt traditionally. They want shotguns, they want shotgun shells, blankets, all sorts of stuff. Right now as they are, they can live in the jungle completely free of the world's money economy and thrive quite well.
SIMON: At the center of the story and a compelling figure is Sydney Possuelo, an explorer who had once been head of FUNAI, which is the National Indian Foundation. How do we begin to understand him? Because you had some divided thoughts throughout the course of the trek.
WALLACE: Right. Sydney Possuelo is a remarkable character. He led a sea change in Brazilian government policy toward the isolated Indians still living in the Amazon in Brazil to leave these last tribes alone, to actually identify where they are and to protect their lands and keep intruders out.
SIMON: He's an easy man to admire, sometimes a hard man to like?
WALLACE: That's correct. So he was the one leading our expedition and he had a remarkable rapport with the Indians, with the natives, in our expedition but was something of a tyrant when it came to dealing with his fellow white men.
SIMON: Some of the adventure in the story is the adventure â just the challenge of getting there.
WALLACE: OK. So it began with two weeks of travel by river up a tributary of a tributary of the Amazon. Then we left the boats behind. The boats turned back and we began bushwhacking, hacking open virgin jungle, our whole column following single file the lead scouts as they were breaking open the jungle with machetes and that was three weeks of doing that bushwhacking.
SIMON: You didn't want to contact the Arrow People because you're worried about it could have a disastrous effect on them but you also had to live in fear of the Arrow People if, in fact, they noticed you first, right?
WALLACE: That's very true because they are known as tenacious defenders of their land, and in the past people who've tried to enter their territory have been repelled with poisoned-tipped arrows. And there was no way they could understand our presence in their land as anything other than a hostile intrusion, although we would leave a gift here and there â cooking pots, machetes, ax heads, those kinds of things. And we would leave those gifts from time to time to demonstrate our peaceful intentions.
SIMON: It's a whole lot easier just to let the Arrow People alone, why not just let them be?
WALLACE: Well, this is closed canopy jungle and you cannot tell, for example, if they are facing imminent threats from outsiders, from hunters, loggers, poachers, if you do not mount this kind of expedition.
SIMON: You kind of wait through the book for a moment of contact. And there is not that moment because, in part, you're trying to avoid it. But how did you know you were in their realm?
WALLACE: The first sign that we had, we came upon an abandoned camp where they had left leaves on the ground and you could see the indentation of bodies that had slept there. Then we began to get really close and found footprints that were really fresh.
SIMON: I understand the morality of no contact, but let me ask you about another morality. I mean, modern life is more than just lethal germs, isn't it? Would some contact with the Arrow People give them access to knowledge that could improve their lives? Help them live longer, help them be happier, and would that be so terrible?
WALLACE: I think undoubtedly that some of that what you say is true. The question is what price would that contact involve? Possuelo said himself that even in the best of circumstances, when they had teams of doctors and nurses and transport to help â this was the Aranda tribe back in the '80s â they had all these things in place to help these people once they made contact with them, but what happened was the people started getting sick and they fled into the jungle and infected other people. And so even when you have the best of intentions, it doesn't mean things are going to work out the way you would like them to work out.
SIMON: Scott Wallace's new book is "The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes."
Thanks so much for being with us.
WALLACE: Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.