Once contacted, never conquered: heroes of the Amazon
A journalist, an expedition and the Arrow People add up to a life-changing read for David Hill.
It may come as a surprise to learn that in certain parts of the world there are people living with no, or almost no, contact with the rest of us.
If you’re in any doubt, read Scott Wallace’s The Unconquered: In search of the Amazon’s last Uncontacted Tribes. Gripping, hair-raising, and at times drily comic, this is the tale of US journalist Wallace’s 2002 expedition into one of the remotest regions of the Amazon rainforest with a Brazilian government research team led by legendary explorer Sydney Possuelo. The expedition’s aim? To gather evidence of an ‘uncontacted’ indigenous group known as the ‘Arrow People’, (flecheiros in Portuguese) and identify the boundaries of their territory in order to protect it from invasion by outsiders.
The aim was not, Possuelo makes clear in the book, to contact them, which could have been catastrophic because of the flecheiros’ lack of immunity to disease.
‘We’re not here to see them or to get to know them,’ he tells the expedition group. ‘We’re here to see if they use this land. We’re here to make sure loggers, fishermen and hunters don’t come in here. I’m here to register their location and to take that information back to Brasilia.’
It was quite a trip. They travelled way, way up one river in motorboats, and then down another in two giant canoes they built themselves. The month in between was spent trekking and hacking their way through the rainforest.
Snakes and spiders
There were snakes jumping out of trees, fire ants, sweat bees, enormous black spiders, rivers to ford, creeks to cross and hills to climb up and down. And of course there were the ‘Arrow People’ themselves, whose territory the expedition skirted. No prizes for guessing how they got their name.
As the days dragged on, morale disintegrated. There was dissent among the white members of the expedition (the majority of the 30-strong team were from the Kanamari, Marubo and Matis indigenous groups), and squabbling over the food rations and tobacco. Hunger set in and bodies started to fail: skin turned green and malaria, dysentery and diarrhoea struck.
‘The only sure things,’ Wallace writes, ‘were sweat and peril, filth and fatigue. We were beset not only by swarms of insects and physical decrepitude, but also by relentless boredom and scheming.’
But there were moments of beauty, wonder and humour too: blue macaws crossing a river, Possuelo pretending to be a jaguar, the Matis’ persistent good cheer and brilliance in the rainforest. Wallace is especially adept at evoking his relationships with other members of the expedition, especially the cooks, who slipped him biscuits and margarine when the rest weren’t looking, and Possuelo, the ‘brooding tyrant’, for whom Wallace developed a kind of love-hate relationship.
The star-turn, though, belonged to the flecheiros. No-one in the expedition ever met them, but evidence of their existence was found and documented and the conversation was often about them. As Wallace makes clear, they’re not, contrary to popular belief, ‘pristine’ people ‘hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world’ who have never had any contact with anyone else, but ‘refugees from the violence of the global economy’ who may have had contact in the past but today choose to live without it.
In other words, more ‘once-contacted’ than ‘uncontacted’.
All about bananas
Nothing illustrates this better than Wallace’s discovery that the flecheiros cultivate sugar-cane and bananas, two crops originating in South Asia and brought to the Americas by Europeans. How can this be?
‘The plants had been traded from tribe to tribe, it turned out, adopted as staples in remote areas never seen by outsiders,’ Wallace writes. ‘The Arrow People likewise could have acquired them from other groups, perhaps generations ago. Or they could have raided the gardens of settlers in more recent times. Either way, for Possuelo, the crops signalled the depth of their resourcefulness.’
The Unconquered reads like a great adventure story, but it’s much more than that. It’s a serious, change-your-life book. Wallace wasn’t there for his health or his family life or just to see his name on a dust-jacket: it’s a plea for the entire Amazon rainforest, for the people who live there, like the flecheiros, and for the future health of our planet.
‘Everything [the flecheiros] did suggested a deliberate decision, an act of self-determination, to shut themselves off from the rest of us,’ Wallace writes, summarizing Possuelo’s reasons for the expedition. ‘The point was to let them decide if they wanted contact, on their own terms, in their own time, not to force it down their throats… What [Possuelo] offered was at once nothing and everything, something so huge and intangible they’d never know he’d even given it to them – the chance to endure, to survive another day, to replicate their way of life, a way of life that had all but vanished from the rest of the planet.’