August 19, 2014

Forget Colonial Myths: Xatanawa contact puts an end to a century of resistance

They are young and healthy, with strong bodies and carefully trimmed hair, some bearing delicate designs painted on their faces. They carry fine (and sharp) arrows with impeccably trimmed feather fletching. They wear penis-straps made of tree bark which double as belts to carry machetes, recently acquired. They sing beautiful melodies characteristic of the shared Panoan musical repertoire that is found throughout this region along the Brazil-Peru border, and that has been studied by anthropologists and even recorded on CDs. 

Behind this striking appearance of youthful Xatanawa warriors on the Envira river in Acre, emerging from isolation to seek assistance from indigenous neighbors, lies a terrible history of massacres at the hands of 21st century drug traffickers and loggers and 19th century rubber tappers

The "contact" of the Xatanawa is an extraordinary story of resistance. 

Video still of dramatic footage released by FUNAI showing Xatanawa contact.

And yet mainstream reporting has emphasized sensational and exotic details, colonial ideas about a primitive people "emerging from the forest" and entering into "first contact" with civilization. Public comments express surprise at these "Stone Age" people carrying machetes, or even a shotgun. These ethnocentric perspectives ignore the deep and tragic history of this people, and others like them, while also overlooking the negligence of the Peruvian and Brazilian authorities in failing to guarantee their territorial and human rights.

CONTINUE READING the full article (in Portuguese) by Felipe Milanez and Glenn Shepard at Carta Capital

Also read the three-part series (in English) at Indian Country Today:

Part 1: Drug traffickers force isolated group into contact
Part 2: Banana diplomacy
Part 3: Quiet war in the Amazon

August 16, 2014

Quiet War in the Amazon: "Uncontacted" tribes vs. drug lords and loggers

The Xatanawa have never been alone nor "uncontacted" in their century-long history of resistance. Isolation and resistance go hand and hand in this remote borderland region outside the reach of the Peruvian and Brazilian states. The Mashco-Piro have been photographed and even filmed in recent years in Peru. One Mashco-Piro group is believed to be responsible for an attack on FUNAI’s Xinane base in 2004, during which veteran FUNAI agent José Carlos Meirelles was wounded with an arrow. 

Mashco-Piro arrows recovered after people from a settled indigenous community on the Manu river tried to approach: The Mashco-Piro rained arrows on them in self defense.

A Matsigenka man who had been attempting for many years to contact a Mashco-Piro group in Peru was slain by a Mashco-Piro arrow in late 2011. Isolated groups have made incursions on the Xinane base on several other occasions to take food, implements and trade goods, and at times have attacked FUNAI employees, set fire to the base and even killed the guard dogs there, sending a clear message that they intend to protect their territory from invasion. Their hostility must be understood in context, since they are as yet unable to distinguish between the loggers and drug traffickers who have attacked them, and the FUNAI employees who are there to protect them.

Meirelles, who recently retired, was replaced by the young indigenous agent Guilherme Dalto Siviero, who heads the new “Envira Ethno-Environmental Protection Front.” FUNAI has announced it will reopen the Xinane post with about 10 employees, including FUNAI specialists, interpreters and a health team. The plan is to add three additional bases on the D’Ouro, Muru, and Mamoadate rivers to monitor isolated populations. The project would cost about $500,000 dollars initially.

Meirelles was one of the last remaining sertanistas (‘backwoods agents’) in FUNAI, a special category of indigenous agents responsible for carrying out expeditions to attract, contact and pacify isolated indigenous groups along the regions of frontier expansion during the second half of the 20th century. With the employee reforms carried out at FUNAI between 2009 and 2012, and the new policy of “no contact unless necessary,” the category of sertanista was extinguished. In addition to the sertanistas responsible for contacting isolated peoples for the Brazilian state, missionaries of many denominations have taken it upon themselves to contact and study the languages of various Indigenous Peoples, included hitherto isolated ones, in order to carry out evangelization and Bible translation.

Indigenous populations who have refused contact with the state fall into a no-man’s land along this social, political and economic frontier. They are threatened by illegal loggers and gold miners as well as drug traffickers who are active in the lawless border region. Elsewhere in the Brazilian and Peruvian interior, isolated indigenous populations are threatened by ranchers, oil and gas industries, hydroelectric dams, highway-building and other large infrastructure projects.

CONTINUE READING the full article, the final in a three-part series by Felipe Milanez and Glenn Shepard at Indian Country Today:

Part 1: Drug traffickers force isolated group into contact
Part 2: Banana diplomacy
Part 3: Quiet war in the Amazon

Banana Diplomacy: "First contact" with isolated tribe in the Amazon

They were separated only by the narrow course of the Envira river. From a distance of a few meters they tried to speak to each other. As the video clip recently released by Funai shows, Fernando Ashaninka entered the water as two Xatanawa mirrored his motions from the opposite bank. One Xatanawa man remained behind with a shotgun (apparently captured from an unfortunate logger) in case of an attack. After unsuccessful attempts at spoken communication they turned to gestures  and eventually Fernando gave them bananas. The Xatanawa then follow the Ashaninka and FUNAI team to the village and ask for clothing . Watching the video, one only hopes that the used clothes the Xatanawa receive aren’t contaminated with flu virus or other harmful diseases. The speaker on the video announces that this was the "first contact" with the Xatanawa people. But had been in fact several previous interactions between the Xatanawa and the Ashaninka community of Simpatia.

The seven Xatanawa survivors of the recent massacre who reached out to Simpatia included five men and two women, in addition to some 40 to 100 that stayed behind in the forest. They first appeared on June 10, to take iron goods, clothes and food. An Ashaninka man, Raimundinho, initially considered this an act of “thievery,” but the village leader “Carijó” quickly informed FUNAI and organized and informed the village to avoid violent confrontations. Rather than thieves, they were more like diplomats, coming on an urgent peace-making mission.

Members of the same group had already made enigmatic appearances at other Ashaninka and Kulina villages along the Envira River, according to the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI). In March of 2014, Renato Santana from CIMI told journalist Scott Wallace, “Women are afraid to go into the forest to tend their gardens for fear of abduction.” CIMI released additional aerial photographs of the group in April and demanded that FUNAI act to protect their territory. The FUNAI post at Xinane, which had been established as an advanced base to handle this situation, has been closed since it was attacked by drug traffickers in 2011.

After their dramatic, brief appearance at Simpatia on June 10, FUNAI began preparing for an eminent contact, which came on June 27 with an initial peaceful encounter followed by additional visits on June 29 and 30, culminating in a longer meeting on July 4, when the Xatanawa emissaries remained for several hours at Simpatia before returning to the forest.

CONTINUE READING the full article, the second in a three-part series by Felipe Milanez and Glenn Shepard at Indian Country Today:

Part 1: Drug traffickers force isolated group into contact
Part 2: Banana diplomacy
Part 3: Quiet war in the Amazon

August 5, 2014

Encounter in Acre: Indigenous group emerges from isolation to seek aid and report massacres

The same group of red-painted indigenous warriors famously photographed in 2008 aiming arrows at the passing aircraft now tell their own story: the story of massacre and suffering in their remote territory along the Peru-Brazil border. Gunshots, many dead. A tall, bald man leading a murderous group of white men, presumably drug traffickers. Survivors escaping into the jungle while elders and children were slaughtered. The days following the massacre were marked by profound sadness and mourning; the dead were buried in mass graves. A hasty evacuation meant they were short of food and supplies. They decided to pursue a final, desperate resort: to seek out settled indigenous villages along the adjacent Rio Envira and ask for food and mercy.

Isolated group known as the "Xatanawa" seek assistance from nearby Ashaninka community, as captured in dramatic video and photos released by FUNAI. 

Seven survivors made their way to the Ashaninka community of Simpatia (“Sympathy”) to ask for food, but since they spoke no common language the encounter was tenseA subsequent encounter, captured on a remarkable video clip that has been viewed around the world on the internet, eventually became more relaxed, even joyous, as the Xatanawa began imitating bird songs and even singing

Not until two Yaminawa interpreters were brought was communication finally established. The language they speak is a dialect of Yaminawa so communication has been extremely fluent. It was already suspected, based on their location and body adornments, that they belonged to an isolated Panoan group. The Yaminawa interpreters confirmed their linguistic affiliation and suggest they are closely related to the Chitonahua of Peru (rendered as ‘Xitonawa’ in the Brazilian orthography), however they call themselves “Xatanawa,” which means, “Macaw-Tribe.”

A small group of about 15 Chitonahua, fleeing similar conflicts with loggers on the Brazilian side of the border in 1996, took refuge along the upper Minuya River in Peru only to be attacked and captured by Peruvian loggers. Two of the young men showed clear signs of shotgun wounds, and nearly half of that group had already died of mysterious diseases they attributed to witchcraft, but which probably included flu, malaria and other contagious diseases. 

A Chitonahua woman photographed in Peru in 1996 shortly after her group fled from similar violence on the Brazilian side of the border, only to be attacked and captured by Peruvian loggers (Photo: G. Shepard).
A Chitonahua teenager in Peru who lost his eye to a shotgun blast from Brazilian loggers (Photo G. Shepard, 1996).

The Chitonahua are in turn very closely related to the Yora or Nahua of the upper Manu and Mishagua Rivers of Peru, a fiercely resistant group who made international headlines in 1983 when they attacked a group of Peruvian marines accompanying Peruvian President Fernando Belaunde to the headwaters of the Manu River to inaugurate the Peruvian leg of the Trans-Amazon highway. A famous photograph shows president Belaunde cradling a soldier with a Nahua arrow in his neck. The Nahua were thus largely responsible for repelling what would have been an ecologically disastrous highway project in the heart of Peru’s first and most famous protected area, Manu National Park. However with intense petrochemical prospecting on their territory by Shell Oil and the intrusion of loggers, the Nahua were finally contacted in 1985. Within ten years, their population was reduced by almost half, mostly due to introduced diseases. (The Nahua, too, in their early contacts with outsiders along the Manu and Mishagua Rivers in Peru in 1985-1987, sang the identical "Yama-yama-yama" song captured on the recent footage from Acre.)

Nahua shaman from Peru preparing ayahuasca vine (Photo: G. Shepard, 1996)

Like the Chitonahua and the Nahua before, the group who recently emerged along the Envira River also quickly contracted colds and required emergency medical treatment. The survivors have given detailed reports about the genocidal crimes committed against them. Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) are currently developing a strategy for providing medical treatment and protection for additional settlements that remain in isolation.

CONTINUE READING the full article, the first in a three-part series by Felipe Milanez and Glenn Shepard at Indian Country Today:

Part 1: Drug traffickers force isolated group into contact
Part 2: Banana diplomacy
Part 3: Quiet war in the Amazon

June 14, 2014

The Eye of the Needle: Ethno-fictional tale about jaguar transformation published in Anthropology and Humanism

The pale light of a half moon filtered through the forest canopy and dappled the path where she tracked a maddening stench. Hunger tore at her belly like a blunt spear of boar tusk, like the tusk that had ripped into her eye during a stampede long ago and left her watching the world half in shadow. From her blind side hidden obstacles now loomed blurry, out of perspective: far, then near. 

She had roamed in vain through the clawing blackness that night, exhausted and famished and betrayed by her waning strength and failing senses. But she caught wind of the familiar odor and crawled along its trace until she found the moonlit path cutting through the forest. She was in haste to sate her hunger but she had to go softly because the enemy was about.

From her blind side there came a fearful snap, an ominous grunt. She turned her head and froze at the sweep of a smoldering yellow eye that glared in her direction and then blinked shut in the close darkness.

Excerpted from Anthropology and Humanism

Video Still: The Spirit Hunters

"The Eye of the Needle" was published in the latest issue of Anthropology and Humanism. The tale, awarded Honorable Mention in the Society for Humanistic Anthropology's 2013 Ethnographic Fiction Contest, dramatizes indigenous Amazonian beliefs about human-jaguar transformation.

To receive a reprint, please leave a comment or send an email to

February 24, 2014

Gift of the Spider Woman: Spinning, weaving and womanhood among the Matsigenka of Peru

The moon is bright, the night is giddy with festivities and Shanuiva has emerged from her cage. Jaula, literally "cage," is how Spanish-speaking Matsigenka refer to the palm leaf enclosure where Matsigenka girls spend their months-long initiation after first menstruation. However the native Matsigenka word for this rite is far more appropriate: antarotira, “the time during which she becomes an adult.” Shanuiva is pale and lovely, with woven cotton armbands tight around her plump biceps, thick necklaces of beads and animal teeth whispering between her awakening breasts, and a freshly shorn head that gives her the serenity and dignity of Buddhist nun.

Shanuiva emerges from ritual seclusion, 1996 (photo: Manuel Lizarralde).

During her three-month-long ritual seclusion, Shanuiva shunned sunlight and the admiring glances of men, remaining inside the small enclosure. She ate a special diet of boiled manioc, palm hearts, bland boiled fish and the breast meat of succulent game birds. She was allowed to leave only at dusk or dawn to bathe and relieve herself, accompanied by her mother, grandmother or aunt. On these brief excursions, female relatives might teach her some of the closely guarded secrets of adult womanhood, such as medicinal plants in the garden or along the path: bark to chew to keep her teeth healthy and strong, leaves to heat and rub to remove unsightly pubic hair, aromatic roots to delay, induce or terminate pregnancy, to facilitate childbirth, to ward off illness and evil spirits that might attack her coming children, to keep her husband faithful, to steady her hands when spinning and weaving cotton. 

But aside from her budding adolescent beauty, her pale skin, plump arms, shorn head and esoteric knowledge gleaned, Shanuiva has emerged from her ‘cage’ with an essential and hard-earned treasure: a roll of handspun cotton thread nearly the size of a soccer ball. She has been spinning cotton nonstop for most of her three month seclusion. Indeed almost every time you passed by the enclosure, you heard the percussive “Slap! Slap! Slap!” as she beat out cotton seeds and joined individual cotton balls into long matted locks, or the distinctive grating sound of the palm spindle whirling in a calabash gourd bowl with a pinch of fine sand in the base.

Counter-clockwise from bottom right: Raw cotton balls, locks of cotton ready for spinning, spun cotton on a spool, and cotton thread dyed with Tapirira guianensis bark.

January 25, 2014

Bittersweet: An excerpt from "Sorcery and the Senses" (full text)

Every time I eat watermelon I remember that day. It was the dry season, when the rust-red floodwaters of Quebrada Fierro or “Iron Creek” subside to a lazy trickle, exposing wide, meandering beaches near its mouth on the upper Manu River in southern Peru. I was with a group of Matsigenka men and boys, we had spent the past few hours under a feverish noon sun portaging boat, motor and gear to circumvent a stubborn Dipteryx trunk, with wood as hard and impervious as tempered glass, that blocked dry season passage along the creek.

It was the summer of 1995 and I was taking Hector, a dear Matsigenka friend who called me “brother,” to meet up with a film crew camped out at the research station of Cocha Cashu down river. I was helping Hector’s community negotiate for an upcoming shoot. Cheronto, who came from a rival community nearer the station, was the best boat pilot in the region. He was taking us down the river to close the negotiations.

Sweaty, thirsty, and famished, we trudged across the searing sand when someone up ahead cried out, “Watermelons!” Senegui, an affable widower who lived nearby, seeded the beaches with watermelons every summer, and this year was a bumper crop.

“There are more over here,” called someone else. “And are they ripe!”

There was only one machete, so everyone else began smashing the melons rudely on driftwood, bent knees or unripe melons still on the vine. There was no question of mere observation, of imposing etiquette or restraint: someone with sticky hands passed me a plump green specimen and I joined the frenzy. We eviscerated melon after melon, first cracking them in half and then taking a plunge with our fingers through a yielding halo of seeds to pull out the dripping pink heart. 

The melons were cold and sweet and heavy with juice that dribbled down our faces, chests, arms and legs as we crammed the pulp into our greedy mouths. We ate only the plumpest, sweetest, juiciest melons, and even then only the seedless central column. We discarded less ripe specimens entirely after breaking them open, and tossed aside fully ripe melons half-eaten in wanton extravagance, not bothering to pick through pesky seeds: the next one might even be sweeter.  

No one spoke until we were sated. The beach was littered with seeds, rinds, melon entrails and a crazed reticulation of trampled vines and footprints. We washed our sticky hands and faces in tepid water along the stream bank. We must have consumed or destroyed a dozen watermelons each, and Senegui’s crop was mostly gone.

“Won’t he be angry?,” I asked one companion with belated guilt.

“No, we’ll tell him we were hungry. The first floods would have washed them away anyway. Besides we left lots of seeds, they’ll grow back next year.”

About ten days later, I fell gravely ill and had to be evacuated first to Cusco, then Lima, then back to the United States. The film segment on Hector’s community was abandoned. Hector and Cheronto quarreled during the trip, among other things blaming one another for my illness. It was Cheronto’s fault, for beaching the boat at his father-in-law’s place to get us all drunk on putrid manioc beer rather than going straight to the film crew’s camp as planned. No, it was Hector’s fault, for letting Glenn pluck and sniff one of those stinkhorn mushrooms to show the film crew: everyone knows they reek with demonic vapors.
Hector was dead three years later of a horrific, wasting illness, no older than 35, and most attribute his death to sorcery by Cheronto or someone in his family. Cheronto is an old man now, ostracized and expelled from his community but content at an isolated settlement with two wives, numerous children and plentiful game. None of the three of us could have known it at the time, but those were the last watermelons we would ever eat together.  

They were the best watermelons of my life.  


Excerpt from my forthcoming book, Sorcery and the Senses

December 5, 2013

Why I Sometimes Wish I Were an Armchair Anthropologist

No figure in the discipline is more despised than that smug Victorian fixture, the Armchair Anthropologist. The best antidote for this regrettable legacy is Fieldwork, philosopher’s stone of ethnographic pursuance. Hence, I spent much of the past three decades squatting in canoes, slithering up muddy banks and trekking to remote villages. Scorched by the sun, wracked by fever, gnawed by pests, turned inside out by parasites and ritual narcotics. More than ever, the cozy, urbane musings of the Armchair Anthropologist should seem anathema. Yet as I approach fifty, my body begins to ache and I sense the allure of a temperate climate and a comfortable place to sit. I find myself reflecting on my maligned predecessor with envy as I count the reasons...

(1) The Armchair: Ah! Just the sound of it soothes my suffering coccyx. What an accessory on protracted canoe trips, and a cozy alternative to planks and dwarf school desks for taking field notes. I have been admiring an Italian reading chair in a chic store in torpid downtown Manaus. I sink into its cool leather embrace and imagine sipping tea and nibbling scones over the yellowed parchment of The Golden Bough. But the price tag startles me back to reality and I return to my sweltering apartment to peruse Anthropology News atop my humble porcelain throne.

(2) The Menu: Actually, I’ve grown quite fond of smoked fish, endangered species soup and manioc in all conceivable forms and some inconceivable ones. Beats Victorian British fare, and I’ll take cool manioc beer over warm bitters any day. The problem of fieldwork cuisine is not quality but rather variety. Colonialism, for all its errors, brought a plethora of take-out options: Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern. Let the floodwaters wash away my field notes, but please, not my tin of curry.

(3) Biodiversity: Fact: there are more ant species in a single Amazonian tree than in all the British Isles. I haven’t seen the figures for mosquitoes, gnats, sand flies, ticks, chiggers, bedbugs, fleas, bot flies, chigoes, filaria, pinworms... Biodiversity sure looks great on those BBC specials. Maybe I’ll join the Armchair Anthropologist for a warm beer and tellie after all.

(4) The Language Barrier: English, German, Russian, even Sanskrit were important languages for 19th century armchair anthropologist. French is the language of choice for 21st century neo-armchair anthropology, though much of it is Greek to me. French names sound impressive, especially hyphenated ones. I have considered publishing under the pseudonym Harvée-Chepardieu. My métier is among Amerindian languages, complex and poetic tongues, but thanks to an over-zealous Gideon, the only book available is the Bible. Try explaining to a native of the upper Amazon what a camel is, how hard it is get one through the eye of a needle, and why anyone would go to so much trouble when three sips of ayahuasca will take you there any night of the week.

(5) The Edible Complex: Anthropology is a curious science: only one syllable distinguishes it from cannibalism. Who’s on the menu for this year’s Anthropophagy Association Meetings? The best way to achieve notoriety in the field is by publishing a lurid exposé about a renowned anthropologist. The technical term is endocannibalism:  consuming one’s own kind, usually the dead or infirm, often with a degree of reverence. Exocannibalism by foreign tribes is rarer and more violent, sometimes associated with severe nutritional stress. Either way, the armchair provides a safe view from the sidelines.

(6) Foggy Discourse Breakdown: The banjo is a hefty and temperature-sensitive instrument, not amenable to travel in the tropics. It is not useful for firewood, though the taut strings grate manioc (earplugs recommended) and the hide can be boiled into soup stock in an emergency. Both my banjo and I would have fared better on a plush fauteuil. Banjo virtuosos play breakneck solos improvised around a vocabulary of licks or ‘riffs’. Trendy anthropologists riff floridly on the latest jargon. Neither kind performance is very pleasant to listen to, but one can’t help but admire the skill required. 

(7) La Mode: Armchair anthropologists dress and theorize more fashionably than I do. The last time I made a fashion statement was in a Peruvian village at the turn of the century. I figured I had nothing to lose, what with Y2K (little did I realize the apocalypse had been postponed). After much manioc beer and three rusty needles, I won a dangling nose ornament and a lingering infection of the nasal septum. ‘Going native’, apart from dangerous, is hopelessly obsolete. But what today is old-fashioned, next year is retro and by mid-century, could be high fashion. The key is patience and an occasional daub of antibiotic ointment.

The End: These days, students and activists challenge me with the retort I once leveled at the ethnographers of yore: “You took much information, but what did you leave behind?” The answer is complex, and not likely to satisfy those who have not sat there themselves. But among the most valuable assets left behind in those far flung villages was my youth. Youth and the lumbar spine. Few things are more precious. Still, I have few regrets, and in exchange, I have gained fine friends, a sense of humor and an appreciation for many small comforts. I’m willing to overlook my petty differences with the Armchair Anthropologist, if only he’ll make room for me and my sore end on his couch. 

Posted with minor revisions from the original text published in
Anthropology News 43(1):60 (Jan. 2002).
Cartoon image © C. Suddick

For a darker piece of humor from Anthropology News, see:

November 19, 2013

The Eye of the Needle: On jaguars and transformation

The path was too dangerous: she might encounter the enemy. She crawled through a maze of roots and vines and branches that clawed and grappled from her blind side like an invisible foe. She turned her head from side to side, seeking a way with her good eye. Her nostrils flared and she found the familiar odor: she was close now. 

She trailed the scent towards a faint glow and emerged at the edge of a circle of huts. The moon raked low over the ragged shadows of treetops. She found meat smoking in a small hut and devoured it, barely chewing with what remained of her rotten teeth. She emerged from the smokehouse calling to her daughters to strain fresh masato to quench her thirst. But instead the men burst from the huts clutching bows and arrows, looked at her with panic and called her that horrible name.

“Kinsmen, what has come over you? Why do you greet me so rudely? It’s me! I was lost all night in the forest. I’m hungry. Now I have found my way home!”

She spoke to them but they didn’t understand. Their voices too were fearsome, wild, incomprehensible. Bowstrings cracked and arrows began to whistle past her ears and pelt the mud around her. She heard a grim metallic creaking as one of them loaded an old rifle. 

She fled into the black tangle as the voices dwindled behind her and were lost to the giddy buzzing of the forest. Forgetting fatigue and her barely sated hunger, she raced far and deep into the shadows until she splashed into a small clearing where the moon reflected off the surface of a shallow rainwater pond. The panicky, concentric halos of light and shadow subsided and she looked down. A multitude of quivering yellow crescents resolved into a single glowing feline eye.

She should be afraid, and yet she wanted to laugh: the jaguar seemed to be winking at her. She stared, fascinated by the incongruous gaze as the jaguar crouched closer. It reached towards her with a huge paw, and by no will of her own she extended her hand towards it. She looked down from the bewitching eye and saw her forearm disappearing into the dark mirror of the pond. 

The two limbs, human and beast, were joined at an obtuse angle across the shuddering membrane. She looked up and the creature stared back with its single eye into her own. Panic filled her again. She turned to run, to wrench herself from the transmogrifying clutch and fly across the rippling black surface to some safe place. But the grip on her arm tightened and a talon punctured her flesh. The yellow eye swam again before her and she fell into the refractive darkness.

This is a pre-publication excerpt from my short story, "The Eye of the Needle," which was awarded Honorable Mention in the Society for Humanistic Anthropology's 2013 Ethnographic Fiction Contest. The tale dramatizes indigenous Amazonian beliefs about human-jaguar transformation, using the were-jaguar as a metaphor for the fraught and treacherous nature of relationships across boundaries between different cultures, beings and layers of the cosmos.

The awards ceremony was held on November 22 at the annual American Anthropological Association meetings in Chicago. The full story was published in the June 2014 issue of Anthropology and Humanism.

Image: Edo-period tiger scroll by Watanabe Shuseki from the Kobe Municipal Museum

November 13, 2013

Too-Close Encounters: The Mashco-Piro and the dilemmas of isolation and contact

In late August a Peruvian indigenous federation circulated remarkable video footage showing about a hundred isolated (so-called “uncontacted”) Mashco-Piro Indians just across the river from a Piro indigenous village along the Rio de las Piedras in Peru. They  appeared to be asking for food and trade goods like rope and metal tools. The Piro and Mashco-Piro languages are close enough to allow communication. Hoping to avoid direct contact and the possibility of disease contagion, forest rangers at Monte Salvado floated a canoe laden with bananas across the river. 

Mascho-Piro in grainy footage released by FENAMAD in August
Image source: BBC

After a tense three-day standoff, the Mashco-Piro eventually disappeared back into the forest. No one is quite sure why the Mashco-Piro — who have so steadfastly avoided such contact until recently — suddenly showed up. Many suspect that illegal loggers active throughout the region have disrupted their usual migration routes.

In late 2011, a different group of Mashco-Piro living near the border of Manu National Park shot and killed Shaco Flores, an old Matsigenka friend of mine, with an arrow. Having lived among the Piro for many years and learned the Piro language, Shaco had been patiently communicating and trading with the Mashco-Piro for over twenty years, always maintaing a safe distance but slowly drawing them closer with his gifts, food and conversation. But something happened on that fateful day in late November: perhaps the Mashco-Piro were spooked by Shaco’s appearance with several relatives at the manioc garden on a small river island where he had been allowing the Mashco-Piro to harvest his crops; perhaps there was internal disagreement among the Mashco-Piro whether or not to accept Shaco’s long-standing offer to bring them into permanent contact. We may never know.