January 26, 2012

Close Encounters of the Mashco Kind: Fatal attack by an isolated indigenous group in Peru

The look on Casiano’s face was beginning to worry me.  He had been helping me and Harvard ecologist Douglas Yu hack trails, scale trees and collect specimens in a thorny thicket of bamboo two miles across the river from the native community of Tayakome within Manu National Park in the Peruvian Amazon. Strange sounds had piqued Casiano’s ears and distracted his attention from the tedium of science. Agosto, another of our Matsigenka guides, left Doug and came to Casiano’s side.

“Did you hear that?!” Casiano pointed, as if aiming an arrow, into the shaded depths of the forest. I heard nothing but the background symphony of cicadas and birds.
“Tortoises?” asked Agosto hopefully.

“There!” pointed Casiano further to his left. “Bamboo breaking.”

“Maybe a jaguar…” said Agosto, not sounding convinced.

There was an urgent edge in their voices and expressions, something I had never before observed besetting the Matisgenka’s tacit confidence within the forest and its many predicaments: something approaching panic. Doug called out, “Could you tell Agosto to bring back my tape measure?”

Just then, not more than twenty yards ahead of us, the forest rang with an eerie, hollow whistle—a miracle of acoustics produced by cupping one hand over the chin and blowing across the thumbnail—that the Matsigenka use as a hail. Only there were no Matsigenka in front of us.

Casiano went pale and whispered, “Mashco.”

This Mashco-Piro group was photographed from across the river by Diego Cortijo just a few days before they presumably killed Cortijo's native guide and my old friend, Shaco Flores, in November. (photo source: Survival International)

They ran. I followed. Doug brought up the rear, annoyed. Only when we were out of the bamboo, a half-mile closer to the village on a well-beaten trail, did we pause for a few minutes to catch our breath. 

“What about our tree plot?” asked Doug, panting. Casiano responded in characteristic Matsigenka deadpan, “Katsi chakopi.”  ‘Arrows hurt.’

It was November of 1999, the very eve of the Millenium, and we had just crossed paths with a small band of Mashco-Piro nomads. They are most likely descendents of the bellicose “Mashco” peoples (a generic term applied to several ethnic groups[1]) who were massacred and displaced beginning in 1894 when Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald, the legendary “King of Rubber”[2] immortalized (and fictionalized) in Werner Herzog's film, hauled a steamship overland across an isthmus into the inaccessible Manu headwaters. Surviving Mashcos, including a group speaking a language similar to Piro—hence “Mashco-Piro”—abandoned their gardens and fled to the forest, subsisting on game and fruits and vigorously avoiding all contact with outsiders since then.[3] 

Klaus Kinksi played the legendary King of Rubber in Werner Herzog's 1982 film "Fitzcarraldo"
It is an extraordinary thing to consider, this encounter with nomadic hunter-gatherers at the turn of a century that had seen the miracle of space travel and the specter of nuclear holocaust. And yet to call such people "primitive" or “uncontacted” is something of a misnomer, since the Mashco-Piro and other isolated Amazonian groups have not remained stuck in the Stone Age since time immemorial. Rather, they have resorted to “voluntary isolation”[4] in modern times in order to survive. Indeed, the Mashco-Piro ironically epitomize modernity, having abandoned sedentary life and agriculture at the turn of the prior century to make way for rubber tappers feeding the global demand for automobile tires. More than a century later, they remain elusive and enigmatic.

Mashco-Piro campsite with palm-frond shelters. Photo courtesy of Beth Pringle and Lisa Davenport.

One isolated population of Mashco-Piro has long been known to occupy the southern border of Manu Park along the upper Madre de Dios, west of Manu River.[5] People from the Piro community of Diamante kidnapped a six-year-old Mashco-Piro boy from this population around 1970 and raised him as one of them. Today, he remembers nothing of his original language, family or forest life. Three Mashco-Piro women emerged from isolation in the late-1970s and eventually married into local villages. In 1996, just as Mobil Oil began seismic exploration of the Piedras River, the Mashco-Piro were first sighted on the east bank of the Manu River. This is a separate, and much larger, population of Mashco-Piro who apparently migrated from the Piedras towards Manu to avoid Mobil’s seismic crews and helicopters[6]:  once again, our cars evicted the Mashco-Piro from their territory. In 1999, when we were startled by the Mashco-Piro call, Mobil had just relinquished the Piedras concession and it was overrun by illegal loggers. From then on, Mashco-Piro sightings on the east bank of the Manu became even more frequent.

One of three Mashco-Piro women who left the group in the late 1970s, ultimately taking up residence in nearby communities.
In late May of 2005, a large group of Mashco-Piro from the Piedras population, likely fleeing from ongoing logging incursions, made a bold, high-visibility trek from the park guard post at Pakitsa through Cocha Cashu research station (foreign scientists had to abandon the station) and emerged in early June near the same place we had encountered them at Tayakome years before. The Matsigenka school teacher at Tayakome, Mauro Metaki, was on a fishing expedition and saw them on a stream bank. He called out and tried to approach. He was greeted by a shower of six-foot-long, bamboo-tipped arrows made with a characteristic twine wrapping. Their message was clear: more than a century after Fitzcarrald’s massacre, they still did not want to risk contact with outsiders and face the diseases, decimation and social degradation this process usually brings.[7] When their arrows were spent, Mauro took a few blurry photographs from a safe distance.

Mashco-Piro bowmen showered arrows at a Matsigenka fishing party to keep them from getting any closer. Photo: Mauro Metaki.

Six-foot Mashco-Piro arrows Metaki recovered compared with smaller Matsigenka arrows (left); Mashco-Piro arrow details: broad bamboo point, eagle feather fletching, twine wrapping (right).

This past 23rd of November, 2011, an old Matsigenka friend, Shaco Flores was less fortunate: an identical twine-wrapped Mashco-Piro arrow pierced his heart. Since I first met Shaco in 1986, he has been trying to contact the Mashco-Piro population living on the southern border of Manu Park. Shaco married a Piro woman in Diamante and learned the Piro language, close enough to Mashco-Piro to allow intelligible conversation. In 1982, Shaco and some Piro confederates captured a Mashco-Piro man and his adolescent son, bound them and brought them to the village, and tried to convince them of the benefits of civilization. The father-son pair refused all food, water, gifts and conversation and were finally set free. The only words the older man spoke during the ordeal were, “Leave me alone.”[8] In the mid-1980s, Shaco guided anthropologists Hilliard Kaplan and Kim Hill in their study of abandoned Mashco-Piro campsites.[9] Until his death last November, Shaco continued to visit their camps, leave them gifts and attempt communication.

Shaco and his family in 1985. Photo: Alejandro Smith.
Missionary groups, adventure tourists and intrepid natives have tried to approach the Mashco-Piro over the past twenty years, while illegal loggers may have attacked them. But none achieved the level of communication that Shaco had. By the time of his death in late 2011, Shaco maintained fairly regular verbal communication with the Mashco-Piro, albeit always at a distance. He left them pots, pans, knives and machetes as enticements. He planted a garden across the river from his house, on the fringes of their territory, and allowed them to gather and eat crops there. It was in this garden that a Mashco-Piro bowman ambushed him. I arrived in Shaco’s village only three weeks later and spoke with surviving family members and friends about what had happened. Some blame illegal loggers for stirring up the Mashco-Piro’s hostility, some blame Manu Park for not supporting Shaco’s efforts, others say a faction among the Mashco-Piro distrusted Shaco and chose to terminate the imminent prospect and hazard of contact. Some are quietly considering revenge.

Shaco’s death is a tragedy: he was a kind, courageous and knowledgeable man. He believed he was helping the Mashco-Piro. And yet in this tragic incident, the Mashco-Piro have once again expressed their adamant desire to be left alone. The situation presents a tremendous dilemma to the Peruvian government agency, INDEPA, charged with protecting isolated groups, since it provides justification for different groups—missionaries, loggers, local communities—with a vested interest in seeing the Mashco-Piro contacted and “civilized” once and for all. In the meantime, adventure-seeking tourists have approached dangerously close to the Mashco-Piro while film crews have brought contagious diseases to other isolated groups.[10] New roads threaten to open up the region to more incursions by loggers, miners and colonists. 

In the aftermath of Shaco’s death, INDEPA has redoubled its efforts and is seeking government and international support to expand its activities in collaboration with FENAMAD, the regional indigenous federation. Funding is urgently needed to identify and defend isolated groups’ territories, develop emergency action plans and educate local communities about the many dangers of forcing contact upon peoples who have chosen isolation as a form of self-defense.[11]

Mashco-Piro photographed by a passing tourism boat in 2011 near the place Shaco was killed. Photo courtesy of Survival International.

-- This posting was published simultaneously by Anthropology News (online edition) on January 26, 2012.

Bibliography and notes:

[1] Gow, P. 2006. ‘Stop annoying me’: A preliminary report on Mashco voluntary isolation. Paper presented at Núcleo de Transformaçoes Indígenas/Abaeté, Museu Nacional, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
[2] Reyna, E. 1941. Fitzcarraldo, el Rey del Caucho. Lima: P. Barrantes. For a comparison of the historical account with Herzog's fictional film, see also The Amazing Fitzcarraldo.
[3] Shepard, G.H. Jr., K. Rummenhoeller, J. Ohl, and D.W. Yu. 2010. Trouble in Paradise: Indigenous populations, anthropological policies, and biodiversity conservation in Manu National Park, Peru. Journal of Sustainable Forestry 29:252–301.
[4] The term "indigenous groups in voluntary isolation," now widely used in the scientific and policy literature, was coined in a report I circulated in response to seismic operations by Mobil Oil in Mashco-Piro territories of the Piedras and Rio de los Amigos:  
Shepard, G.H. Jr. 1996. Los grupos indígenas aislados del Río Piedras. Report, 18 pages. Lima, Peru: Federación Nativa de Madre de Dios (FENAMAD), October, 1996.
[5] Kaplan, H. and K. Hill. 1984. The Mashco-Piro nomads of Peru. AnthroQuest 29 (Summer 1984):1-16.
[6] Shepard 1996; Shepard et al. 2010.
[7] Napolitano, D.A. 2007. Towards understanding the health vulnerability of indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation in the Amazonian rainforest: Experiences from the Kugapokori Nahua Reserve, Peru. EcoHealth 4(4): 515-31
[8] MacQuarrie, Kim. 1992. El Paraíso Amazónico del Perú: Manu, Parque Nacional y Reserva de la Biosfera/Peru's Amazonian Eden: Manu National Park and Biosphere Reserve. Barcelona: Francis O. Patthey e hijos; cited in: Gow 2006.
[9] Kaplan and Hill 1984.
[10] Shepard, G.H. Jr. 2008. The reality (TV) of vanishing lives. Anthropology News 49(5): 30.
[11] Wallace, S. 2011. The Unconquered: In search of the Amazon's last uncontacted tribes. New York: Crown Publishing Group.


  1. A sad story and a complicated situation. Most recently, two journalists in search of an "untold story" evidently entered the Nahua Kugapakori Nanti reserve in Peru. From the references I've seen (like this one: http://bit.ly/xmPZ1y), it isn't clear if they actually profiled a member of an isolated group or one in recent contact. Either way, they apparently entered the reserve without authorization and put the local people at risk.

    There are isolated groups in Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela and Paraguay. In some cases, governments and businesspeople choose not to acknowledge their existence, because accommodating them would block energy or infrastructure projects or other economic enterprises. But they merit a place on the political agenda. And they deserve to be left alone, if that is their choice. My regional story about that, in Indian Country Today, is here: http://bit.ly/wPgoc4

    Barbara Fraser

  2. Leitura comovente. Ao mesmo tempo que fiquei extremamente sensibilizada pela trágica morte de Shaco, pois sempre esteve bem intencionado, compreendo o comportamento nada amigável dos Mashco-Piro. Após terem sido massacrados e precisarem se isolar para se manterem vivos e protegidos, fica difícil julgar a atitude que tiveram. Será que se nós, seres humanos chamados civilizados, tivéssemos passado por uma situação similar, de agressão e massacre ao nosso povo, agiríamos diferente? Não nos sentiríamos também ameaçados? Acredito, contudo, que a morte de Shaco não foi em vão, sua história e sua luta ficarão eternizados pelos seus, história de um homem corajoso e visionário, além de compelir o governo Peruano, a INDEPA, a proceder de maneira mais cautelosa na proteção a grupos isolados. Parabéns pelo posting e pelo belo trabalho!

  3. Marc J. DourojeanniApril 29, 2013

    In August 1977, when I was the Director General of Forestry, Wildlife and Parks of Peru, I invited the German Ambassador in Peru to visit the Manu National Park (as part of our fund raising). Our small group spent several nights in the beaches of the Manu River and also in the Cocha Cashu station. The day we decided to visit Tayakome after some time travelling in the river we saw smoke in the air. A couple of meanders ahead we discovered a sand beach with around a dozen improvised small palm huts. Nobody was visible but the sand was plenty of fresh tracks (adults and kids). We landed and discovered a still hot fireplace hastily covered by sand. Many taricayas shell were visible and a few objects were visible. It was obvious that we were being carefully watched from the nearby vegetation. We boarded again our embarkation and continued our travel river up, with a definite feeling of being followed for long minutes.
    The Machiguenga Indians of Tayakome were in distress. A couple of days earlier they suffered an attack by a party that we assumed was the same we saw in the beach not too far away. The cacique has been seriously hurt by a huge lance and the entire village was in an army race, confectioning arrows and lances. The two park rangers then located in Tayakome confirmed the facts described by the villagers. I still have the lance that was retrieved from the shoulder of the cacique. It is very similar to one showed in the pictures of the article.
    At that time the Machiguengas , the guards and our staff, stated the attacking party pertained to the Amahuaca tribe. However, this statement was not confirmed and the hypothesis of the Mashco is much more probable.

  4. Dear Marc, Thank you for the informative comment. Several Matsigenka have told me about an attack by an isolated group ca. 1977 that maybe be the one you refer to. I didn't realize there were also outside witnesses. From the descriptions of the arrows and other details, and now your confirming report, I also assumed that the group involved was not the Nahua ("Amahuaca") but the Mashco-Piro or possibly a small surviving Toyeri group. Do you have a picture of the arrow you could send me? Thank you once again for the detailed description, Glenn