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)

For an update on the evolving situation of the Mashco-Piro, see the more recent posting "Mashco-Piros on the Verge: Missionaries, human safaris, head-ball and a tale of two contacts"