September 19, 2014

Mashco-Piros on the Verge: Missionaries, human safaris, head-ball and a tale of two contacts

This is the full text, with additional photos, of a three-part series published concurrently by Indian Country Today

Versión en castellano 

 1. Missionaries and ‘human safaris’ initiate contact in Peru

It feels like a déjà vu: naked youths from an isolated indigenous group step warily through shallow water and approach the strangers. Emboldened by curiosity, or hunger perhaps, they accept colorful clothing and gifts of food, not knowing that they may be carrying an epidemiological bomb back to their people in the forest. And yet the apparent good intentions of these friendly outsiders may be motivated by a hidden agenda: religious prosylization or territorial control. Moreover, initiating contact with isolated indigenous peoples is a violation of Peruvian regulations.

On September 6, tourists and an indigenous woman affiliated with a missionary group were photographed giving clothing and food to Mashco Piro children on a beach in Madre de Dios (Photo: Jaime Corisepa/FENAMAD)

The scene is strikingly similar to dramatic recent events in a nearby region along Brazil’s border with Peru. On June 27, a group of young Txapanawa warriors, hitherto isolated, established contact with an Ashaninka community on the upper Envira River.

However there are important differences in these two superficially similar episodes: the Txapanawa[1] initiated contact of their own accord, walking for miles to seek aid from the neighboring indigenous population after apparently being attacked by loggers or perhaps (according to preliminary investigations in Brazil) drug traffickers based in Peru. Moreover, the Ashaninka called immediately on an experienced team from Brazil’s Federal Indian Agency, FUNAI, to help mediate the contact, provide medical care for the inevitable flu epidemic that struck the intrepid youths, and develop a long-term strategy to protect the group. The contact with the Mashco-Piro has been carried out informally, irresponsibly, and against official norms, by tourists and local people without the authority or training to handle the potentially genocidal consequences of such a situation.  

The indigenous organization FENAMAD, in conjunction with Survival International, recently published photographs
on its FaceBook page taken on September 6 showing a group of Mashco-Piro children receiving clothes and gifts from a local indigenous woman from the village of Diamante who is affiliated with an evangelical missionary organization that has been intent on contacting the Mashco-Piro for some time. The people of Diamante on the Madre de Dios River are Piro, and their language is close enough to Mashco-Piro to allow for mutual communication. Some inhabitants of Diamante have been trying to contact the Mashco-Piro for almost 25 years, but only in the past year have the Mashco-Piro responded to such efforts with anything other than hostility: several local people have been wounded by Mashco-Piro arrows, and one man was killed in 2011.

The FENAMAD team was using a boat supplied by the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) to patrol the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve, which shares a border with Manu National Park. According to their report, in addition to the Piro woman, they also surprised two tourism boats and a group of tourists on the same beach. The tourists and tour boats left immediately leaving only the Piro woman, named Nelly, on the beach with five Mashco-Piro youths wearing their new clothes.

Mashco Piro children taking items from tourism boat (Photo: Jaime Corisepa/FENAMAD)

When questioned about her activities, Nelly replied that she has been taking bananas to the Mashco-Piro because they ask her to. The Mashco-Piro children were waiting on the beach while their parents hunted in the forest nearby. The clothes, she said, were left by the tourists traveling in a boat operated by Expediciones Vilca. The Mashco-Piro have become a kind of tourist attraction in the region, and some tour operators have even offered clandestine “human safaris” for tourists to view and photograph the Mashco-Piro, much as they would a jaguar or other rare animal. Some tourists have allegedly left soda pop and even beer on the beach as presents to the Mashco-Piro. In one recent photograph, a young Mashco-Piro woman appears with a large wound on her leg, apparently caused by the tropical disease leishmaniasis.

In a previous episode highlighting the dangerous consequences of human safaris, a film crew associated with the Discovery Channel trekked to an isolated indigenous community in Manu Park in October of 2007, specifically violating the terms of its authorizations, and was alleged to have contaminated the group with a flu virus that killed four children and left dozens ill.

FENAMAD representative Cesar Augusto Jojajé decried the negligence of the Peruvian authorities in the face of this precarious situation: “The government is absent in this region. We want the authorities to assume their responsibilities and implement the promised operational plan [of the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve] which establishes among its clauses the integrity of the Mashco-Piro people’s territory.”

2. From head-ball to hunter-gatherers: the true story of the Mashco-Piro

A withered rubber sphere used by the Mashco-Piro to play “head ball,” originally collected by Shaco Flores (Photo: Fabio Jacob/Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi)
However the situation becomes more complex once we understand that Nelly, the indigenous woman who initiated contact with the group, is in fact half Mashco-Piro herself: her father was kidnapped in the forest as a young child and taken away from the group by Diamante villagers in the 1970s as part of their attempt to “civilize” the Mashco-Piro, whom the Piro view as wayward brethren. Re-baptized with a Spanish name
, Nelly’s father was raised among the Piro and never went back to his people; indeed he has no more memory of his life among them. Nelly has allied herself with a local evangelical missionary group, including a pastor and his wife who now reside in Diamante, in the hopes of helping “her people” overcome the hunger, isolation and fear they supposedly now live in.

Around 1982 the Piro captured two more Mashco-Piros, an adult man and a young boy, and held them for most of the day, trying to convince them to “come out of the forest.” However the Mashco-Piro did not converse and refused all food and water, saying only, "Leave us alone".[2] After they were released, they left all the presents they had been showered with by the villagers (clothes, pots and pans, metal tools) strewn along their path back to the forest. In later interactions, the Mashco-Piro fired arrows at Piro who approached them.

Shaco Flores, a Matsigenka man from the village of Diamante who was fluent in Piro, had been attempting to pacify and contact the Mashco-Piro ever since. In the early 1980s he worked alongside anthropologists Kim Hill and Hilliard Kaplan, who carried out preliminary scientific investigations on the group.[3] In ensuing years, Shaco continued observing the Mashco-Piro and developed a certain degree of communication with them, though always at a distance. He even obtained a few objects of their material culture, including a necklace, a rustic arrow-sharpener made from an agouti tooth, a stone axe, and a rubber sphere they use to play the sport of "head-ball." He donated these items to the village school teacher at the time, Alejandro Smith (currently working for the environmental association APECO) and now they are safeguarded at the Goeldi Museum in Brazil.

However in December of 2011, Shaco was killed by an arrow fired by a Mashco-Piro bowman in the small garden where he had been letting the Mashco-Piro eat crops, and where he had previously interacted peacefully with them. Spanish ornithologist Diego Cortijo, who was visiting Shaco that December, used a telephoto lens to take striking, now world-famous photographs of the Mashco-Piro near the same locale where Shaco was killed a few days later. 

Mashco Piros photographed on bank of Madre de Dios River in December 2011, days before Shaco Flores was killed by a Mashco-Piro bowman  (Photo: Diego Cortijo/Survival International).
Mashco-Piro arrow-sharpener and necklace, originally collected by Shaco Flores, compared with close-ups of similar objects worn by Mashco-Piro from 2011 photos (Photos:  Diego Cortijo/Surivival International and Fábio Jacob/Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi).

However the Mashco-Piro are no savage, “Stone Age people” living in a pristine state of primitive harmony since time immemorial. In the late 19th century, the Mashco-Piro probably resided in large agricultural villages on the upper Manu River. The Mashco-Piro and other regional groups such as the Piro, Matsigenka and Ashaninka are cultural heirs to the Arawakan-speaking peoples who occupied a vast region in pre-Colombian times from the Caribbean to southern Brazil. 

The Arawaks were known as the “civilizers” of the Amazon since they established sedentary agricultural villages, built vast earthworks in some regions, established networks of inter-ethnic trade, and disseminated a tradition of competitive sports using rubber balls, possibly the ancestor to all subsequent ball sports in the world. Several modern Arawakan peoples continue the tradition, including the Pareci and Enawene-Nawe of Brazil. As unlikely as it may seem among a nomadic hunter-gatherer people, the Mashco-Piro continued to make rubber balls and play the sport even during their century-long isolation.

But rubber bears especially tragic connotations for the Mashco-Piro’s fate. The infamous “King of Rubber,” Carlos Fermin Fitzcarraldo, whose story inspired Werner Herzog’s film, entered the region in the 1890s to establish rubber-tapping camps. In an episode related by Brazilian geographer Euclides da Cunha, Fitzcarraldo tried to intimidate the chief of the “Mashcos”
[2] with his weapons. In Cunha’s words:[4]

 “The sole response of the Mashco was to inquire what arrows Fitzcarraldo carried. Smiling the explorer passed him a bullet... The native... tried to wound himself with it, dragging the bullet across his chest. Then he took one of his own arrows and, breaking it, thrust it into his own arm. Smiling and indifferent to the pain he proudly contemplated the flowing blood that covered the point. Without another word he turned his back on the surprised adventurer, returning to his village with the illusion of a superiority that in a short time, would be entirely discounted. In fact, a half hour later, about a hundred Mashcos, including the recalcitrant and naïve chief, lay slaughtered on the river bank whose name, ‘Playmashcos’ (‘Mashco beach”) remembers this bloody episode to this day.”

Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s film “Fitzcarraldo” (Photo: IMBD)
The surviving Mashco-Piro apparently fled to the forest, abandoning their gardens, and took up an entirely nomadic life of hunting and gathering. Given their traumatic experience with rubber tappers and indigenous henchmen, it is no mystery why the Mashco-Piro so vehemently avoided contact, and repelled any attempts at approximation by neighboring groups throughout the 20th century.

In the 1970s, three Mashco-Piro women, apparently exiled by the group, appeared near a guard post in Manu National Park. They had been living for some time without even fire, subsisting on palm nuts and raw turtles. The park guards provided them with matches, clothes and tools, and the three women (referred to by locals as “The Three Marys”) resided in a rustic hut along the banks of the Manu River through the mid-1980s, when they were taken in by Diamante and another nearby Matsigenka native community. The older woman (apparently the mother) has since died, but the two Mashco-Piro sisters now live among the Matsigenka and occasionally even play head-ball in the forest.

The "Three Marys," a Mashco-Piro woman and her two daughters, left the group in the 1970s and lived for several years alone in the forest.
The Mashco-Piro sisters live today in a nearby native community (Photo: Glenn Shepard).

A separate group of Mashco-Piro appeared on the northwest bank of the Manu River in 1996 (the group discussed above lives southeast of the Manu River, along the margins of Manu National Park), and shot warning arrows at an approaching tourism boat. They had apparently been disturbed by petrochemical prospecting activities in their territory along the Rio de las Piedras being carried out at that time by Mobil Oil. 

Anthropologist Glenn Shepard and biologist Douglas Yu had a surprise encounter with a small group of Mashco-Piro in 1999 while carrying out botanical surveys near the native community of Tayakome. They followed the example of their indigenous companions by running away as fast as possible, since, as one man stated in Matsigenka parlance, “arrows hurt.”

Mashco-Piro warriors photographed at “Playamashcos” in 2005 (Photo: Mauro Metaki).

In 2005, a much larger group of some hundred or so Mashco-Piro made a bold trek along the banks of the Manu River, camping out near the well-known biological station of Cocha Cashu on the Manu River for several days (the scientists evacuated the station) before heading further upriver towards the community of Tayakome.

At the very same beach where Cunha described the massacre by Fitzcarraldo over a century prior, a group of Matsigenka fisherman encountered the Mashco-Piro fording the Manu River towards the interior of the park’s protected area. The fisherman tried to approach and show their friendly intentions, but the Mashco-Piro repelled them with a shower of arrows. When they ran out of arrows, they used signs to communicate the fact that, even though they were out of arrows, they could still use rocks to break bones if the Matsigenka tried to approach. Matsigenka school teacher Mauro Metaki took a photograph of the Mashco-Piro warriors at “Playamaschos” and recovered several of their large, distinctive arrows.

Mauro Metaki showing large Mashco-Piro arrows fired at him in 2005 (left), compared with smaller Matsigenka arrows (right)  (Photo: Glenn Shepard)

More recently, people from apparently the same Mashco-Piro group were captured on dramatic video footage asking for food and metal tools from the indigenous community of Monte Salvado on the Piedras River.

3. A Tale of Two Contacts:

The Brazilian Federal Indian agency, FUNAI, has been criticized over its handling of the recent contact with the Txapanawa people in Acre, referred to by FUNAI as the “isolated peoples of the Xinane River.” In an interview with the BBC, American anthropologist Kim Hill dismisses FUNAI agents as “quasi-amateur… with no medical, anthropological or epidemiological training.” Sensational headlines on a Brazilian news site declared that the Xatanawa “could be exterminated due to FUNAI’s lack of competence."

And yet the situation of the Mashco-Piro in Peru is far more grave, since there is no governmental organization like Brazil’s FUNAI with funding (however limited), institutional structures and experienced field agents. José Carlos Meirelles,
who was himself wounded by a Txapanawa arrow in 2004, spent more than 20 years living in Acre and documenting the situation of isolated peoples. He retired from FUNAI in 2010 but has continued to advise younger employees throughout the tense Xatanawa contact. 

FUNAI's “Department of Isolated and Recently Contacted Indians,” where Meirelles worked, was created in 1987, and within Brazil it is solely responsible for identifying and protecting isolated indigenous peoples. FUNAI only initiates contact in cases of imminent threat, as was case for the Txapanawa earlier this year, and the Korubo eight years prior. In 1990, under the leadership of Sydney Possuelo, FUNAI specifically banned missionary groups from being involved in contacts with isolated peoples.  

FUNAI developed partnerships with NGOs such as Centro de Trablho Indigenista (CTI), Comissão Pró-Índio Acre (CPI/AC) and Kanindé and received funding from agencies like the Moore Foundation and USAid to set aside and monitor vast “Ethno-Environmental Protection Fronts” in Acre, the Javari River basin, Rondonia, and other remote areas that harbor biodiversity as well as isolated indigenous populations.

Yet anthropologist Robert Walker worries that such a 'hands-off' attitude implies risks of its own: “Everywhere you look, there are these pressures from mining, logging, narcotrafficking and other external threats. My worry is that if we have this ‘leave-them-alone’ strategy, at the end of the day the external threats will win. People will just go extinct.”

Predictably, soon after the Txapanawa were contacted, they fell ill with viral respiratory infections, to which they had little immunity. Overcoming budgetary limitations and bureaucratic hurdles, FUNAI quickly developed, in collaboration with a special Indian health division (SESAI) in Brazil’s Health Ministry, an emergency response team consisting of indigenous translators, FUNAI agents including Meirelles and Guilherme Dalto Siviero, and the physician Douglas Rodrigues of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the medical school of the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP). Rodrigues studied under Robert Baruzzi, a pioneer of preventative health for indigenous peoples who worked with legendary Brazilian indigenist Orlando Villas Boas in implementing health care in the Xingu Indigenous Park in the 1960s.

FUNAI has been trying for over a decade to develop a partnership with the Peruvian government to deal with the precarious situation along the Peru-Brazil border over issues ranging from isolated indigenous groups (who cross unaware back and forth across the porous, forested border) to a growing problem with illegal logging and drug trafficking. Just last week, an Ashaninka indigenous leader in Peru was assassinated near the Brazil border, apparently over his denunciations of illegal logging in his people’s territory.

Only recently, however,
has concrete progress been made. In March of this year, FUNAI signed formal terms of cooperation with Peru's Ministry of Culture. Meirelles subsequently visited Peru to carry out reconnaissance flights along the Peru-Brazil border, gather and share other evidence on isolated  populations, and begin developing a joint work plan. Information provided by the recently contacted Txapanawa confirmed the existence of at least four more isolated groups nearby. The two countries are now collaborating on a mapping project.

The indigenous federation FENAMAD is also an important partner in this process, given their  important protagonism in documenting and calling attention to the situation of isolated peoples, especially in the Madre de Dios region.

By Peruvian environmental law, and unlike the situation in Brazil, the national park system specifically recognizes the territorial rights of indigenous peoples within even the most strictly protected “untouchable” natural protected areas like Manu National Park and Purus National Park, where isolated groups like the Mashco-Piro live. Thus Peru’s National Service for Natural Protected Areas (SERNANP) would be another logical partner in these ongoing collaborations. However because SERNANP focuses more on biodiversity, with few if any anthropologists on staff, the possibilities for dialog are limited.

On September 9, a large group of Mashco-Piros (a separate group from those observed days prior in Manu Park) approached the indigenous village of Monte Salvado, brandishing their bows and arrows and demanding food and assistance. Peruvian authorities remain largely absent from the scene and FUNAI continues its slow, top-down diplomatic negotiations. But according to FENAMAD, a film crew for Brazil’s TV Globo was on the scene in Monte Salvado even before any health care team was sent: human safaris, it seems, have won the day.


By Glenn Shepard and Felipe Milanez

This is the full text of a three-part series published by Indian Country Today:

More from this blog on isolated groups:

[1]. Note: original reports suggested these people were known as the Xatanawa, close relatives of the Chitonahua of Peru. However more conversations with the group carried out by FUNAI through translators suggest they belong to a distinctive group speaking a language with important dialect variations, and that their name should be rendered as Txapanawa (J.C. Meirelles, personal communication).
[2]: There is some ambiguity as to the precise ethnic group referred to by the term "Mashco," a generic term for "uncivilized" Indians, in documents from the turn of the 20th century; see Peter Gow’s “‘Stop annoying me’: A preliminary report on Mashco voluntary isolation,” presented in 2006 at Núcleo de Transformaçoes Indígenas/Abaeté, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
[3] Kaplan, Hilliard and Kim Hill. 1984. The Mashco-Piro nomads of Peru. AnthroQuest 29 (Summer 1984):1-16.
[4]: Hecht, Susana (2013) The Scramble for the Amazon and the ‘Lost Paradise’ of Euclides da Cunha, University of Chicago Press, p. 435; translated from da Cunha's Um Paraiso Perdido, pg. 164.


  1. Glenn,

    Can you confirm this? Around July, 2014 about 20 isolated Indians on the Peru side called it quits and voluntarily came in. Also about the same time, 60 isolated Indians did the same thing on the Brazil side. No mention if the tribe or clan were Mashco-Piro.

    1. The group who made headlines in July were not the Mashco-Piro but rather a Panoan-speaking people, closely related to the Yaminahua, Chitonahua and Yora or Nahua, and tentatively referred to as the Xatanawa. They live along the Peru-Brazil border. Several Xatanawa sought out neighboring Ashaninka communities for assistance and FUNAI ended up providing health care for about two dozen of them. Many more still remain in isolation. That story is told in greater detail in a series of blog postings as detailed here: However Mashco-Piro groups do circulate in this region as well: Thanks for your comment, I hope this information was helpful, Glenn

    2. Glenn,

      Don’t know if anyone tried this yet. A makeover of the 5:00 minute Mashco-Piro YouTube (Aidesep Fenamad) video. From the audio, translate the talk as precisely as possible and embed captions into a re-edited video version. There’s a lot of body language, head scratching, finger pointing at the camera and 4 top talkers standing in middle of the river arguing with the park rangers. I suspect it was more than banana diplomacy done wrong.

      Now I’m scratching my head at how guys like Lewis and Clark handled the Mississippi River Expedition. They did face to face meetings with all the tribes. As they went further north, Indians began to warn Lewis and Clark about the bully tribe. That would be the Lakota Sioux.


      NJ, USA

    3. That is an excellent suggestion, it would have to be done in collaboration with FENAMAD since they are in touch with possible Piro translators, and since they own rights to the image and also have received funding to work on this topic. As for Lewis & Clark, all I can say is, they were very different times. Lots of beads and "horse-trading," for sure, though in the end the deals and treaties didn't hold up once the settlers and the U.S. Cavalry moved in. Who were the bullies, after all? Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Glenn

  2. Glenn,

    Peru (AIDSEP) is going to implement drone fly over’s. Good idea?

    Tushevs Aerials ( traveled deep in the Peruvan Amazon to train indigenous leaders in the use of remote-control airplanes for the protection and monitoring of their rainforest.

    Not sure if 6 foot long Mashco-Piro arrows will knock it down. The idea is to enable communities to monitor and defend their territories against legal and illegal pressures.

    The drone in this video costs $15K USD. It crashed!


    NJ, USA

    1. Fascinating detail: the many uses of drones. As long as the controls and data are in the right hands, it could prove a cost-effective way of monitoring protected areas of all types. I bet a Mashco-Piro arrow could do some serious damage: and a drone is a big target for those used to shooting tinamous. Though usually not on the wing. Thanks for your informative comments, and for the YouTube link as well! Glenn

    2. Thanks again for the interesting suggestion. Hmmm... something tells me you're in the drone business...

  3. Glenn,

    Not the drone business….Surprise, Data Center Engineering.

    Another Mashco-Piro Video I never saw before. At the 1:14 mark (very short and fast), someone (photographer?) does something funny or tells a joke. Two Mashco-Piro men standing in the river, one guy is clueless, but the other guy gets it, starts laughing and cracking up.


    NJ USA