There's a wonderful moment in The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes when the author, Scott Wallace, deep in the Brazilian Amazon accompanying a government expedition, finds himself staring at a path apparently made by indigenous people living without any contact with outsiders.
But to Wallace the path was invisible: 'I saw nothing but mud and leaves.'
'How do you know there's a path there?' he asked the expedition leader, Sydney Possuelo.
'I can't explain it to you,' snapped Possuelo. 'You either see it or you don't. If you're familiar with what you're looking for, you see it; if not, you don't.'
At times, The Unconquered, published towards the end of last year by Crown, can almost be read as a kind of primer in how to identify the existence of these 'uncontacted' people, although, as Wallace himself notes, most if not all of them have actually had contact with outsiders at some point in the past. Paths like the one that escaped Wallace's notice, footprints, abandoned camps, gardens, broken twigs, food remains, even bark peeled from a tree. . . None of this is to be sniffed at, or dismissed as merely 'anecdotal' or 'circumstantial.' This is all important information that allows people like Possuelo, a legendary Brazilian explorer who has spent years in the Amazon, and his colleagues to demonstrate that such 'uncontacted tribes' really do exist.
If only Peru's president, Ollanta Humala, could read The Unconquered.
If only his predecessor Alan Garcia, who claimed in 2007 that the 'unconnected' people in the Amazon had been 'invented by environmentalists', could read it too.
If only researchers from a consultancy, Daimi, contracted by an Anglo-French oil company, Perenco, could read it as well. Despite a considerable amount of evidence collected by anthropologists and others of the existence of no contactados, as they're sometimes called, in a region in northern Peru where Perenco is building a pipeline, Daimi issued a report in 2008 claiming its researchers could find no evidence of them at all - a claim that Perenco now uses to parry criticisms of its operations.
'No information exists that demonstrates or suggests the existence of isolated indigenous people in the area under investigation,' stated Daimi's report.
One of the researchers sent into the Amazon by Daimi was Ruben Wong Robles, who I met in Lima last year. We hadn't sat down before he announced that the claim there were no contactados in the area where Perenco is working was 'fiction.'
But Wong is an archaeologist. Did he know what to look for? Might he have stood there, like Wallace, on a path made by the no contactados and seen nothing but mud and leaves?
Other Daimi researchers did find evidence of the no contactados - only none of it was included in the 2008 report.
According to Wallace, a Portuguese version of The Unconquered is due out this year.
But no news on a Spanish translation. Not yet, anyway. Dedos cruzados. . .
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