Controversy around "uncontacted" tribe photos

Last month, this photo was released of an "uncontacted" tribe in the Amazon rain forest. It's an amazing photo, but it's now come out that the tribe had actually been known since 1910. The photographer, José Carlos Meirelles, went to where they were thought to live specifically to take their pictures. Meirelles works for Funai, the Brazillian Indian Protection Agency, and apparently was trying to attract publicity to help protect indigenous people in the area. Meanwhile, a post on the blog of Survival International, the indigenous rights group which works with Funai, denies that there's been any wrongdoing on their part at all. From The Observer:
 Images  News 2008 05 Images 080530-Uncontacted-Tribes-Photo Big Survival International, the organisation that released the pictures along with Funai, conceded yesterday that Funai had known about this nomadic tribe for around two decades. It defended the disturbance of the tribe saying that, since the images had been released, it had forced neighbouring Peru to re-examine its logging policy in the border area where the tribe lives, as a result of the international media attention. Activist and former Funai president Sydney Possuelo agreed that – amid threats to their environment and doubt over the existence of such tribes – it was necessary to publish them.

But the revelation that the existence of the tribe was already established will provoke awkward questions over why a decision was made to try to photograph them – a form of contact in itself – in order to make a political point. Link (Thanks, Sean Ness!)
From Survival International:
The only people who ever claimed that the Indians photographed were ‘lost’ or ‘undiscovered’ were…. the press, despite the fact that Survival has been campaigning for the protection of the many isolated Indian tribes on the Peru-Brazil border for more than twenty years.

Indeed, you might have thought that the fact that the Indians are living in a government reserve set aside for isolated Indian groups would tend to indicate that they weren’t exactly ‘unknown’.

For the avoidance of doubt, let’s just make it clear – yes, the tribe is uncontacted, that is to say, has no peaceful contact with outsiders. But no, they’re not ‘lost’ – they know where they are, and anthropologists, Survival, other NGOs and the Brazilian government have known that there are many isolated Indian tribes living in that region for decades. Link
Previously on BB:
• Uncontacted tribe in Amazon Link


  1. Seems a little silly to be debating the point of whether he “should” or “should not” disturb them with his aeroplane. The whole point of this disturbance was to save their “natural habitat” since it is threatened by logging, correct?

    Had no policies been changed, far worse than a flyby would have occurred. They would have tried to kill the loggers, and they would have been “integrated”. Forcefully.

    An interesting point though, by declaring this area their natural habitat, it seems as though we are saying these particular humans require special protection. Why does this then not apply to other tribes and peoples around the world? What is the defining line where you leave a people alone, when they’ve heard about a telephone? Are wearing second-hand novelty t-shirts? “Need” electricity in their village?

    And why are we accounting these homo sapiens special treatment when others around the planet are not afforded that same treatment – is it because this tribe is ignorant of the destruction their fellow sapiens are causing? Perhaps they’ve already noticed changes. If not, they’ll find out about the environmental damage soon enough…..

  2. I hereby declare myself undiscovered. The government is now obligated to leave me alone.

  3. There is this quaint, but dangerous, myth among its professionals that journalism (in practice, not in theory) is about presenting an objective and noble truth.

    What a crock. It is about getting eyeballs and eardrums. If the headline was “primitive tribe faces modernity”, it would have gotten a sigh (at most) from just about every casual consumer of news. “Oh, there goes another one.”

    But “here are photos of an tribe uncontaminated by modern times” is much more compelling. I’m sure Hollywood scriptwriters are in their second drafts of possible movie scenarios.

    I mean, why did BoingBoing latch onto the story in the first place? Was it because the photo was of a primitive tribe, or because it was an undiscovered tribe?

    It doesn’t (in any way) make their plight any less desperate, but it speaks volumes about how we, as individuals in a global civilization, seek out vital information, and what we think is important.

  4. no, they’re not ‘lost’ – they know where they are

    Next you’ll be saying that Columbus didn’t discover America.

  5. Here’s why:

    Meirelles, one of only five or so genuine sertanistas, has no regrets, arguing that the pictures and video released to the world were powerful and indisputable evidence to those who say isolated tribes no longer exist. ‘Alan García [the President of Peru] declared recently that the isolated Indians were a creation in the imagination of environmentalists and anthropologists – now we have the pictures.’

    Seems like a good reason to me.

  6. “And why are we accounting these homo sapiens special treatment when others around the planet are not afforded that same treatment – is it because this tribe is ignorant of the destruction their fellow sapiens are causing?”

    Sounds like a good enough reason to me.

  7. There is no revelation. There may have been some media misunderstanding, but from the beginning, Survival International and FUNAI (the Brazilian Government National Indian Foundation) have not said that the tribe was ‘unknown’. The tribe was and remains ‘uncontacted’: no outsider has been known to have any peaceful contact with its members.

    This is true of about 100 tribes worldwide. Since the photographs were released, Peru has acknowledged the lands of uncontacted tribes on its side of the border, and sent a team to investigate the illegal logging that threatens their survival.

    Find out more about the world’s uncontacted tribes at and read Survival’s article on the supposed hoax at

    Survival International

  8. The first missing question is that: is it fair to create zoos of human people? Would any of you “civilized guys” agree to be put in a reservation without right to education or medical care, condemned to live as a “pre-neolithic native” (including live expectancy of about 40 years)?

    The second missing question is: is it fair or right to make such reservations bigger than France to hold no more than 80.000 subjects and no more than 20.000 “uncontacted natives”? Interesting point (since France was mentioned) is that this country have a colony in the region and treats their native so well that they’re evading to Brazil…

    The third untold question is: why to put those reserves in the border of the country and in strategic areas rich of mineral reserves? Would USA put “indian reservations” in the frontier with Mexico? Or in Texas just over oil fields (just to give an example). For USA and EU behavior against other less favored people, like the Iraqis, I don’t think the respect for human beings is the core of the problem.

    The fourth intriguing question is: if USA is so concerned about environment, why they don’t start doing housekeeping? Why they don’t start to recover their own environment? But, if they need someone else land to preserve, why they’re not willing to pay for that?

    For us down here, people like Possuelo are not heroes. They are just mercs at the service of foreign powers. Or, best hypothesis, taking care of their academic lives at the cost of people’s lives.

    It is also false that the natives preserve environment. On the contrary, many of the reservations where places of extraction of mahogany and even in Rondônia they’ve transformed lots of rain forest into pastures.

    So, I think it is necessary to put things in the proper places: USA and EU discovered that the Amazonian region is sub-populated and rich in natural resources and are planing “autonomy movements” in the region.

  9. I subbed this story for a major British newspaper… Uncontacted was always the word we used, never undiscovered.
    It was clear on the newswire reports of this story that the tribe had been known about for years but simply never been contacted.
    There is nothing in this new article that wasn’t in the original reports.

  10. Why the rush to standardise everything? These people are unique and that is a worth in itself. Sure, first I think, wouldn’t they like to be told about modern medicine and television and plumbing and other commodities? Then I think about what that kind of intereference from civilised Europeans always did to primitive nations. Are we smarter now than centuries ago? Do we know how to better the life of those people without reorganising their economy to the point where their normal survival methods no longer apply, smothering their culture with our own and forcing them to adapt to a rat race they are not prepared to run?

    I’m not so sure we are. I think leaving them the hell alone is the best thing that can be done here.

  11. Ok, so… to leave them alone (about 20.000 in all Brazil) it is necessary to reserve an area bigger than France?

    But, again, the problem is: are they willing to be left alone? Are they really alone?

    It is easy to keep talking about how good primitive life is when you live in a society where there are 2.5 cars/people and that burns about 40% of all the oil in the world. But I just don’t see the enthusiasts of the “primitive life” throwing away their mobiles and their LCD TVs and other amenities of modern life.

    Fact is we can reach an agreement: if USA wants so badly the natives, we can give knowledge on how to make natural reservations the size of France inside US territory and after that we would gladly send the 20.000 natives to live inside it, without the evil influence of “white men”. To make things fair, reservations (which must be continuous territory) can be in the frontier between US and Canada. Just don’t complain if you see utter devastation, drug traffic and smugglery in the borders… Neither if you have to increase taxes to pay for health, food and security of people who don’t work. Neither if they start invading neighbor areas arguing that they need those for their survival. Neither if they refuse Federal Authority, even in cases of crimes like rape and murder.

  12. I questioned the veracity of these reports when they first appeared here.

    How sad that my cynicism is now proven to have been insight.

    Journalism used to value facts above all else. Even the commercial pop journalists would confine themselves to the facts, just cherry-picking the ones that would attract more eyes and ears.

    Nowadays, however, it seems to be common practice for a journalist to deliberately mislead the audience in service of what they deem “a good cause”.

    I say that’s propaganda. It’s wrong, and no less so if it stems from the right intentions.

  13. As I told before, the one who wants a “multitude of cultures” can host them all in his own country and pay for it (both direct and indirect costs).

    In the XIX Century, on the allegation of the need for “civilizing the natives” Europe devastated Africa and a great extension of Asia. In Africa they (the Europeans) were so utterly destructive that they left the region without any chance of development. They were worse than a combination of Gengis Khan, Atila, Anibal and Vlad Tepesh.

    Now, in the XXI Century the discourse is reversed but the purpose is the same: it is necessary to find areas with natural resources (water included in the package) that can be exploited in order to fulfill the needs of US and Europe.

    The discourse is clear: the natives are endangered and national governments don’t give a dime for them, so it is necessary to send international troops to secure them. After that, it is necessary to bill the invaded countries for the “war expenses”.

    That’s exactly what have been done in Iraq: first it was a lie (mass destruction weapons), then a second lie (Hussein was dictator and the Iraqi refugees in US were democrats and popular in their own country), then there was war and now all Iraq oil virtually belongs to USA companies.

    People like Wade Davis just create convincing lies that justify colonialism.

  14. If only we had some method of conveyance that would allow us to study (and photograph) primitive people without disturbing them. Something that would allow us to remain unidentified. Something made for flying silently through the air. Hmmmm… what amazing things we could do with such an object.

  15. Ok, so… to leave them alone (about 20.000 in all Brazil) it is necessary to reserve an area bigger than France?

    Perhaps not, I wouldn’t know. I’m not trying to justify the method.

    But, again, the problem is: are they willing to be left alone? Are they really alone?

    The only way to be certain is to ask them, which would forfeit everything. But since they have not gone out far enough to meet other people, my guess is, no, they don’t particularly want to explore further. Why can’t we let them develop at their own pace? If they need to develop at all. This is nothing like taking my computer and phone away and dropping me in the middle of the jungle, that comparison won’t fly (and for the record I’m not in the US, either, so. Many Americans I know would consider my country grossly under-developed:P)

    Once we walk in with our modern tools and our need for a lot of money to survive, these people won’t stand a chance. They will be reduced to fighting for survival in a world they don’t know- just like I would be miserable in the raw jungle with poisonous plants and weird bugs, they probably won’t be happy in a big city with taxes, laws, and 9-5 jobs for minimum wage. I’m equipped to cope with this world. They are not. So let’s not force them into it- and let’s not go trampling their world with our tourist boots on, either.

  16. @14:
    I agree. It’s disturbing that conflation, distortion and/or outright re-writing of the facts is becoming an acceptable standard practice in journalism.

    Don’t actually report the facts. Don’t distinguish between shades of grey. Just go ahead and lie your head off. The ends always justify the means as long as it gets you an audience with the government and a spike in online donations.

  17. About the Bibles, no need to worry… there are more than 100.000 (one hundred thousand) non-government agencies operating in Amazonas on “behalf of the natives”. Considering that there are no more than 80.000 natives and no more than 20.000 of them are “non-contacted” (at lest in regular basis), there are more than 1 organization per native.

    Most of these organizations are religious and they do care to distribute Bibles and other material to the “natives”.

    They work, most of time, against the laws of the country, entering in the reservations without consent of government for purposes of bio-piracy, evangelization (either religious and political) and other criminal or unethical purposes. Their source of financing is unclear and most of time illegal.

  18. So these indigenous peoples haven’t ever seen an modern outsider and they’re being used as pawns in a political game? Why can’t we treat them as humans?

  19. This is a difficult subject for certain. We as a species have seen so many native peoples and their cultures disappear due to interference that it’s hard to say what the right course of action is.

    They’ve been left alone until now, well until it was decided to use them as a conservationist PR move at least. It’s in the hands of the Brazilian government as it seems the only thing that threatens their way of life is illegal logging anyway which needs to be stopped with or without them being there.

  20. Poor bastards. Living like animals, denied modern medical care, potable drinking water, sanitation facilities. Worse still for their children, who are likely being denied the chance life they could have had…

  21. About the controversy: there is none. The only thing it make it clear is that the boing boing editors (and most of the media for that matter) did not read at length the original news, falling for the easy trap of romanticizing the story. They were always “intentional photographs of a uncontactected tribe for the purpose of raising awareness of the danger the nature reserve”, never an “accidental encounter with a undiscovered tribe”.

    For all other quick commenters about whether or not they are being “denied health care” you are falling on the same trap. This is not how it work, see survival international for the history of what happens when those tribes are forced into contact.

    Finally for those questioning the need for a reserve: This is a natural reserve, the will to preserve it goes well beyond the fact that there are people. If the presence of the tribe can help protect the greater area then they deserve their title as protectors of the jungle.

  22. I didn’t read the press but had Brazillian friends tell me about it when these photos came out and they described it precisely as it is back then. The existence of these was known, they were tracked but left uncontacted. (Therefore the reserve)

    I don’t see the controversy, looks like plain old bad/sensationalist reporting to me.

  23. Illegal logging is still illegal.

    The article i rread said “uncontacted” which is very different from “undiscovered”

    And arguments accusing more developed nations of hypocrisy aren’t much help. More like developing nations are pointing out their mistakes to less developed nations. We screwed up, but we know some better ways to do it, now.

  24. The need for reserves is simple: a way of alienating Brazilian (and Peruvian/Venezuelan/etc) governments from the control over these areas.

    The natives are not protectors of jungle. On the contrary, in the states of Goiás, Mato Grosso, Tocantins and even Rondônia they’ve sold wood and minerals in a model that made some “caciques” very rich and most other natives ruined. In Rondônia they have cattle and rice. The myth of the “fighters of the jungle” and “protectors of jungle” serves well for those that say that they’re not Brazilians and they must have autonomy.

    Let’s see the facts: the State of Amazonas is bigger than all Spain, France and Germany put together. Marajó Island is bigger than the GB. Devastation in Amazonas state is less than 2% of total territory.

    The places where devastation is significant (Mato Grosso, Goiás, Tocantins and the south of Pará) don’t have significant number of insulated natives. Devastation has been caused by the rise of the price of commodities in international markets. Most of land stolen from forest has been used to raise cattle or to cultivate soy, rice and other products like that. Much of the land is held by trans-national companies.

    One of the reasons that moved agro-business to the “Centro Oeste” and north regions of Brazil is that they’re using fertile lands of the South and South-West regions for the production of alcohol.

    So, in order to preserve forests it is necessary to limit the demand of meat, soy, corn, rice and alcohol in the foreign markets…

  25. BTW, the accusation is not of hypocrisy but of greed. The wish to control and use (for free, of course) the resources of that region.

  26. #16 Usual Suspect

    I really don’t get the point you are making about this story’s coverage here (other than a generic point about the media), or the bitterness you appear to have about it. In the original BB story, and the links to further articles from it (including from the comments), the tribe is clearly described as “uncontacted”, not that the tribe was “undiscovered” or “unknown”. Maybe your issue is with other news outlets than the ones linked-to by BB.

    And besides, even if they were contacted in 1910 (we don’t know that, just that they are ‘known’ since then), they are still a hundred years out of touch, and none of the original contactees likey survives. Also it’s the most significant hundred years (for changes in lifestyle and technology) in human history, so it’s a massive deal either way.

    A statement by Survival International, a tribal-rights group, quoted Jos Carlos dos Reis Meirelles of FUNAI as saying the photo was taken to “show they are there, to show they exist.”
    – Nat Geo.

    Among the key questions: … are they truly uncontacted in the first place?
    – Nat Geo.

    The Brazilian government says it took the images to prove the tribe exists and help protect its land.
    – BBC

    “We did the overflight to show their houses, to show they are there, to show they exist,” the group quoted Jose Carlos dos Reis Meirelles Junior, an official in the Brazilian government’s Indian affairs department, as saying.
    “This is very important because there are some who doubt their existence.”

    – BBC

    It’s pretty clear that their existence was known, and that the photos were taken to secure their land from commercial interests.

  27. Most of lands in the region (Amazonas, Rondônia, Roraima, Amapá and Acre) belong to the “República Federativa do Brasil” (Federal Government). In Mato Grosso, Goiás, south of Pará, Acre and north of Maranhão most lands are private. They have belonged to Brazil since our independence of Portugal, except for Acre that was bought from Bolivia in XIX Century.

    Groups like “Survival International” have used the term “nation” and other terms in order to make people believe that the natives are not Brazilians and that they may ask for independence or sovereignty. That would be the first step for the internationalization of that part of Brazil.

    The fact is that in all our country we have about 700.000 “índios” and of these less than 50.000 cannot be considered as integrated (“aculturados”). Brazil has about 190 million people… Manaus (capital of Amazonas) has about 1.5 million inhabitants.

    Obviously this discourse of “autonomy” is not acceptable. It would be like postulating that Texas belongs to Mexico and was stolen by American rascals that made good use of General Sta. Maria vanity and greed… a distortion of history.

    These groups (like Survival International) use people with communist background and good relations with left wing terrorist movements in the Continent and drug barons.

    The idea of the communists is that once the region is freed from Brazil it will be easy to align to the FARCs, Chavez and the “Castro Family”.

    The idea of the groups like Survival International is that once the region is freed, it is easy to use Blackwater services to get rid of the communists.

    Anyways, the natives will be screwed. Like the Iraqis the marines went to save :)

    So, I’m not bitter. It is just that for a Brazilian this subject, as exposed by international media, is highly offensive.

  28. Let me say clearly that you appear to me to subscribe to a worldview regarding international conspiracy that even I find incredible. I suggest you review my own comments to fully understand that you are speaking with someone whose name appears under “paranoid cynicism” if you look it up.

    “Obviously this discourse of “autonomy” is not acceptable.” Why not? In the Canadian example,for instance, land claims are being settled even now – because it is patently obvious the land was never purchased or treatied away. You begin wiht the assumption that the Indians have no right to the land they have always lived on. Is Brazilian law and justice based on naked theft?

  29. The same way US and most countries laws are…

    Let’s face it: native population in US was brought to extinction by genocidal wars. Except for allowing casinos in the reservations I don’t see US government and people concerned in “giving back” what was stolen from the Indians. I also don’t see the French very concerned in paying back to the gipsies for the ones they sent to concentration camps during WW-II. So on and so forth…

    The concepts of possession and property cannot be applied to the “isolated” Indians. They don’t stay in the land long enough to characterize possession and they don’t claim to own the land. That’s not the case of the integrated Indians that effectively own lands. Nothing can be done if they sell the lands they own…

    On the other side, most of the lands of the region were traded in the XIX century by Portuguese immigrants and people from the north-east of Brazil. There are documents for they were used in the treaties Brazil established with England, Netherlands and France to fix the frontiers. More recently, many lands were traded (sold) by our government to farmers from Rio Grande do Sul.

    For the “isolated” Indians we have a policy of land reservations. These land reservations belong to the Federal Government and so cannot be sold or used by non “isolated” Indians.

    The problem is that, as anyone can understand, the number of “isolated” Indians is rapidly decreasing. So, keeping reservations with the size of Portugal to keep 3.600 “isolated” indians (as Raposa Serra do Sol) is ridiculous.

    About autonomy: here we have greed again. Could you imagine a state with the size of Portugal populated by 3600 Indians??? The untold truth is that they’re sitting over the biggest known reserve of niobium. Like the poor Iraqis under the “savage dictatorship of Sadam” were sitting over some big reserves of oil.

  30. #31 arkizzle,

    I find it completely unlikely that this tribe went uncontacted for nearly a century, yet their existence and whereabouts were so well known that international organizations could “rediscover” them at a moment’s notice when it served their purpose to do so.

    That being said, you’re right. I am reacting to a trend which is much larger than this one tangential incident.

    Sorry about that, all.

  31. “Nuclear Weapons Program

    West Germany did not require IAEA safeguards, and following the 1975 agreement Brazil transferred technology from its power plant projects to a secret program to develop an atom bomb. Code-named “Solimões,” after a river in the Amazon, the secret program was started in 1975 and eventually came to be known publicly as the Parallel Program. In the beginning of the eighties, the Navy Nuclear Parallel Program began to expand, especially after the uranium enrichment process named jet nozzle (which, as part of the Agreement, was bound to be transferred to NUCLEBRAS) turned out to be infeasible. During the decade, the civilian nuclear program lagged behind. Meanwhile, parallel research for obtaining fuel cycle know-how was intensified.

    In 1987, José Sarney (president, 1985-90) announced that Brazil had enriched uranium successfully on a laboratory scale to 20 percent. At that time, some observers predicted that Brazil would have a nuclear-weapons capability by the turn of the century. On the eve of the promulgation of the 1988 Constitution – which submitted all nuclear activities to Congressional approval – NUCLEBRÁS was extinguished and the ‘Parallels’ became official and brought to the public through Decree-law nº2464 of August 31, 1988.

    President Fernando Collor de Mello took bold steps to control and restrict Brazil’s nuclear programs. In September 1990, he symbolically closed a test site at Cachimbo, in Pará State. That October, he formally exposed the military’s secret plan to develop an atom bomb. “

  32. A lot of Circuit II ‘territory’ rhetoric in this stream. Those cats seem like good neighbours, regardless. Manioc, banana, papaya, oh my…

Comments are closed.