The internet is abuzz this morning with news that a previously undiscovered tribe has been found in the remote Javari Valley region of Brazil, on the Peruvian border. There are an estimated 70 “undiscovered” tribes left in the world, people who have not ever made contact with the civilized world — most of them from the Amazon rainforest of Western Brazil — and so the existence of even one more tribe is rare and exciting news. The last discovery of an uncontacted tribe came two years ago, when unknown Indians in Brazil came out of the trees to try to shoot down a government photographer’s plane with arrows.
Yesterday morning, I was video-chatting with a friend in Australia, where it was late at night. The other day, I ate plums that were grown in Chile. Lord knows which sea the fish I eat comes from, or what brown hand sews my shirts. As fond as we are of musing about our rapidly shrinking, ever more interconnected globe, it is important to remember that there are still people in the world who exist outside of both our economy and our knowledge. There are villages where no Coca-Cola t-shirts hang on laundry lines, no hunter runs the forest in Reeboks, where no white anthropologist plays with the children between notes in his orange book. These people are neither fighting with oil companies nor being taught how to grow sustainable shade-grown coffee by non-profit do-gooders. As far as we know, these uncontacted tribes have no idea that we, the rest of the world, exist. Civilizations have risen and fallen, monuments and cities have been built, been demolished, and regrown on the rubble; world wars have been fought and revolutions both violent and scientific, artistic, philosophical, and musical have shaken governments and their people; empires have stretched their tentacles into almost every crevice of the Earth. The Eighties happened. Beyonce recently dropped her hot new single. Man landed on the moon. But for a few villages in the Amazon, none of this is true. Their reality does not include us, or what we call “history.” Their world is still the fish at the end of the spear. It is the dragonfly and its god, the rainwater and the fruiting of the blue-flowered tree, and the one and only language.
We also know that we cannot contact these tribes, because of the risk of contagion. When the Matis people of Brazil made first contact with the government after years of avoiding them as an enemy, more than half the tribe died of pneumonia; a modern-world retelling of the story of thousands of European/Indian contacts throughout history. The recently-discovered tribe in the Vale do Javari will remain a mystery to us, and we to them; we may never learn their names or customs or language, nor gain their unique knowledge of their remote corner of the planet. In fact, because we will not attempt to contact them, nor the eight to two dozen other uncontacted species in the Javari, we’ll never be able to see their forest home nor the flora and fauna therein. This got me thinking: If we never make contact with the new tribe, what else will we never contact? Brazil is second only to Indonesia in number of endemic species, and the Amazon rainforest is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. It seems logical that there would be at least a dozen species endemic only to that region. The Unknown People know what they are. Can we, sight unseen?
The Vale do Javari is named for the Javari River that represents the border between Brazil and Peru, and is part of Brazil’s largest state, Amazonas. There is relatively little available information on the Vale, but regionally, the upper Javari River is Brazil’s center for diversity for mammals (257 species, 11 endemic) and birds (782 species, 17 endemic). The forest is relatively flat here, the trees tall, the air hot and muggy. Caimans drift with the sluggish currents in the streams, and tapirs push aside the broad palm leaves with their snouts. The jaguar lays belly-down on a low tree-branch, waiting to rain death on a passing capybara on her way to the river’s lily pool. In the trees, there are cities of monkeys: squirrel monkeys, woolly monkeys, emperor tamarins and brown capuchins and white-faced sakis. And just across the river from the unknown peoples, in Peru — and possibly within their territory as well — is a sulking monkey with no large city of its own, but secretive tribes that hide in the flooded swampland. For a creature with a head as bright and red as a stoplight, it does a remarkably good job of hiding, for it is one of the rarest monkeys in the world, living in one of the world’s most inaccessible habitats.
It is the Bald Uakari, one of four uakari monkeys in the Amazon, all of which are endangered. What sets this one apart is the brilliant crimson hue of its hairless pate, which is caused not by pigmentation but by a lack of such; the sanguine color is simply an unobstructed view of an abundance of capillaries close to the surface of the skin. Uakaris are continuously blushing. (A cooling mechanism, perhaps, in addition to an indicator of health.) For New World monkeys, which are generally known for their impressive and sometimes prehensile tails, bald uakaris have relatively short tails, which is a perplexity considering their arboreal lifestyle. Their teeth are specially adapted to crush hard nuts that would be inaccessible to other monkeys. In troupes of 5 to 30, they patrol their large territory in search of seeds that have not yet fallen into the swollen rivers below, occasionally whooping to signal their presence to other tribes.
But there are fewer tribes to answer now. Logging has annihilated most of the uakari’s homeland, even with Peru and Brazil’s network of nature preserves in place and stricter laws in place. Even as logging and habitat destruction in Amazonas has declined sharply since the days of lawless slash-and-burn in the 1980′s and 1990′s, so have the uakari’s numbers continued to decline. Deforestation kills swiftly and its impact on a population continues far into the future; even as the forest recovers, the uakari community has not. First contact with the civilized world was too severe, like an outbreak of pneumonia that cannot be put back in Pandora’s box.
Logging, gold mining, oil drilling and farming are four of the threats that constitute one reason the Brazilian government is keeping the location of the latest uncontacted, unnamed tribe a secret. Once the tribe is known, I suppose they reason, they can be exploited, bought or even killed. With most conservation efforts, the reasoning goes, a species, tribe, or place can only be saved once it is known and understood. In this case, the tribe’s complete secrecy is the key to its survival. So long as we remain ignorant of them, and they of us, we can maintain a truce. By agreeing to not make contact, we cannot visit on them the germs, guns, machines or ideas that make up the plagues of the modern world. In turn, tens and thousands of plants and animals that live in the Javari Valley are now dependent on this hunter-gatherer tribe for their existence.
Does the bald uakari, native to the general area, live in the treetops above the unknown tribe’s fishing grounds? We do not know. We also do not know what frogs and beetles perch on the dewdrops, what orchids and snakes drape the tree branches, or what secret birds may fly between corded lianas that tie the forest together. Knowing that we are the bringers of death, the survival of countless — literally, countless — species now hinges on our intentional and peaceful ignorance. We must not learn this tribe’s language, codify its tattoos, or seek its wisdom, or else we will bring with us the pests and armies that inevitably spell destruction. There are still people on Earth, and places on Earth, that dwell outside our maps and encyclopedias; still undiscovered species that stalk unchartered valleys, and exist without our names. What we do not understand is still worth saving. Sometimes what we don’t know won’t kill them.