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.”
They ran. I followed. Doug brought up the rear, annoyed. Only when we were out of the bamboo, a half-mile closer to the village on a well-beaten trail, did we pause for a few minutes to catch our breath.
“What about our tree plot?” asked Doug, panting. Casiano responded in characteristic Matsigenka deadpan, “Katsi chakopi.” ‘Arrows hurt.’
It was November of 1999, the very eve of the Millenium, and we had just crossed paths with a small band of Mashco-Piro nomads. They are most likely descendents of the bellicose “Mashco” peoples (a generic term applied to several ethnic groups; 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) who were massacred and displaced beginning in 1894 when Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald, the legendary “King of Rubber” (Ernesto Reyna, Fitzcarraldo, el Rey del Caucho, 1941) immortalized in Werner Herzog’s film, hauled a steamship overland across an isthmus into the inaccessible Manu headwaters. Surviving Mashcos, including a group speaking a language similar to Piro—hence “Mashco-Piro”—abandoned their gardens and fled to the forest, subsisting on game and fruits and vigorously avoiding all contact with outsiders since then (Shepard et al, “Trouble in Paradise: Indigenous populations, anthropological policies, and biodiversity conservation in Manu National Park, Peru” in Journal of Sustainable Forestry 29: 2010). It is an extraordinary thing to consider, this encounter with nomadic hunter-gatherers at the turn of a century that had seen the miracle of space travel and the specter of nuclear holocaust. And yet to call such people “primitive” or “uncontacted” is something of a misnomer, since the Mashco-Piro and other isolated groups have not remained stuck in the Stone Age since time immemorial. Rather, they have resorted to “voluntary isolation” (Shepard’s 1996 report “Los grupos indígenas aislados del Río Piedras”) in modern times in order to survive. Indeed, the Mashco-Piro ironically epitomize modernity, having abandoned sedentary life and agriculture at the turn of the prior century to make way for rubber tappers feeding the global demand for automobile tires. More than a century later, they remain elusive and enigmatic.
One isolated population of Mashco-Piro has long been known to occupy the southern border of Manu Park along the upper Madre de Dios, west of Manu River (Kaplan and Hill, “The Mashco-Piro nomads of Peru” in AnthroQuest 29: 1984). People from the Piro community of Diamante kidnapped a six-year-old Mashco-Piro boy from this population around 1970 and raised him as one of them. Today, he remembers nothing of his original language, family or forest life. Three Mashco-Piro women emerged from isolation in the late-1970s and eventually married into local villages. In 1996, just as Mobil Oil began seismic exploration of the Piedras River, the Mashco-Piro were first sighted on the east bank of the Manu River. This is a separate, and much larger, population of Mashco-Piro who apparently migrated from the Piedras towards Manu to avoid Mobil’s seismic crews and helicopters (Shepard 1996; Shepard et al. 2010): once again, our cars evicted the Mashco-Piro from their territory. In 1999, when we were startled by the Mashco-Piro call, Mobil had just relinquished the Piedras concession and it was overrun by illegal loggers. From then on, Mashco-Piro sightings on the east bank of the Manu became even more frequent.
In late May 2005, a large group of Mashco-Piro from the Piedras population, likely fleeing from ongoing logging incursions, made a bold, high-visibility trek from the park guard post at Pakitsa through Cocha Cashu research station (foreign scientists had to abandon the station) and emerged in early June near the same place we had encountered them at Tayakome years before. The Matsigenka school teacher at Tayakome, Mauro Metaki, was on a fishing expedition and saw them on a stream bank. He called out and tried to approach. He was greeted by a shower of six-foot-long, bamboo-tipped arrows made with a characteristic twine wrapping. Their message was clear: more than a century after Fitzcarrald’s massacre, they still do not want to risk contact with outsiders and face the diseases, decimation and social degradation this process usually brings (Dora A Napolitano, “Towards understanding the health vulnerability of indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation in the Amazonian rainforest” in EcoHealth 4: 2007). When their arrows were spent, Mauro took a few blurry photographs from a safe distance.
This past November 23, 2011, an old Matsigenka friend, Shaco Flores was less fortunate: an identical twine-wrapped Mashco-Piro arrow pierced his heart. Since I first met Shaco in 1986, he has been trying to contact the Mashco-Piro population living on the southern border of Manu Park. Shaco married a Piro woman in Diamante and learned the Piro language, close enough to Mashco-Piro to allow intelligible conversation. In 1982, Shaco and some Piro confederates captured a Mashco-Piro man and his adolescent son, bound them and brought them to the village, and tried to convince them of the benefits of civilization. The father-son pair refused all food, water, gifts and conversation and were finally set free. The only words the older man spoke during the ordeal were, “Leave me alone” (Kim MacQuarrie, El Paraíso Amazónico del Perú, 1992; cited in Gow 2006). In the mid-1980s, Shaco guided anthropologists Hilliard Kaplan and Kim Hill (1984) in their study of abandoned Mashco-Piro campsites. Until his death last November, Shaco continued to visit their camps, leave them gifts and attempt communication.
Missionary groups, adventure tourists and intrepid natives have tried to approach the Mashco-Piro over the past twenty years, while illegal loggers may have attacked them. But none achieved the level of communication that Shaco had. By the time of his death in late 2011, Shaco maintained fairly regular verbal communication with the Mashco-Piro, albeit always at a distance. He left them pots, pans, knives and machetes as enticements. He planted a garden across the river from his house, on the fringes of their territory, and allowed them to gather and eat crops there. It was in this garden that a Mashco-Piro bowman ambushed him. I arrived in Shaco’s village only three weeks later and spoke with surviving family members and friends about what had happened. Some blame illegal loggers for stirring up the Mashco-Piro’s hostility, some blame Manu Park for not supporting Shaco’s efforts, others say a faction among the Mashco-Piro distrusted Shaco and chose to terminate the imminent prospect and hazard of contact. Some are quietly considering revenge.
Shaco’s death is a tragedy: he was a kind, courageous and knowledgeable man. He believed he was helping the Mashco-Piro. And yet in this tragic incident, the Mashco-Piro have once again expressed their adamant desire to be left alone. The situation presents a tremendous dilemma to the Peruvian government agency, INDEPA, charged with protecting isolated groups, since it provides justification for different groups—missionaries, loggers, local communities—with a vested interest in seeing the Mashco-Piro contacted and “civilized” once and for all. In the meantime, adventure-seeking tourists have approached dangerously close to the Mashco-Piro while film crews have brought contagious diseases to other isolated groups (Shepard, “The reality (TV) of vanishing lives” in Anthropology News 49: 2008). New roads threaten to open the region to more incursions by loggers, miners and colonists.
[I]n this tragic incident, the Mashco-Piro have once again expressed their adamant desire to be left alone.
In the aftermath of Shaco’s death, INDEPA has redoubled its efforts and is seeking government and international support to expand its activities. Funding is urgently needed to identify and defend isolated groups’ territories, develop emergency action plans and educate local communities about the many dangers of forcing contact upon peoples who have chosen isolation as a form of self-defense (Scott Wallace, The Unconquered: In search of the Amazon’s last uncontacted tribes, 2011).
Glenn H Shepard Jr can be followed at Notes from the Ethnoground. For full bibliographic information of the references cited, contact the author at gshepardjr[at]gmail.com.