In Search of the Last Undiscovered Indians of Brazil
It is amazing to discover that in a country as modern as Brazil at least fifteen totally unknown native Indian tribes live deep in the Amazon rainforest; no one can say what kind of language they speak, what they call themselves or what their customs are. In 1995 a group of semi-naked nomads was discovered only twenty kilometres from the inhabited world, in Rondônia, which lies across the main transit route for cocaine from Bolivia. Rapid tree clearance had caught them by surprise and stranded them in a small stretch of forest surrounded by pasture.
On behalf of Funai, the Brazilian government organisation for native peoples, the sertanista Marcelo – wilderness guide, explorer, ethnographer and human rights activist – led a mission to seek out the last native peoples of Rondônia. He is one of the key figures in journalist Ineke Holtwijk’s fascinating book. When she heard about the stranded Indians, she travelled to Rondônia and accompanied Marcelo on his expeditions. She studied the group of Indians for ten years, deeply moved as she witnessed their introduction to the western world.
The eleven natives turned out to be the last survivors of two primitive tribes and their reactions to modernity were very different. One family was inquisitive and eager, skilfully copying the whites. The other group, led by the clever shaman Babá, shunned the strange white people who answered the call of nature in holes in the ground and shot monkeys out of the trees with tubes that went bang.
Holtwijk immersed herself in the history of the Brazilian Indians, a history now tragically bound up with clear-felling. She talked to experts, among them a specialist in Indian languages who warns that Rondônia is going the way of California. Not one of the more than a hundred languages once spoken there by local Indians has survived.
Books about Amazonian Indians usually look at only one side of the story, whereas Holtwijk shows us the complex reality of the Amazon, with its drugs trade, advancing soya cultivation, illegal logging, corruption and increasingly bitter battles over land.
Holtwijk holds the reader’s attention on every page. Travel description and research form a seamless whole, with close attention to detail and atmosphere, so that the reader comes to dread the approaching dénouement. Holtwijk makes the tension, emotion and excitement of first contact tangible and explores the unavoidable dilemmas it presents. Is it not truly remarkable, the author notes with astonishment the first time she watches a confrontation, ‘to be able to witness our own pre-history’?