Sole survivor of Amazon tribe is most isolated man on Earth

He’s the last of his kind.

Nobody knows his name, nobody knows his tribe’s name, and nobody knows what happened to the rest of his people. The last man of an uncontacted tribe in the Amazon is now being protected from the outside world by the Brazilian government.

Officials have created a 31 square-mile exclusion zone in his patch of rain forest to keep out loggers, something local logging companies aren’t too happy about. In fact, nobody is allowed inside.

Isolated tribes have always fascinated outsiders. Early explorers tracked them down to photograph them, like this Amazonian tribesman photographed in the 1922 publication People of all Nations. Anthropologists have tried to contact the sole survivor of the unknown tribe for 15 years now, but he’s always shied away. Once an agent got too close and received an arrow in his chest.

A report by Slate says he’s the most isolated man on Earth. His patch of rain forest is now an island amid ranching and logging areas, a potent symbol of what’s happening to isolated tribes all around the world. Tribes that have little or no contact with outsiders are highly susceptible to disease and exploitation and there’s a growing movement to help them. For example, there’s an ongoing controversy in the Andaman Islands over a resort built near the Jarawa tribe. The government wants to close it in order to take pressure off this tribe of only 320 people.

Grim evidence suggests what may have happened to the unknown Amazonian’s people. He is known to build a distinctive style of hut, and a village of identical huts was found in the rain forest–run over by a bulldozer.

A flyover of another uncontacted tribe two years ago resulted in some dramatic photos showing the startled tribesmen shooting arrows at the airplane. While the media made a big hype about how they had probably never seen planes before, that seems unlikely. They’re simply protecting their territory from an outside world they perceive as dangerous and hostile. In other words, they want to be left alone.

Anthropologists told to get out of the wars

When anthropologists travel to foreign lands, it’s generally for an academic endeavor, intended to enrich the world as a whole. There’s a group in this community, however, with a much different mission … and they’re about to be out of work. Army anthropologists tasked to gather intelligence on the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq have been told to call it quits.

A new report by the American Anthropological Association’s ethics commission, entitled “Final Report on the Army‘s Human Terrain System Proof of Concept Program,” says that anthropologists can’t participate in this project any longer. It has involved embedding five-person social scientist teams with soldiers and has been going on since 2005. Three Human Terrain System research team members have been killed during this period.

The deaths, though, aren’t the reason why the association is calling for an end to the program. Rather, it believes that the research violates the “do no harm” ethics of the anthropology field, because there is a “significant likelihood that HTS data will in some way be used as part of military intelligence.”

The House Armed Services Committee is planning to hold hearings on the HTS program next year, in order to see how effective it’s been. Only six of the 49 social scientists involved in the program are anthropologists.

Museum Junkie: England’s most unique museum reopens

Oxford’s famous Pitt Rivers Museum has reopened this month after more than a year of remodeling.

The famous Victorian displays, a massive collection of diverse anthropological objects in a large gallery and two upper floors, have remained untouched, preserving an almost unique set of displays dating back more than a century.

One of the most popular cases is the one involving death rituals, which has a spooky group of skulls and shrunken heads. A display about smoking contains a Chinese opium pipe with some suspicious-looking resin and a diagram of how to make a pipe by poking a hole through the ground. The museum as an especially good collection of Native American art, such as this woodcut print entitled “Hungry Bear” by Coast Salish artist Jody Wilson, depicting a grizzly bear in the act of catching a salmon.

The collection started with a donation in 1884 of 20,000 objects from Lt.-Gen. Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers. He was interested in the evolution of objects and organized his collection typologically, placing all items of the same use into a single case in order to show the evolution of form within and across cultures. The collection now boasts half a million artifacts from hundreds of cultures. The cases are cluttered with objects, and below them are drawers that can be opened to reveal more artifacts. The staff hand out free flashlights (called torches in England) so visitors and peer into the deeper recesses of the cases where even more treasures are hidden.


This style of organization, so different from most modern museums, makes for a fascinating visit. For example, the case labeled Animal Forms in Art has dozens of animal representations from various cultures, some stylized, some realistic, some for worship, some for play. There’s an ancient Egyptian ram’s head made of wood, a nineteenth-century Danish piggybank, and a wooden owl carved by the Ainu about 1900 A.D., packed in with dozens of other objects.

An example of how objects can change their meaning over time is shown in drawer 29.3, labeled Amulets, Religious Artifacts, and Offerings. Inside are nine ushabti, little glazed figurines that the ancient Egyptians put in their tombs to act as servants in the afterlife. But these particular ones date from only a hundred years ago and were carried by Egyptian peasant men who went from village to village. Women would place them on the ground and jump over them in order to become fertile. One wonders if the wandering ushabti carriers had anything to do with it.

The whole effect of all the world’s objects crammed together in the same room is somewhat dizzying; even the walls and ceilings are decorated with totem poles, kayaks, and outrigger canoes.

The upper floor containing an immense array of weapons from all periods and cultures won’t be open until spring of 2010, but the two floors that are already open to the public will give any museum junkie several days’ worth of exploration.

Ethics of studying Amazonians

This week I was on the phone with a world-renown linguist, Pierre Pica, who works with an Amazonian indigenous tribe. He and his collaborators have already found some great stuff–that these people can only count to roughly four or five though they understand basic geometry about as well as the average Westerner.

What I’ve been pondering, however, is the impact of this kind of research. Keep in mind that many of these indigenous tribes have little contact with modern civilization. Some have never seen a modern human being. So I would say that ecotourism and the such probably are out, even for tribes that are near cities. Sure, they’ll get nice amenities like electricity and money from the gawking visitors, but just look at what conditions American Indians are in right now. They have high rates of alcoholism and fall behind on educational opportunities.

The trickier issue is the ethics of anthropologists. Do they benefit Western society? Sure, their research is valuable in understanding not only these tribes and gives us a better sense of our own origins and culture. But does the research necessarily help the natives? Theories aren’t going to help them hunt for food. Hmm. But maybe it’s ok if the guy’s Pierre–he tries not to stick with one tribe for too long (a couple days) before sailing down the river. And he sounded like a good guy on the phone.