On August 23 2022, the last member of an uncontacted Indigenous group in Brazil died.
The man, whom anthropologists had named “The Man of the Hole,” had lived completely alone for 26 years in his village in the state of Rondonia at the border of Bolivia. This had been the home of the Tanaru Indigenous group. But what had happened to this group? Why was he the only man left and why had he chosen solitude? According to anthropologists and Indigenous activists, he was forced into isolation through a legacy of colonialism spanning centuries. If we don’t act now to preserve Indigenous cultures and ways of life, this could become a reality for all uncontacted – and contacted – tribes.
Brazilian officials found his body in a hammock outside of his straw hut, covered in macaw feather. He had likely died of natural causes and aged approximately 60 years. The Indigenous Affairs Agency of Brazil, also known as the “Funai”, has monitored the area since 1996. The man had used sharpened spikes to hunt wild animals like boars and he had gathered maize, manioc, papaya, bananas and even honey.
Throughout the last 26 years, he built dozens of straw huts and lived in isolation. Every hut that he had built contained three-meter holes. Could it have had some cultural or spiritual meaning? Or had he built them as hiding spots?
One of the only photos ever taken of this man shows him staring behind a wall of maize. Rare footage captured by a member of the Funai in 2018 showed him hacking at a tree using a tool. Otherwise, we know nothing about him.
The Choice of Solitude
The Tanaru group were victims of several attacks, which ultimately left only the man alive. In the 1970s, illegal ranchers attacked and killed most of the group to clear land for cattle ranches. The attack was particularly cruel; the ranchers had offered gifts of sugar to the tribe but unbeknownst to the tribe members, the sugar had been laced with rat poison. Only seven members survived, but illegal miners also attacked with gunfire in 1995, killing six more members and leaving only the mysterious Man of the Hole.
Pictured above is one of the few photos we have of the Man of the Hole. As mentioned earlier, there is another photo that captured his face staring behind a wall of maize. This article deliberately chooses not to share this photo, as ultimately, the man had wished to be left anonymous.
Although the Brazilian government classified the land the man lived on as protected, the Funai found alarming signs of ranchers invading the protected land throughout the 1990s, with regular evidence of tractors destroying the village houses. In 2009, several gunmen had fired shots within the protected Tanaru Indigenous Territory, endangering the man. Despite the clear violation of protections, the police did not charge anyone for the illegal entry into the reserve. Funai officials tried to leave food and tools for the man’s welfare but he left them untouched and instead began to shoot arrows at any parties who came too close.
This is by no means a unique situation as there are approximately 240 Indigenous groups in Brazil which regularly face hostility from illegal miners, loggers and farmers. Only about 100 of them are uncontacted.
Hostility For Survival
Most of the world’s uncontacted tribes are located within the Amazon, though there are others elsewhere. One of the most well-known uncontacted groups outside of the Amazon is that of the North Sentinel Island, located in the Bay of Bengal and one of the Andaman Islands. In the 1700s, the British claimed some of the Andaman Islands near North Sentinel Island. Beginning in 1858, the British had established a penal colony on them, including on the South Andaman Island (modern-day town of Port Blair).
The Indigenous population of the islands met the takeover and transfer of convicts to the island with resistance, which led British colonizers to capture and hold the resistant islanders in “Andaman Homes.” In these Homes, the colonizers pushed alcohol onto natives and sexually abused them as a part of “civilizing” them. The British also exhibited Andaman people in zoos such as at the Calcutta Zoo, spreading sensationalistic stories of an exotic uncivilized people who could slaughter and cannibalize anyone who dared approach.
Unfortunately, this has not been uncommon; kidnapped Indigenous peoples from many Polynesian islands, the Americas, Africa and even Greenland also suffered the same fate – often for the amusement of onlookers to see the “contrast between the ‘civilized’ and the ‘savage’” for profit. This unfortunately introduced many diseases to Indigenous peoples who had not built immunity to pathogens introduced from the Europeans. This also led into a fascination with “racial types,” which are supposedly scientific ventures to justify a hierarchical view of white Europeans as superior and Indigenous peoples as less intelligent – also known as the now-defunct study of “physical anthropology”.
The language of the Andaman Islands was similar to that of the Sentinelese and the word of colonial violence likely reached the Sentinel Island quickly. In addition, the Sentinelese people have become the victims of centuries of colonial violence. For example, in 1880, British Naval officers raided the island and stole several goods. The Indigenous population ran inland to hide, but one elderly couple and four kids had fallen behind. Despite attempts by the Sentinelese to rescue them, the British officers kidnapped these six people and took them to a nearby Andaman Island, upon which all six became sick. The elderly couple died and the officers brought the four sick children back to the island with gift items. Neither Portman nor any other officers considered whether this could have spread disease to the other islands – we have no way of knowing what truly happened after this disastrous invasion.
When King Leopold III of Belgium was exiled, he passed by the island on a boat in 1975 and the Sentinelese people again warned off his boat by shooting arrows. He was reportedly delighted by the experience. Some anthropologists established shaky contact with the Sentinelese people but eventually the Indian government stopped anthropological visits altogether.
Following the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, a helicopter flew over Sentinel Island. The islanders appeared to have fared well and survived, having retreated inland and to higher ground. The Sentinelese were not happy to spot the outsiders and met the helicopter with arrow fire.
The most recent encounter was of a US missionary named John Allen Chau. He illegally entered the island in 2018 by bribing a local fisherman 25,000 rupees (about $354 or £275). His purpose was to try to convert the Sentinelese to Christianity – to save them. Because he had entered illegally, he had not been screened for communicable disease nor received any official permission from government bodies to enter the island. According to reports, he trespassed twice on the island, singing hymns, and the Sentinelese people chased him away both times. The third time he ventured onto the island, they killed him.
All of this demonstrates, at the very least, is an exoticization of the “strange” “uncivilized” people, who need to be saved and who could perish upon exposure to the common cold. At most, it shows an outside world that continues to view Indigenous peoples as lucrative opportunities to exploit and make profit.
The uncontacted Indigenous peoples of the Sentinelese are completely hostile to outsiders. They weave baskets and they hold bonfires at night with singing and dancing – a vast culture that they have decided not to share. The Sentinelese’s hostility towards outside interference has allowed them to survive and preserve their culture, despite centuries of interference.
The Roots of European Colonialism
European colonialism has continuously justified its intervention and paternalism towards Indigenous peoples through the belief that culture must “develop.” European colonialism believes that communities are, at first, primitive or uncivilized and that they must therefore be developed through the extraction of resources. There was also a general assumption that the land was terra nullius, meaning “no-one’s land” which justified this extraction. This perspective has propelled a centuries-long and violent legacy of racism and disenfranchisement of Indigenous peoples in the name of land development and profit. It was assumed by colonizers that Indigenous peoples did not use the land to its perceived full potential and thus could not “own” it or be entitled to it, conveniently leaving the land available for claim by these colonizers.
This philosophy was supported by many European philosophers including John Locke, who proposed that people living on a land do not have an inherent right to the land even if they subsist off of the resources on them. Coincidentally, he supported the right of European colonizers to claim North American lands as their own, despite the millions of inhabitants living on them. Using the example of an “Indian” hunting for deer, he maintained his belief that a hunter could be entitled to the deer as he had labored to attain it, but had no claim to the land or any other resource on the land. This, of course, ignored the obvious fact that a deer cannot exist separately from land, as it subsists off the land and can only exist if that land were available to inhabit; thus, the ability of a person to lay claim to a deer is tied to the land. The land could be “owned” by those who could properly develop the land.
Other philosophers maintained that Europe had a duty to educate and civilize others even if it required the violent imposition of submission upon resistant people. Hegel, for example, believed that freedom could only be possible under European rule; he was one of the most famous proponents of “eurocentrism,” a philosophy that somehow united the hypocrisy of violent submission and freedom by claiming that only under European civilization could a nation eventually reach freedom. It was an unavoidable requirement for the good of those people. As he stated in Philosophy of World History, “It does not matter that Mexico and Peru did indeed have significant civilizations, since they were of a feebler stock and are long gone.” By no coincidence, this drove colonial conquests for economic exploits and further fed the infantilizing and othering of Indigenous peoples.
The Colonial Legacy Today
Many of the legacies of colonialism and capitalist expansion continue today. The violent resistance of these Indigenous groups appears to be the only method of keeping total eradication at bay.
To some, these violent responses seem to go too far. Surely with the activism and advocating for the preservation of Indigenous culture today, it could be safe for the uncontacted tribes to simply be neutral to the outside world? Unfortunately, although human zoos are not prevalent or popular today, ethnic tourism continues to exploit the livelihood of Indigenous peoples; in 2012, for example, human rights groups were outraged at reports of Andaman women dancing and singing for tourists to earn food. Until 2017, “human safaris” in parts of the Andaman also further dehumanized Indigenous peoples, such as the Jarawa, who were ogled by “hundreds of tourists.” The Jarawa consequently suffered multiple outbreaks of measles and some were even physically harmed by tourists throwing food at them.
In another example, in 2021, a beef production operation illegally took over the protected lands of the uncontacted Piripkura tribe in the Amazon. Ranchers cleared the land and constructed roads, fences and an airstrip. They deforested as much as 12,000 hectares of land to log it in and turn into pastures for cattle, destroying the lands on which this uncontacted tribe lived. These alarming stories have worsened in the last decade, especially as Brazil’s former president, Jair Bolsonaro openly spoke of his plans to integrate the Indigenous groups with the rest of Brazil, characterizing them as “animals trapped within a zoo.”
This view of Indigenous cultures as “primitive” is troubling and yet it pervades our thinking even to this day. As recently as 2006, newspapers including The Guardian have described the uncontacted tribe on North Sentinel Island as a stone-age tribe.
The fact remains that contact with outsiders is often extremely dangerous for Indigenous tribes. These groups have been isolated for so long that they have not been exposed to the same microbes that outsiders have; therefore, diseases, such as pneumonia, are easily transmissible. For example, after only a year of contact, approximately 50% of the Matis Indigenous group died from the spread of pathogens like measles, influenza and pneumonia.
What Can We Do?
As this examination of the historical record has shown, the uncontacted Indigenous groups of the Amazon and Andman appear to unanimously avoid all contact with outsiders due to a troubled history of violent encounters with private interests and a history of colonial slavery. Many Indigenous groups in the Amazon will openly shoot arrows and flee whenever they see signs of outsiders. The Sentinelese people similarly shoot at anyone who ventures too close to their island.
These groups are completely self-sufficient, showing a great ability to gather and hunt food, build homes and build other intricate tools. These groups have shown an ability to adapt to changing circumstances and they do not need our lifestyles, our instruction, or, frankly, our friendship. They clearly wish to remain uncontacted.
Should anthropologists still try to make contact with Indigenous tribes to learn more about them? If we could find a way to avoid the transmission of disease, such as by screening all anthropologists for communicable diseases before meeting, should we keep trying? According to an anthropologist named Madhusree Mukerjee, the answer is no. She had been one of the anthropologists who got to meet the North Sentinelese people in a handful of tense, distant encounters before the Indian government completely discontinued contact with the tribe. She stated that it was clear that we had nothing to offer them: “What can I, a representative of a civilization that, within the span of a few hundred years, has destabilized the biosphere of an entire planet, have to offer to a people who have thrived since the dawn of humankind on these tiny islands?”
Not to mention, the people of these groups may not be sympathetic to claims of altruism by anthropologists, having had their trust violated for generations. As the attacks from illegal ranchers and miners continue, tribe members do not have the luxury to distinguish friend from foe. In 2020, a Brazilian government official and expert on uncontacted tribes, Rieli Franciscato, came too close to the Uru Eu Wau Wau reservation near the Bolivian border. He approached the uncontacted tribe members who shot an arrow just above his heart and killed him.
There are only about 900,000 uncontacted Indigenous peoples left in Brazil today. If we do not respect their rights to their land, genocide will continue. What will happen to the Tanaru Territory now? Will Brazil choose to protect the reserve, as many Indigenous rights groups have requested? Or, will the land finally be given to the very forces that killed the people who once lived there?
Now is not the time to be cynical. Instead, we must push a large structural change to preserve Indigenous culture and ways of life. In Brazil, newly-elected president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has upheld his promises to protect Indigenous lands by reinstating the Amazon Fund to reduce deforestation and removing anti-environmental acts by his predecessor Bolsonaro. He also created the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples to “combat 500 years of inequality.”
When the Funai had discovered the Man of the Hole, his body had been covered in macaw feathers. According to an Indigenous expert named Marcelo dos Santos, he had likely placed the feathers on himself, knowing that he was about to die. Survival International described his death to mean that “the genocide of his people is complete”.
He spent the last 26 years of his life completely alone. He had long learned that outsiders would take away his home, his loved ones and his way of life. To ignore them and reject the outside, therefore, was vital to his survival. According to a statement by the Observatory for the Human Rights of Isolated and Recent Contact Indigenous Peoples, “Because he resolutely resisted any attempts at contact, he died without revealing which ethnicity he belonged to, nor the motivations of the holes he dug inside his house”.
We never knew his name or his language. We never even heard him speak. And we didn’t deserve to.