To me it could have been a scene from the dawn of mankind. I felt I was looking at humanity, stripped down in all its primitive magnificence, and it was humbling. Men, women, one pregnant, one with an infant, and children, naked and unarmed strode over the rocks and began to call out, beckoning to special protection agents employed by Peru’s culture ministry on our side of the river bank.
It was Romel Ponciano, whom they called Yotlotle (which means giant river otter in their language), they were calling for. Having seen one of these exuberant Amazonians I had to admit the anthropomorphic resemblance was uncanny and even funny. Portly and affable, Ponciano, an indigenous Yine leader, had a gentle air and exuded calm. He had had more than 20 encounters with the Mashco-Piro tribe and understands about 80% of their language. Such meetings can be dangerous, even deadly, but as children rode piggy-back on Ponciano’s back and he gave his T-shirt to one of the men to wear it was clear I was beholding a friendly exchange as timeless and quintessentially human as any.
Peru’s official policy of “no contact”, adopted in 2006, remains unchanged with respect to the 14 or 15 tribes living in isolation within its boundaries. Luís Felipe Torres, an anthropologist with the Madre de Dios region’s isolated tribes team, explained that an exception was made in the case of this particular group of Mashco-Piro because they were actively seeking contact with the outside world, exposing themselves to grave danger.
Why has this Amazonian tribe suddenly started to make contact with outsiders?
While the Mashco-Piro are at a turning point in what increasingly seems an inexorable route towards contact, Peru’s culture minister is trying to cushion them from the illnesses that could lay waste to their population, the unscrupulous people who might enslave or exploit them and the missionaries who want to save their souls.
The tribe portrayed in Stuckert’s pictures, not far across the Peruvian border in the Brazilian state of Acre, are not yet at that stage. They continue to appear to want to shun the outside world, just as they thrive, hunt game and farm. Yet as illegal gold mining continues to decimate swaths of rainforest in south-eastern Peru and local authorities illegally build roads which deliberately cut through national parks and isolated indigenous reserves, the living space for these isolated people who know no national boundaries is ever diminishing.
Those people who still name themselves after the flora and fauna of the forest, who I came to know from the other side of a river bank, may be the last of their generation.