It’s exciting and romantic to think there are still communities of people scattered throughout the world with whom we have never made contact. Who continue the traditions of their ancestors unfettered by the baggage of the modern world, until a Dr Livingstone-presuming figure emerges from the jungle to introduce them to our technological and cultural wonders.
But even when you move beyond this Victorian-era fairy tale, there are lots of downsides to “first contact”. The SBS documentary Lost Tribe of the Amazon brings these issues to life, following the emergence of the hitherto-unknown Sapanahua tribe from the Peruvian rainforest.
This is the big one we’re most familiar with. There are stories throughout the history of colonisation where local cultures were decimated – whether through design or accident – by diseases to which they had no immunity.
The Sapanahua, after their emergence from the rainforest, were stricken with a serious respiratory illness. Fortunately, steps are being taken to protect them, although it’s a difficult process that also involves convincing them to trust both doctors and needles.
It’s hard to avoid and hard to solve - when cultures come into contact, there’s an exchange of ideas that reshapes lives forever. On the one hand, you want these people to have the option of continuing their ancestral way of life. On the other, how feasible is it to fence communities off from the rest of the world, like they’re in some kind of national park?
Multinationals are keen to exploit the land they live and work on – to the point of denying these uncontacted tribes even exist. In response, the Peruvian government has pretty much set up national park-type reservations that are off-limits in an attempt to preserve their way of life.
Violence (on both sides)
It may not surprise you to learn some of these tribes have actually encountered Western civilisation before - and passed on an important piece of wisdom to their descendants: “If you see a white person, run.” A great number of recent encounters with isolated tribes have resulted in bloodshed. In fact, dozens of people from Brazilian government agency Funai have been killed by tribal warriors over the years.
On the other side of this topic, violence has actually led to contact being made, as tribes are driven from their ancestral lands by drug traffickers who shot at them and burned down their homes.
There are already some issues with tourists travelling along the Amazon in the hopes of spotting an example of people living their traditional lives on the shore. Obviously this is not the optimal situation, which means some measures have had to be taken to protect them from prying eyes.
In the case of the Mashco-Piro of Peru, an aggressive tribe that isn't above attacking villagers, a government post has been established to ward off tourists.
Watch Lost Tribe of the Amazon on Sunday 11 February at 10:20pm on SBS and afterwards at SBS On Demand: