Decline of a Tribe: and Then There Were Five

Published on
The Independent/UK

Decline of a Tribe: and Then There Were Five

The last surviving members of an ancient Amazonian tribe are a tragic testament to greed and genocide

Guy Adams

Ururu, front left, with the last members of the Akuntsu, in a picture taken before she died this month. Most of the tribe was massacred by loggers in about 1990

They are the last survivors: all that's left of a
once-vibrant civilisation which created its own religion and language,
and gave special names to everything from the creatures of the
rainforest to the stars of the night sky.

Just five people represent the entire remaining population of the Akuntsu, an
ancient Amazonian tribe which a generation ago boasted several hundred
members, but has been destroyed by a tragic mixture of hostility and

The indigenous community, which spent thousands of years in uncontacted
seclusion, recently took an unwelcome step closer to extinction, with the
death of its sixth last member, an elderly woman called Ururú.

Considered the matriarch of the Akuntsu, and shown in these pictures (which
were taken in 2006, and are the most recent images of the tribe), Ururú died
of old age, in a hut built from straw and leaves, on 1 October. News of her
death emerged last week, when the tribe was visited by human rights
campaigners, who have spent the past decade campaigning to preserve their
homeland from deforestation.

"I followed the funeral," says Altair Algayer, a local
representative of Funai, the Brazilian government agency which protects
Indian territories. "She died in a small house. We heard weeping and
rushed over, but she had already died." Ururú's death means the entire
population of the Akuntsu now consists of just three women and two men. All
of them are either close family relations, or no longer of child-bearing age
- meaning that the tribe's eventual disappearance is now inevitable.

The slow death of this indigenous community is far more than an unfortunate
accident, however. Instead, it represents the long-planned realisation of
one of the most successful acts of genocide in human history. And the fate
of the Akuntsu is seen by lobby groups as an object lesson in the physical
and cultural dangers faced by undiscovered tribes at so-called "first

Much of the Akuntsus' story is - for obvious reasons - undocumented. For
millennia, they lived in obscurity, deep in the rainforest of Rondonia
state, a remote region of western Brazil near the Bolivian border. They
hunted wild pig, agoutis and tapir, and had small gardens in their villages,
where they would grow manioc (or cassava) and corn.

Then, in the 1980s, their death warrant was effectively signed: farmers and
loggers were invited to begin exploring the region, cutting roads deep into
the forest, and turning the once verdant wilderness into lucrative soya
fields and cattle ranches.

Fiercely industrious, the new migrant workers knew that one thing might
prevent them from creating profitable homesteads from the rainforest: the
discovery of uncontacted tribes, whose land is protected from development
under the Brazilian constitution.

As a result, frontiersmen who first came across the Akuntsu in the mid-1980s
made a simple calculation. The only way to prevent the government finding
out about this indigenous community was to wipe them off the map.

At some point, believed to be around 1990, scores of Akuntsu were massacred at
a site roughly five hours' drive from the town of Vilhena. Only seven
members of the tribe escaped, retreating deeper into the wilderness to

Those seven were not formally "contacted" until 1995, when Funai
investigators finally made it to the region and were able to have a
26,000-hectare area of forest protected for them. They included the late
Ururú, who was the sister of the tribe's chief and shaman, Konibú.

"We know little of what Ururú's life was like," says Mr
Algayer, who was among the Funai team that first discovered the tribe. "In
the 14 years that we have been with her, she was a happy, spontaneous person
... She recounts that she had four children who were all shot dead during
the massacre. We don't know who her husband was or how he died."

One other member of the group of seven, known as Babakyhp, was killed in a
freak accident in 2000, when a tree blew over in a storm and landed on her
hut. The others, who still survive, are Pugapía, Konibú's wife, who is
roughly 50 years old, their daughters, Nãnoi and Enotéi, who are around 35
and 25 respectively, and a cousin, Pupak, who is in her forties.

Evidence of their suffering is visible in bullet wounds which both Konibú and
Pupak showed to cameramen making a documentary about their struggle -
Corumbiara: they shoot Indians, don't they? - that was filmed over the last
20 years and has just been released in Brazil.

It is also evident in a simple fact: on its own, the Akuntsu gene pool cannot
allow it to survive another generation. Since tribal custom will apparently
not allow outsiders to marry in, it is therefore effectively doomed.

The Akuntsu story is not unique. Even if they escape persecution, communities
that have never encountered the outside world often face tragedy. Typically
they lose between 50 and 80 per cent of their population in a matter of
months, since they have no immunity to common diseases.

Ancient ways of life are also frequently corrupted by the arrival of
outsiders. Though indigenous tribes rarely have much interest in material
possessions, and often don't understand the concept of money, their
traditional clothes and rituals are vulnerable to change.

Campaigners now hope the fate of the tribe, which will be publicly highlighted
by Ururú's death, will persuade the Brazilian people to further strengthen
government protections for indigenous people.

Stephen Corry of Survival International, a human rights organisation that has
been working with Funai, said: "The "Akuntsu are at the end of the
road. In a few decades this once vibrant and self-sufficient people will
cease to exist and the world will have lost yet another piece of our
astonishing human diversity.

"Their genocide is a terrible reminder that in the 21st century there are
still uncontacted tribes in several continents who face annihilation as
their lands are invaded, plundered and stolen. Yet this situation can be
reversed if governments uphold their land rights in accordance with
international law.

"Public opinion is crucial - the more people speak up for tribal rights,
the greater the chance that tribes like the Akuntsu will in future survive."


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