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Friday, May 30, 2008

Get Those People a Wal*Mart!

posted by on May 30 at 11:51 AM


Members of one of the world’s last uncontacted tribes have been spotted and photographed from the air near the Brazil-Peru border. The photos were taken during several flights over one of the remotest parts of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil’s Acre state….

There are more than one hundred uncontacted tribes worldwide, with more than half living in either Brazil or Peru. All are in grave danger of being forced off their land, killed and decimated by new diseases.

(from Survival International)

That there are at least a few groups of people not completely absorbed into the global petroleum-fueled gaping consumerist maw is quite comforting.

RSS icon Comments


golob sez - "im sure glad there are people that don't participate in destroying the world like i do"

Posted by Bellevue Ave | May 30, 2008 12:03 PM

Why is the idea of bombing them hilarious?

Posted by Mr. Poe | May 30, 2008 12:03 PM

It's comforting that there are a few groups of people who have to deal with hunger and water issues constantly? Who are always fighting for survival? Who have no ready access to healthcare or education?

I mean, sheesh, I am personally trying to reduce my carbon footprint and oil consumption, but let's not forget that industrialization and oil have led to most of us leading longer, healthier, more educated, lives with more free time.

Posted by arduous | May 30, 2008 12:12 PM

This makes me sad. But I think their instinct to try and shoot down the airplane was spot on.

Posted by PopTart | May 30, 2008 12:13 PM

Because bombing stone aged, hell, even bronze age societies into the stone age is humorous.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | May 30, 2008 12:13 PM

Do you have time for this foolishness, Golob? Where are my monkeys? Where is my army of mind-controlled monkey warriors whose very thoughts I can manipulate with the flip of a switch? I need those monkeys. I must have them or all my plans and all my work will mean nothing. Nothing!

Go and do not return until you have some o-fucking-bedient monkeys to show me. Do not fail me, Golob. Do not fail me again...

Posted by elenchos | May 30, 2008 12:14 PM

What a snob thing to say. How come you didn't point out how they (most likely) don't own a TV?

Posted by Jason Josephes | May 30, 2008 12:15 PM

@2 I'm thinking more of a "The Gods must be Crazy" scenario.

Posted by PopTart | May 30, 2008 12:16 PM

I think one of them is wearing Nikes...

Posted by StrangerDanger | May 30, 2008 12:22 PM

Isolated self-sufficient populations are Homo Sapiens' insurance policy.

Posted by flamingbanjo | May 30, 2008 12:26 PM

Too much self-tanner if you ask me.

Posted by The General | May 30, 2008 12:27 PM

If you look at what happens to indigenous peoples after introduction and incorporation into the "modern" world, generally you find dire poverty, increased mortality from disease and violence, rampant drug and alcohol addiction, and loss of culture and native language. It's a pattern that has been repeated thousands of times around the globe. It's not terribly comforting that they've been "found", because very shortly, do-gooders bringing the virtues of Western civilization will descend upon them, and like always, will wipe out their culture and leave them with useless shiny trinkets, syphillis, and a hankering for booze. Hopefully they have the sense to run fast, run far.

Posted by Run fast, run far | May 30, 2008 12:28 PM

Run, people, run! We'll come bearing well-meaning white liberal guilt and goodwill, but no matter who comes, you're fucked either way.

Posted by Jessica | May 30, 2008 12:29 PM

Oh, The Stranger reads Boing Boing. Good for The Stranger. Guess what? So do I. And you're right - this is a good article. I enjoyed it when I read it 10 minutes ago on Boing Boing. Stop scratching for content from other sites and loading up my RSS reader and get back to writing about Seattle.

Posted by Joseph | May 30, 2008 12:32 PM

the west are like the borg; awesome

Posted by Bellevue Ave | May 30, 2008 12:32 PM

Google's Street View has definitely gone too far.

Posted by Eric Schmidt | May 30, 2008 12:33 PM

I can't wait until they find Jesus. All problems solved (tm).

Posted by My Hot Rod | May 30, 2008 12:36 PM

Don't bomb them! Drop 'em down a pack of smokes instead. Kill 'em nice and sa-loooooooow.

Posted by Cookie W. Monster | May 30, 2008 12:45 PM


You're right. Move them into a Brazilian slum, stat. All in all, they're better off than most poor people on this planet. They can make their own time, they depend on the land rather than on exploitive employers or government handouts, and they don't have raw sewage flowing right next to their dwellings.

Posted by keshmeshi | May 30, 2008 12:46 PM

I like the colors.

Posted by Hernandez | May 30, 2008 12:46 PM

Damn, beat me to it, I bet they already have something to smoke anyways. Is that a big pile of coke there? No wonder why they're so paranoid.

Posted by Super Jesse | May 30, 2008 12:51 PM

You know what these folks really need? Charles Mudede.

Posted by Mr. Poe | May 30, 2008 12:53 PM

@14, this was on Reddit last night. Sorry it took you until this morning to find it on BoingBoing.

Teh internets are not a race. Relax.

Posted by PA Native | May 30, 2008 12:57 PM

Poe Folks @22,

Wait till Mudede finds out that Natalie Merchant, in the ultimate fit of white fauxlksinger (sic) guilt, has moved to live among them.

In my tribe, indeed.

Posted by Cookie W. Monster | May 30, 2008 12:59 PM

#1 is right... They are going to outlive us when the food and water shortages begin.

But I guess you can take comfort in that, right Golob?

Posted by catnextdoor | May 30, 2008 1:02 PM

@19, Oh, I forgot that those were only two options available to "poor people."

Slums are bad because they generally incorporate the worst of industrialization. But that doesn't mean that it HAS to be that way.

Incorporating some of the "good" from industrialization can vastly improve the life of many tribal people. The last time I visited a village in one of the drylands of India (one of the poorest places on Earth) I saw a woman learning to use a sewing machine for the very first time. The look of pride on her face was just ... awe-inspiring.

Furthermore, proper use of some of the tools of industrialization means education, longer lives, and not being entirely beholden to weather patterns which in the age of climate change is very important.

Posted by arduous | May 30, 2008 1:05 PM

even jungle folk feel the urge to be snazzy. body paint rules.

Posted by breeber | May 30, 2008 1:07 PM

@12 - thanks.

Posted by rtw | May 30, 2008 1:17 PM

look out for the old man just out of frame in this picture, old Mr Todd...he'll make you read Dickens to him for the rest of your life...

Posted by michael strangeways | May 30, 2008 1:27 PM

When I think about how angry I get having my evening interupted by a telemarketer...

Posted by inkweary | May 30, 2008 1:44 PM

@ arduous, #3 - And here you have the exact moral dilemma that white Westerners have been grappling with for centuries. Confronted with "backward" indigenous peoples, the Western heart fills with pity and longs to do something to "help the poor unfortunates" - help them with a strong application of soap and Jesus, for starters. It never once enters the mind of the sympathetic Westerner that, not only have these poor backward people been doing just fine for millenia, thank you, but in fact, Western "help" equals a death sentence for original peoples and cultures the world over.

How about we let this handful of individuals live out their natural lives in their own natural world, which I assure you is quite as full of medicine and spirituality as your own.

Posted by merry | May 30, 2008 1:58 PM


I don't see how these people are poor. Move them into a slum and, yes, they're poor. Leaving them to choose their own destinies, leave them alone, period, and they're a hell of a lot richer than most people on this planet.

Posted by keshmeshi | May 30, 2008 2:09 PM


Why apply that line of thinking only to people that are currently undiscovered? Why not all people?

Posted by Bellevue Ave | May 30, 2008 2:15 PM

@12 @28, this story in the Daily Mail makes the same point.

Posted by PA Native | May 30, 2008 2:23 PM

Why not a Costco instead?

They're more efficient and they pay better wages.

Posted by Will in Seattle | May 30, 2008 2:32 PM

@32, I admit I don't know the situation in every country on Earth, but I think most of the time, villagers CHOOSE to go to the slums because they can't survive in the villages. At least I know that is the case in India.

That's why I support things like putting the villages on the grid, digging of wells in villages, teaching of new farming techniques that might make villagers survive better, etc. These practices enable these villagers to still live on the land on mostly their own terms, but it also provides a safety net for the villagers so they can survive a very bad year, etc.

@31, I'm actually not white, and frankly, I'm all for giving tribal people the choice. But my problem was with Jonathan's words that it is comforting to see groups not absorbed into industrialization. It's comforting for us right now that not every Chinese and Indian citizen has a car, because it means we can continue to overuse our share of resources. But most of us would never CHOOSE to live a life that wasn't largely petroleum-fueled.

If those tribal people choose to live the lives they have been living for centuries, I say carry on! Hell, the Amish have done it! But if what they choose is industrialization and the material comforts, not to mention just plain old life expectancy that it has brought us, I think that's fair too.

Posted by arduous | May 30, 2008 2:35 PM

What this situation needs is a liberal application of the Prime Directive.


Posted by shub-negrorath | May 30, 2008 2:39 PM

I swear, this is going to turn out to be the backstory for some J J Abrams project.

Posted by meh | May 30, 2008 2:59 PM

Regardless of how you feel about these people, you have to admit it would be frickin' hilarious if one of those arrows hit an engine just right or something and really did knock the plane out of the sky.

Posted by Fnarf | May 30, 2008 3:26 PM


From the article on (originally from survival international):

"...over the 20 years he has been working in the area, the number of "malocas," or grass-roofed huts, has doubled, suggesting that the policy of isolation is working and that populations are growing."

From this one would gather that this tribe and others like it are doing pretty okay.

Also from the article:

"First contact is often completely catastrophic for "uncontacted" tribes. It's not unusual for 50 percent of the tribe to die in months after first contact," said Miriam Ross, a campaigner with the Indian rights group Survival International. "They don't generally have immunity to diseases common to outside society. Colds and flu that aren't usually fatal to us can completely wipe them out."

Putting this tribe "on the grid" would be devestating not only to their health and overall population, but to their culture. If you need further proof of this please visit an American Indian reservation...or, for really horrifying proof, visit the kidney dialysis center on an Indian Reservation to see what Western diet and lifestyle does to native american health.

Posted by holly | May 30, 2008 3:47 PM




Posted by PussyDunkinHines | May 30, 2008 4:01 PM

i'm so tempted to make a comment about native american responsibility that goes beyond what i said a few words ago.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | May 30, 2008 4:27 PM

@36 - Just to add to the well-written response @40, keep in mind: there's nothing that Westerners can do to "help" these people. They've been doing quite well for millennia, and their culture - which includes amazingly advanced technologies for survival wholly incompatible with a Western worldview - would be utterly shattered by any contact with Westerners.

Did you get a look at how healthy and muscular they look? They don't appear to be starving or suffering. It's all too tempting to automatically associate a "primitive" or "savage" lifestyle with suffering, but that's only because you've seen the deleterious effects of Western civilization on indigenous peoples. If it weren't for the rigorous economic demands of the Western lifestyle - which can only be accepted whole-hog, and NOT in any part - the villagers you saw in India would most likely be doing just fine. And besides, India is a completely different circumstance, on a subcontinent with a long and storied contact with European civilization.

Just consider any of the tools or techniques you might introduce. We're talking tools fashioned in factories, perhaps mechanized equipment. How is that supposed to be sustained without further adoption of Western technology? You disturb the balance of resources, make one tribe richer than another, and pretty soon there's greed and war, and lots of other concepts imported from the West.

No, we have nothing to offer them. Nothing. Before extolling the benefits of Westernization, let's see if we can't clean up its record first by making life better for the millions of impoverished people already living under the grip of industrial society in slums around the world. Then - MAYBE - we can talk. Until then, Godspeed, indigenous people. May this be the last anyone in the West ever sees of them.

Posted by DavidG | May 30, 2008 4:28 PM

The one in the black body paint looks kinda hot.

Posted by butterw | May 30, 2008 4:35 PM


I don't think that's body paint.

Posted by Wolf | May 30, 2008 4:57 PM

@40 & 43, thank you for your posts. You make very good points, and I appreciate your in depth responses to my posts.

I see your points, and they make sense to me, but they still fill me with a slight uneasiness. The idea of no contact almost makes it feel like we are treating these people like they are animals in a zoo as opposed to human beings.

The thing that really upset me in Jonathan's post was his words that it was comforting to see people not absorbed into industrialization, because I think a lot of people romanticize the life of tribal peoples when it is a very hard one. Which is why, I suspect, that when a group does receive "contact," with civilization even when they are not forced to assimilate into civilization, they many times choose to do so.

I disagree that were it not for western civilization villagers in India would be doing quite well. I mean it's impossible to say, of course, we can't see what the alternate history is. But the fact of the matter is, famines existed in pre-industrial days. So did terrible diseases. Not to mention the fact that it doesn't seem incredibly fair for us to relegate huge swathes of humanity to a life unenriched by knowledge, literature etc. When we look at Maslow's heirarchy of needs, these people are just fulfilling their basic needs (although if there's a drought or something, they may not even do that). And that's very well and good, but is it fair for us, who are attaining higher levels of the pyramid to say, oh it's okay, that's all they need anyway?

At one point we all were nomadic hunters and gatherers, right? Why did we gradually form civilizations? Why did we industrialize? Why did we build planes, trains, and automobiles? No one held a gun to our heads. We did it because they made our lives better.

Progression is natural. The problem is not industrialization, it's that some cultures have to achieve progression in compressed amounts of time.

But eventually, the question is, is it worth it?

One of my good friends in India is the daughter of a servant. Her family comes from a poor village and moved to Delhi because there were no jobs in the villages. But this girl received a good education, she speaks English, she got a good job, and she ended up marrying a middle class Indian. She is living a life that her great grandparents in the villages probably didn't even know existed. So was civilization eventually worth it for this family from the villages? She'd probably say yes.

Posted by arduous | May 30, 2008 5:12 PM

They're looking pretty riled up -- must be guarding a crystal skull!

I suppose they're behind on their taxes. Who wants to go down there and explain that situation to them?

If we're going to bomb them, well, if our country is crawling with weirdo Civil War re-enactors... wouldn't first dibs go to Sons of Conquistadors, Madrid Chapter?

Hmm... under Bush doctrine, we might be able to bomb them -- if you're not with us in the GWOT, you're against us! And since these folks don't even know who we are, they're against us. Let the cruise missiles fly... sure, it's random and cruel, but I suspect we've killed more than a few folks by accident in the past, oh, 7 years.

Also random and cruel? Dropping off Shaquille O'Neal in his "Kazaam" costume. Rapping.

Or Robert Reich on a Segueway scooter. Either one is likely to be killed, or revered as a god, within 10 minutes. Let's find out!

Posted by CP | May 30, 2008 5:32 PM


I'm sorry. At what point did I say anything about that being exclusive to those people?


Oh, shut up. When a group of Native Americans expressed a desire to separate from the U.S. and take care of themselves for a change, you went apeshit. You know nothing about them and your opinions are irrelevant.

Posted by keshmeshi | May 30, 2008 5:33 PM

i mocked them for many reasons.
1. they can't take care of themselves with the small help they get. the government allows them the right to do some crazy shit on their reservations and as a participant in the government i don't feel like parting with the land they live on for whatever sanctimonious moral reasons you come up with.
2. they don't have anything to offer other people besides patronizing doodads and trinkets.
3. they don't need to be apart from the united states to make positive changes.
4. people defend their poverty as being the complete fault of people from the 1800s
5. I know nothing of why natives make bad choices in the face of being presented hard choices.

i don't afford pity to people just because their lives are harder than others.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | May 30, 2008 5:44 PM


I see where you're coming from.

Not to mention the fact that it doesn't seem incredibly fair for us to relegate huge swathes of humanity to a life unenriched by knowledge, literature etc.

Consider for a moment the possibility that knowledge and literature exist outside the published canon, and that there are paths to spiritual fulfillment that are outside of the realms of typical Western experience. We're looking at a tribe which doubtless has a complex system of myths and rituals, replete with oral history, magic, storytelling, probably music and dancing, and (since the evidently have paint) possibly also art. Self-fulfillment is not contingent on a Western lifestyle. In fact, one could argue that the comforts of a Western lifestyle are an obstacle to be overcome.

At one point we all were nomadic hunters and gatherers, right? Why did we gradually form civilizations? Why did we industrialize? Why did we build planes, trains, and automobiles? No one held a gun to our heads. We did it because they made our lives better.

This is an excellent question, one which has been consuming philosophers and anthropologists for centuries. To get up to speed, take a look at Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. Suffice to say, the drivers of the development of civilization were a lot more complex than comfort alone.

Again, I'd say that comparing this remote, isolated village to any poor people in India is a non-sequitur. These people don't need "jobs", they can fend for themselves - they're empowered to do so because they don't have needs that exceed the resources and technologies available to them. Perhaps one day some of them may step out of the forest and decide to get jobs in the city. That's their prerogative. But showing up in their lives would force there hand more than leaving them alone ever would.

Posted by DavidG | May 30, 2008 5:45 PM

*their hand.

I type too fast.

Posted by DavidG | May 30, 2008 5:50 PM

@46, a couple things you just said make me have to jump in:

"The idea of no contact almost makes it feel like we are treating these people like they are animals in a zoo as opposed to human beings."

Exactly 100% the opposite of true. Can you see why letting these animals (yes, they are animals, just like you and me) remain unscathed in their natural environment is the exact opposite of loading them up and imprisoning them in an artificial environment?

"The thing that really upset me in Jonathan's post was his words that it was comforting to see people not absorbed into industrialization, because I think a lot of people romanticize the life of tribal peoples when it is a very hard one."

You could just as easily say the same thing about romanticizing the wonders of industrialization. The comforts you describe are brought at a price much more dear than you apparently realize. Yes, these people live in a world without Wal Mart, Lindsay Lohan and petroleum. But I live in a world where it's impossible to choose to live without these things! Who has experienced the greater loss of basic human dignity? And more importantly, WHO ARE YOU TO SAY YOU KNOW? Rudyard Kipling?!

Posted by Emily | May 30, 2008 5:52 PM

@46 an addendum. I must also agree with DavidG , who is making the best points on this thread. I'm not trying to be condescending or hostile, but I really don't think you have a very good grasp on (1) the vast differences between the people of India--which has one of the oldest civilizations on earth and has had contact with Europe and the rest of Asia for centuries--and the undiscovered tribes of the Amazon, who have miraculously evaded the civilizing hand of Western involvement for centuries or (2) the incredible, nay ENVIABLE richness of indigenous Amazonian cultures. I would add to your list of required reading a book called The Cosmic Serpent by a French anthropologist named Jeremy Narby, as well as the work of the late Harvard ethnologist Richard Evans Schultes. It turns out native Amazonians not only have rich cultural traditions and sustainable environmental practices but also medical knowledge that often surpasses that achieved via the traditional Western empirical model.

Posted by Emily | May 30, 2008 6:08 PM

I heard these guys have ties to Al-Qaeda.

Posted by Looptid | May 30, 2008 6:42 PM

David, thank you again, I really appreciate your response. I agree that the situations are vastly different between India and the Amazon, and it's not a fair comparison per se. I think I got my hackles raised immediately because I so often hear people talk about Indian tribal peoples in romanticized terms. I also was responding to your argument that had Indian villagers never been exposed to "civilization" they would be perfectly fine. I completely disagree with this, though of course, as a success story of Indian industrialization, I have a personal stake in the matter.

I agree of course that self-fulfillment isn't contingent on the Western lifestyle, but elevated thought isn't limited to Western people. Other civilizations developed reading, writing and maths.

I guess the idea stuck in my head is, why do Aborigines or Native Americans adopt Western diets? Why do they adopt many aspects of Western civilization when given a choice to either adopt civilization or to carry on as they have in the past? We can argue that they make poor choices, but that seems a little unfair no? It feels a little like we're Civilization saying to Nomadic Man, you make bad choices with your lives, so we're going to leave you isolated so you can't make bad choices.

But I appreciate that you know a lot about this subject, and that you've taken the time to respond so sensitively and intelligently to me. I'm obviously just some chick on the internet, who you don't know. You could have been completely dismissive of me, but you weren't.

For all that I have reservations about what you said, and I do, you made some excellent points, and I do plan to check out the book you suggested. So thank you for engaging me in this discussion, and thanks for making me think.

Posted by arduous | May 30, 2008 6:48 PM

Such interesting discussion in the slog comments today - I'm sorry I'm just seeing it all now.

@55: I agree that there are waay too many of us civilized (white) folks who romanticize some idea of pre-European contact Native American (or other tribal) cultures. But it's also possible that life in those cultures was/is not as difficult as we were taught in school, at least before the old world diseases were introduced to this continent.

I'm not sure the word "choice" can really be used to describe American Indian lifestyles post European colonization. It's not really a choice if your options are to assimilate or die - first there were the devastating diseases that swept through the Americas, then the forced migration of many Indian tribes to areas that were totally unlike the environments they had lived in, the decimation of species tribes relied upon for food and other material needs (either from over-hunting or environmental destruction), forcing Indian children into boarding schools so a lot of cultural and linguistic legacies were lost, etc.

There really wasn't any way for the majority of these peoples to continue living the way they had for hundreds of years, especially since it was against the law or at least prohibited for many Indians to possess hunting tools (weapons) during significant portions of the 1800s. So they did what many people choose to do in similar circumstances: they adapted.

I wasn't there, but I'm pretty sure that if Civilization had really given a choice to American Indians the choice would have been to just continue living the lifestyles that had been successful all those years instead of changing, for the most part.

Also - I really liked Guns, Germs and Steel; if you are looking for something more specific to American Indian history you might want to also read Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. But be warned: it's pretty powerful stuff.

Posted by asteria | May 30, 2008 8:02 PM
I guess the idea stuck in my head is, why do Aborigines or Native Americans adopt Western diets? Why do they adopt many aspects of Western civilization when given a choice to either adopt civilization or to carry on as they have in the past? We can argue that they make poor choices, but that seems a little unfair no? It feels a little like we're Civilization saying to Nomadic Man, you make bad choices with your lives, so we're going to leave you isolated so you can't make bad choices.

It's tempting to feel that we can step up to these people, communicate clearly to them the choices available, and then empower them to step into a fulfilling life in the modern world.

In reality, it's not so easy.

First of all, the very mechanics of contact threaten their current well-being. As with many historical first encounters, we'd unavoidably be exposing them to our bugs and bacteria, and any industrial or economic activities in the area on our part would probably poison their environment to the point where they could no longer live there. To echo @56, to adopt a Western lifestyle is to destroy any option of return. They would not have a choice.

Secondly, for those who would survive such an encounter, what mechanisms would they have? You're an adult who is completely fulfilled, skilled in numerous ways, and your entire worldview is tailored to the sights, smells, sounds, plants, animals, weather, ecology, and technology of your culture. You're a master in it, everything you use you make by hand, and you're intimately familiar with the pleasures and dangers of your environment. But step into the city, and you have nothing. You're illiterate, don't even speak Spanish, Portuguese or English, don't even have a concept of money or material value. Even the concept of an economy - a place where you buy and sell things with strangers, exchanging specialized labor for currency - is mind-warpingly different from a place where you know everyone in your community and you share resources and labor. When you start to introduce these radically foreign notions of currency and abstract value, it has (has had, based on the lessons of history in the Americas) the same effect on indigenous culture that European diseases have had on the body - it's poison. Even those who survive don't necessarily have the cultural framework or value systems to thrive. They'd need to adopt Christianity or something like it (New Atheism) just to get the philosophical framework necessary to survive.

I understand your reservation about not wanting to be condescending to these people. That's a good impulse to have. Clearly, we shouldn't put these people in a zoo or somehow think that they don't have the right to be in charge of their own destiny. That's what we've done to the Native Americans in the United States: we've deprived them of their ability to live their lives as they once did, destroyed their natural resources, fenced them in, and basically gave them no choice but to adopt a Western value system, and then assholes like Bellevue Ave berate them when they choose nothing (often the best choice, given the options). What the organization proposes is keeping a huge buffer around the population so that if they ever make contact with Westerners, it will be on their own terms and their own initiative, and not through some logging crew tearing down their forest and setting fire to their buildings. We have to work to earn the right to make contact in a way that will not be harmful, and we've had such a miserable track record of first encounters that any anthropologist will tell you we'd be better off just leaving them to continue to succeed as they already know how, than taking that away from them for an off-chance at success in the industrial world - which, as we American liberals know, has its own problems.

Posted by DavidG | May 30, 2008 9:00 PM

Wow. Kudos to Slog commenters here! Such an interesting discussion.

Posted by Jonathan Golob | May 30, 2008 9:55 PM

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