In the following years, small groups of Mashco began to venture out of the forest, making fleeting appearances to travellers on the Madre de Dios River. A video of one such encounter, which circulated on the Internet, shows a naked Mashco man brandishing a bow and arrow at a boatload of tourists. In another, the same man carries a plastic bottle of soda that he has just been given. Mostly, the Mashco approach outsiders with friendly, if skittish, curiosity, but at times they have raided local settlements to steal food. A few times, they have attacked.
The latest attack, last May, took the life of a twenty-year-old indigenous man, Leonardo Pérez, and this time the news did not subside. People from Pérez’s community wanted revenge, and the governor of Madre de Dios took the opportunity to rail about federal neglect of the area. The government needed to be seen to do something.
A few weeks later, officials announced that they were sending a team to engage with the Mashco, drawn from the Department of Native Isolated People and People in Initial Contact, a recently created sub-office of Peru’s Ministry of Culture. When I spoke to Lorena Prieto Coz, the head of the department, she emphasized that the government preferred not to interfere with isolated indigenous people, but the threat of violence had left no choice. “We didn’t initiate this contact—they did,” she said. “But it’s our responsibility to take charge of the situation.” She told me that an outpost had been set up near where the Mashco appeared, and a team from the department was going soon. She invited me to accompany them.
Only about a hundred groups of isolated indigenous people are believed to still exist, with more than half of them living in the wilderness that straddles Peru’s border with Brazil. Fiona Watson, the field director of the tribal-people’s-rights group Survival International, told me that the situation was dire for the region’s aislados, as isolated people are called in Spanish. In a cramped London office, Watson laid out satellite maps to show me their territory, small patches in a geography overtaken by commerce: arcs of slash-and-burn farmland; huge expanses where agribusinesses raise cattle and grow soy; mining camps that send minerals to China; migrant boomtowns. Some of the indigenous groups were hemmed in on all sides by mining and logging concessions, both legal and illegal. One tribe in Brazil, the Akuntsu, had been reduced to four members. Near them, a man known to anthropologists only as the Man of the Hole lives in a hollow dug in the forest floor, warding off intruders by firing arrows. He is believed to be the last of his tribe.
Unless the trends were halted, Watson said, the Mashco Piro and the other remaining aislados were doomed to extinction—a disquieting echo of the situation of Native Americans in the nineteenth century, as white settlers forced them to retreat or die. “There’s so much at stake here,” Watson said. “These people are as much a part of the rich tapestry of humanity as anyone else, but it’s all going down the drain.”
In the late nineteen-seventies, I made several trips into the Peruvian Amazon, at a time when the jungle was just beginning to open. The governments of Brazil and Peru had recently agreed to build a trans-Amazonian highway, linking the Atlantic and the Pacific, but, aside from some muddy unfinished tracks, the Peruvians’ efforts had been defeated by the “green hell” of the rain forest. The backwoods remained inhabited only by animals and by native people, who in those days were still referred to as “wild Indians.”
On one such trip, in 1977, I travelled up the Río Callería, near the unmarked Brazilian border, with a local guide who spoke a few indigenous dialects. We rode in a long wooden dugout canoe known as a peke-peke, its name derived from the sputtering noise of its motor, a Briggs & Stratton outboard. The motor had a propeller that could be raised—essential in shallow waters. Even so, there were stretches where we were forced to get out and pull the canoe by hand.
One day, after hours on the river with no sign of human habitation, we rounded a bend and saw a dugout canoe, carrying a woman and a child, both with long black hair and naked torsos. At the sight of us, they began screaming and paddling frantically toward the riverbank, where a row of crude shelters sat on a bluff that was cleared of jungle. They shouted a word over and over: pishtaco.
We came ashore cautiously, pulling the boat. The camp had been hastily deserted; I found a fish still roasting on an open fire. The boatman nervously said that we should not continue upriver, or the Indians might attack us. When I asked him about the word the woman and child had shouted, he said that they believed I was a pishtaco, an evil person who had come to steal the oil from their bodies.
Months later, a Peruvian anthropologist explained to me the roots of their fear. The term pishtaco, he speculated, originated in the sixteenth century, when Spanish conquistadors such as Lope de Aguirre began exploring the Amazon. These initial contacts had been so nightmarish as to inspire a cautionary tale that still endured: some of the Spaniards, frustrated that their muskets and cannons rusted so quickly in the jungle humidity, were said to have killed Indians and boiled their bodies in iron pots, then used their fat to grease the metal.
For the next three hundred years, the European settlers and their descendants made few inroads into the Amazon. Then rubber was discovered, and, in the eighteen-seventies, South American rubber barons began to brutalize the jungles of Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, and Brazil. In 1910, the Anglo-Irish diplomat Roger Casement spent three months among rubber traders and the indigenous people who were forced to work for them, and wrote of the abuses he had witnessed. “These [people] are not only murdered, flogged, chained up like wild beasts, hunted far and wide and their dwellings burnt, their wives raped, their children dragged away to slavery and outrage, but are shamelessly swindled into the bargain. These are strong words, but not adequately strong. The condition of things is the most disgraceful, the most lawless, the most inhuman, I believe that exists in the world today.”
The caucheros, as the rubber barons were called, were daring, ruthless men— the equivalent, in a sense, of modern-day narco-traffickers like El Chapo Guzmán. The most murderously flamboyant of them was probably Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald. Immortalized in Werner Herzog’s 1982 film “Fitzcarraldo,” he was a man of limitless ambition who bloodily installed himself as Peru’s Rey del Caucho—the Rubber King.
[sugar-coated, watered-down, Hollywood-ized]
Fitzcarrald was born in 1862, the eldest son of an Irish-American sailor turned trader and his Peruvian wife. By the age of thirty, he had become wealthy enough to build a twenty-five-room riverside mansion, with grounds tended by Chinese gardeners. Seeking to expand his operations, he began looking for an overland route that would connect the Urubamba River with tributaries of the Brazilian Amazon. Using thousands of indigenous conscripts to hack through the jungle, he found that the headwaters were just six miles apart, on either side of a fifteen-hundred-foot peak, and he conceived a railroad that would unite the two river systems. The plan was to sail an iron-plated steamboat, loaded with railroad ties, to the Urubamba’s headwaters. There, native porters would lay a track over the mountain, disassemble the ship, lug its pieces across, and put it back together.
In 1894, he launched an expedition to secure the route, and before setting out he addressed his followers from a balcony of his great house. “Like a good and just father, I take you with me,” he said. “I will reward you with the bounty of the divine mountains that extend from where the Sun rises, and where abundant hunting awaits.”
Their quarry ended up being mostly the Mashco, who then dominated the region. Euclides da Cunha, the Brazilian scientist and explorer, described Fitzcarrald’s meeting with the Mashco’s leader, in which he mustered his armed men to intimidate the natives into coöperating. “The sole response of the Mashco was to inquire what arrows Fitzcarrald carried,” da Cunha wrote. “Smiling, the explorer passed him a bullet from his Winchester.” The Mashco leader examined it, amused, and then took one of his arrows and jabbed it into his own arm, looking on implacably as blood ran out of the wound. “He turned his back on the surprised adventurer, returning to his village with the illusion of superiority,” da Cunha continued. “Half an hour later roughly one hundred Mashcos, including their recalcitrant chief, lay murdered, stretched out on the riverbank.”
It was the beginning of a seemingly endless cycle of destruction. Eight decades after Fitzcarrald’s rampage, I took another trip, on the Madre de Dios, where a gold boom had recently begun. Along the river were small camps of prospectors, who had set up diesel-powered pumps and wooden sluices and were noisily gouging away the riverbanks. Their arrival had clearly unsettled the local Amarakaeri people. The Amarakaeri had once been a sizable warrior tribe, but, by the time I arrived, perhaps five hundred remained, living in rudimentary hamlets, where they survived by fishing with poison and by panning for gold. As for the Mashco, who had lived upriver, there was no sign of them whatsoever. It was as if they had never existed.
The Ministry of Culture’s team gathered a few months ago in Cuzco, high in the Andes, where a van was loaded with provisions. The leader was an anthropologist named Luis Felipe Torres, a slim man in his early thirties with an aquiline face and the unassuming manner of a professional observer. He was joined by Glenn Shepard, an American ethnobotanist. A youthful-looking man of fifty, Shepard had lived for a year in the nineteen-eighties among the Matsigenka people, who shared territory with the Mashco; he had learned their language and returned many times since. Shepard worked at the Emílio Goeldi Museum, an Amazonian-research center in Brazil, but he travelled to Peru frequently as an informal adviser to Torres’s department.
Soon after we set out, the paved road ended, and we began dropping down the eastern escarpment of the Andes, zigzagging through cloud forest and into the humid lowland jungle. After seven hours, we reached the end of the road, at Atalaya, a huddle of rough wooden houses and bodegas on the upper Madre de Dios River. Atalaya was a destination for adventure tourists; at the shoreline was a jetty lined with brightly painted river canoes. But the recent killing had threatened business in the area. A sign, depicting the silhouette of an aislado with a bow and arrow, announced, “Beware! This is a zone of transit for Isolated Indigenous Peoples. Avoid conflicts: Don’t attempt to contact them. Don’t give them clothes, food, tools, or anything else. Don’t photograph them; they might interpret the camera as a weapon. In the event of incidents, contact the Ministry of Culture.’’
Torres had recently overseen a rendezvous with a group of Mashco Piro: several families, possibly interrelated, who were led by a young man called Kamotolo. In photographs that Torres showed me, Kamotolo—tall and beardless, with alert eyes—was clearly recognizable as the man who appeared in the Internet video carrying a soda bottle. Other pictures showed an older man, with wild hair and a scruffy beard, who was likely Kamotolo’s father. He was rumored by locals to have killed Shaco Flores; Kamotolo was thought to have killed Leonardo Pérez.
At the department’s outpost, Torres had left a small team of local Yine people, who spoke the same language as the Mashco. Their goal was to discover why they were coming out of the forest, and to get them to stop their attacks. But the Mashco didn’t like answering questions about themselves, so Torres’s crew knew little about them. They estimated that between five hundred and a thousand Mashco lived in four groups in the jungle of Peru and Brazil, around an expanse of protected land called Manú National Park. They were related to the Yine, but separated by history: the Yine were the descendants of Fitzcarrald’s conscripts, and the Mashco were believed to be the descendants of those who had fled. Former farmers who had become nomadic hunter-gatherers, they had forgotten how to plant food, and were the only indigenous people in the region who didn’t know how to fish. But they hunted efficiently, using unusually stout arrows, whose heads were attached in a distinctive manner that allowed anthropologists who found discarded shafts to track their movements. The community that Torres’s team was trying to contact was perhaps three dozen people. In their first encounters, it had been unclear how much they understood of the outside world.
The Department of Native Isolated People was drastically underfunded and understaffed, so Torres shuttled between the Mashco outpost and other assignments in Madre de Dios. He had just returned from an even more remote area, where he had followed up on reports of aislados whose territory was being threatened by loggers. He showed me photographs of the remains of a cookfire and a campsite, evidence that the department could use to begin the process of having the land protected. But Torres spoke of his work as almost futile. The department—tasked with looking out for all of Peru’s isolated indigenous people—was a tiny office with little political clout. The Ministry of Energy and Mines, by contrast, was a well-funded agency with the power to open up the Amazon to development that would bring wealth and jobs. “In the battle for the government’s ear,” Torres said dryly, “you can imagine who is more influential.”
For much of the twentieth century, Brazil defined the region’s approach to the aislados: its National Indian Foundation sent scouts to contact them, with the goal of assimilation. These efforts were mostly calamitous for the contacted people, who tended to die out from disease, or to wind up living in frontier shantytowns, where the men often succumbed to alcoholism and the women to prostitution. In barely fifty years, eighty-seven of Brazil’s two hundred and thirty known native groups died off, and the ones that remained lost as much as four-fifths of their population. In the nineteen-eighties, officials at the National Indian Foundation, horrified by the decline, began to enforce a “no contact” policy: when its agents spotted aislados, they designated their land Terras Indígenas—areas forbidden to outsiders.
Most of the neighboring countries adopted Brazil’s no-contact policy, which anthropologists now see as the best way to insure the survival of the remaining aislados. But, for Peru, land in the Amazon was too rich to give up. In the past two decades, the country has experienced an economic boom, based on natural resources. Opening up the jungle has made Peru one of the world’s largest exporters of gold (as well as the second-largest producer of cocaine), and the Camisea natural-gas facility, north of Manú National Park, provides half of the country’s energy. Politicians have been hesitant to disrupt business.
Alan García, the President from 2006 to 2011, insisted that the isolated tribes were a fantasy devised by environmentalists to stop development; an official in the state oil company compared them to the Loch Ness monster. As loggers, miners, and narco-traffickers moved in, aislados fled across the border into Brazil, seeking sanctuary.
In 2011, though, García was voted out of office, and his successor overturned his policies. Around the same time, a documentary about the aislados ran on Peruvian TV. In it, a BBC film crew flew with José Carlos dos Reis Meirelles, a prominent agent from Brazil’s National Indian Foundation, over a part of the Amazon where aislados’ land was being invaded by illegal loggers. As the aislados stared up from the red earth between their huts, Meirelles said, “They are the last free people on this planet.” For Peru’s city dwellers, who had thought little about the isolated people, the film was a revelation. Soon afterward, the country amended its laws to say that the aislados should be left alone.
But, even as Peru embraced the no-contact policy, a new idea was emerging. Last June, the journal Science published a paper in which two prominent anthropologists, Kim Hill and Robert Walker, argued that isolated indigenous groups were “not viable in the long term,” because their environments are too degraded or too vulnerable to incursions. Instead, they advocated a new policy, built around “well-organized contacts.”
The article sparked a furious controversy. “Walker and Hill play straight into the hands of those who want to open Amazonia up for resource extraction and ‘investment,’ ” Stephen Corry, the director of Survival International, wrote. “Let there be no doubt: isolated tribes are perfectly viable, as long as their lands are protected. To think we have the right to invade their territories and make contact with them, whether they want it or not, with all the likely consequences, is pernicious and arrogant.”
But protecting the tribes’ land might be an unrealistic hope. The governor of Madre de Dios, Luis Otsuka, is the former head of a statewide miners’ association, and he has not changed his loyalties. He has allowed gold miners to strip large sections of jungle, and, a few months before I arrived, he sent bulldozers to begin pushing a road through the forest, which would run along the Madre de Dios River, connecting the gold-mining areas to the regional capital, Puerto Maldonado. It would be, in a sense, the fulfillment of Fitzcarrald’s dream. It would also be the destruction of the area’s wilderness, and of the Mashco. Indigenous-rights groups sued to stop construction, but Torres had little doubt that the road would eventually go through. When he met with Otsuka, as construction was starting, the governor said bluntly that he thought the Mashco Piro should be contacted, and by force.
Last year, Glenn Shepard was asked to look into the situation, and he and Torres spent ten days speaking to local people. Shepard feels that the best thing for the Mashco would be total isolation. But, by the end of the trip, he agreed that it had become impossible. “The Mashco Piro are already talking to us, in a sense, but it’s just one way so far—they’re coming out and killing people,” he said. “We need to make it a two-way dialogue. There has to be a next step. The only thing is right now we don’t know what that is.”
Torres’s most pressing job was to discourage fighting between the Mashco and the other indigenous people in the area, so his first stop was Shipetiari, the village where Leonardo Pérez had been killed, which is almost exclusively inhabited by Matsigenka. Shipetiari, set back in the jungle, is composed of family compounds—large huts on stilts—connected by a labyrinth of footpaths. At the village meeting house, we were greeted by three “protection agents”: local men whom Torres had hired to patrol the community and to report any incidents. They had been given walkie-talkies and khaki vests with the department’s logo. Torres asked them to gather residents to discuss the latest developments, and in the next half hour a couple of dozen men and women, some with small children, wandered in and took seats on the floor.
The villagers sat with stubborn expressions. Most of them wore cast-off Western clothing, except for one woman, who had on a traditional cotton robe with a hand-rendered design of black and white stripes. After stilted greetings, Shipetiari’s schoolteacher stood to say that the community was frustrated. On an earlier visit by Torres, people had aired their views, and there seemed to have been no results. “A brother was killed here and nothing happens,” the teacher said. “That’s why when foreigners and N.G.O.s come from outside we don’t tell them anything!”
Torres listened diplomatically, and then reminded the Matsigenka that his department had hired the protection agents, who were on constant patrol. He was paying the village for the use of the meeting house, and had promised to install toilets and a water filter. “But this roof leaks,” he said, pointing to the palm-leaf thatching overhead; perhaps, he suggested, some of the villagers might volunteer to collect palm fronds to patch it. There was a long silence. Eventually, a woman named Rufina Rivera said, “But what happens if we go into the forest to get fronds and the Mashco shoot arrows at us?” Torres said calmly, “O.K., understood. We’ll bring the fronds from somewhere else.”
Torres was careful to refer to the Mashco using a term that the department was trying to encourage: nomole, which means “brother” in the Yine language. The crowd seemed to feel little affinity. For them, the Mashco were outsiders. Although the Matsigenka’s traditional home was a couple of hundred miles to the north, they had long maintained a small outpost in Shipetiari, and in the eighties a larger group had moved in, eking out an existence by growing yucca and bananas. According to Shepard, they also worked with timber buyers, who hired them illegally to log valuable hardwoods.
The presence of the Mashco, and of the officials tracking them, made it difficult for the Matsigenka to live normal lives, much less expand their logging operations. And Pérez’s death threatened to bring about an open conflict. Following the killing, a squad of Matsigenka men armed with guns had pursued the Mashco into the forest. After hiking for eight hours, they found their camp, but it was empty, so they destroyed it and threw the Mashco’s arrows in the river. It was both a defensive act and a punishment: the cane that the Mashco use for arrows ripens only once a year, and they would not be able to hunt until they were replaced.
Torres pointed to the protection agents, and said that he hoped to be able to hire more, but until there was more money in his budget he needed two volunteers to help out. Rivera insisted that he hire more agents, and give them walkie-talkies. The schoolteacher said, “The Mashco are going to come back. For sure they will come back to look for food here when the rains come.”
Rivera yelled, “The solution is to send all the Mashco across the river!” Everyone laughed. Torres said, “That’s not possible.” If they returned, he said, the community should not be aggressive: “If you lose some bananas, they can always be replaced. If you kill one of them, you’ll live in a state of war.” Gesturing toward the forest, he said, “The Mashco are going to continue to live here. So, if they come again, the thing to do is to stay in your houses and then let us know so we can come, and we’ll use the contact we are having with them to let them know it’s not good to attack people.”
Rivera said, “So you say if the Mashco come we shouldn’t do anything. But, if they kill someone of mine, I’ll kill them—of course I will! If they come and kill my husband, I will kill them, and if they ask me why I am in prison I will say, ‘For killing Mashco.’ ”
After the meeting, we walked with the protection agents to the edge of the village and stopped on a broad path shaded by trees. One of the agents walked into the bush and crouched down. “This is where the Mashco was hiding,” he said. “Here he drew his bow and fired the arrow that killed Leo.” Around us, the forest was silent, except for the trilling of a few cicadas.
Nomole, as Torres and his crew called their outpost, was two hours farther downriver: a longhouse, made of crude planks painted green, propped up on stilts on a bluff above the river. The surrounding forest had been slashed and burned, and the open land was still dotted with blackened stumps. Visitors pitched tents outside the longhouse; in the woods, at a discreet distance, a trench latrine had been dug.
At the edge of the bluff, a wooden bench offered a view of the rocky shoreline on the other side, where the Mashco had most recently appeared. The river was perhaps four hundred feet across, and in the middle was a pair of low islets that were submerged when the water was high. Heavy rains in the past few days had turned the river into a swirling gray-green torrent, erupting into white water around rocks and fallen trees.
There were five Yine agents at the Nomole post, led by Romel Ponceano, a husky man in his late thirties, who was a chief in a community several days’ journey away. His family had a long history in the region, working as guides for the rubber barons and, more recently, for oil explorers and mahogany loggers. Like a poacher who had become a game warden, Ponceano had begun working for Torres, and had made himself indispensable. He was aided by Reynaldo Laureano, a sturdy man in his fifties, and Nelly Flores, a plump, reserved woman in her thirties, both from the nearby Yine settlement of Diamante.
When we arrived, Ponceano reported that the Mashco had appeared a week earlier, and said they would return in six days, but they hadn’t shown up. Ponceano speculated that the rain had flooded the rivers that demarcated their territory, and the Mashco, who didn’t know how to swim, had been unable to ford them.
As we waited, a pattern developed. People took turns as sentinels on the bluff, watching for the Mashco and listening for a loud hooting whistle, the sound they made to announce their approach. The watchers kept their hopes in check. In three decades of visiting the area, Shepard had never seen the Mashco: he had encountered them only once, as warning whistles in the forest.
Each morning, we were awakened in our tents by the chattering of tiny titi monkeys and the plunking call of paucar birds. The days were long and hot, punctuated by meals of river fish with boiled yucca or rice, or spaghetti and tuna that Torres had brought from Cuzco. There was an occasional flurry of excitement. One morning, a tapir appeared in the reeds of the nearest islet, and Laureano scrambled after it with a shotgun, returning empty-handed. Another day, a large, hairy tarantula was killed inches from the door of the longhouse. For entertainment, people stared at the river, or watched the endless succession of bright-colored macaws that flew squawking overhead.
The team spent most of its time at a table in the longhouse, poring over photographs of the Mashco, speculating about their relationships with one another. By bringing them bananas, which they loved but didn’t know how to cultivate, and communicating in basic Yine, the team had established a tentative rapport. In several short encounters, they had identified about twenty Mashco by name. For now, they were emerging from the forest about once a week, but that was all.
One morning, there was a sound of distant whistling, and several of us ran toward the riverbank. Flores, ahead of the others, shook her head: the sound had come from a panguana bird, whose call resembled the Mashco’s whistle.
Even if we couldn’t see the Mashco, it was clear that they were nearby. People in Diamante, an hour downriver, had reported quiet raids, in which the Mashco came looking for food and for things to steal. Torres hoped that they would desist now that his team was feeding them, but if the rains kept them from the meeting point there was a risk that they would start again.
At a community meeting in Diamante, a woman named Nena, carrying a baby on her back, stood nervously to say that she had visited her vegetable patch—a small plot that Peruvians call a chacra—and found indications that the Mashco had been there. It had happened a week ago, and she was still afraid to return. Torres wanted to review the evidence, so we crossed the river in our peke-peke, with Nena pointing the way. Onshore, we followed her through a maize field to a spot where she stopped and looked around fearfully. At the entrance to a barely discernible path into the forest, she pointed at two twigs that had been bent so that their tips crossed. Ponceano inspected them closely, then walked on, scrutinizing the path. There were four more sets of bent twigs: a warning left by the Mashco.
“What does it mean?” I asked.
“It means you should not go any farther,” Ponceano said. “If you do, they will shoot you with arrows.”
Nena led us back to the riverbank, sweating and breathing in nervous gasps. Her husband worked in a sawmill, far away, and came home only every few months, so she tended the plot herself, often bringing along the baby and her three older children. “I keep the baby here,” she said, touching the bundle on her back. Then she gestured at a shaded area under some trees. “I usually leave the others there, playing. Now I can’t do that anymore.” With a distressed look, she said that she didn’t know how she was going to feed her family now.
As we approached Nomole, going back upriver, the boat crew began shouting and pointing to the far shore. A group of people had assembled, their reddish skin distinct against the scree of white rock. The Mashco had returned.
Across the river, the Nomole team was setting out from the shore: Flores and Ponceano, as well as a doctor named Fernando Mendieta, who sometimes volunteered. To avoid disrupting their work, Torres steered us toward a long sandbar, a hundred feet from where the Mashco had gathered. We crept toward a large tree snagged there, which offered us cover while we watched.
The Mashco on the shore had very erect posture and moved economically, seeming always to be in synch. Their leader, Kamotolo, was tall and square-jawed, with cropped black hair, and was completely naked; so was a younger man, who looked to be a teen-ager. There were two women, who had long, thick hair and wore flaps of woven bark on strings around their waists, which protected their genitals but left their bottoms bare. Both women were pregnant, and they tended to five children, all of them naked.
The Mashco had a ritual greeting: they hugged visitors, put their heads on their shoulders, and then felt inside their clothing, as if to ascertain their sex. For perhaps forty minutes, the two groups mingled: the Mashco touching and probing, and the Nomole team acquiescing, mostly in good humor. The Mashco women approached Flores and, as she giggled, touched her breasts and stomach. Kamotolo strode along the shore, sat down in the Nomole peke-peke, and then returned to the group, looking excited. The team had brought two large hands of bananas and set them down near a fallen log. Kamotolo periodically went over, sat on the log, and ate bananas, one after the other.
There was little talk, and no sense of urgency; it was as if the Nomole team had crossed the river to play with a group of largely mute children. A couple of the younger Mashco swarmed Ponceano and made him race with them, back and forth from the tree line to the shore. They seemed delighted by his chubbiness. One of the women approached Mendieta, and tugged at his shirt, a purple polo. He gently resisted, but the woman finally got the shirt from him and pulled it on.
When the team climbed into the peke-peke to leave, the Mashco lined up to watch. As the boat pulled away, Kamotolo began staring at us and shouting. I had seen him questioning Ponceano about us, pointing in our direction. Now, without the team there to distract them, the Mashco began throwing rocks, which splashed into the river. We hastily followed the Nomole team back to the outpost.
On the riverbank, the team members were elated, swapping stories about their interactions. When I asked Flores about the women, she put a hand to her mouth in embarrassment. “They felt my breasts and stomach and said to me, ‘You’re pregnant, aren’t you?’ When I said, ‘No, I’m not,’ they said, ‘Tell us the truth! Don’t you have milk?’ When I said no, Knoygonro squirted her milk in my face, to say, ‘I do.’ ” Flores covered her mouth again, giggling.
The team spent the rest of the day making notes and going over photos, identifying the Mashco who had appeared, while Ponceano translated their names. Kamotolo meant “honeybee.” The younger man was Tkotko (“king vulture”), and the two women were Knoygonro (“tortoise”) and Chawo (“hoatzin bird”). The children, too, were named for animals, except for one toddler, Serologeri, whose name meant “ripe banana.”
The Mashco had carefully examined the Nomole team’s gear and clothing—looking, Ponceano believed, for weapons, or for anything else they might find useful. They had removed the drawstring from Laureano’s shorts and kept it. Kamotolo had been interested in Ponceano’s shorts, too, but then he noticed a big hole in the crotch and told him to keep them.
Ponceano had inquired about the warning signs near Nena’s farm, and Kamotolo had hinted that the Mashco had been in the area, but offered no details. Ponceano had let the matter drop; he had learned in previous encounters that when he asked too many questions Kamotolo rounded up the others and left.
I asked what the Mashco had said when they saw us on the sandbar. Flores told me, “They said, ‘Are they bad people?’ I said, ‘No, they are our friends, but they’re not coming over because they have colds, and we don’t want you to catch them.’ ” (In fact, the whole team was healthy; Flores was trying to keep the encounter under control.) The Mashco, seeming unconcerned, had said, “Tell them to come!”
Before the Nomole team departed, Kamotolo said that the Mashco would return in three days. The visits were getting more frequent, but Torres seemed as concerned as he was pleased. “Right now, it’s bananas they want,” he said. “But what will they be asking us for in a few years’ time? What will be the turning point?”
At sundown, Nomole’s gas-powered generator was turned on for an hour to pump water into a plastic tank that sat on stilts, so that people could bathe under a rudimentary shower. Afterward, we met around the table in the longhouse, eating dinner and talking, almost exclusively about the Mashco.
One of the team members, an anthropologist named Waldo Maldonado, was a voluble presence in the conversation. Maldonado, a short, bearded man with a fondness for Indiana Jones-style leather boots, was from Cuzco, and before joining the Department of Native Isolated People he had worked as a guide for ecotourists in Manú National Park. He was trying to lose weight, and so, while the rest of us ate dinner, he would unfurl a piece of embroidered Andean cloth and take out a bag of coca leaves. As the evenings wore on, he would become more animated, chewing coca and rolling cigarettes—organic tobacco, he assured me.
One evening, Maldonado said, “These people are all going to come out. It’s inevitable. The question is how we manage it to make sure that their coming out does not result in their extinction.” The anthropologists agonized over the ethics of their work, with a concern that seemed nearly parental. They wanted to teach the Mashco to fish, for instance, but worried that they’d choke on bones. They were especially uncertain about how to handle the raids on chacras. If they planted farmland for the Mashco, it would provide them with yucca and bananas, giving them less reason to invade other people’s property. But they would have to depend on the state to teach them each step of the process. “The big question is, can the Mashco remain hunter-gatherers for another hundred years?” Shepard said.
Maldonado described the Mashco’s condition as an update of the hunter-gatherer life style: they had figured out where the villages were, and what they could get from them, but they seemed uninterested in settled life. His greater concern was abject dependence. “Will they become beggars now? Are they going to stay on the beach and call out to the boats and say, ‘I want this and I want that’? In my heart, I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing.”
The team members agreed that the Mashco were not really “uncontacted.” Shepard maintained that they had been contacted a century ago, when Fitzcarrald invaded their territory, and that the survivors had isolated themselves by choice. Now they appeared to be seeking contact again, and perhaps it was unfair to stop them. The anthropologists Hill and Walker argue that the impulse to engage seems universal. “People want to trade,” they wrote. “And they crave exposure to new ideas and new opportunities. Humans are a gregarious species.” By seeking out bananas and tools, though, Kamotolo’s group might have begun a path toward inevitable assimilation. The Yine in Diamante still speak their own language, but almost all of them wear Western clothing, drink beer, and send their children to schools where they are taught in Spanish.
The Mashco and their Yine cousins have been increasingly aware of one another. In the seventies, a Mashco woman and her daughters, who became known as the Three Marías, wandered out of the woods and camped near a park ranger’s station. After a few years of dislocation and confusion, they were taken to nearby villages, and the daughters eventually married local men.
Nelly Flores herself was half-Mashco. Her father was a Mashco who had been captured as a small boy by Shaco Flores and raised by his family, so that he could serve as a translator in contacts. Nelly referred to Shaco, who was Matsigenka, as her grandfather. But she also thought of the encounters with the Mashco as a kind of reunion. “When I go to see them, I tell them I’m a relative,” she said, and smiled.
The following Sunday, the Mashco returned on schedule. A routine had set in, with the Nomole team handing over bananas, running races, and being embraced and searched. From the sandbar, I watched as Kamotolo squatted by a fire set among the rocks on the shore, tending to something as it cooked: a stingray that he had spotted in shallow water and killed with an arrow.
There were signs of a tentative opening. The Mashco had been fascinated by Ponceano’s camera, which they called Big-Eye, and, after Ponceano allowed one of them to hold it, he realized that it was missing. The Mashco feigned ignorance, but finally a boy named Wasese admitted that they had brought it to “the older ones, those who stay in the forest,” and asked if Ponceano wanted to come and get it back. Ponceano asked, “Will they kill me?” Wasese replied, “I don’t know, maybe.”
On the shore, I could see Maldonado making faces with the children. Mendieta scribbled notes and took pictures; at one point, he tried to inspect the teeth of several of the Mashco. The young man named Tkotko pulled Flores aside and spoke to her intently. She explained later that he had asked if she wanted to “lie down” with him and be his woman. She had dodged his invitation with a universal fib: she already had a boyfriend.
As they talked, there was the sound of a motor, and a boat appeared, heading downriver. In the prow, a bearded white man wearing a kepi-like hat stood with the rigid posture of a conquistador. Maldonado and the others were startled: they stopped what they were doing and began shouting and waving at him not to interfere. The boat sped past, but a moment later it swung back around, pulling close to the shore, and the man held out six machetes to the Mashco. The children ran toward him, their arms outstretched.
One of the boatmen with me recognized the man as Father Pedro Rey, a priest from a Dominican mission upriver. He called out, “Padre Burro! Padre Mentiroso! ”—“Father Donkey! Father Liar!” As Maldonado ran toward the shoreline, yelling irately, the priest abruptly set down his gifts and headed back down the river. Before long, he had vanished into the jungle.
The Nomole team was outraged at the intrusion. “What right do priests have to go against state law?” Maldonado said indignantly. Rey, he explained, was a Spanish missionary who had been in Madre de Dios for eighteen years, and had long promoted contact with the aislados.
Rey was scheduled to lead Mass that evening in Boca de Manú, a village downriver, and I found him there having dinner in a saloon. He sat alone, a wiry man with glasses and salt-and-pepper stubble. At the next table, Matsigenka rivermen were drinking litre bottles of Cuzqueña beer, shouting ebulliently and swaying in their chairs. Rey quietly ignored them. After he finished his meal, I introduced myself, and he invited me to his church, where he had to prepare for the Mass.
The church, several hundred feet away along a footpath, was a cinder-block structure with a simple altar and a dozen wooden pews. Sitting in a pew, Rey told me that he was happy to see the Mashco defended but skeptical of the government’s motives. “The state is protecting its interests, not those of the indígenas,” he said. The Nomole team had discouraged the Mashco from dealing with anyone but them, missionaries included, which Rey described as a moral affront: “Those people have rights, and the right to communication, too, but they are being impeded from exercising that right.”
He went on, “We in the Church have a hundred years of experience making contact. But, among government officials, there are people who have never seen an Indian!” Rey’s mission had been established in the days of the caucheros, and in his telling it had rescued many of their victims. “When we came here, the rivers were clogged with bodies,” he said, grimacing.
By other accounts, the effect of the mission was disastrous. An Amarakaeri leader in the region told me that Rey’s contact with the Mashco was “outrageous,” given the Dominicans’ previous results. “He’s trying to do what they did with us, in a forced contact,” he said. “We were once fifteen thousand. Now we’re less than two thousand.” But there was no question that the missionaries were better established here than the state was, and Rey described the conflict with Maldonado as an interruption in an otherwise cordial relationship. “I always give the Mashco machetes when I pass by,” he said. “The guards at the outpost have no problem with me.” He was referring, I realized, to the Yine agents at Nomole. “They say to me, ‘Father, whatever you want, but not when Waldo is here.’ ”
As it turned out, Flores was a follower of Mario Álvarez, an evangelical preacher who had been trying to convert the Mashco. When the government began intervening in the area, the preacher had been told to cease his contacts, but Flores, his acolyte, was still able to meet with the Mashco—a situation that Torres felt was awkward but unavoidable.
Álvarez lived in Diamante, and one afternoon I found him there. He was sawing wooden planks in the entry of a half-constructed church, which he was building atop a concrete slab the size of a basketball court; a sign said “Asamblea de Dios.” Álvarez, a muscular, goateed man of fifty-five with prominent teeth, said that for years he had worked as a logger in the jungle, but at the age of thirty he had found God and renounced his previous life. He told me, “My work now is evangelism, and God has work to do here on earth.”
A couple of years ago, a revelation had led Álvarez to Diamante. “I had a dream—a man told me to come to the mouth of the Manú River,” he explained. “So I gave a challenge to God. I said, ‘I will go if you provide me with transport.’ Two days later, a man knocked on my door and offered me a canoe and a sister as a guide.” Around that time, the Mashco had begun appearing. “I heard of these naked people, and saw pictures of them,” Álvarez said. “I decided that I wouldn’t leave this jungle until I embraced them and was able to tell them that they were not alone in this world.”
His chance came in March, 2015, when he heard that the Mashco were going to emerge on the riverbank. “I felt a little scared,” he recalled, smiling broadly. “There were three of them, men, and I gave them my hand and I hugged them, too, and at that moment I knew this was God’s mission for me.” The Ministry of Culture had pressed Álvarez to stop meeting the Mashco, but he had persisted, bringing them bananas. He also brought clothes, until he realized that they didn’t wear them. “It seems that clothing disturbs them,” he told me. “They’ll have to be taught how to use clothes, I guess.” Waving around at the church, Álvarez said, “Every day, in my services, we pray for them here. For them, Satan and sin doesn’t exist. They don’t know about all those things. But God is merciful.”
Álvarez complained that the authorities had prohibited others from having contact, but were conducting encounters themselves. “It seems they have some kind of concealed plan,” he said confidingly. “One day, it will come to light.” When I asked where the Mashco would be in five years, he brightened and replied, “They will be evangelizing on behalf of the Church, because the Lord’s word is powerful.”
The team’s greatest concern was the Mashco’s health. Controlled contact is impossible without intense medical supervision: the societal equivalent, perhaps, of an organ transplant. In the first encounter, Mendieta had found that everyone was basically healthy. Now, though, Kamotolo’s mother, Puthana, was coughing, and so was Kwangonro; Wasese had inflamed tonsils. The doctor worried that they were developing full-blown flu.
Mendieta was thirty-eight and single, the son of a public prosecutor and a teacher who ran a home for orphans. Working for Peru’s Ministry of Health, he ran a hospital near the Dominican mission, and was also charged with overseeing most of the upper Madre de Dios region, a vast area where indigenous groups lived in various degrees of contact with civilization.
The Mashco were at the most primary stage, and Mendieta had become fascinated by their situation. “We realized we had to do something, but there was no budget,” he told me. When the Ministry of Culture got involved, he began visiting surrounding communities to educate local people and to inoculate them against communicable diseases. Still, he was sure that eventually the Mashco would be stricken with an epidemic, and their remoteness would make it difficult to treat. He said that isolated communities struck by viruses were governed by a “three-day rule”: children invariably began dying on the third day. In Madre de Dios, he had sometimes arrived too late.
For now, though, vaccinations were out of the question; the Mashco were still not entirely comfortable being examined. Even donated clothing carried the risk of disease, and he fretted about the polo shirt that he had lost to the Mashco woman. He reassured himself that the shirt had been freshly washed, and that it probably wouldn’t be worn for long. Wasese had reported that when they returned to camp the “older ones” took the clothing away and burned it—perhaps to prevent illness or perhaps merely to destroy a vestige of the outside world.
The Nomole team felt certain that more Mashco would come out of the forest. “In five years, we’re probably going to have forty or fifty people to deal with,” Mendieta said. “As long as they need things from us, they’re going to be there, on the riverbanks, exposed to everything that comes along.” He paused. “The bottom line is, we want their lives to be respected. The problem is that a lot of people in Peru don’t care about them at all.”
Peru’s national government is mostly absent from Madre de Dios, so the future of its wilderness, and of the Mashco, depends on a few regional politicians in Puerto Maldonado. The capital is hundreds of miles from the Mashco’s territory, a daylong trip. I set out by boat early one morning, and spent hours floating past dozens of illegal logging camps. Finally, I saw a small tributary rushing into the Madre de Dios, and realized that I was near the uninhabited stretch where I had made camp decades ago.
Where once there was a deserted riverbank, now pickup trucks roared up to discharge people into boats, while gaudily painted buses waited for them on the other side. I boarded a bus, and followed a dirt road through a forest that was being burned by ranchers; the blaze was so intense that smoke obscured the horizon. Eventually, a paved road led to Puerto Maldonado, through an area where hundreds of gold-mining camps have been carved out of the jungle—home to as many as fifty thousand miners. There were a few roadside boomtowns, with bars, shops, and brothels, and as night fell adolescent girls came out to stand on the verge, ready for the evening’s business.
Puerto Maldonado was founded by Fitzcarrald, and a main avenue there still bears his name; guides take tourists downriver to view the wreck of the iron boat that is said to have carried him to his death. I had not been to the city in four decades, and in that time it had grown from a wooden-shack backwater into a sprawling grid of a hundred thousand people. A bridge now crossed the Madre de Dios, and a road extended all the way to the border with Brazil; others led south to Bolivia and west to Cuzco. The only gap in the expanding road system was to the north, where Governor Otsuka wanted to push the road through the jungle alongside Mashco territory.
Otsuka had rushed off to tend to an emergency at a mining camp, where gas cannisters had exploded, but his deputy at the time, Eduardo Salhuana, was there when I arrived. A longtime political player in the region, as well as Peru’s former minister of justice, Salhuana was regarded as the real power broker in Madre de Dios. He greeted me coldly and led me into his office.
When I pointed out that the gold-mining areas seemed totally unregulated, with miners brazenly using banned chemicals and machines, Salhuana described it as inevitable.
“There’s a lot of gold in Madre de Dios, but only 6.7 per cent of the region is legally available for mining,” he complained. Madre de Dios had reserves worth billions of dollars, he added, and as prospectors poured in they had no choice but to break the law. Salhuana acknowledged that corruption, prostitution, and other crimes were rife, and that Puerto Maldonado had become a major transit point for cocaine. But, in his telling, all the problems were the fault of the national government, which did nothing to enforce its own laws in the region.
In any case, Salhuana said, the laws were already too strict. “Sixty-five per cent of the territory of Madre de Dios has been classified as protected area, with fifteen per cent given to indigenous reserves,” he said. (In fact, barely half of the area is restricted, with about ten per cent set aside for indigenous people.) “So much land is protected that there is not much left for people to do anything with. But they are asking us, ‘Where is there left for us to work?’ ”
When I asked about the road that would open up the Mashco area, he replied, “The road isn’t defined as an official project yet. In any event, the people of the area are yearning to be better connected with Puerto Maldonado.” I mentioned the sordid roadside settlements north of the city. Was that what he wanted for the area around Nomole? “Any infrastructure project will obviously have an impact,” Salhuana replied. “But there’s also a lot of poverty in the indigenous communities. The other option is to leave them as they are.”
The nomole team’s mission to contact the Mashco was inspired by killings, and by the fear that there might be more. In the end, though, the killers’ motivations remained elusive. When I asked Nelly why Shaco Flores had been killed, she shrugged; despite her family relationship with the Mashco, she seemed to find their behavior impossible to predict. During encounters, she said, “They hold my hands, get into the boat, and say, ‘Take us to your house.’ But we can’t. They might shoot us with arrows.”
Shepard thinks that Shaco was killed because he stopped giving the Mashco things. “They became angry,” he said. It was unclear why Shaco had changed his habits: perhaps indigenous-rights groups had encouraged him to leave the Mashco alone, or perhaps it had become too expensive to continue the handouts. Either way, the contact had created a dependency that was painful to break. “He had got them basically hooked on bananas and pots and pans,” Shepard said.
For the Nomole crew, it was a reminder that their work entailed real dangers. One afternoon, keeping watch on the bluff, Maldonado spoke about the history of attacks in Brazil, where more than sixty contact agents had been killed by aislados in the past forty years. Apparently, the greatest risk came after a bond of familiarity had been established. According to one theory, the aislados were provoked by fears that the outsiders’ gentle approach masked a plan to log their land, take their women, and kill their men.
As we talked, we heard the whistling that announced the Mashco, and I followed Maldonado to the edge of the bluff. Through binoculars, we saw three men emerge from the forest. None of the women or children were with them. Maldonado was nervous. “Where are the women?” he asked. “What’s going on?” He told the team, which had started carrying bananas down to the peke-peke, to stand by.
As Maldonado spoke, however, a line of women and children began appearing from the forest. He whooped with relief and ran down to join the peke-peke. On the opposite shore, Tkotko roared like a jaguar at him, then laughed uproariously, explaining in pantomime that his eyes looked as if they were going to pop out of his head.
There appeared to be growing trust between the two groups. The Nomole team had instructed Kamotolo to meet only with them, and he seemed to have complied, moving his family to a closer camp, about three hours’ walk away. Maldonado said that the relationship was limited: “Our conversations are very basic. He asks things like ‘Are you married?’ ‘Do you have kids?’ ” And he had few illusions about the Mashco’s motives: “He keeps coming because he knows he can get things.” But he had become fond of Kamotolo, who was the right age to be his son. Laughing, he recalled the time that Kamotolo had searched their peke-peke and found a pair of panties left behind by a French journalist as she changed into her swimsuit. He had put them on, backward.
The Mashco seemed to have a special bond with Ponceano, whom they sometimes adorned with a crown of leaves. He attributed his influence to a vision that one of the Mashco women had after taking a hallucinogen derived from the Amazonian flower floripondio. When they met, he recalled, the woman had asked him his name. When he told her his Yine name, Yotlot, meaning “river otter,” she had exclaimed, “Oh, you are Yotlot! I knew you were coming today.”
After that, he said, the Mashco had regarded him as their primary link to the outside world. He told me about standing with them on the riverbank when a logger’s boat appeared. Kamotolo had asked, excitedly, “Are they good people? Shall we call them?” Ponceano had said no, and they had let the boat pass. The Mashco had told the other Yine agents to look after Ponceano and make sure nothing happened to him. “They’ve invited me to join them,” he said, laughing. “I just say, ‘Another day.’ ”
As we readied our boats to cross back to Nomole, Maldonado confessed that he had chewed too much coca the night before. Unable to sleep, he had lain awake fretting about the Mashco. “All I could think about was ‘Are they all right? Are they sick?’ ” But Mendieta found that Puthana’s cough had abated, and so had Kwangonro’s. Wasese’s sore throat appeared to have gone away, too. For now, the Mashco seemed safe.
A few days later, I flew out of Puerto Maldonado, on the first leg of the trip home. As the airplane banked over the jungle, I could see the great river, looping like liquid silver below. Then, for several long minutes, the jungle disappeared, replaced by an expanse of giant craters. The scale of destruction was breathtaking: it was reminiscent of aerial photographs of North Vietnam after it was carpet-bombed by B-52s. I realized that I was looking at the goldfields of Madre de Dios.
In Lima, the uneven effects of Peru’s new wealth were evident. Around the city, beggars work the traffic intersections near gaudy casinos, and rivers brim with trash. Crime is rampant, so most homes are protected by iron bars on the doors and windows and by walls topped by razor wire; armed guards abound.
Before I left, I stopped by the Department of Native Isolated People, in a massive concrete government building overlooking a noisy highway. Torres was there, with his boss, Patricia Balbuena Palacios, the vice-minister of interculturality. I asked Balbuena whether the Mashco would still exist in five years. “Hopefully they’ll last a little longer than that,” she said. “Maybe we won’t be able to stop the changes, but maybe we can slow them down. The changes are going to continue, though, and, in the end, the ones who are going to survive will be those best able to adapt.” ♦
Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer, began contributing to The New Yorker in 1998. MORE
This article appears in other versions of the August 8 & 15, 2016, issue, with the headline “The Distant Shore.”