Off the Map


I'm used to reading reports about zoologists finding previously unnoticed animals. Earlier this week, for example, scientists in Suriname announced the discovery of 24 new species, including a partly purple frog. But here's something more unusual: a previously unnoticed human society.

The Metyktire tribe, with about 87 members, was found last week in an area that is difficult to reach because of thick jungle and a lack of nearby rivers some 1,200 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro, said Mario Moura, a spokesman for the Federal Indian Bureau.

From the Indians' point of view, of course, it's the rest of us who have just been discovered. Unless, that is, they knew about us all along:

The Metyktire are a sub-group of the Kayapó tribe. They made first contact with Brazilians in 1950, but the group which has just appeared chose to remain in isolation….

Survival's director Stephen Corry said today, 'More than 100 uncontacted tribes exist in the world today, and many of them are being pushed to the brink by those who want their land. Over the coming weeks we will no doubt learn what led the Metyktire to make contact.'

Discoveries like this can have political ramifications. Survival International reports, for example, that the Peruvian government has just "blocked oil exploration by US company Barrett Resources in the northern Amazon over concerns about uncontacted tribes living there." I'm not sure how the authorities know they're there—they're uncontacted, after all—but if you accept the estimates, there's around 15 undiscovered communities in Peru alone.