Latin America

Off the Map

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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.

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  1. I’m not sure how the authorities know they’re there-they’re uncontacted, after all

    spotted them from a plane, perchance?

  2. It’s amazing that while one part of the world develops things like the internet, space travel, and any number of other advances, in other places, people still live in isolated tribes, tens of thousands of years behind the rest of us.

    I wonder if they’ve chosen that life, and if they enjoy it.*

    *No political or social point here; I really am just wondering.

  3. They’re doomed, no primitive culture can survive the fruit of the tree of knowledge, i.e. metal cookware and bluejeans.

  4. about 87 members…in an area that is difficult to reach because of thick jungle

    That sounds like an apartment in my building. I believe the tribe refers to itself as Mexicans.

  5. Number 6,

    Given that farming only started 8,000-9,000 years ago they aren’t quite tens of thousands of years behind us. 😉

  6. Grotius,

    Just once, I’d like us to find an isolated tribe that is a few thousand years ahead of us. Maybe they’d have flying cars.

  7. Warren,

    The Sentinelese in the Andaman Islands?

    https://www.reason.com/blog/show/112580.html

  8. Flying cars? hell. I’d just go for spray-on pants.

    *looks up

    what? don’t tell me I‘m the only one who wants spray on pants (just think of the fun you could have. One minute assless; next minute new cords!)

    /kicks pebble. ambles off

  9. VM,

    Where you walk, I cannot follow.

  10. gorgonzola’s foil,

    Maybe. I suspect the Priests or Tribal Elders or whatever passes for the establishment, are whipping up the Xenophobia. My guess they wouldn’t last two weeks past an empty coke bottle dropped from a stray Cessna.

  11. ProGLib:

    Hopefully this tribe can get a refund for its correspondence course on “How Not To Be Seen”.

    *chomps sofa thoughtfully…

  12. Would it be unethical to present ourselves as, well, gods?

  13. Number 6,

    I wonder if they’ve chosen that life, and if they enjoy it.

    Maybe its because I just read the thread above, but this reminded me of Brave New World.

  14. Somehow this all has to do with the failure of tectonics to explain anything…

    http://www.seedmagazine.com/news/2007/06/seeds_daily_zeitgeist_672007.php

    You have to watch the video…
    Truly impressive obsession…

  15. VM, will you stand up please?

  16. one sec…

    [strange sounds]

    hokae. done. am standing.

    [wipe wipe]

    good. right. now where were we?

  17. Would it be unethical to present ourselves as, well, gods?

    False gods.

  18. The problem with spray-on pants is that you’d have to re-spray after batin’.

  19. Col – thanks. realize that… now. (hrumph. /kicks pebble)

    Teal’c:

    but remember the RULE OF GOZER. If anyone asks if you’re a god, say YES!

  20. Grotius wrote:
    Number 6,

    Given that farming only started 8,000-9,000 years ago they aren’t quite tens of thousands of years behind us. 😉

    Here’s a link to a great article that New Yorker ran back in April about an Amazonian tribe called the Piraha that has no agriculture at all (and their language is so primitive and unlike any other that it serves as a counterexample to Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar, although there is apparently some disagreement on this point).

    So, since they have no agriculture, you could argue that the Piraha are potentially 10’s of thousands of years behind us modern folk.

  21. I’m not sure how the authorities know they’re there-they’re uncontacted, after all

    Got reports of them from other tribes in the area which had been contacted?

  22. There are plenty of ways to estimate an unknown number. E.g.: how many tribes per hectare live in similar regions that have been better explored? It makes Reason/H&R look bad when you’re skeptical of what is admittedly an estimate, and which upon no large amount of thinking could be a fairly simple estimate to develop. Apparently we’re willing to accept estimates of oil available in the region and invest tons of cash there…

    Also: If you use ag as a marker (which is dubious in its relevance), in strict mathematical terms non-agricultural folks are at least, as in “greater than or equal to”, ~9k years “behind” “us”. It is correct by this standard to say they’re 10k years back, or 20k, etc.

  23. Over the coming weeks we will no doubt learn what led the Metyktire to make contact.

    They want to express their support for Ron Paul.

  24. Contact would likely be very bad for these folks. Prostitution, drunkeness, and drug abuse tend to follow shortly after hunter-gatherer tribes contact modern civilizations. I doubt these folks would make out much better.

    Seeing hunter-gatherer tribes destruct almost immediately after contact makes me wonder if Rousseau and his ilk didn’t have a point: man was happier uncivilized.

    – Josh

  25. It makes Reason/H&R look bad when you’re skeptical of what is admittedly an estimate, and which upon no large amount of thinking could be a fairly simple estimate to develop. Apparently we’re willing to accept estimates of oil available in the region and invest tons of cash there…

    Huh? I’m not challenging the estimate; I’m just stating my ignorance of where it came from. If I ever write something more substantial than a blog post about this, I’ll call up an expert and ask how the estimate was conjured & how reliable it is. Til then I’ll try to avoid the false certainty of repeating a guess I just read on the Internet as a settled fact.

    And what on earth makes you think I’m siding with Barrett?

  26. OK, we’ve been talking seriously about this question for decades now, and here’s a chance to apply whatever answer we’re come up with:

    Looking back over the conquest of the American Indians, and with 20/20 hindsight, what should we have done differently?

    First of all, that whole “they don’t own the land because it’s not ‘improved'” thing is right out.

  27. I’ve seen this proposed in L. Neil Smith’s The Probability Broach, and I kinda like it:

    First, let’s assume that using a large standing army or other government forces to help you steal land from the indigenous peoples is right out.

    If you want some of the land that the American Indians are living on, buy it from them, and pay them with some stock in the land and whatever is built on it. That way, as the development of the land increases its value, the Indians get richer, instead of being poorer and more marginalized. Hopefully they could use some of their growing wealth to buy the means to defend the land they want to keep.

    (If it were a legal requirement for developers to buy land in this particular manner, it would be a poor libertarian solution. But if the Indians were somehow savvy enough to hold out for this arrangement as a better deal than just getting beads or pelts or whatever, that would be fine.

    How to bring about this situation? I would suggest that those of us who are concerned about the situation send “financial education missionaries” into the Indian-held lands to teach them how not to be taken advantage of by the White-Eyes. I think that would be a fine voluntaryist, noncoercive, libertarian approach.)

    Also — this time, the buyers should be sure to clarify whether they are actually buying exclusive use and ownership of the land in perpetuity or merely paying the Indians for a limited share in the use of the land. Along those lines, our financial advisor missionaries should give the Indians a course in European philosophies of land ownership.

  28. I remember something about this from a Flip Wilson documentry. These folks are always celebrating “not being discovered day” when outsiders arrive.

  29. I like your thinking there, Stevo.

  30. Jesse–
    You weren’t challenging the estimate, but you were not “just stating [your] ignorance of where it came from.”

    Consider your phrasing:
    “I’m not sure how the authorities know they’re there-they’re uncontacted, after all-but if you accept the estimates…”

    That’s three successive clauses all pointing out that the estimate is indeed an estimate. Especially considering you didn’t know where the estimates came from (and also that you didn’t muse on that topic!), it seems odd to dwell on the estimate nature of those estimates. It just seems to me that you emphasized their estimative (if I may be allowed to make up words) nature to a point which, in the absence of any other purpose, seemed only to function to portray the numbers as unreliable.

    But I’ll also say I only meant it as a passing comment and that I realize you hardly could be expected to dwell too much on the phrasing of a blog post..

    Also, I do still think it’s interesting to reflect upon the fact that the oil we seek in the Amazon (and I do include myself in the “we”) is only estimated to be there too, until we go in and disturb the people and biology of the area. As a geologist (sortof) I am flattered that our estimates are considered more reliable than those other guys’.

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