Thanks to the “Jungles” segment of BBC’s Human Planet series, Survival International’s photos of an “uncontacted tribe” in the Amazon are making the rounds once again — see Environmental Graffiti’s “Images of the Last Uncontacted Tribe on Earth“, Ron Burnett’s “Never Before Seen Footage of an Amazonian Tribe,” and MSNBC’s PhotoBlog. The rhetoric here — “last uncontacted tribe on Earth,” “never before seen footage”, etc. (Burnett should know better!) — sounds as if it’s right out of a nineteenth century circus sideshow.
While one cannot expect everyone to have followed the exchanges that followed the last round (in 2008), the way these things get transmitted tells us more about westerners’ fascination with the “primitive Other” than it sheds any insight on the people depicted. Rex at Savage Minds had the best response to the photos back then, and it’s worth reading it again now. Among other things, Rex noted that
“None of the people listed on the ‘uncontacted tribes’ are, according to SI’s own material, actually uncontacted in any straightforward sense of the term. The problem they face is exactly the fact that they are in contact with a world that is giving them the shortest end of the stick possible.”
What Survival International means by “uncontacted” is that they have “no peaceful contact with outsiders.” A better definition, as Daniel Rodriguez suggests on the SI blog, is that they “have decided to suspend sustained contacts with others as a result of traumatic contacts in the past.” In other words, they are currently “voluntarily out of contact.”
The term “uncontacted,” unfortunately, suggests that these groups have never been in contact with outsiders (which would be ludicrous, since all social groups have some contacts with outsiders, if only neighboring tribes), or with “Western civilization,” or something like that. The problem with the term is that it persists in maintaining an opposition between “us” and “them” which is itself a modern construct, and which undergirds the very problem the group’s supporters would like to fight against — the idea that “we” have made “progress” while “they” have been “left behind,” and that they are, however lamentably, destined to “disappear.” They are, after all, the last of their kind.
Of course there are groups that prefer remaining isolated, and if we value diversity and self-determination (as I think we should), we should ensure that it remains possible for groups like them to flee “us” as quickly as they wish, withdrawing like those objects Graham Harman et al. like to write about, or like the ungovernable anarcho-tribals of James C. Scott’s Zomia. The point is not that they are “uncontacted” but that they refuse contact or prefer remaining withdrawn. This is not a matter of discovering fascinating objects (tribes, in this case) that have somehow remained isolated from the rest of us. It is a matter of refusal and withdrawal — and of pursuit, with camera in hand — as actions by actors that are already related. It is a matter not of empirical discovery (the first footage!) but of relational ethics, the cultivation of differences (in lifeworld), and ecologies by which territories, boundaries, and contact zones are negotiated on all sides.
The BBC segment puts some context onto their footage, but their calling it the “very first aerial footage of an uncontacted community” doesn’t help. Either they mean the first aerial footage of this particular isolated (not uncontacted) community, or they are just overselling their case. One of the comments on the YouTube page says it all: “that is SOOOOOOO…VIRGIN.” Innocence exists, my friends, out there in the jungle. Let’s go photograph it, from a distance of course, lest they get mad at us for poking our cameras a little too close to their skin.