An airplane dispatched by the Brazilian government as a part of its continued efforts to stop illegal logging and mining in the Amazon rain forest recently snapped the first ever aerial photographs of an as-yet uncontacted tribe of indigenous Yanomami people, living in total solitude deep within the jungle.
The photographs depict what is called a “yano,” or communal house, as well as some of the tribe’s population as they came outside to see the plane as it flew overhead. The yano is comprised of multiple sections, each dedicated to a family, in which they have space to sleep as well as to store and prepare food. It is believed that around one hundred people reside within each yano.
The tribe is one of three remaining groups of indigenous people believed to reside in the area that have yet to make any form of contact with the developed world. The territory is officially protected by the Brazilian government and is home to nearly twenty-two thousand individuals that are split into multiple tribes, most of which have been in contact with local or national government officials.
The aerial reconnaissance mission that produced the images was intended to aid in their efforts to curb the influx of illegal mining and logging operations in the protected tribal lands. It is estimated that over five thousand illegal laborers are currently in the area immediately surrounding the isolated tribe.
Illegal mining in the area has become a serious health hazard for native people even if they don’t come into direct contact with the operations, with one recent Portuguese study revealing that a whopping ninety percent of indigenous Yanomami and Yekuana people in the Brazilian Amazon were “severely affected” by mercury poisoning. The participants were chosen because of their limited interactions with the outside world and came from nineteen different tribes. Testing of their hair follicles showed dangerously high levels of mercury, thought to be brought about by the gold mining operations in the region. The mercury is used during the gold extraction process, but can bleed into local streams and rivers, increasing the mercury content in the animals the tribes use as a food source.
Contact with these tribes can be deadly even in the absence of such illegal operations, as the people living in isolation lack immunity to the various bacteria and viruses often carried by those coming from the developed world. When these tribes run into illegal mining or logging operations, things can also often turn violent, with the tribesmen swiftly decimated due to their limited technology and weapons. The 1950s and 60s saw many tribes in the Amazon wiped off the face of the Earth by the progression of industry in the region, leading to legal protections being put in place by many national governments in South America. The region the Yanomami people were photographed in recently has been legally protected since 1992.
Survival International director Stephen Corry sees these recent photographs as signs that there may still be more uncontacted tribes yet to be discovered in the dense forests of the Amazon; “These extraordinary images are further proof of the existence of still more uncontacted tribes. They’re not savages but complex and contemporary societies whose rights must be respected.”
Corry went on to stress the importance of preventing illegal mining and logging operations from violating protected lands, “all uncontacted tribal peoples face catastrophe unless their land is protected.”
Images courtesy of Guilherme Gnipper Trevisan/Hutukara