Isolated Peruvian tribe risks human contact, and disease

Sun Sep 7, 2014 11:08am EDT
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By Mitra Taj

ALTO MADRE DE DIOS RIVER Peru (Reuters) - Six Mashco Piro tribeswomen crouched low as they escaped back into the jungle after raiding a remote lodge in Peru's Manu National Park in the western Amazon, clutching newly prized tools: metallic cooking pots.

The brazen daytime foray into the tourist retreat in May was a rare appearance by one of the world’s most reclusive tribes that is increasingly chancing contact with the outside world.

The Mashco Piro have clashed in the past with loggers, poachers and drug traffickers who invaded their jungle enclaves, but anthropologists say the lure of modern tools is now tempting them closer than ever to far-flung villages and tourist camps.

"It's a technological revolution," said anthropologist Klaus Rummenhoeller, who has been studying Amazonian tribes in Peru since the 1980s. "Imagine you live in the wild and only have stone axes, and then you're given machetes."

Their sorties are dangerous, exposing them to the threat of violent encounters with terrified locals and modern-day diseases against which the hunter-gatherers have little immunity.

The Mashco Piro have historically rejected outsiders, surviving enslavement during Peru's bloody rubber boom in the late 1800s and rebuffing the advances of Christian missionaries throughout the last century.

But in the past three years there has been a spike in sightings near the Manu National Park as the Mashco Piro, clad only in loin cloths and armed with bows and arrows, emerge during the dry season in clearings along the Alto Madre de Dios River.

"They sounded like birds," said Guillermina Loaiza, a cook at the lodge who disturbed the tribeswomen as they rifled through her kitchen during the recent raid. "I thought it was another tourism agency playing a practical joke."   Continued...

Machinguenga indigenous prepare for a meeting with government authorities to express their concern about the approach of uncontacted tribes to their village, in Shipetiari, near the Alto Madre de Dios River, May 25, 2014. REUTERS/Enrique Castro-Mendivil