John Hemming

The people who shun us

John Hemming on how the great explorer Sydney Possuelo tracks down the hidden tribes of the Amazon jungle

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I have just spent a week in Amazonia with Sydney Possuelo, the man I regard as the world’s greatest explorer — well, at any rate, the greatest tropical explorer. Weatherbeaten, balding, with a neat salt-and-pepper beard, 65-year-old Sydney exudes vitality and charm. Although he has just had a triple heart bypass, he looks lean and fit, as you would expect of someone who has spent much of his life in unexplored rainforests and who has by no means hung up his hammock and mosquito net.

For two years in the early 1990s Sydney Possuelo was a very successful president of the Brazilian government’s Indian protection agency, Funai. But he is an action man who dislikes offices and politics, so he fled the urban jungle for the real one. He returned to running Funai’s department of isolated peoples, which he had created.

Sydney started full-time in forests in 1959, working with the legendary Villas Boas brothers. In the decades since then he has hacked his way into thousands of miles of unexplored Amazon forests and has made first contact with seven different tribes — the ‘isolated peoples’ of his department’s title.

Contacting a tribe is a difficult and delicate business. Other indigenous people tell about the isolated group that lives deep in the forests beyond them. Finding one of their trails or even their huts is almost impossible in the vast expanses of Amazonia — only another Indian can see the traces. Once the elusive tribe has been located, the ‘attraction team’ leaves presents — mostly machetes and axes, which are irresistible to people who clear forest farms with blunt stone axes. If all goes well, the presents are taken and there might be arrows or clubs left in their place. But it can be years before the isolated people allow themselves to be seen. The first face-to-face contact is a traumatic moment for the tribe, the ending of their innocence of clothes, metal or the trappings of our society. It can be dangerous for the contact team. If anything goes wrong, they are on the receiving end of arrows fired by the world’s most deadly archers.

A few tribes are constantly nomadic and never build any shelter — like the Aw