Meeting the natives

1 Feb

When I encountered the Mashco Piro last August I was returning from a week spent filming in Primary rainforest where I travelled with a group of scientists including a zoologist, a well known botanist and an anthropologist. We had spent that week exploring the forest, and filming as much of the wildlife as we could. I remember Spider monkeys spinning through the upper canopy like ghosts. Hidden lakes, buried in the forest like Conan Doyles “The lost world” harboured sleeping Caiman and some of the researchers whispered the promise of an anaconda. In the evenings we discussed the days sightings, the hum of the generator competing with whirring insect sounds.. We went on night walks through the forest.

On my first walk I caught sight of a rainbow boa coiled around a branch, its iridescent skin glimmering in the pale torchlight. One night we heard growls and grunts in the darkness and we raked the forest with our headlamps, certain that the spectre of a Puma or Jaguar loomed close.. It was adventure. It was everything I expected the rainforest to be: Colourful animals and plants, towering ancient trees and the heavy air like wading through sap… It is curious that in this untouched world, it was man I least expected to see. I had read about tribes and seen them on television but they all seemed in some way acculturated to the modern world.. They at least knew something of our customs, our rules. And yet on our return journey up the Rio Madre de dios I saw something which was so unusual that it did not seem quite real.. It reminded me of the time in the Catskill mountains when a wild bear approached our campfire.. There were no boundaries between me and it.. no bars or television screen, my brain could not quite decide what to do.. And so it was with the Mascho.. As our boat moored on a riverbank, our boat driver Nicholas, a native of the Yini tribe went to fetch some supplies from his village..The village of Diamante.

While he was gone I saw two brown bodies appear out of the forest and approach the opposite river bank.. As they stood there naked, framed by the green of the jungle and with a heat haze dancing around them.. I assumed they must be children.. Who else would be naked and carefree on a jungle beach..? Behind me I heard the cry of “Calato!”, a pejorative term meaning naked, or savage.. Someone passed me the binoculars.. I saw two men, one thick set with long hair and a moustache, The other was younger, slighter and with shorter hair, he followed the elder as he paced up and down the riverbank. They called out to us. There was confusion in the boat as people tried to work out what they wanted. The initial thought was that they needed help to cross the river.. One of our crew, an Anthropologist tried yelling some of the local dialects though they did not seem to understand. As we waited for Nicholas to return the two men remained on the opposite bank, looking over at us occasionally yelling and waving their arms. The collection of scientists in the boat were torn between their curiosity at these unknown people appearing and caution, not wanting to get too close in case we bore any colds which could be fatal.. There was little worry that they could cause us harm as they appeared unarmed..

When Nicholas returned to the boat he saw the two men across the water and appeared nervous.. He had seen them once before and spoke a dialect which they could partially understand.. He seemed uncomfortable with their presence as he perceived them as dangerous… I held my own naïve views about the beauty and innocence of their way of life; to me they looked as if they had just stepped out of Eden. We waited for some time while Nicholas and the Mashco hurled further exchanges across the water. We were then packed back in to the boat, engine churning. “We will get closer to them to see what they want” the anthropologist informed me. Nicholas pointed the ships long nose out across the river.. As we approached The two men waded knee deep into the their closest they were perhaps 20 yards from the side of the boat.. At one point I thought they were going to clamber aboard and then we would depart, one big happy family; natives and men from the city, I thought it would be fun.. Nicholas however, appeared very on edge. They shouted at us and made gestures that we were too close, they pushed the air with their hands as if to say ‘back off’.. At close range they seemed less real than ever.. So inured am I to fiction in film and TV that anything really unusual is immediately met with disbelief.. They moved differently to us.. It is hard to describe, there was a power and savagery to them that seemed alien.. So much confusion surrounded the curt exchange between us and them that It was hard to know what they wanted. Nicholas threw some food and a machete overboard.. “They want cooking materials, like pots and pans” The anthropologist said over my shoulder.. “Nicholas is afraid they will cross the river and harm his village, he is trying to appease them” As the engines hum moved up a tone, the boat lurched back into the river and upstream.. I felt exhilarated that I had experienced something so rare and exciting. On paper not much happened but being there it was like having an electrical current plugged straight into my veins… It was an especially unique experience as there are less than 100 groups of such people anywhere in the world.. It is something most of us will never see and one that I may never see again, given the inexorable spread of our world into theirs… There may soon be no people out of contact with the world as we know it.

This was now 6 months ago and still sticks vividly in my mind. Yesterdays Guardian article about the re emergence of the Mascho Piro near Diamante reignited my memory.. The reported death of Nicholas Flores, killed by a Mashco Piro arrow through the heart made me almost certain that it was the same Nicholas that was so nervous at our encounter…. He was a boat driver who regularly passed through the upper Madre De Dios river and lived at Diamante, close to where the Mashco appeared.. When I returned to Cusco last August we contacted FENAMAD, the native authority for the Madre de dios region. They were concerned about their appearance and asked us not to broadcast our discovery in case it put the Mashco Piro in danger.. I heard reports from years before when a Mascho sighting by tourist boats had ended with arrows being fired at the boat.. No one was harmed though given the recent news about an injured official and the sad death of Nicholas.. It seems inevitable that such things should happen. As the Mascho walk the dividing line between their world and ours conflict seems unavoidable..


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