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How “Uncontacted” Is This Recently Photographed Amazonian Tribe?

You may have seen a set of photographs that have been going around the ‘Net lately of what purports to be “one of the world’s last uncontacted tribes,” taken in Brazil at the Peruvian border. The photos, released by nonprofit group Survival International, are intended to raise awareness about the dangers of illegal logging in Peru. You may recall, however, that in 2008, Survival International was embroiled in controversy when it released a different set of photos of undiscovered tribespeople in the Amazon on the Peruvian border; as it turned out, the existence of the tribe had been known since 1910, though it did not maintain regular contact with the outside world. So what’s the story this time around?

Though these are new photos from what Survival International released before, they’re credited to Gleison Miranda, to whom a 2008 BBC article credited the last batch of photos. While a 2008 National Geographic article says the name of the tribe in those photos remains unknown, the director of Survival International tells Wired that the Indians in the 2011 photos appear to be Panoan. (That the tribe has a name again gives the lie to the notion that they’re truly undiscovered.)

Update: A commenter who self-identifies as being affiliated with Survival International corrects us on this point. He or she writes, “The tribe are not named “the Panoan”. This refers to a language family which the tribe probably belongs to, judging from their appearance – but this is conjecture as so little is known of them.”

To call these photos a “hoax,” as happened the last time around, would be misleading; these aren’t a bunch of São Paulo residents in costumes. And though you may notice the presence of a metal pan in the photo above — hoax, right? — the Survival International website freely admits in a hover-over that this was likely acquired via inter-tribal trading networks. (Again: to have an inter-tribal trading network is to have some sort of contact with someone.) Still, Survival International is splitting hairs a little bit with its designation of the tribe as “uncontacted,” and it plays this up: Its website is called uncontactedtribes.org, and it introduces the photos in huge boldface as “Astonishing new photos of one of the world’s last uncontacted tribes.”

When a controversy blew up about the 2008 photos, Survival International affected astonishment that anyone would think that “uncontacted tribes” meant “tribes that no one knew about”: “Some of the media got very carried away and started talking about undiscovered tribes,” Watson told LiveScience. “There was this interpretation that this was a completely new tribe, completely undiscovered, without bothering to check with sources. Neither the Brazilian government nor Survival has ever used that word, and ‘uncontacted’ means they don’t have any contact with outsiders … They almost certainly know about the outside world. We mean ‘having no physical contact,’ living in a very isolated way in the Amazon.”

So no, this isn’t a “hoax” — the Observer apologized to Survival for designating the 2008 story as such — but by leading with the rather loaded word “uncontacted” and not bothering to really define it on their site or mentioning that by its internal definition, you can be “uncontacted” but still have contact with other tribes which may themselves have contact with the outside world, Survival invites the media’s inevitable sensationalization of this story, to be followed by the backlash against it and the charges of hoaxdom, as happened in 2008. Maybe it doesn’t mind — it did get lots of coverage in 2008, after all, through both the hyperbole and controversy phases, and it presumably has the numbers on how well that ‘worked’ for it vis. its fundraising and petition-signing goals — but it sure does risk associating uncontacted Amazonian tribes with snopes.com articles and late-night punchlines rather than, you know, the dangers of illegal logging. (Hey, remember that?) As David Pescovitz writes, “Whether any of these people are uncontacted, undiscovered, or just very isolated concerns me less than that their home is being needlessly annihilated”; but the way this has been packaged, I smell another devolution into an “is this a hoax/isn’t this a hoax” nontroversy instead, but hopefully I’m wrong.

(Thanks, Verena!)

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