First contact with previously unknown societies is not just the stuff of science fiction and the distant past, but still happens from time in some of the remotest parts of the world. The Washington Post has a fantastic long feature chronicling the adventurous life of one man who had made it his life’s work to discover, and aid, these isolated tribes-a unique Brazilian profession known as a “sertanista.” A sample passage:
It had been just over a year since they had made first contact with Purá, the only adult male in the five-member Kanoe tribe. Marcelo and Altair had sat for hours with Purá, patiently communicating with hand gestures. Eventually, an elderly Indian from the other side of Rondonia who spoke Portuguese and a related tribal language was brought in to translate the stories of Purá and his mother, Tutuá. Slowly, the team pieced together the Kanoe tribe’s grim history.
In the 1970s, when the group numbered about 50, all of the tribe’s adult males ventured out of their tiny village together in search of different Indian groups in the hope of arranging marriages. After several days, the men didn’t return, so a small group of women formed a search party. They found the men massacred, killed by unknown assailants. The women panicked, convinced they couldn’t survive and care for their children on their own. So they made a pact: All of them — women and children — would drink a deadly poison derived from the timbo plant and commit collective suicide. But Purá’s mother, Tutuá, refused to swallow. As she vomited fiercely, she rid herself of the traces of poison and was able to stop her two children, her sister and her niece from sipping the fatal brew.
The tiny tribe had lived on its own for nearly two decades — until Marcelo and Altair encountered Purá and his sister on a jungle trail in September 1995. The team members figured that if anyone could help them find the lone Indian, an Indian who had been in a similar situation until very recently might be their best bet.