The Ethics of Contacting Amazonian Tribes

About a few years ago my history teacher taught me about the Man of the Hole, a man who lives in the Amazon Rainforest and is the last of his tribe. The Man of the Hole is estimated to have lived alone ever since the 80’s, after the rest of his tribe perished in wars between neighboring tribes and disease. He’s known for digging 6 ft deep holes in the ground, the true purpose of which is unknown, possibly in order to trap animals for hunting, or to create a place in which he can seek shelter. Hearing about the Man of the Hole immediately aroused my interest in studying uncontacted Amazonian tribes, and it is one of a few things that renewed my interest in anthropology enough that I chose to become an anthropology major in undergrad. I thirst for knowledge of these mysterious people.

As I learned more about these tribes, I wanted to be one of the people who studied them. I made it my goal to become an anthropologist and go to the Amazon. My intentions were good; I thought that if we talked to these tribes and gave them medicine and access to education in exchange for knowledge about their lives in the Amazon, we would be helping them. It seemed like a good trade. For example, I heard about Ishi who was the last of his own tribe, the Yahi. He voluntarily left the forests and sought out civilization. He was able to provide a lot of information about his tribe; from toolmaking and language to social structure. In exchange, he had access to food and shelter. Ishi had voluntarily contacted the outside world, but I thought if un-contacted tribes who shied away from civilization knew about how we could help them, they wouldn’t regret being contacted.

But time made me realize that contacting tribes that do not want to be contacted is actually just downright unethical. A lot of them willingly choose to separate themselves from the outside world (The Man of the Hole can get quite violent when approached) and it might be dangerous for them to be a part of it. Living in the Amazon, the tribes have virtually no immunity to common diseases such as the common cold or measles. Thus, if they got sick, it is pretty much the end for them. Ishi was only alive for two years after leaving the wilderness before succumbing to tuberculosis, and spent much of that time ill. Additionally, I realized that living in the Amazon, far from the outside world, is an educated choice that these people are making, not an uninformed one. Of the less than 100 or so tribes that are still un-contacted in the Amazon, it is thought that pretty much all of them know about the developed world, but voluntarily choose to live their lives separately. Only if a tribesperson, like Ishi, voluntarily seeks out the outside world and gives permission to researchers to study his culture, can I see how it would be ethically acceptable to study some aspects of his behavior. Contacting tribes would fulfill a western desire for more information, but it would put the tribes themselves at great danger.

Photo by Eleanor Ritzman Photography