Imagine being the last person on earth. No friends, no family, no human connection. Imagine your community wiped out. A life of relentless solitude. Well, that’s the stark reality for one indigenous man who has been living alone and in isolation deep within the Amazon rainforest for more than two decades. And while not much is known about the tribesman, a recently released video has given the world a fleeting glimpse of his daily existence.
Sprawled across nine national territories, the Amazon rainforest in South America represents one of the world’s largest wilderness areas. In fact, it covers 2.1 million square miles – an area larger than most countries. But the forest is not merely vast; it’s dense with vegetation too. Indeed, its storied canopies are so thick in places that it can take ten minutes for rainwater to pass through the greenery and reach the ground.
Seemingly impenetrable, the rainforest actually supported up to nine million indigenous people at the time of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Today, however, estimates suggest that only around 250,000 natives remain. And incredibly, these peoples include up to 50 tribes who haven’t ever had any contact with the outside world. Tragically, though, there are still violent clashes over Amazonian lands. Indeed, land disputes within the forest reportedly led to the deaths of 71 people in 2017 alone.
Some of the worst land grabs and deforestation in the entire Amazon basin have, in fact, occurred in western Brazil. Known as “bang bang” state for its lawlessness and violence, Rondônia has suffered more than most areas. Indeed, the state’s lost more than a third of its 77,000 square miles of rainforest coverage to farmers and loggers. And it was here in the mid-1990s that a massacre was apparently committed somewhere near the Tanaru River. What’s more, this alleged attack was so barbarous that it wiped out all but one member of an indigenous tribe.
Unfortunately, the name of the tribe remains a mystery, and so too does the name of the survivor. Dwelling alone in the forest for more than 22 years, the sole-surviving tribesman is evidently self-sufficient. But he also faces an uneasy and tenuous existence, with miners, ranchers, speculators and drug traffickers all posing threats to his way of life.
Dubbed the “Last of his Tribe” and the “Loneliest Man on Earth,” the lone tribesman was first sighted in 1996 by the Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI) – the Brazilian government organization responsible for protecting indigenous peoples and their cultures. And since then, to protect the tribesman and his land, FUNAI has been regularly monitoring his presence from a respectful distance.
Happily, the 1988 Brazilian constitution grants exclusive land rights to indigenous peoples. The year 2007, meanwhile, saw the creation of a 31-square-mile enclosure – or de facto “safe zone” – especially for the tribesman. And an extension of this area has subsequently seen it increase in size by another 11.5 square miles. Technically, the legal enclosure should protect the man, his dwelling and his hunting grounds from outside intrusion. Practically, however, it has not always worked out that way.
In 2009, for example, a group of men – who are thought to have been disgruntled ranchers – appeared to stage a vicious attack on his territory. Armed with shotguns, the attackers apparently sacked a remote FUNAI outpost and discharged their weapons numerous times, leaving shotgun shells scattered throughout the surrounding forest. Ultimately, though, the attack failed, and Last of his Tribe survived.
The tribesman’s survival can, perhaps, be attributed to his habit of digging deep holes. These pits are thought to serve as animal traps or hiding places, and they’ve led some anthropologists to nickname him the “Man of the Hole.” And with a wide range of roaming game available – including peccaries, deer, pacas, monkeys and armadillos – the man is also likely to hunt with bows and arrows. It’s probable that he fishes, too.
Furthermore, according to Survival International – a tribal rights organization that visited the man’s unattended dwellings in 2005 – farming also appears to be part of his routine. “His garden is brimming with produce,” the charity wrote. “Paw paw, manioc and corn. It must have taken him days to chop down the trees, single handed, to make the clearing.”
And chopping down trees is exactly what the tribesman can be seen doing in a video released by FUNAI in July 2018. Apparently filmed from a distance with a telephoto lens, the man appears to repeatedly swing an axe into a tree trunk. The footage was in fact shot in 2011, but FUNAI initially resisted releasing it because they could not obtain the man’s consent.
However, as Altair Algayer, who heads the group tracking Last of his Tribe explained to Time magazine in July 2018, the video helps to raise awareness of the issues facing uncontacted indigenous peoples. “Lots of people are seeking out [this video],” he said. “They want to know what is he like, how can he be seen, [and] is he still alive? I think this ends up helping to protect the territory.”
By contrast, though, some believe that the best way to protect uncontacted tribes is in fact to initiate tentative contact. According to anthropologists Rob Walker and Kim Hill – of the University of Missouri and Arizona State University, respectively – the “leave them alone” approach is not sustainable. Other advocates, meanwhile, argue that uncontacted tribes may be resisting interactions with outsiders only because they fear death or abduction.
“The problem here is [Last of his Tribe] sees the outside world as the enemy,” Walker told the New York Post in 2016. “When teams do make contact, he thinks it’s going to end poorly for him. But if he had better information, he would know that people do actually care for indigenous people’s rights. I think he’d be much more open to making contact.”
In fact, the last time FUNAI attempted to contact the Last Tribesman was in 2005. The organization does not usually reach out to uncontacted people, but since the man was an isolated individual and thought to be in danger, it made an exception. The attempted contact didn’t go well, though. No, the tribesman responded by firing an arrow and wounding a FUNAI official.
Meanwhile, the director of Survival International has criticized suggestions that uncontacted tribes should be contacted. “Walker and Hill play straight into the hands of those who want to open Amazonia up for resource extraction,” Stephen Corry wrote in a statement. “The decision as to whether to make contact or not has to be one for the people themselves, not for outsiders who think they know what’s in the Indians’ best interests.”
Likewise, Scott Wallace, an author who spent three months in the Amazon researching his book The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes, dismissed the idea of contact as a serious health risk. “The ideal condition of having a great deal of resources and personnel and the wherewithal that one would need to prevent an epidemic… they are never going to get that,” he told the New York Post. “Most [uncontacted people] are going to end up dying.”
But for Fernando Santos-Granero, a scientist from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, money often trumps ethics. “Unfortunately, economic factors always have a lot weight in the political decisions of governments,” he told the New York Post. “They decide to open these protected areas for oil exploration and mining instead of protecting people. [Last of his Tribe] represents something that has, unfortunately, become increasingly common: human beings depleting nature and pushing other species to extinction.”
Meanwhile, every two months or so, FUNAI continues to visit the area where the man lives. And while the last sighting of the tribesman was back in 2016, a freshly cut tree and footprints discovered in May of this year indicate that nothing untoward has happened. In fact, the tribesman appears to be surviving well without outside assistance.
“This man, who is unknown to us, even after losing everything, including his people and a series of cultural practices, proved that, even like that, alone in the forest, it is possible to survive and resist joining mainstream society,” wrote Algayer in a FUNAI statement reproduced by Time. “I believe he is much better off than if, way back, he had made contact.”