The Dream of the “Uncontacted”

by A. Jay Adler on June 24, 2011
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According to Al Jazeera,

Government researchers in Brazil say they have found one of the world’s last uncontacted tribes in a remote corner of the Amazon rainforest.

Aerial pictures revealed by the Brazilian government’s agency of indigenous affairs (Funai) showed four large thatched huts fully surrounded by various crops in the Vale do Javari region.

Aloysio Guapindaia, a Funai director, also said they would work to keep the tribe isolated and safe. The tribe is thought to belong to the Pano linguistic group that straddles the border between Brazil, Peru and Bolivia.

Video below, but first some thoughts. The intent noted above to keep the tribe isolated and safe relates to concerns about lack of immunity to various diseases common to the outside world, but it offers up a metaphor for the frequent presumption of the very disease of civilization itself. Norm Geras shared some interesting considerations somewhat along these lines yesterday, and he considered the issue in both directions, that of our contacting a “primitive” tribe such as that just discovered, and that of our potentially receiving contact from a more advanced world and civilization in comparison to which we might ourselves be thought primitive.

We actually pursue in our art and our politics two contradictory cultural themes regarding contact. In a contemporary strain of humanistic rather than paranoid science fiction (common in the 50s), the alien civilization is superior to ours, and we are the beneficiaries of the contact. We see this in Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In George Miller’s aptly named Contact, the encounter is even, in the end for Jodie Foster’s explorer, a kind of transformative spiritual experience. Generally speaking, if the other beings are not maliciously set on devouring or otherwise destroying us, the contact will enhance us.

In contrast, discoveries of tribes like that in the video tend to give rise in some quarters to concern that our contact with them will be ruinous, beyond the real physical concern of deadly contagion. On the one hand, there is great historical justification for these concerns given the record of post-Columbian contact between European civilization and indigenous cultures around the world. But the other hand holds our frequent presumption that in addition to our malice, the early-stage tribe or culture is possessed of some sort of innocence. It is unspoiled. We, the civilized, are corrupt.

This is an old theme. It is the dream of the pastoral Eden, of the uncorrupted state of nature. To catch site, from helicopters or planes above, of “uncontacted” people (uncontacted by us, but also uncontacted by modernity, by civilization) is almost as if, we imagine, to see back in time, as staring into the depths of space via the most powerful telescopes is to peer back to the beginnings time. This, in a way, is us, at a stage and in a way of life that seemed, almost for eons, to stand still, before the corrupting contact with time and altering experience removed us fromsome pure and original state – a state without sin.

Always, in different forms,  we are repeating the same stories.

There is, too, an interesting contradiction in how we see ourselves just in this latter type of contact. The uncontacted are somehow, in their primary nature, superior to us. Yet we attribute to them no attribute with which to wisely consider and make choices in the matter of contact. They are either the victims of our malice or the beneficiaries of our wisdom, whatever that may be, and if the latter, what more does that say about us and them, and how does it blow up the genre and upend the typologies?

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