At the end of last year, the UK’s Daily Mail reported the “discovery” of “an Indian tribe lost” in the Peruvian Amazon together with photos of various bare-chested “natives.”
The gist of the article was that their existence had only been recently revealed after a Peruvian government team was sent into the region and took photos in August 2009, according to the Daily Mail. (See the Daily Mail story here.)
Although experts may agree that the people reported on by the Mail have little or no regular contact with outsiders, the way the story was sold and told was extremely misleading.
Some other Nanti have had intermittent contact with outsiders since the 1970s. They live in villages along the River Camisea and are estimated to number at least 250.
Here are several ways the Mail went wrong:
- “Totally unknown to anthropologists.” Not true. Anthropologists such as Chris Beier, Lev Michael, Beatriz Huertas and Glenn Shepard — to name just four — have known about the Nanti for many years, and they have been written about in a significant number of publications. These include Huertas’s book Indigenous Peoples in Isolation in the Peruvian Amazon ; and a book by Peruvian NGO Shinai, Aqui vivimos bien ; and many reports by the non-governmental organization (NGO) Cabeceras Aid, founded by Beier and Michael and an excellent source of information about the Nanti.
- “Seen for the first time.” Not true. According to Cabeceras Aid, sightings of Nanti who have little or no regular contact with outsiders have been documented back to at least 1985. People who have seen them include other, contacted Nanti, neighbouring Matsigenka, and a Dominican priest and his accompanying team.
- “Extraordinary first pictures.” Not true. Photos of the Nanti, including those who have little or no regular contact with outsiders, have been taken before.
- “The discovery was eventually revealed earlier this week.” Not true. This “discovery” refers to declarations made by the Peruvian government’s indigenous affairs department on November 12, 2010, but the government has actually known about the Nanti for many years. Indeed, in 1990 it created a reserve for the Nanti, among others, and even named it after them by calling it the “State Territorial Reserve for the Kugapakori, Nahua, Nanti and other ethnic groups in Voluntary Isolation and Initial Contact.” This reserve was created on February 14, 1990 and is now just over 450,000 hectares. (The Mail must have been aware of this reserve because it mentions it at the bottom of its story, but it appears not to realize the significance of the name and mistakenly calls it a ‘nature’ reserve).
- “Speak an unrecognisable language.” Not true. The New Testament was translated into the Nanti language by 2001 and anthropologist Christine Beier speaks it. Nanti belongs to what linguists call the Arawak language family.
- “Lost.” Not true. As the Mail itself says, the ‘discovered natives’ were tracked back to their own village and, in fact, several of the photos published by the Mail show the Nanti’s houses in the background. In other words, the Nanti were at home. They knew exactly where they were. Just because they live in a remote region or very few people in countries like the UK or elsewhere know about them doesn’t make them ‘lost’!
How much do these sorts of errors really matter? The answer is a great deal. These errors and others and indeed the whole tone of the Mail’s article make the Nanti sound simple and stuck in the past. As Survival International, an organization I worked for until July 2010, has pointed out, this kind of portrayal, particularly if pejorative terms like “primitive”, “Stone Age” and “savage” are used, can be extremely harmful to indigenous people for many reasons, including making it easier for governments, companies and others to seize their land.
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One of the few things the Mail did get right was this: indigenous people living without regular contact are extremely vulnerable because of their lack of immunity to outsiders’ diseases. Time and time again, huge numbers of people have been decimated following contact. Examples in the Peruvian Amazon include:
- The Murunahua/Chitonahua. According to Survival, an estimated 50% died after regular contact was made in the 1990s.
- The Nahua. According to anthropologist Conrad Feather, almost 50% died within a year of regular contact in 1984. (Feather, Elastic selves and fluid cosmologies: Nahua resilience in a changing world, PhD. thesis, 2010).
- The Arakmbut. According to anthropologist Andrew Gray, more than 50% died following regular contact in the 1950s. (Gray, Indigenous Rights and Development, 1997).
- The Cashinahua. According to anthropologist Kenneth Kensinger, 80% of Cashinahua adults died in one month following contact in 1951. (Kensinger, How Real People Ought to Live, 1995).
- The Sharanahua. According to anthropologist Janet Siskind, an estimated 50%-66% died between 1925-1950 (Siskind, To Hunt in the Morning, 1973).
The Nanti themselves have already undergone a similar experience. According to a report by Peru’s Ministry of Health published in 2003, between 30% and 60% of some of the first Nanti to be contacted died during one ten year period.
The Mail is not alone in doing this kind of reporting. To find many more examples – and to challenge the editors and journalists responsible for them — join Survival International’s Stamp it Out campaign.
The Stamp it Out campaign has already led major UK papers The Guardian and The Observer to ban terms ‘primitive’ and ‘Stone Age’ to describe tribal people. Survival’s director, Stephen Corry, says, “Journalists all around the world need to understand that the use of these kinds of terms is not only inaccurate, but extremely harmful. They foster prejudices which lead directly to tribal peoples’ suffering.”
Read more about the Stamp it Out Campaign on Survival International’s website here.
David Hill studied anthropology at Oxford University and worked as a researcher at Survival International until 2010. The focus of his work has been promoting the rights of very isolated indigenous people and has included travelling to remote parts of Colombia, Peru and West Papua.
UPDATE: 3/19/2011 12:51 PM EST: Removed reference to a photo.