All photographs by Paul Raffaele/Rex/Shutterstock

The tribe that time forgot

In the heart of the Amazon basin the Korubo people live in almost total isolation

This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Deep in the amazon jungle, I stumbled along a sodden track carved through steamy undergrowth, frequently sinking to my knees in the mud. Leading the way was a bushy-bearded, fiery-eyed Brazilian, Sydney Possuelo, South America’s leading expert on remote Indian tribes and the last of the continent’s great explorers. Our destination: the village of a fierce tribe not far removed from the Stone Age.

We were in the Javari Valley, one of the Amazon’s “exclusion zones” — huge tracts of virgin jungle set aside over the previous decade by Brazil’s government for indigenous Indians and off limits to outsiders. Hundreds of people from a handful of tribes live in the valley amid misty swamps, twisting rivers and sweltering rainforests bristling with anacondas, caimans and jaguars. They have little or no knowledge of the outside world, and often face off against each other in violent warfare.

Sydney Possuelo with two Korubo men. All photographs by Paul Raffaele/Rex/Shutterstock

About half a mile in from the riverbank where we docked our boat, Possuelo cupped his hands and shouted “Eh-heh!” “We’re near the village,” he explained, “and only enemies come in silence.” Through the trees, a faint “Eh-heh” returned his call.

We kept walking, and soon the sunlight stabbing through the trees signalled a clearing. At the top of a slope stood about 20 naked Indians — the women with their bodies painted blood- red, the men gripping formidable-looking clubs. “There they are,” Possuelo murmured, using the name they were called by other local Indians: “Korubo!” 

Now, only an estimated 350,000 Amazon Indians remain, more than half in or near towns

The group called themselves “Dslala”, but it was their Portuguese name that was in my mind: caceteiros, or “head-bashers.” I remembered Possuelo’s warning of a half-hour earlier as we trudged through the muck: “Be on your guard at all times when we’re with them, because they’re unpredictable and very violent. They brutally murdered three white men just two years ago.”

My journey several thousand years back in time began at the frontier town of Tabatinga, about 2,200 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro, where a tangle of islands and sloping mud banks shaped by the mighty Amazon forms the borders of Brazil, Peru and Colombia. There, Possuelo and I boarded his speedboat, and he gunned it up the Javari, an Amazon tributary. “Bandits lurk along the river, and they’ll shoot to kill if they think we’re worth robbing,” he said. “If you hear gunfire, duck.”

Korubo men and boys on a fishing expedition. All photographs by Paul Raffaele/Rex/Shutterstock

Now aged 83, Possuelo was then still an energetic 64 and head of the Department for Isolated Indians in FUNAI, Brazil’s National Indian Bureau. Although Brasília was his home, he was happiest at his base camp just inside the Javari valley exclusion zone. “I’ve spent months at a time in the jungle on expeditions to make first contact with a tribe, and I’ve been attacked many, many times,” he said. “Colleagues have fallen at my feet, pierced by Indian arrows.” Since the 1970s, 120 FUNAI workers have been killed in the Amazon jungles.

My expedition with him was to visit a Korubo clan he first made contact with in 1996. For Possuelo it was one of his regular check-in visits, to see how they were faring; for me it was a chance to be one of the few journalists to spend several days with this group of people who know nothing about bricks, or electricity, or roads or violins or penicillin or Cervantes or tap water.

Our boat passed a river town named Benjamin Constant, dominated by a cathedral and timber mill. Possuelo glared at both. “The church and loggers are my biggest enemies,” he told me. “The church wants to convert the Indians to Christianity, destroying their traditional ways of life, and the loggers want to cut down their trees, ruining their forests. It’s my destiny to protect them.”

When in 1500 the Portuguese explorer Pedro Cabral strode ashore to claim Brazil’s coast and vast inland for his king, perhaps as many as ten million Indians lived in the rainforests and deltas of the world’s second longest river. During the following centuries, hundreds of tribes were wiped out as rubber tappers, gold miners, loggers, cattle ranchers and fishermen swarmed over the pristine jungles. And millions of Indians died from strange new diseases, such as the flu and measles, for which they had no immunity.

When he first became a sertanista, a specialist in the tribes of Brazil’s interior, Possuelo led search parties aimed at bringing them out of their traditional ways and into Western civilisation (while opening up their lands to outside ownership). But by the early 1980s he concluded the culture clash was destroying them. 

Like Australia’s Aborigines and Alaska’s Inuit, the Indians of the Amazon Basin were drawn to the fringes of the towns that sprang up in their territory, where they fell prey to alcoholism, disease, prostitution and the destruction of their cultural identity. Now, only an estimated 350,000 Amazon Indians remain, more than half in or near towns. “They’ve largely lost their tribal ways,” Possuelo said. The cultural survival of isolated tribes like the Korubo depended on “our protecting them from the outside world”.

In 1986, Possuelo created the Department for Isolated Indians and championed — against fierce opposition — a policy of discouraging contact with remote Indians. Eleven years later he defied powerful politicians and forced all non-Indians to leave the Javari valley, effectively quarantining the tribes that remained. “I expelled the loggers and fishermen who were killing the Indians,” he said.

For decades, violent clashes have punctuated the long- running frontier war between the isolated Indian tribes and “whites”— the name Brazilian Indians and non-Indians alike use to describe non-Indians, even though in multiracial Brazil many of them are black or of mixed race — seeking to profit from the rainforests. More than 40 whites have been massacred in the Javari valley, and whites have shot dead hundreds of Indians over the past century.

But Possuelo has been a target of settler wrath only since the late 1990s, when he led a successful campaign to double the size of the exclusion zones; the restricted territories now take up 11 per cent of Brazil’s huge landmass. In doing so he has also safeguarded a massive slab of the earth’s species-rich rainforests. 

About four hours into our journey from Tabatinga, Possuelo turned the speedboat into the mouth of the coffee-hued Itacuai river and then to the Itui river. We reached the entrance to the Javari valley’s Indian zone soon afterward. Large signs on the riverbank announced that outsiders are prohibited from venturing farther.

A Brazilian flag flew over Possuelo’s base, a wooden bungalow perched on poles overlooking the river and a pontoon containing a medical post. We were greeted by a nurse, Maria da Graca Nobre, nicknamed Magna, and two fearsome-looking, tattooed Matis Indians, Jumi and Jemi, who worked as trackers and guards for Possuelo’s expeditions. Because the Matis speak a language similar to the lilting, high-pitched Korubo tongue, Jumi and Jemi would also act as our interpreters.

Turning to Possuelo, I asked how it felt to come face to face with his friend’s killer

The next day, we headed up the Itui in an outboard-rigged canoe for the land of the Korubo. Caimans dozed on the banks while rainbow-hued parrots flew overhead. After half an hour, a pair of dugouts on the riverbank told us the Korubo were near, and we disembarked to begin our trek along the muddy jungle track. When at last we came face to face with the Korubo in the sun-dappled clearing, about the size of two football fields and scattered with fallen trees, Jumi and Jemi grasped their rifles, warily watching the men with their war clubs. The Korubo stood outside a maloca, a communal straw hut built on a tall framework of poles and about 20 feet wide, 15 feet high and 30 feet long.

The semi-nomadic clan move between four or five widely dispersed huts as their maize and manioc crops come into season, and it had taken Possuelo four lengthy expeditions over several months to catch up with them for the first time. “I wanted to leave them alone,” he said, “but loggers and fishermen had located them and were trying to wipe them out. So I stepped in to protect them.”

They weren’t particularly grateful. Ten months later, after intermittent contact with Possuelo and other FUNAI fieldworkers, the clan’s most powerful warrior, Ta’van, killed an experienced FUNAI sertanista, Possuelo’s close friend, Raimundo Batista Magalhaes, crushing his skull with a war club. The clan fled into the jungle, returning to the maloca only after several months.

Possuelo pointed out Ta’van — taller than the others, with a wolfish face and glowering eyes. Ta’van never relaxed his grip on his sturdy war club, which was stained red. When I locked eyes with him, he glared back defiantly. Turning to Possuelo, I asked how it felt to come face to face with his friend’s killer. “We whites have been killing them for decades,” he shrugged. 

Ta’van leads a warrior patrol through the jungle. All photographs by Paul Raffaele/Rex/Shutterstock

While the men wielded the clubs, Possuelo says that “the women are often stronger”, so it didn’t surprise me to see that the person who seemed to direct the Korubo goings-on was a woman in her mid-forties, named Maya. She had a matronly face and spoke in a girlish voice, but hard dark eyes suggested an unyielding nature. “Maya,” Possuelo told me, smiling, “makes all the decisions.” 

The bossiness may extend to ordering murders. Two years ago, three warriors led by Ta’van and armed with their clubs — other Indian tribes in the Javari valley use bows and arrows in war, but the Korubo use clubs — paddled their dugout down the river until they came upon three white men just beyond the exclusion zone, cutting down trees. The warriors smashed the whites’ heads to pulp and gutted them. Possuelo, who was in Atalaia when the attack occurred, rushed upriver to where the mutilated bodies lay, finding the murdered men’s canoe “full of blood and pieces of skull”.

Like other Amazon Indians, they sometimes kill their babies

After Possuelo spoke quietly with Maya and the others for half an hour in the clearing, she invited him into the maloca. Jemi, Magna and most of the clan follow, leaving me outside with Jumi and a pair of children, naked like their parents, who exchanged shy smiles with me. Maya’s youngest child, Manis, sat beside me, cradling a pet baby sloth.

Even with Jumi nearby, I glanced about warily, not trusting the head-bashers. About an hour later, Possuelo emerged from the maloca. I had told him I could do a haka, the fierce Maori war dance made famous by the All Blacks. “If you do a haka for the Korubo,” he counselled, “it’ll help them accept you”.

I duly explained that I was about to challenge one of their warriors to a fight — but just in fun. Shishu, Maya’s husband, stepped forward to accept the challenge. I gulped nervously and then punched my chest and stamped my feet while screaming a bellicose chant in Maori. Jumi translated the words. “I die, I die, I live, I live.” 

I ended my haka by jumping in the air and shouting, “Hee!” To my relief, the Korubo smiled widely, apparently too practised in real warfare to feel threatened by an unarmed outsider shouting and pounding his flabby chest. Possuelo put an arm around my shoulder. “We’d better leave now,” he advised. “It’s best not to stay too long on the first visit.”

The next morning we returned to the maloca, where Ta’van and other warriors had painted their bodies scarlet and flaunted head- and armbands made from raffia streamers. Possuelo was astonished, never having seen them in such finery before. “They’ve done it to honour your haka,” he concluded.

Tatchipan making curaree poison for blowpipe darts. All photographs by Paul Raffaele/Rex/Shutterstock

Shishu summoned me inside the maloca. Stacked overhead on poles running the length of the hut were long slender blowpipes; axes and woven-leaf baskets were leaning against the walls. Holes dug into the dirt floor held war clubs upright, at the ready. Maya, sat by a fireplace husking corn, but even the warriors were cooking and cleaning: Tatchipan, a 17-year-old who had taken part in the massacre of the white men, squatted over a pot cooking the skinned carcass of a monkey. “The Korubo eat very well, with very little fat or sugar,” Magna explained. “Fish, wild pig, monkeys, birds and plenty of fruit, manioc and maize. They work hard and have a healthier diet than most Brazilians, so they have long lives and very good skin.” Apart from battle wounds, the most serious illness they suffer is malaria.

Magna assured me that she had never seen them quarrel or hit their children. But they do practice one chilling custom: like other Amazon Indians, they sometimes kill their babies. “We’ve never seen it happen, but they’ve told us they do it,” Magna said. “I know of one case where they killed the baby two weeks after birth. We don’t know why.” Once past infancy, children face other dangers. Several years ago, Maya and her 5-year-old daughter, Nwaribo, were bathing in the river when a massive anaconda seized the child, dragging her underwater. She was never seen again. The clan built a hut at the spot, and several of them cried for seven days and nights.

As the sun went down, we returned to Possuelo’s base, for even he considered it too dangerous to stay overnight in the maloca. Early the next morning we went back, and they asked for the Maori war dance again. I complied, this time flashing my bare bottom at the end as custom demands. They roared with laughter at the sight. Still chuckling, the women headed for the nearby maize fields and I joined Shishu, a 12-foot-long blowpipe hoist on his shoulder, through the shadowy jungle, alert for prey.

Hours slipped by. But by the end of the morning, Shishu had killed two monkeys and a large black-feathered bird with his blowpipe. His day’s hunting done, he headed back to the maloca, stopping briefly at a stream to wash away the mud from his body before entering the hut.

Magna was sitting on a log outside the maloca when we returned. It was a favourite spot for socialising: “The men and women work hard for about four or five hours a day and then relax around the maloca, eating, chatting and sometimes singing,” she said. “It’d be an enviable life except for the constant tension they feel, alert for a surprise attack, even though their enemies live far away.”

Two Korubo women outside a maloca, one shading her child with a banana leaf. All photographs by Paul Raffaele/Rex/Shutterstock

In this jungle haunted by nightmarish predators, animal and human, the Korubo surely must also need some form of religion or spiritual practice to feed their souls. But at the maloca I saw no religious carvings, no rainforest altars the Korubo might use to pray for successful hunts or other godly gifts. Magna told me that in the two years she’s tended to clan members, she’s never seen any evidence of their spiritual practice or beliefs. But we still know too little about them to be sure.

“They have not yet been born into our world, and I hope they never are”

The mysteries are likely to remain. Possuelo refused to allow anthropologists to observe the clan first-hand, considering it too dangerous to live among them. And one day the clan would melt back into the deep jungle to rejoin a larger group. Maya and her clan broke away a decade before, fleeing toward the river after warriors fought over her. But the clan numbered just 23 people, and some of the children were approaching puberty. “They’ve told me they’ll have to go back to the main group one day to get husbands and wives for the young ones,” confided Magna. “Once that happens, we won’t see them again.” 

Possuelo did not bring pictures of the outside world to show the Korubo, because he was afraid the images would encourage them to try to visit white settlements down the river. But he did have photographs he had taken from a small airplane of huts of still uncontacted tribes farther back in the Javari Valley, with as few as 30 people in a tribe and as many as 400. “We don’t know their tribal names or languages, but I feel content to leave them alone because they’re happy … living their own way, with their unique vision of the world. They don’t want to know us.”

Is Sydney Possuelo right? Is ignorance really bliss? Or should Brazil’s government throw open the doors of the 21st century to them, bringing them medical care, modern technology and education? The resources of the exclusion zones are widely coveted. Two years previously, more than 5,000 armed men from the country’s Landless Workers’ Movement marched into a tribal exclusion zone southeast of the Javari valley, demanding to be given the land and sparking FUNAI officials to fear that they would massacre the Indians. FUNAI forced their retreat by threatening to call in the military.

As we got ready to leave, Ta’van punched his chest, imitating the haka — asking me to perform the dance one last time. Possuelo gave the clan a glimpse of the outside world by trying to describe an automobile. “They’re like small huts that have legs and run very fast.” Maya cocked her head in disbelief. When I finished my haka, Ta’van grabbed my arm and smiled a farewell. Shishu remained in the hut, wailing in anguish that Possuelo was leaving. Tatchipan and Marebo escorted us down to the river.

The canoe began its journey back across the millennia, and Possuelo looked back at the warriors, a wistful expression on his face. “I just want the Korubo and other isolated Indians to go on being happy,” he said. “They have not yet been born into our world, and I hope they never are.”


Little has been published about the Korubo since my visit in 2005, though in 2014 a report was received that there had been a clash between them and their traditional enemy, the Matis. The Korubo, armed with clubs and blowpipes, had killed two Matis. In a retaliatory raid, Matis warriors armed with shotguns killed ten Korubo. 

The latest FUNAI survey showed that there are about 500 Korubo living in isolation in the Javari valley. The clan I visited has reportedly split into two with younger members inhabiting a new maloca. In 2018 a FUNAI expedition encountered a new group of Korubo with about 30 members.

Although the clan I was with are still in the exclusionary zone, I understand that FUNAI brings them to its base at Tabatinga to receive medical treatment. My friend there told me that when they come to town they wear black shorts, but take them off when they return to the maloca in the exclusion zone.

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