They looked up through a clearing in the canopy and saw the 21st century for the first time. With white knuckle grips on bows and spears, the fear causing them to tremble was obvious even from the hasty snapshots the plane could capture from 1000 feet. Old men gestured wildly. Young men aimed futilely. The warriors poured out of leaf and thatch lodges, undoubtedly the entire tribe afire with the electric fear of the very loud and very foreign thing that circles overhead. Spackled with red pigment from head to toe and armed to the prehistoric teeth, they have no idea how feeble their preparations are. They have no idea their way of life is already dead.
In the Amazon, one of the last “uncontacted” societies on the planet Earth was photographed for the first time. A testament to the light years of contrast between their world and our own, those photos found themselves within a week’s time broadcast to billions – a number of people impossible for the subjects of that photography to comprehend. They constitute one of an estimated sixty groups of humans in the Amazon who fit this category and that we know virtually nothing about.
Of course, these men’s ignorance of Western civilization is not complete. With all the drug runners, loggers, and rubber barons that trample those parts of the Amazon, it is virtually assured that the airplane that flew overhead was not the first these people had seen. The photos were released as part of an effort by the Brazilian government to bring attention to the growing encroachment on these tribes. “Uncontacted” is placed deliberately in quotation marks; they are tribes that have encountered this brave new world and have willfully turned their backs.
And still, these photos illustrate real terror. It may be the tenth or eleventh time that month the plane flew overhead, but they still shoot their arrows and hide their women and children. At first blush, the lack of sophistication seems comical, like they must think the two seater Cessna is some sort of terrible god or devil. The body paint and the primitive weapons seem right out of Indiana Jones, with only some alien crystal skull needed to complete a Spielberg masterpiece.
But perhaps it is not caveman superstition, but human rational thought that causes their bows to draw. At some level, they are looking to the sky and seeing inside a beast of industry that looks upon them condescendingly and reacting with a primal, base rejection. But I have to wonder if they may be more wise than they seem. They are looking the brave new world right in the eye and and organizing. There are leaders, there are formations, and there are careful indications of preparations. Food is no where in site. Anything valuable including women and children are nowhere in sight. I don’t think they’re panicking. They are seeing the future and thinking, not feeling, that it is not at all right and should be rightly feared.
As I sit ballsdeep in the technology, staring at one of no less than seven screens in this room and clacking away at a keyboard built to reduce the unnatural destruction this technology wreaks on human life, I wonder how easy that choice is for them. How quick the decision must be when they look up at something like that and feel the jerk visceral twist of helplessness knot their guts. Fight or flight against the unknown; the reaction which sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.
For what little good it will do them, their decision is clear. One day, probably within our lifetimes, this tribe – whoever they are – will be gone. Their language will be gone. Their oral history will be gone. Their traditions and rituals and religions will be gone. And finally, thanks to modern disease and political instability in that region, they, their children, and their grandchildren will be gone too.
They are looking at those airplanes and they are seeing their future. They see the gone that is coming. And they are choosing to fight.