The reclusive clan has caused fear, injury and one death after firing arrows at uninvited interlopers.
Survival International (SI), a London-based nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the rights of tribal peoples around the world recently released close-up photographs of the isolated forest dwellers.
The pictures were captured on two separate occasions and show several Mashco-Piro members congregating along a river bank.
Gabriella Galli, an Italian visitor on a bird-watching trip, spotted the Mashco-Piro in August 2011. Spanish archaeologist Diego Cortijo captured images showing several of the Mashco-Piro three months later.
SI representative Rebecca Spooner said the photographs were published “to highlight the ever growing danger for uncontacted tribes.”
The Mashco-Piro tribe, which lives in and around Manu National Park in southeastern Peru, is one of about 15 uncontacted tribes in the country. Only 100 isolated tribes remain worldwide.
Survival (International) defines uncontacted as a tribe that’s had no peaceful contact with the outside,” she said, adding that while the Mashco-Piro have rebuffed outsiders they most likely have regular contact with other local indigenous people.
Illegal industry, Drugs and Tourism to Blame?
SI speculates that low-flying planes and helicopters from illegal logging and gas interests, drug trafficking and increased tourism in Peru’s more remote regions are all increasing the likelihood of forced interactions with the outside world. Native people’s advocacy groups agree that indigenous tribes should be left alone, citing that many around the globe have succumbed to introduced illnesses, land theft, slavery and forced progress.
While tribal member have always rejected contact with foreigners recent run-ins with the Mashco-Piro have turned violent. Tribal members have fired arrows at eco-tourists passing in river boats.
In some cases these sightseers have thrown clothes along the river banks hoping to get a photo op. A separate incident involved a Manu National Park ranger who was seriously injured by a pointless arrow fired as a “warning shot.”
The Death of Nicolas “Shaco” Flores
The situation took a deadly turn in November 2011 when Nicolas “Shaco” Flores was mortally wounded when a Mascho-Piro arrow pierced his heart.
Flores was a member of the neighboring Matsigenka tribe, had married a Piro woman and spoke two dialects so similar to Piro he was able to communicate with the tribe.
For more than 20 years Flores routinely left food, gifts, machetes and cooking pots for the forest dwellers. While the attack on Flores isn’t fully understood, Peruvian indigenous tribe expert Beatriz Huertas described the relationship between the Good Samaritan and the Mashco-Piro as “unusual, complex and extremely delicate.”
Diego Cortijo, the archeologist who ‘d taken some of the photos while searching for petroglyphs, believes Flores had a true understanding of the Mashco-Piro.
“Shaco was the only person who could talk to them,” he said. “Now that he’s dead it’s impossible to make contact.”
“Shaco’s death is a tragedy. He was a kind, courageous and knowledgeable man. He believed he was helping the Mashco-Piro,” explained anthropologist and Flores friend Glenn Shepard.
Shepard believes the attack on Flores was another way the elusive Mashco-Piro “have once again expressed their adamant desire to be left alone.”
A War of Extermination
Shepard believes the Mashco-Piro are descendants of one Mashco tribe that speaks the Piro dialect.
According to Shepard, the Mashco tribes were massacred and displaced in the 19th century by Peruvian rubber tycoon Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald.
Although the Mashco had attempted to resist territorial domination, the tribes were no match for Fitzcarrald’s private army of several hundred men.
In their book War of Shadows: The Struggle for Utopia in the Peruvian Amazon, authors Michael Forbes Brown and Eduardo Fernandez described Fitzcarrald’s cruel machination as “a war of extermination.”
Fitzcarrald’s biographer Ernesto Reyna wrote “the Manu (forest) was covered in corpses.” The fateful interaction resulted in the few surviving tribe members fleeing to the forest left to subsist on wild game and fruits.
For now, the Peruvian government is doing its best to caution people from attempting contact with the reclusive tribe.
“Contact is dangerous,” SI’s Spooner warned. “For the tourists the danger is violence and for the Mashco-Piro, it’s disease. Visitors should do some investigative work into areas — particularly in Peru and Brazil — and if they hear that there is the possibility of encountering an uncontacted tribe, they should avoid the place altogether.”