Symbol of isolated peoples’ resistance in Brazil, the ‘Indigenous man of the hole’ found dead

Image of the “lone survivor” publicized by Funai | Image: Funai

This article, written by Rubens Valente, was originally published by Agência Pública, here and here, on August 2022, and is republished here under a partnership agreement with Global Voices, translated by Liam Anderson.

A symbol of the resistance of isolated Indigenous peoples in Brazil, he became known as  the “Indigenous man of the hole,” for digging pits in the ground, and was described in the media as the “loneliest man in the world.”

For more than 25 years this extraordinary Brazilian, whose name, language, and ethnicity were never known, lived completely isolated in an area of the Amazon forest covering around 8,000 hectares in the northern state of Rondonia, monitored by the National Indigenous Foundation (Funai).

On August 24, the Indigenous man was found dead in his tapiri (a type of tent made with straw) by Funai, “lying in a hammock, and adorned [with macaw feathers] as if he were waiting to die,” according to an Indigenous expert. The body was taken to Brasilia for forensic examinations by the Federal Police to try to identify the cause of death.

A number of items found beside the body, such as gourds, arrows, corn cobs, and wooden spoons, are also being examined. A sample of the surrounding vegetation and water from the stream he used were taken to check for any contamination by pesticides or other substances that might have contributed to an illness or death.

So far, both the Federal Police and Funai work with the hypothesis of natural death, because no signs of violence were found on the body and there was no indication that other people had broken into his tapiri.

The man’s existence was confirmed in 1996 following an extensive investigation by Funai experts Altair Algayer and Marcelo dos Santos, based on initial reports from a cook who worked in a sawmill in the area. At the time, he said that loggers had come out of the forest days before afraid of an Indigenous man who moved quickly through the forest.

Santos said that the word that defines the person known as “Indigenous man of the hole” is “loneliness,” which he was cast into as a result of the various forms of violence suffered by the group he was part of, which, with his death, has disappeared. He explained:

Ele não confiava em ninguém em sua volta porque viveu várias experiências
traumatizantes com os não-indígenas. Ele temia pela própria vida. Um conjunto de fatores levou a essa solidão. Há relatos de que indígenas isolados foram mortos na região com veneno misturado à comida. Acreditamos que, por isso, ele nunca aceitou a comida que deixávamos para ele na mata.

He did not trust anybody nearby because he had several traumatic experiences with non-Indigenous people. He feared for his life. A number of factors led to this loneliness. There are reports that isolated Indigenous people were killed in the region by [eating] poison mixed into food. We believe that this is why he never accepted the food we left for him in the forest.

The “Indigenous man of the hole” became a symbol of the resistance of isolated groups because he repeatedly refused to have any extended contact with non-Indigenous people — or even other Indigenous people in the region — and even on two separate occasions shot an arrow in the direction of Funai staff members who approached him. At the bottom of some of the pits he dug in the forest, he used to place wooden spikes, setting traps to scare intruders away from his land.

Despite intense pressure and attacks from politicians and ranchers in the region, the legal ban on entry by outsiders to the territory he lived on was approved, becoming one of the most significant examples of the “no contact policy” adopted by Funai soon after Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship ended in 1985.

Under this then-novel policy, the institution for Indigenous affairs took on the tasks of identifying and monitoring isolated Indigenous peoples, protecting them from threats, banning entry to or demarcating their territories, and only going to meet them in the event of imminent danger from intruders such as ranchers, loggers, and miners, or based on a decision by the isolated people themselves.

In December 1996, Funai issued the first Decree on Restriction of Use which prohibited non-Indigenous people from entering a stretch of forest covering around 8,000 hectares, in order to guarantee the “Indigenous man in the hole’s” way of life.

This decree was renewed in 2009, 2012, and 2015 and the territory received the name Tanaru Indigenous Land. With his death, there is concern about the future of this land due to the imminent risk of it being invaded and degraded.

Indigenous expert Antenor Vaz, a specialist on isolated peoples who worked for years in Rondonia, said that the “man of the hole” symbolized “the highest degree of resistance, of the struggle of a people”:

Mesmo após o possível massacre que, tudo leva a crer, seu povo sofreu,
ele ainda permaneceu na sua luta.

Even after the potential massacre, which everything leads us to believe his people suffered, he still persevered in his struggle. 

He also represents all the possible abuses that a majoritarian society can commit against an Indigenous people. This group was denied any right to live.

Indigenous experts specializing in isolated groups, Vaz, Marcelo dos Santos, and Sydney Possuelo, say the body should be returned as soon as possible and buried in the same place where the man lived and died. Santos explained:

Para nós é fundamental que o corpo seja devolvido. E que se faça um memorial, um centro de treinamento e estudos, que se preserve o território de alguma forma.

For us it is essential that the body be returned. And that a memorial is made, a training and study center, that the territory is preserved in some way. 

Vaz also suggested, like Santos, that the Brazilian State should “preserve the Tanaru Indigenous Land as a memorial to the resistance of isolated peoples,” for training on public policies regarding isolated groups and that doing so would be a “recognition of this Indigenous man’s bravery.”

Possuelo, who in the 1980s and 1990s established ethnic-environmental protection areas in various parts of the Amazon to monitor and protect isolated Indigenous people and their territories, adds:

O primeiro passo é manter a terra livre e protegida. Embora eu duvide que esse governo, que é um governo anti-indígena, vai se esforçar para isso de alguma forma. É boa a ideia de fazer um marco em homenagem a esse povo, um centro de estudo que fosse aberto ao público em geral também.

The first step is to keep the land free and protected. Although I doubt that this government, which is an anti-Indigenous government, will make any effort to do that. It is a good idea to make a memorial in honour of this people, a study centre that would be open to the general public as well.

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