After an hours-long reconnaissance of a remote part of the Amazon, the light plane, low on fuel, was about to turn back when the historian Roberto Franco and a National Parks official finally spotted what they’d been looking for: the maloca of an indigenous group virtually unknown to anthropologists to date.

While later flights over four other longhouses further suggest that several non-acculturated communities known as the Yuri, Passés and Jumanas may live in the Río Puré National Park between the rivers Putumayo and Caquetá near the Brazilian frontier, Franco warns us to avoid Hollywood clichés about “lost” tribes. As with the Nukak of the Guaviare in the 1980’s, the “discovery” of the hundred or so such uncontacted groups still left on the planet, (most in South America, and a few in New Guinea) is almost always antedated by sporadic contacts with civilization.

Robert Franco
Robert Franco has spent years covering a remote corner of Colombia in search of uncontacted tribes.

Moreover, here the idea is not to explore their territory and study their customs in the usual way. Rather, this joint effort by the Amazon Conservation Team and Colombia’s National Parks System hopes that, without intervening in their lifestyle, it can scientifically show that their isolation is essential to their cultural integrity and merits governmental protection against intruders like the guerrilla, narcotics traffickers, gold prospectors and loggers.

The fact that scrutinizing the anecdotal accounts of an unidentified tribe by such persons gave Roberto his first lead further demolishes Indiana Jones fantasies, since, far from hacking his way through the undergrowth, he got to the Yuri by employing his professional skills. Hence, the next clue came from a 1978 best-seller, by the Colombian journalist Germán Castro Caycedo, about a rubber-gatherer who set off to become the king of a remote tribe in the same area, vanished in the bush and prompted an investigation by a military commission which practically kidnapped an indigenous family they found there and took them to La Pedrera, where, on the point of perishing from culture shock, two competing saviors appeared. The missionaries, who compiled a small vocabulary of their language, and, as this was now world-wide news, a French journalist who persuaded the government to let him return them to their homeland.

Once there, they warned him to turn back and fled into the wilderness. So, instead of a scoop and like all outsiders since, he witnessed practically nothing of their customs. Their minimal food plots, deliberate erasure of trails and instant abandonment of possessions point to a strategy of resistance similar to the semi-nomadic one of certain isolated groups in Peru and Brazil.

Nevertheless, that in itself was a clue and along with the little that was known became useful when Roberto, going further back, delved, first, into the narratives of some legendary foreign travelers (Koch-Grünberg, Whiffen and Preuss, early 20th century; von Martius, early 19th century; and Padre Fritz, late 17th century) and, then, chronicles of the earliest Spanish and Portuguese explorations.

Archival material, topography, oral traditions, reports of face-painting and tattoos, patterns of dispersal in post-Conquest times: the evidences are gradually adding up, if not quite to proof, than the soundest conjecture to date, especially after a comparison between the abovementioned vocabulary and much more extensive ones compiled in the 19th century, undertaken by the anthropologist Juan Álvaro Echeverri.

The hypothesis in the book recently published by Roberto, Cariba malo: episodios de resistencia de un pueblo indígena aislado del Amazonas (soon available at www.bdigital.unal.edu.co),  is that the origins of the present Yuri lie in the Yurimagua, a populous, powerful  and advanced chiefdom,  who, like their neighbors, the Omagua, left a deep impression on the first European voyagers along the mid-course of the Amazon.

By the end of the 18th century, slave-raids, epidemics and the push of Portuguese colonization, among other factors, had wiped out both cultures, but it is known that remnants fled into wilder parts, further westwards and along tributaries to the north which gives plausibility to some finding refuge in the Puré, still one of the most isolated parts of Colombia, and also to the acquisition of their method of self-defense along the way.

The linguistic resemblance between the current groups and the ancient Yurimagua is especially interesting insofar as “Yuri or “Yuru”, meaning “mouth”, probably referred to the latter’s distinctive custom of marking tattoos on the faces of infants which, as they grew, left something resembling a black mask round the mouth, a practice still in use.

Nevertheless, it is not even certain that the different groups now in the Puré Park, whose total population is estimated at one to two thousand, share a common origin, but Roberto believes that solving these mysteries is less important than implementing the principle of protecting isolated peoples established by the recent Law of Victims, and the government’s Development Plan. He belongs to a Committee for the Protection of Isolated Groups,  made up of official agencies and NGO’s, which seeks to establish a special reserve for these peoples, feasible because their territory is already a National Park and adjoins an enormous indigenous reserve known as the Predio Putumayo,  where there are indications of other isolated groups.

“I’m realistic about the long-term future of such peoples,” Roberto says. “They will eventually be forced into contact and their cultures endangered. But meanwhile, if they choose to live in isolation, they have the right. And what can we offer them that they don’t already have?”