In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes
By Scott Wallace
Crown. 494 pp. $26
It sounds like the beginning of a pulp adventure novel. A journalist gets a phone call from a magazine editor offering a tantalizing assignment: Go to the Amazon and catch up with an expedition bent on making contact with a tribe so remote and self-contained that it knows virtually nothing of modern civilization. Scott Wallace got such a call from National Geographic. Despite some misgivings (among other things, he already felt guilty about how little time he spent with his sons), he took the assignment, and his new book, “The Unconquered,” is the result of his travels and consultations with experts.
Among Wallace’s reasons for going to northwestern Brazil was his admiration for the head of the expedition, activist Sydney Possuelo, who considered the Arrow People a kind of test case for his policy that the best thing to do with isolated indigeneous groups was to leave them to their own devices. If Possuelo was right, they would find a “thriving” people who were “far better off [in isolation] than they’d be under any scheme to integrate them into mainstream modern society.”
Wallace’s sensitivity to his Amazonian surroundings was enhanced by the experts he consulted in the course of this project, among them composer David Monacchi, who “shared his brilliance and expertise in acoustic ecology and the sounds of the rainforest” (the indigenous people rely heavily on their sense of hearing to make the best use of the jungle). In the end, Wallace argues, “the idea wasn’t to cordon the Indians off forever from the outside world; it was to allow them to choose if and when they wanted contact.”