Cover Story

And Then There Was One

A Brazilian team's first face-to-face encounter with a man said to be the last living member of his indigenous tribe.Video by Vincent CarelliAnd Then There Was One (Post Magazine, Dec. 13, 2007)
By Monte Reel
Sunday, January 13, 2008

THe Rumor Was A Wild One, and it seized Marcelo dos Santos with the power of a primary myth.

There's an Indian living in the woods around here, some local ranch hands were saying in 1996. He wears no clothes. Get near him, and he vanishes. He is utterly alone.

Marcelo knew a lot about elusive Indians -- more than just about anyone. He was a sertanista, a uniquely Brazilian profession that is part jungle explorer, part ethnologist and part bureaucrat. As a member of Funai -- the Brazilian government agency charged with protecting indigenous interests and cultures -- Marcelo's specialty was "uncontacted" Indians, those tribes that remain isolated from modern man. His territory was Rondonia, a heavily forested area that had been largely undeveloped before the government declared it a state and opened it to agriculture in the early 1980s. After that, loggers and ranchers began streaming in, and Marcelo blamed them for the denuded pastureland that was eating into the forest from all sides.

Just a few months earlier, Marcelo and his tracking partner Altair Algayer had made first contact with an isolated tribe of Kanoe Indians that had been reduced to five survivors. Shortly after that, they found another tribe, the Akuntsu, with only six members living several miles from the Kanoe. They'd gotten the land for those tribes declared off-limits to development. And for that, the loggers and ranchers who wanted a piece of that land for themselves viewed Marcelo and Altair just as suspiciously as those two viewed the loggers and ranchers.

But this rumor, of a single Indian on his own in the jungle, was too compelling to ignore, even if it meant spending time among the kind of people that Funai explorers generally tried to avoid.

The rumor's trail led to a logging operation near a cattle ranch. Marcelo and Altair, careful to sneak past the boss, found the company cook.

"Yeah, I've seen him," the cook told them, "and I know where he lives. Do you want to see?"

Before they followed the cook to the sharply drawn border between pasture and forest, they had their doubts about the story. Couldn't the Indian have been a wandering member of the Akuntsu tribe, who also customarily wore no clothes?

Wasn't the idea of an essentially self-sufficient man living in unbroken communion with nature practically impossible now, more than 500 years after conquistadors, prospectors, slavers, missionaries, rubber tappers and scientists started penetrating the Amazon's depths?

But when they stepped into the forest with the cook, they walked straight into an epic quest that would obsess, delight and terrify them for more than a decade. It would send them dodging arrows and would incite pitched battles with landowners that would upend lives forever. They would become detectives, piecing together the clues of a murder case that would ultimately offer them a glimpse of fathomless solitude.

On the constricting edge of one of the last truly wild places on Earth, one man's unlikely existence would show them what true survival meant and would underscore the value of mystery in a world with little room left for the unknown.

ALTAIR, CLUTCHING HIS RIFLE WITH ONE HAND, TWISTED THROUGH A TANGLE OF FERNS. It was the peak of the dry season in 1998. They called this a rain forest, but it hadn't even sprinkled here in 60 days. Insects swirled within the streaming bars of light that penetrated the canopy of jatoba trees. A papery rustle accompanied each footstep as he hiked deeper into the forest.

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