The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brazil’s ‘man of the hole’ dies, and an Amazonian tribe is no more

The Indigenous man had lived alone for at least 26 years and repeatedly rejected attempts at communication

Brazil's “man of the hole” in the forest, in an image from a video released by Brazil’s national agency for the Indigenous in 2018. (FUNAI/AFP/Getty Images)
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The last surviving member of an isolated Amazonian tribe died this month, Brazil’s national Indigenous agency, FUNAI, has announced.

Known in Brazil as the “man of the hole,” he had lived alone for nearly 30 years after the rest of his tribe was killed in attacks by ranchers and other tribes during the 1980s and ’90s. The Brazilian government had monitored him for 26 years and said he had repeatedly rejected attempts at communication.

Brazil’s Indigenous agency restricts access to the areas surrounding isolated tribes and follows their movements periodically to monitor their locations and prevent them from being contacted unnecessarily.

Other isolated tribes in Brazil are also threatened with extinction. The Piripkura tribe in central-western Brazil is down to three known members.

The Indigenous man’s body was found in western Brazil; he was lying on a hammock in a hut during a routine monitoring visit by the government. There were no signs of violence or struggle, the government said.

In a statement, Brazil’s Indigenous agency said it “deeply laments the loss of the Indigenous man and informs that, based on what we know, his death occurred from natural causes.”

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The man, whose tribe and ethnicity are unknown, was called the man of the hole because of the nine-foot trenches he dug at the center of his homes. The reason for the holes is unknown, but some Indigenous experts say they may have served a religious purpose.

A rare video taken by the government’s Indigenous agency in 2018 shows the man semi-naked and chopping down a tree.

He was one of several dwindling, isolated tribes monitored by the Brazilian government and nongovernmental organizations and was considered a symbol of resistance against the development of the Amazon.

Brazil is home to 115 known isolated tribes, according to government figures, more than in any other country. As mining and logging projects eat into the Amazon, the number of tribes in isolation has doubled across South America, according to a 2019 report by Antenor Vaz, an expert on Indigenous cultures.

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Under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who pledged to open the rainforest for business, deforestation of the Amazon reached a 15-year high in 2021.

The consequences of this push for development shaped the life of the man in the hole. After evading the massacres that killed his tribe, he survived a 2009 attack by farmers protesting his presence on their lands, Brazil’s Indigenous agency said.

In 1998, a few years after experts confirmed his existence, documentary filmmaker Vincent Carelli tracked down the man of the hole. He was living in a shelter covered in dried palm leaves next to a lit fire. Carelli, who was working with members of Brazil’s Indigenous agency to locate him, said he was trying to document the man’s existence as a way to call for more protections in the area.

For six hours, Carelli and his camera crew wait for the man to try to coax him out, according to the documentary. “Come, come,” they say in the footage. “Come here, come out.”

The man peeks out from the hut, carefully points an arrow at the camera crew and then retreats.

“He only tried to shoot us only when he saw the camera,” Carelli says in the documentary. “The irony is that it was the camera that made him exist before the law.”