At an estimated age of 60, the last surviving member of an uncontacted Indigenous tribe in Brazil has died. Known as the “Man of the Hole” for the various deep holes which he dug to hunt and trap animals, as well as to hide in, this man, whose name we do not know, was part of an Indigenous group which inhabited the Tanaru indigenous area in Rondônia, southern Brazil.
The man’s body was found on August 23rd in a hammock outside of one of his straw huts, having presumably died of natural causes.
Brazil’s Indigenous Affairs Agency (FUNAI) documented its initial discovery of the Man of the Hole in 1996. Ranchers are believed to have murdered most of his tribe, dating back to as early as the 1970s. By 1995, six of the remaining tribe members had been murdered by illegal miners, leaving the Man of the Hole his tribe’s sole survivor.
“What happened to his people was a genocide,” said Marcelo dos Santos, an Indigenous specialist and a member of the FUNAI group who first made contact with the man. “It shows we are failing as a society.”
After initially attempting to make contact, FUNAI determined that the man wished to remain undisturbed, deciding instead to monitor and protect him from afar to ensure that no other attacks were made on his life. For the next 26 years, the B.B.C. says, the Man of the Hole lived in total isolation, leading many in the international community to call him “the loneliest man in the world.” The man had no known contact with any other tribes or people over the years, the New York Times writes. His spoken language, ethnicity, and name are lost to us.
“For me, he was this symbol of resistance and resilience: to be able to survive on his own, not speak to anybody and avoid all contact maybe out of grief or determination,” said Fiona Watson, who had traveled with FUNAI to check on the man in 2005. Watson is now a director at Survival International, a London-based Indigenous rights group.
Since the man’s death was first reported, neighboring tribes and Indigenous rights groups have raised major concerns over the Tanaru Indigenous Territory’s future. With an industry-first administration currently in power under an incredibly dangerous populist leader, many fear that the land will be opened up to logging, ranching, and mining, causing irreparable deforestation as well as furthering the genocide committed against the Man of the Hole’s people. President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly loosened the restrictions protecting Indigenous and environmental reserves, and while the Tanura Indigenous Territory has been protected since 1998, the New York Times reports that illegal attacks on the territory, including an armed assault in 2009, have continued regardless. Brazil’s constitution states that Indigenous groups have a right to their lands, which are protected so long as at least one tribe’s member is present within that land. With the Man of the Hole’s death, there is no longer a member of the tribe present to fulfill Brazil’s protection requirements.
Indigenous rights groups have called for the Brazilian government to grant the Tanaru reserve permanent protection, but many living tribes and the forests they live in still do not receive any protection at all. Of the 114 FUNAI-identified isolated Indigenous groups, only 28 are confirmed. The remaining unconfirmed 86 receive no government protections.
The legacy of the Man of the Hole is a tragic one, but it also has the opportunity to be a legacy of change. The Indigenous people of Brazil, as well as the international human rights community, can come together to overcome President Bolsonaro and instill permanent protections for Tanaru. To defend the Amazon rainforest is to stand against Indigenous ethnocide in Brazil and every South American country the forest touches.
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