On an ordinary day in 1988 a group of 49 mostly women and children walked out of the jungle and into the small village of Calamar, in the Amazon region of Colombia. Their heads were shaved and their faces were painted with red lines. They were naked, wore no shoes, and did not speak any language that the inhabitants of the village had heard before. Members of nearby indigenous tribes, government officials, language specialists, and anthropologists were called upon to try to communicate with the mysterious new arrivals.
After much difficulty, members of a Makú tribe were able to exchange a few words with the new arrivals. The strangers were finally identified as the Nukak, a group previously unknown to the outside world and one of the last nomadic tribes left anywhere on the planet. Because of their nomadic lifestyle and tendency to leave little evidence of having lived in an area, the Nukak had flown below the radar of anthropologists and the Colombian government.
The rest of the world was similarly unknown to the Nukak, who had lived for centuries in isolation. Until shortly before their march into Calamar, the Nukak were unaware of what lay beyond the vast greenness of the Amazon.
The group that showed up in Calamar had walked for five months, escaping illicit crop growers and fighting between the government, guerrilla, and paramilitary groups. Most of the men were killed in the fighting, and the women and children were forced to flee.
A people in constant motion
The Nukak are a nomadic tribe that inhabits the Amazon region of Colombia between the Guaviare and Inírida Rivers. They live a wandering lifestyle, always moving on before their presence takes a toll on the natural resources and leaving little trace of themselves behind.
The Nukak are accomplished hunters, fishermen, and gatherers, taking full advantage of the land around them. They also practice itinerant agriculture on a small scale. Occupations are divided among tribe members. While men hunt, women and children gather, and the entire tribe participates in farming. They usually make their camps near a water source and where fruit and animals are plentiful. They are careful to move on as soon as supplies begin to decline.
The men hunt monkeys and birds with blowguns made from palm trees, coating their darts with curare, a powerful natural poison. They use long javelins and spears to hunt two species of pecari or wild boar and caiman.
The Nukak capture and eat several species of large rodent, armadillos, frogs, land turtles, and river shrimp. They also eat the larvae of palm scarabs, wasps, and a certain species of spider egg. They do not, however, hunt or eat deer or tapir because they consider these animals to belong to the same family as humans.
The Nukak fish with line and hook, but also use traditional methods like spears, bows and arrows, and traps. They also use barbasco, a root that temporarily stuns and immobilizes fish when grated and thrown into small streams. The fish can then be picked up by hand.
The women and children collect honey from over 20 different species of bee found in the jungle. They also collect several types of fruit and vegetable that grow naturally in the rainforest.
The Nukak use all kinds of materials found in the forest to support their nomadic lifestyle. They collect platanillo and palm leaves to build their shelters; palm fibers to make their hammocks; and palm fronds for their hunting and fishing material, bags, and guayuco coverings for the males. They also make perfume, soap, graters, mirrors, and knives form objects found in the jungle.
Unfortunately, their clash with the rest of the world has forced the Nukak to abandon their traditional practices in favor of “modern comforts.” For example, the Nukak used to make razors and knives from piranha teeth, but today most use metal blades. Nukak also practiced a simple form of pottery, making small clay pots to carry around with them and larger ones that were left in certain more permanent camps along their route. Today, however, most Nukak use commercial metal pots. The Nukak have also stopped making their own stone hatchets, matches, and resin mirrors.
Nukak practice agriculture on a small scale, setting up gardens in their temporary camps, and more permanent ones along their travel routes. They grow several tubers like taro and yucca, bananas, and sugar cane. They also grow gourds for containers, tobacco for religious rituals, and achiote and carayurú to paint their bodies and faces.
Traditionally, Nukak lived naked, wearing only bangles on their wrists, arms, ankles, and lower legs. They also paint red lines on their bodies and faces. Today, most have taken to wearing clothing, even when out in the jungle, since many of the women and girls have been raped and sold into prostitution by guerrilla and paramilitary groups.
Socially, Nukak men are allowed to form a family unit with more than one woman, but most Nukak have only one wife. These family units belong to territorial groups of about 50 to 60 people, who do not always remain together, but separate into different groups to hunt, build, grow, and gather depending on the season or climate. At least ten different Nukak territorial groups have been identified. Different territorial groups interact with each other to barter and for a special ritual known as entiwat, where the members of different groups confront and strike each other and then embrace.
Forced to remain stationary
In 1988, there was an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Nukak. Their numbers dwindled as their contact with the rest of the world grew. The oldest members were in their 40s. Older Nukak tend to be felled by illness like malaria, measles, leichmaniasis, and even the common cold, for which they have developed no defenses. They have been run off the lands that they have roamed for centuries. Their men are killed and their women and girls are raped.
Today, there are around 250 Nukak who have settled outside of the reserve, mostly in the outskirts of San José. Estimates suggest that there are about 100 to 200 individuals still in the “protected” area.
The Colombian government established an 855,000-hectare natural reserve closed to outsiders in 1989 and has provided the Nukak outside the reserve with food and health services. However, it seems like the Colombian government has little power to protect the Nukak within their territory, as the reserve’s very isolation and status as a place closed to outsiders is what attracts the coca farmers and provides the guerrillas and other subversive groups with an ideal place to hide. The 1999 aerial spraying of illegal coca crops near the Guaviare River prompted a new wave of coca farmers into Nukak lands.
The existence of coca crops within the Nukak reserve and encroachment upon their territory has placed the Nukak at the center of a war between the Colombian government, guerrillas, coca growers, and paramilitaries. The fighting and presence of so many armed men and women has forced nearly 35% of the Nukak out of their lands.
In 2006 Mao-be, the leader of a Nukak tribe that had been living outside the town of San José del Guaviare, displaced by the fighting, committed suicide by ingesting barbasco, one of the poisons the Nukak use for fishing. He had been fighting for the return of his people to their land and way of life.
The Nukak that have left their nomadic way of life and their lands are ill-equipped to face life outside of their tradition. They do not speak the language and do not understand basic concepts like what “the future” is or that they live in a country called Colombia. They are especially susceptible to common viruses and diseases: one in four Nukak living near San José was killed by a common cold epidemic in 2006.
To make matters worse, the very aid that the government provides the Nukak living outside the reserve may end up destroying their traditional way of life. Nukak culture centers on their nomadic lifestyle, their search for food, and their interaction with nature. This is all made obsolete when Nukak are forced to stay in one place and are given food and shelter by the government. On the other hand, if the idea is to help the Nukak integrate into Colombian society, the government is not providing the Nukak with education in language or any kind of skill that would eventually allow the Nukak to fend for themselves as members of society.
It seems that the Nukak are stuck in a kind of limbo where it is not safe for them to return to their land and traditional way of life, but where it is impossible for them to be a part of the rest of the world.
I would like to thank photographer Piers Calvert for allowing me to use photographs from The Way We Are Now
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