We’ve come across a number of fresh human tracks this morning, all pointing in the same direction that we’re walking through the virgin jungle of Brazil’s westernmost Amazon Basin. Woolly monkeys hoot and chatter somewhere in the distance, their banter punctuated by the occasional zing of a machete and the shrill cries of the screaming piha birds high in the canopy overhead.
Our column of 34 men proceeds in silence, strung out single file far back into the forest. Only one or two companions are visible at any time in the blur of electric greens and rain-soaked browns. The rest are swallowed from view by a spray of overhanging branches and vines as thick as anacondas dangling 100 feet from the treetops to the forest floor. Just ahead of me, Sydney Possuelo strides double-time across a stretch of level ground, a welcome break from the steep hillsides we’ve been scrambling over “We’re probably the only ones who have ever walked here,” Possuelo tells me. “Us and the Indians.” for days.
A cantankerous iconclast with bulging hazel eyes, scraggly salt-and-pepper beard, and wild locks flowing from beneath a floppy camouflage jungle hat, Possuelo, 63, is widely considered one of the Amazon’s last great wilderness scouts and the leading authority on Brazil’s last remaining pockets of uncontacted Indians. After two weeks of river travel and 20 days of steady bushwhacking, Possuelo has led into one of the most remote and uncharted places left on the planet, near the hea<!–[endif]–>dwaters of two adjacent rivers – the Itaquai and the Jutai. This is the land of the mysterious flecheiros, or “people of the arrow,” a rarely glimpsed Indian tribe principally known as deft archers disposed to unleashing poison-tipped projectiles to defend their territory against all intruders, then melting away into the forest.
Suddenly, Possuelo stops dead in his tracks. A freshly hacked sapling, still dangling by a shred of bark, lies prostrate across the path in front of us. In itself, the makeshift gate could not halt a toddler, much less a contingent of 34 men armed with shotguns. Rather, it bears a message, an ominous warning, which Posseulo instantly recognizes and respects. “This is universal language in the jungle,” he says. “It means ‘Stay Out. Go No Further.’ We must be getting close to their village.”
Which is something Possuelo wants to avoid. He wheels around and directs our column to veer off the path into the dense undergrowth on our flanks. A half hour later, after slogging through boot-sucking mud and dodging head-grabbing vines, we arrive by the steep banks of a narrow creek, where Possuelo orders a halt to the march while we wait for the rear of the column to catch up.
The flecheiros figure among 17 confirmed groups of uncontacted tribes still living in the far recesses of the Brazilian Amazon, and there may be as many as 40. Most of them, Possuelo says, are descendants of the survivors of bloody battles and massacres committed decades, perhaps even centuries before, who scattered into the rugged folds of the region’s headwaters and continue to shun contact with the outside world.