January 12, 2011

Lacandón: The Last Uncontacted People in North America

Through the ages of exploration and empire building, into the age of communication, it can sometimes feel like humanity knows every inch of its own planet. This seems especially true in the modern world. If someone sneezes, in a far away land, then a dozen Tweets can tell you about it, in real time. Satellites scour the skies, feeding back images from desolate places. Aeroplanes cross-criss above us, allowing passengers and crew alike to constantly peer down upon the landscape below. Adventurers, pioneers and profiteers still trudge off into the wilderness, just seeking out whatever it there to find.

Lacandona Jungle

Yet, despite all of this, uncontacted communities of people still turn up from time to time. These are tribes who have survived the millennia in perfect isolation from the rest of humanity. Those with a separate destiny, untouched by globalisation, the world's major religion, technology and international politics. They have no foreign policy, because they didn't know that there were any foreigners.

It is the stuff of fiction. Lost cities and lost tribes, sometimes living just a few miles into the undergrowth, only to emerge wide-eyed at the unexpected meeting. Arthur Conan Doyle famously covered this ground, in his 1912 novel, 'The Lost World'. There have been countless books and movies, on the same theme, in the interim. 'End of the Spear' (2006) is the most recent. This docudrama recounts the true life story of five American missionaries making contact with the Huaorani tribe of Ecuador. Their proselytizing eventually resulted in all five being speared to death.

Lacandona Jungle

In reality, there are a surprising number of uncontacted tribes, which are known about in the world today. Some have been spotted from afar, while others are reputed to exist, as intermediary tribes have reported that they are there. Brazil holds the record. It's believed that there are 67 uncontacted tribes within its borders. Many in extreme danger from logging concerns, wherein their forest homelands are shrinking. Previous disastrous meetings, between tribes and loggers, have been known to end in massacres, either through violence or contact with Western diseases, for which these people have no immunity. Organisations, like Survival, continue to work on their behalf.

By the 20th century, it was believed that all indigenious people in North America had been in contact with the worldly people around them. It was, therefore, a bit of a surprise, in August 1911, when a Yahi Indian named Ishi, emerged from the foothills near Oroville, California, USA. Ishi was the last of his tribe and he died five years later from tuberculosis. It was even more of a shock when, in 1924, the Lacandón tribe of Southern Mexico made contact. As far as can be known, they really were the last uncontacted people in North America.

Lacandón people
Lacandón people, 1933-34

At first, it was believed that the Lacandón were an undiscovered Maya tribe, living in the lush, dense Lacandona jungle, away from the influence of the Spanish conquistadors. This was true, as far as it went, but it transpired that the Lacandón knew all about the Mexicans. Some especially selected people had even traded with Mexican ranchers, over the centuries, though none had suspected how many lived out there nor even that those individuals were part of an unknown tribe.

The Lacandón began as a composite people, made up originally of survivors from Maya villages.Lacandón child Their ancestors might have been women and children, hidden away, as the Spanish appeared on the horizon; or men limping away from the horrors of an uneven battle. Or there could have been other reasons for their personal tragedies.

As the conquistadors brought foreign diseases, like smallpox, huge numbers of Maya died. In some cases, this left just handfuls or even sole individuals, out of once populous settlements. The remnants of these clashes and communities congregated at the ruined Maya towns and cities. They were rescued by other survivors and taken into the jungle.

The original people were all Maya, all speaking a similar language, but with various cultural and linguistic differences. Imagine taking a couple of Americans, a few Canadians, a lone Australian, two Afrikaners, a family of New Zealanders, two British children and an Irish elder. Throw in a German and a dozen Dutch people for good measure. Now isolate them and return a generation later to see what that did to the English language and cultural norms.

Would water enter a sink through a faucet or a tap? Would we wrap a baby's bottom in diapers or a nappy? Would the traditional turkey meal happen at the end of November or the end of December or both? These were the sort of issues that confronted the traumatized survivors of various Maya cultures; and it resulted in a new, patchwork Mayan language.

Lacandón people
Lacandón people, 1956

By the 18th century, the fusion of all these different Maya influences had resulted in distinct Lacandón traditions and language. It was firmly rooted in Maya, but had become something different. They still practiced the Maya religions, including pilgrimages to the Maya holy places, dotted around Mexico. These sites were only given up when there was evidence that the conquistadors had discovered them. The Lacandón wrote those pyramids, cenotes and other spots off as desecrated. In short, they avoided all Mexicans, in order to remain undiscovered. Their own history told them that contact with the outside world was too dangerous to contemplate.

Temples of Yaxchilan
Temples of Yaxchilan, deep in the Lacandón jungle; unknown to outsiders, until the Lacandón took them there.

The 20th century brought with it more Mexican loggers and farmsteaders. They had been slowly encroaching on Lacandón land throughout the previous century. The tribe had simply moved deeper and deeper into the jungle, until it became obvious that they were running out of sustainable land in which to retreat. In 1924, ambassadors from the tribe invited the Mexicans in. Anthropologists immediately descended upon the area, eager to document these people, before the rest of the world influenced them too much.

The contact, of course, did bring about the feared decimation of the Lacandón. By 1943, it was feared that the people would become extinct. Conflicts with loggers and disease were again the major contributions to their deaths. However, the Lacandón not only pulled through, but their population now numbers around 500 people.

Lacandón person

Their survival has come at a great cost to their culture though. Almost as soon as they were discovered, the Roman Catholic church was sending missionaries and building churches in the Lacandón heartland. Initially there was great resistance to the evangelism, but Christianity has steadily taken hold. Later Protestant missionaries learnt from the lessons of their Catholic predecessors and tried a new approach. It was highly successful. It is now believed that the last southern Lacandón priest has died, without finding anyone to whom he could pass on his sacred secrets. Christianity has yet to take hold in the northern Lacandón highlands.

Increased contact with scholars, loggers, farmsteaders, traders and, more recently, tourists, saw the younger Lacandón, in particular, start to embrace Western ideas. One writer, John McGee (2002), stated 'that within four years of the introduction of television, traditional ritual practices among the highland Lacandón has been reduced to just two families and one individual'. However, in the northern village of Najá, the whole community continues to tell Lacandón tales and resist the pressures of modernization as best they can. Read more about the modern Lacandón on a website maintained on their behalf: Lacandón Maya.

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