Death of Brazil’s ‘man in the hole’, last member of an indigenous tribe

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The last surviving member of an uncontacted Amazon tribe died this month, Brazil’s national indigenous agency, FUNAI, announced.

Known in Brazil as “the man in the hole”, he had lived alone for nearly 30 years after the rest of his tribe were killed in attacks by ranchers and other tribes in the 1980s and 1990s. The Brazilian government had watched him for 26 years and said he had repeatedly rejected communication attempts.

The Brazilian Indigenous Agency restricts access to areas surrounding uncontacted tribes and periodically tracks their movements to monitor their whereabouts and prevent them from being contacted unnecessarily.

Other uncontacted tribes in Brazil are also threatened with extinction. The Piripkura tribe in west-central Brazil has only three known members left.

The native’s body was found in western Brazil; he was lying on a hammock in a hut during a routine government check-up. There were no signs of violence or struggle, the government said.

In a statement, the Brazilian Indigenous Agency said it “deeply mourns the loss of the indigenous man and informs that, based on what we know, his death was due to natural causes.”

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The man, whose tribe and ethnicity are unknown, was nicknamed the Man of the Hole because of the nine-foot trenches he dug in 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 indigenous government agency in 2018 shows the man half-naked and chopping down a tree.

He was one of many isolated tribes in decline monitored by the Brazilian government and non-governmental organizations and was seen as a symbol of resistance against the development of the Amazon.

Brazil is home to 115 known uncontacted tribes, according to government figures, more than any other country. As mining and logging projects devour the Amazon, the number of uncontacted tribes has doubled in South America, according to a 2019 study report by Antenor Vaz, specialist in indigenous cultures.

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Under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has pledged to open up the rainforest for business, amazon deforestation reaches a 15-year high in 2021.

The consequences of this momentum of development shaped the life of the man in the hole. After escaping the massacres that killed his tribe, he survived a 2009 attack by farmers protesting his presence on their land, Brazil’s indigenous agency said.

In 1998, a few years after experts confirmed its existence, documentary filmmaker Vincent Carelli tracks down the man in the hole. He lived in a shelter covered with 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 in order to call for more protections in the area.

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

The man peeks out of the hut, carefully points an arrow at the camera crew, then steps back.

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

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