Hit by disease,
deforestation and war, Colombia's last nomadic tribe faces
BARRANCON, Colombia, AP/
For thousands of years, the Nukak-Maku Indians roamed the jungles of
southeast Colombia, hunting game with blow guns and gathering
berries, as oblivious to the modern world as it was to them.
Then one day in 1988, the two worlds collided when a group of Nukak
men ventured into a town carved out of the jungle. Townspeople
stared in disbelief at the naked Nukak as the Indians _ astonished,
too _ stared back.
That first encounter was peaceful, with the Nukak men feeling so
trusting that they brought out their women and children who had been
waiting in the bush. But the aftershocks of that meeting are now
devastating the Nukak.
Cut down by diseases brought by settlers, lured by the conveniences
of the modern world and caught in the crossfire of Colombia's civil
war, the tribe is being driven along a path to extinction that more
than 100 other Indian tribes across the Amazon region have walked
What is happening to the Nukak is especially worrisome; it is
Colombia's last nomadic tribe.
At least 1,200 Nukak roamed the jungles in groups of about 30 when
that first hesitant contact was made in the town of Calamar,
according to missionaries' estimates. Just 15 years later, their
number has plunged to about 380, the Health Ministry says.
"At this rate, in a very short time there will be no more Nukak,"
said Humberto Ruiz, an anthropologist who has studied the tribe.
"They will be a vague memory."
The Nukak are a branch of the Maku family of nomadic Indians who
have journeyed the northwest Amazon River basin of current-day
Colombia, Peru and Brazil for thousands of years. The branches the
Maku are tied together by language.
Since the first contact with settlers, influenza has obliterated
most of the Nukak, which had no resistance to the disease.
Deforestation has cut their food supply and led to malnutrition.
Anthropologists believe there are only a few dozen Nukak still
living deep in the jungle, relatively untouched by civilization.
Added to the pressures on the tribe, leftist rebels and outlawed
right-wing militias have been battling in the Indian's homelands for
control of coca, the base ingredient of cocaine, which flourishes
naturally in the region and provides the warring groups with huge
No Nukak has been reported killed, but the clashes have terrified
the Indians and caused some to flee ancestral grounds.
A Nukak clan of 10 families fled its camp, near a settlers' village
on the edge of their reservation, in January because of the fighting.
"We were afraid, afraid of the explosions," said Yeuna,
the clan's leader who goes by only one name.
The clan is now idled at a makeshift camp in a jungle clearing near
the village of Barrancon, a half-hour boat ride upriver from San
Jose del Guaviare, the provincial capital of Guaviare state.
Aid workers have been bringing rice, lentils and yucca every 15 days
to the camp, where colorful hammocks swing from trees whose dense
leaves filter the sun's burning rays. The aid has led to stomach
ailments because of the change from the Indians' traditional fare,
but moreover it is increasing their dependence on others.
Which points to the irony of helping nomadic tribes: while it may be
well-meaning, it can lead to their destruction by eroding native
Hugo Quijano, one of the workers, acknowledged the aid is "interfering
with Nukak culture" but said it is needed because Yeuna's clan
lacks the wide areas needed to hunt and fish.
"We are trying to limit our contact with them as much as
possible, but the conditions of the area they are in make that
difficult," Quijano said.
The United Nations estimates there are more than 300 indigenous
tribes in the Amazon basin, but only about 60 remain in isolation,
in Brazil and Peru.
Symbolizing what is happening across the Amazon region, Yeuna's clan
is gradually trading nomadic ways for a more sedentary existence:
They are learning Spanish, wearing T-shirts and baseball caps and
Still, Yeuna's clan maintains many traditions. The women keep their
eyebrows plucked and their hair very short. The men, who are lean
and practically hairless, sometimes leave the camp to fish or to
The Indians also maintain strong ecological practices. As nomads,
they plant seeds before abandoning a camp, and raise baby monkeys
whose mothers have been hunted and eaten, even going so far as to
breast-feed them. When they are grown, the Indians release the
monkeys into the wild, symbolically replenishing the natural supply.
During a recent visit by a reporter, Nukak children _ ignoring a
radio in the camp _ became mesmerized by a woman of the clan as she
broke into song in the Nukak's native language. More than half of
the 40 Indians in the camp are children, and they all speak Nukak.
There are no elders. They have all died. The oldest known living
Nukak is estimated to be in her early 40's. Ruiz said the Nukak used
to live into their 60s, but contact with diseases appears to have
shortened their life span.
While everyone agrees that first contact with the modern world has
forever changed the Nukak, there is little consensus on how to
preserve their culture while still allowing those who want to
integrate into modern society to do so.
"One cannot force a group to conserve itself, like an artifact
in a museum," Ruiz noted.
Assimilation appears to be unstoppable, in any case.
Nukak clans _ like Yeuna's _ are drifting closer to towns and cities,
where the settlers' lifestyle is seen as being easier and more
attractive than living hand-to-mouth in the remote jungle. The
Indians are still susceptible to the flu, but access to health care
means it is less likely to turn into pneumonia and kill them.
Once they leave the old ways behind, it's hard to go back.
Manuel Garcia grew up with his Nukak clan, but after both his
parents died when he was 8 years old, he was adopted by a settler in
San Jose del Guaviare.
After turning 18, he reconnected with a group of Nukak.
"I tried to live with them in the jungle, but I only lasted six
months. I had to leave. I just didn't have the same toughness that
they did," said Garcia, who is now a health worker and is
helping Yeuna's clan.
Yeuna, sitting in a hammock and surrounded by his five children and
his pregnant wife, insisted that he eventually wants to lead the
clan to their ancestral lands.
"We want to go back," Yeuna said in broken Spanish.
"But we are waiting for them to stop fighting."
There is no sign, however, that the Colombian Army _ which is
stretched thin as it battles the rebels across the nation _ will be
able to oust the outlawed warring factions from Yeuna's homeland
In the meantime, the clan continues to wait, and adapt to life in
the 21st century.