The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes Hardcover – Oct 18 2011
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"Wallace's foreboding is matched by his sense of wonder." – New York Times Book Review
"Astonishing." – The London Sunday Times
"A rousing adventure tale." – Wall Street Journal
"Wallace's gripping account takes us upriver to a place very few outsiders have ever seen." – The Boston Globe
"What a great book! An adventure story worthy of Joseph Conrad or Peter Matthiessen." – The Oregonian
“Rousing.” – TIME
"Startlingly novelistic." – Salon.com
“It’s easy to picture The Unconquered being made into a movie.” – Washington Post Express
"Masterful...positively cinematic." – Yale Alumni Magazine
“An eye-opening read…one of the most gripping pieces of non-fiction around…. You’ll swear you are reading a thriller novel.” – Guernica
“Dream assignment or nightmare? An editor from National Geographic asked journalist Scott Wallace to join an expedition into the deepest wilds of the Amazon jungle to find the mysterious ‘People of the Arrow.' While the experience was pretty much a nightmare, it’s a blessing for readers of Wallace's fascinating book.” — Associated Press
“Echoing Amazonia’s earliest European explorers, Wallace crafts a tale that is part gripping adventure story, part window into the unexpected complexities of a developing country where uncontacted tribes stand between a resource-hungry economy and an area abounding in natural wealth.” – Indian Country Today
“Rife with poachers, drug smugglers, illegal gold miners and violent tribes already acquainted with the dangers of modern life…Wallace describes the trek in vivid, if unsettling, terms.” – Maclean’s
“Wallace joins the tribe of jungle-besotted literary types led by Redmond O'Hanlon and David Grann and presents a credibly incredible tale about his voyage past the edge of modernity.” – Huffington Post
"A gripping tale of adventure." – Washingtonian
“While it’s hard to imagine that ‘stone-age’ tribes still persist in a world of cell phones, satellites and social media, it’s even harder to understand how difficult it is to police these isolated regions, to keep them free of outsiders who could endanger a way of life that has nearly disappeared…Wallace’s narrative is apt and penetrating.” – SEJournal
About the Author
SCOTT WALLACE is a journalist whose assignments have taken him from the Himalayas and the streets of Baghdad to the Alaskan Arctic and the Amazon. A former correspondent for the Guardian and Newsweek, he has written for National Geographic, National Geographic Adventure, and Harper’s. His photography has appeared in Smithsonian, Outside, and Sports Afield. His television credits include CBS, CNN, and National Geographic Channel.
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I understand the author's point in trying to build up a feeling for what he was going through and the emotional state that someone entering months in the Amazon's depths is facing. The issue it comes off self-serving and egotistical to the point that you nearly give up on the book before you actually arrive at their departure into the unknown. More frustrating is that after spending all this time on the family and personal relationships the author is compromising during the opening of the book, and touched on at various stages throughout his journey, he fails to wrap it up at the end at which point you're actually intrigued and hoping for some resolution. While he does touch on his parents and children at the end, most glaring is the ultimate omission of his relationship with his girlfriend Sarah, who he seems to dwell on the most during these "personal" parts and we are left to make our own conclusions about. It is ironic that you are at first frustrated with his inclusion of these relationships and then disappointed at the end with the lack of resolution, but ultimately it does leave you frustrated that after all that time, all those words, you're left simply not knowing.
Once you do get over the initial frustration of the author going in depth into his personal life, the book does gradually evolve to a thrilling real-life page turner that you find it increasingly more and more difficult to put down, until you reach the point that you're finished the book and hoping that maybe they find some way to go on another expedition, or are left examining the selection at Amazon for similar books.Read more ›
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The team, led by Possuelo, contained 34 men, including Indians of the three tribes neighboring the Flecheiros and Brazilian frontiersmen. The Flecheiros' territory is a very remote area of Brazil, with no roads, only rivers and jungle. The explorers took motorboats as far as they could, then trekked through the jungle, covering 250 miles. They carried all their equipment through the jungle, some men with as much as 100 pounds on their backs, making trails with machetes.
The isolation in the jungle was complete; the sky disappeared. If Wallace lost sight of the person before him, he immediately became lost. The dense canopy rendered useless the GPS, a two-way radio and the satellite phone. The explorers had no recourse in case of serious illness or injury; no medical personnel accompanied them. Risks included jaguars, ants with vise-like mandibles and toxic stingers, anacondas, caimans, deadly vipers, fire ants, swarms of wasps with stingers as big as darts, poisonous spiders, anacondas and bamboo sharp enough to impale a man. Wallace became so fearful that he said a "jungle prayer" for his safety each morning, although he hadn't prayed since childhood.
Food was irregular and scarce, depending on what was available to shoot or catch in the rivers. Breakfast was sometimes a couple of crackers. For days, dinner was chunks of monkey, boiled. "It was haunting, the sight of those monkeys piled one on top of the other, pink and naked, like a half dozen toddlers dismembered and set to boil." Piranha were easy to catch and made a tasty meal, if you didn't swallow the many tiny bones. A real treat was the massacre of a herd of peccaries.
Wallace estimated that during the jungle trek they burned 6,000 calories per day but ate an average of only 800 calories. He lost 33 pounds during the journey. Some men were seriously ill with dysentery and malaria. Some lunch stops were without any food. The scarcity of supplies led to food hoarding and stealing. Possuelo, a martinet, fired a FUNAI employee for stealing a boiled chicken egg from the galley of the boat.
Footprints, broken branches, and temporary encampments made clear that the Flecheiros were watching and following the explorers. The rules of conduct applied: carry rifles conspicuously at all times; always have two or three guards; travel in large numbers; never allow yourselves to be surrounded. When the team came upon an abandoned Flecheiro village, they deliberately changed directions to avoid encounter. Yet, as a gesture of friendship, they left gifts of cooking pots and a new machete. Incongruous? Yes.
I was stunned to read that after trekking back through the jungle and returning to the river, the team's ability to get home wholly depended on the Indians building canoes for transportation, since the original motor boats had been sent back after the team reached the jungle. The Indians spent 15 days building two dugout canoes, one 40 feet and another 50 feet, including seats and paddles. They cut down tall trees, hollowed out the trunks with machetes and burned the interiors to widen them. Then, they had to make a path through the jungle to allow them to carry the canoes to the water and launch them without destruction. Such self-sufficiency in the jungle is truly impressive!
"Unconquered" is a well-written, thoughtful saga of nearly 500 pages with detailed descriptions of the challenges, hardships and dangers of the expedition, historical background, social interaction among the team members and a study of the incomparable Possuelo. I felt that this well researched and thoroughly documented compelling story justified its length and was not tempted to skip or gloss over any part.
Wallace produced a stellar work bringing attention to the plight of isolated populations living in ecologically vulnerable environments through a tale of peril and adventure without the all too common overwhelming tone of gloom and doom. "Unconquered" is important nonfiction with the enjoyment of a good work of fiction.
For me, the Amazon and its tribes are interesting, but not fascinating in themselves topics. When ordering this book, I was hoping for a fast paced book that would give me some education, but more importantly propel me through an engaging adventure. This book does both, but to the extremes. It is definitely an adventure, telling the story of a journalist's guided expedition through the Amazon. However, it is offers near textbook-level discourse on the Amazon, its tribes, history, political issues and so on. And therein lies my issue. If you're someone who savors Amazon history, you'd likely drool over each page. However, if you're more interested in an Indiana Jones-level treatment of the history, while offering a quick adventure, look elsewhere.
As in most areas, enjoyment is often predicated on having the right expectations from the forthcoming experience. I hope my review helps you set the right expectations when deciding whether to buy and how to approach this book.
*The official Brazilian approach, championed by Possuello, was to prevent contact with any of the 20-30 known isolated tribes - some 4,000 Indians - that thrive in the deepest parts of the Amazon. This approach also placed millions of acres out of reach from the logging, fishing, and gold-prospecting industries - and shutting out missionaries and anthropologists. Possuello had a lot of enemies.
*Possuello's primary rationale for the no contact policy was the Indians' extreme vulnerability to contagious disease. Like the North American and South American Indians during the times of Columbus and other explorers, the indigenous populations simply had no resistance to the germs whites carried. Other reasons included the inevitable decline if not eradication of every tribe after contact, regardless of whether the contact was friendly or hostile. Possuello had seen this happen over and over again in the "assimilated" tribes. "The Indians weren't assimilated: they were segregated and relegated to the lowest rungs of society" - a phenomenon readily apparent in the villages of the Indians hired for the expedition, as well as demonstrated by history all over the world.
*Possuello himself was controversial, not only in Brazilian politics, but with his men. At times he was a charismatic story-teller; a born entertainer - capable of endearing himself to anyone and always diplomatic with the indigenous people. In every village and from every Indian vessel on the river, "Indians called and waved to Possuello with undisguised adulation. They adored him, plain and simple....with Indians, he was always possessed of charm, patience, and good humor." With his men he could be the same, entertaining them every night with stories, however, he could be an unreasonable taskmaster who might explode at any time. He could be punitive for no reason and might, for example, hold back rations to "keep his men from getting soft," even when the trip was almost over and the extra eggs would just spoil.
*Possuello took 20 Indians from 3 separate tribes, both for their jungle skills and for a variety of indigenous languages, should inadvertent contact with the Arrow people happen despite their best intentions. The Matis tribe had the strongest gropup with 12. They all had identical nose piercings, parallel streaks tattooed on their cheeks, white clamshell earrings, and fine bamboo shoots that sprouted from the sides of their nostrils, resembling jaguar whiskers. When morale was at its worst, these tribe members always managed to be upbeat, constantly bantering with each other and ribbing Wallace and the others. Their positive attitudes is probably why Possuello took so many of them. All 34 members were issued identical military camo outfits. Possuello also brought a formidable arsenal of 20 guage shotguns and 22 rifles, although if attacked by the Arrow people, they were to only fire in the air. Right before they left the last boat, one of the Matis gave each explorer a military buzz haircut.
*When the Matis killed paca for the group, they ate the heads themselves and saved the paca incisors to make sights for their blowguns. Blowguns, hollowed out shafts of cane up to 8 feet long, were better than guns for monkey-hunting because they were quiet. By the time the monkeys realized what was happening, several could have already dropped to the ground.
*Wallace estimated that during the overland trek they burned 6,000 calories per day but ate an average of only 800 calories, the major meat of their diet coming from monkeys. There were no medical people on the trip and little to no chance of evacuation in case of injury. At the end of the trek the whites looked significantly worse than the Indians. Many of the men, especially the whites, had malaria. Almost all, especially the whites, had various forms of dysentery, and Wallace lost 33 pounds. Why the lack of calories occurred in a rainforest rife with life, I'm not sure. They were on a tight schedule and didn't hunt during their daily marches during which they carried 80 pound backpacks, even if game was sighted or heard. The hunters were sent out only when they broke to build a camp, which was quite an elaborate endeavor - the impressive community stucture only to be abandoned the next morning. They didn't take the time to dig for grubs or forage for food and apparently fruits and vegetables weren't available.
*Soldado was culturally white but his dad was a Marubo Indian who was kidnapped from the riverbank by whites when he was nine. This happened around WWII when another Amazon Rubber Boom was in full swing - an industry which devastated every tribe it touched. The Rubber Booms had been to the tribes of the Amazon what the US Cavalry had been to the Indians of the western United States. Soldado lived with a wife and 12 children in a riverhouse on stilts. He'd been on 6 expeditions with Possuello over the years and eating monkeys made him feel like a cannibal. "A lot of people don't like that I work for FUNAI but one has to make a living," he told Wallace. Possuello confirmed, "Any of them could find themselves marked men when this is over and they go home." Illegal activity created jobs. Wallace built personal relationships with most of the 33 other men on this trip and he relates many of their stories.
*Pidgin Portuguese emerged as the official language and the group all began to parody themselves and each other, deliberately using mangled phrases with a certain knowing irony. One of the Matis, Ivan Arapa, began calling Scott Wallace "Scotchie." The whole group liked the name and it stuck. Ivan told Wallace about his tribe's first contact with the white man and the lethal diseases that followed. As many as 2/3 of the tribe perished. Later on, Ivan showed Wallace a jaguar track on a beach. "Scotchie! Come! Look!......Maybe jaguar comes to visit Scotchie tonight?"
*After village men determined visitors were not hostile the women would follow with official greetings. They would arrive singing a high-pitched song, bringing caisuma for their visitors to drink, made from chewed cassava root and human saliva. It was considered bad form to refuse such hospitality. Various villages had slightly different recipes but it was all horrible and Wallace never managed to swallow it without a strong sense of revulsion. Diplomacy demanded they make at least a cursory stop at each hamlet along the river before their trek. At one of them Possuello recruited 4 more Kanamari Indians. One of them, Alfredo, became Wallace's servant at $3/day, the non-negotiable price set by Posseullo. The Kanamaris called the Arrow people "Capybaras" and had other animal names for other tribes. The Indians at all Kanamari villages agreed the Arrow people were dangerous, untamed, and they all avoided Capybaras land upriver.
*The sky was magnificent at night on the river but once they got into the jungle they may not see the sky for weeks, night or day - creating a sense of claustrophobia. After Wallace briefly got lost in the jungle a couple of times he took up praying every morning - a thing he hadn't done since childhood and his prayers got more detailed as the trip wore on.
*Mauro, an affable Brazilian hired as a cook, hated preparing and cooking the monkeys. At night he would frequently wake up screaming with a recurring dream that the monkeys were threatening his private parts with big knives. "Hey, Mauro, what happened last night - had a go with a couple of monkeys?" He greeted the jokes with a toothless smile. "Monkey meat was tough and rubbery. It had a strong, gamey flavor and the smell was nauseating but we had eaten almost nothing else all day and it was sustenance." They never knew where their next meal was coming from and once robbed a honey bee nest containing a sweetness they hadn't had in weeks.
*For a while, following Possuello's GPS - one of the few things they had over Lewis & Clark - they averaged 16 hills a day; 16 inclines and 16 descents, all slick with mud after the first few men. "Even Possuello was surprised by the ferocity of the terrain." At the end of one of these horrible days, Possuello made them camp in an area infested with a particularly nasty breed of carpenter ant, despite warnings from the Matis. "Dinner was a grim affair. Monkey yet again."
*They endured mosquitoes, ants that eat anything and everything, nasty wasps with stingers like darts, venomous snakes, caimans, anacondas, hairy spiders that cause infections if their hair touches your skin, oversized scorpions with stingers like hypodermic needles, caterpillars with poisonous hair, frogs with poisonous skin, funnel-shaped poisonous mushrooms, and inch long bullet ants whose pinchers were used by many tribes in sacred rites of passage to sting and bite the pubescent boys. Their pincer jaws were also ingeniously used as field sutures - lacerations being closed by a series of bites. Once the ant locks its pincers on the wound, its head is twisted from his thorax, leaving the jaw suture in place.
*"fungal mycelia provide a pipeline of crucial minerals to the trees...they're one of the reasons why the soils of these forests are so poor, completely unfit for large-scale agriculture, yet able to sustain the giant trees." One day at lunch the Matis concocted a potion from the forest that made color vision more vivid and provided boundless energy. It was administered as eyedrops from a makeshift dropper made from palm leaves and burned like fire but everybody lined up for their dose. It made for an energetic 3D trek the rest of the day. "One quarter of all prescription drugs have their origin in rain forests."
* Among the things they ate were piranha, eel, pirarucu, catfish, turkey and other game birds, paca, agouti, caiman, tortoise, monkey, boar, tapir, and turtle eggs - no fruit, no vegetables. Niceties went out the window: At lunch, Wallace ate the monkey meat with his bare hands: "My fingers were caked with filth but normal standards of hygiene had long since gone out the window. Worm in the soup? No problem, flick it out and keep eating. Fly crawling on a piece of meat? No big deal."
*The Arrow people became acutely aware of the expedition and Posseullo was missing 2 of the Kanamari Indians. Possuello told Paulo Welker, "It looks like the Kalamari have been killed. Maybe they've been captured. Go back and warn the others. Tell them to prepare for an attack......move to the far side of the creek, clear the brush, form a defensive perimeter." Later, "We have to get out of here," Possuello said. "Maybe the Indians will let them go but we can't wait here for them."
This book is wonderfully written by Wallace and flows like a novel, complete with an epilogue documenting Possuello's unfortunate termination from FUNAI and the death of photographer Nicolas Reynard in a plane crash. FUNAI's future stance on the Indians is not assured due to Brazil's change in leadership but Peru has come around a bit. Some of the photos from the expedition are available on an internet link provided by one of the other reviews. This is one great book.
I'm sorry to say that I would never have had the courage to attempt the expedition that National Geographic author Scott Wallace undertook when he joined Sydney Possuelo's attempt to find and protect, but not meet, "the last uncontacted tribes" of the Amazon. The hardships and dangers are almost unimaginable to me. And to the degree that I can imagine them, that is where I want them to stay - in my mind only.
The Amazon basin is fascinating to me, perhaps because it is so different from my part of the world. Mr. Wallace did a great job of showing me the isolation of the country, the vulnerability of its inhabitants, both native and non-native, animal and human. Mr. Possuelo, an outspoken supporter of the indigenous tribes and critic of those who harm them, either intentionally or not, comes across as a bit of a Captain Queeg but even so, was not able to control the actions of some of his employees. Speaking of Possuelo's plans, the author writes "It was a grandiose vision, seeming to require an extraordinary combination of altruistic impulse and an ego of Amazonian proportions."
The author speaks of a caiman's "malicious smile," and while that seems anthropomorphic, I wouldn't blame the caiman if it were malicious. The cruelty to animals, often unnecessary even through the men needed to eat, was horrifying. "He worked his machete like a sushi chef, excising the upper and lower jaws. The mouthless fish continued to flip-flop around the bottom of the boat, as though powered by some demonic force that refused to die." And the monkeys - awful!
The writing was too drawn out for me, and some of what was intended as lyrical seemed just overwritten. "...exposed tree roots protruding hideously from its sandy declivity like the ganglia of some huge terrestrial jellyfish" and "his eyes were wet like the morning dew that dropped from the leaves." The author, I thought, included a little too much about himself. The information about his relationships back home didn't add to the story for me. There was too much repetition. There were some funny bits, including the men's habit of calling the author "Scotchie" and later "Scotchie White Dick."
I appreciate that the author recognized how different his life would be when he returned home compared to most of the men who were on the journey with him and the Indians left in the jungle. And I understand that there is no easy solution to protecting the lifestyles as well as the lives of the indigenous people in the Amazon basin. I learned from the book and I appreciated the story, just not always the way it was told.
The quotes were taken from an uncorrected proof and may have changed in the published edition.
The memoir starts off a little slow. The details in the lead up and into the jungle began to drag a little. Wallace does an amazing job in conveying what he was seeing on paper, but I began to wonder when his memoir would change pace and delve more in to the jungle and the mysteries within. This, of course, was when they left their boats behind, visited their last "contacted" tribe, and set off into the virgin jungle. The excitement of reading his story slowly began to ratchet up. Reading what it would take to hack your way through such unforgiving jungle is an eye opener in and of itself. How camps were set up so swiftly by the Indians and frontiersmen of the group. It is the details that make this memoir stand out, the details of their camps, the jungle, the wildlife, the Indians and, of course, the men that made up the expedition. I found Wallace's portrayal of the other members of his group and himself unflinchingly honest and real, about both the good and the bad.
Some of the more realistic moments, and yet still sad, were his descriptions of how and what they ate. At one point Wallace describes what another person of his group was saying about the monkeys that they would have to eat. How they acted with such human qualities that it saddened me. But therein is the rub because in the jungle you either eat or you die, and monkey is nothing more than a protein source that needed to be used (an even more heart rending story was about the mother and her baby; that one had me shaking my head in sadness and you can feel the same helplessness, sadness in Wallace's writing). Finally we come to the Arrow People land and I was literally on the edge of my seat as he described everything with such clarity and in such away that, again, I felt I was literally there with him in the jungle. The curiosity, the joy of discovery, the fear of possible aggression, the trepidation of the unknown. It is all there in the climax when the expedition reached its goal and then had to begin making there way back down the waterways, all the while fearing what or who was watching them.
All in all I was astounded by Wallace's account of his trek into the wilds of the Amazon. This is due in direct part to the clarity that Wallace conveys what and how everything happened. One of the more amazing examples of the expedition were the canoes that were built, 50 and 60 feet long, to ferry the crew back down the Amazon and to their rendezvous, and this is only one of many such nuggets of details that Wallace described. If you want to read more about the Amazon, read Unconquered. If you want to read a very good memoir, read Unconquered. A definite recommend.
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