October 19, 2011

Seeking to preserve an untouched culture

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Most of us are hot-wired by email, social media and smartphones. So what do we do when we find the last human beings on earth untouched by civilization? We try to make contact with them.

This is the unsettling premise of The Unconquered by Scott Wallace, who joins an expedition to find the Arrow People, a primitive tribe living deep in the jungles of the Amazon. Your first inclination as a reader is to shout, “No! Don’t do it!” Hasn’t Wallace read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which chronicles how Western civilization wiped out much of the world through violence and disease? But Wallace assures us early on that the expedition’s guide, the famed Sydney Possuelo, has no intention of making contact with the Arrow People. His goal is to “gather vital information about the tribe: the extent of its wanderings, the relative health of its communities, the abundance of game and fish in the deep forest.”

Thus, the paradox: Seek to find an isolated people, but don’t bother them. If you can get past this contradiction, The Unconquered is a good book. It’s an adventure story about howPossuelo and his 34-member team brave the dangers of the Amazon, including deadly spiders and snakes, to seek a hidden tribe. There is also the possible danger awaiting them should they come too close to the Arrow People, who, as their name implies, have been known to greet strangers with a shower of arrows. As they trudge deeper into the jungle, Wallace tells a tale on the scale of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Adding complexity is Wallace’s own backstory: Left behind in New York are an ex-wife, three young sons and two ailing elderly parents. Is Wallace running toward something, or away from something?

The good news is that when they finally do find the Arrow People, the explorers keep their distance. It is disturbing when Wallace describes how the expedition’s Piper Cub causes the scared tribe to scatter, but at least their only contact is to leave the Arrow People knives, axes and cooking pots. We can take solace in knowing Wallace and the explorers didn’t try to friend the Arrow People on Facebook.

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