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Forgotten Tribes of the Amazon: The Héta of Brazil

Many of us recognize some of the more famous tribes of the Amazon, such as the Yanomamö and Kayapó, have seen their images and heard their voices.

This is the first in a series of posts by Acaté bringing to light a few of the dozens of unheralded tribes that have disappeared in the past half century or struggle, forgotten, in impending extinction today.

You may not have heard of them, but they did exist. This is their story.

The Héta of Brazil

Héta family playing in Amazon

A Héta family

In 1954, a young Brazilian named Antoniô Lustosa de Freitas was clearing a patch of forest near the Ivaí River. As he worked to expand his fields, a hitherto-unknown band of people began to watch him, unseen, at the forest edge. In time, the tribe summoned the courage to emerge from the forest, leaving behind their bows and arrows in a gesture of peaceful intent. This tribe became known to the world as the Héta, which translates in their language as “all of us”.

Héta stone axe

Stone axe held by Héta man

Living in a heavily forested area some 400 miles from the great metropolis of Sao Paolo, the Héta were one of few tribes in this century that were found to still fashion and use a stone axe. By the time of ‘first-contact’, most groups had already acquired steel machete blades, usually old and worn smooth, through trade with neighboring tribes. The discovery of this so-called Stone Age people even made the pages of Time Magazine.

Their existence was, in truth, far from primitive. The fabrication of a stone axe was by no means a simple creation. The first step involved the selection of the proper stone. Prospective stones were meticulously inspected for even the subtlest cracks or hairline fractures that could later render it useless. Only after the stone was shaped by hammerstone of a denser material, did the most tiring work begin – polishing the axe blade smooth in a surrey of clay, sand and water in a palm spathe bowl. The cutting edge of the stone was polished; the butt end was left rough so it held more firmly to the handle. Lastly, sandstone was used to carve groves to secure the handle.

It took a master over a week to fashion a single axe. The resulting product was a work of art and a highly functional tool, permitting existence in one of the most difficult and unforgiving environments in the world. All who have ventured into the Amazon rainforest know that daily survival requires the highest level of ingenuity and skill. Yet the Héta were able to live in balance with the environment, a claim our more ‘sophisticated’ societies cannot make.

The original population numbers of the Héta are unknown. Before contact, they were believed to be a larger, sedentary tribe that practiced agriculture until devastation and disease forced them into a scattered, nomadic existence. By 1960, approximately 150 Héta had emerged from the forest. By 1970, only 15 remained.

Today, neither the Héta, nor the rich forests they once inhabited, exist. Their lands, once supporting a diversity of plant and animal life, have since been converted to cattle pasture and coffee plantations.

Héta family in the Amazon

A snapshot taken less than 60 years ago. Within a couple decades, the world of the Héta had collapsed. Grainy images such as these are all that remains of a once proud people. Not even their forests exist today, losses exculpated in the name of ‘progress’.

beeswax opposum with family toys Héta

Möu beeswax figurines representing an opossum and her young. This sensitive depiction was rendered in the hard, pliable black wax of a local bee species.

héta axe heta axe

Preparing a stone ax. Took a week for a master tool maker to produce one axe.

Héta and handicrafts

Héta couple wearing the sipál neck adornment unique to their tribe

Loincloth weave by Héta craftsmen

Loincloth weave by Héta craftsmen

These short paragraphs do not tell the true story of the Héta. Their story could only be told through their own voice, forever silenced. Their history, their legends, their cosmology and world views, their knowledge and ways of adapting to the natural world, vanished with them. The fate of the Héta was hardly unique; in the 20th century, approximately 100 tribes in Brazil went extinct.

Each tribe is part of the tapestry of humanity. Acaté works with some of the remaining tribes in the forest – living on the knife-edge and struggling against overwhelming odds – to return control of their cultural and environmental destiny back into their hands where it once belonged. Please consider donating today and help the guardians of the rainforest protect the living heart of our planet, for all of us.

Héta mother and child, watching her future disappear.

Héta mother and child, with a bleak future before them

 

Forgotten Tribes of the Amazon: Biopiracy & the Story of the Urueu-Wau-Wau

Many of us recognize some of the more famous tribes of the Amazon, such as the Yanomamö and Kayapó, have seen their images and heard their voices.

This is the second in a series of posts by Acaté bringing to light a few of the dozens of unheralded tribes that have disappeared in the past half century or struggle precariously today on the margin of extinction.


The year was 1986. National Geographic photographer Jesco von Puttkamer was on assignment deep in the frontier of Western Brazil to take pictures of a recently contacted tribe, known as the Urueu-Wau-Wau, that had emerged from the forest. Among the images he captured were striking photographs of tribesmen engaged in the hunt with bows and arrows. Tapirs, large mammals of the forest, were bleeding to death, lying in pools of blood.

Urueu-Wau-Wau bathing time

Urueu-Wau-Wau children at play in a forest stream. Photo: L. McIntyre

Few outsiders had as much experience with Amazonian tribes as von Puttkamer. He recognized immediately that the Urueu-Wau-Wau arrow poison was something novel. Amazonian curares kill through paralysis of muscle, hence their adoption into medicine that revolutionized the practice of surgery. But these animals were bleeding out, not dying through suffocation. Most Amazonian arrow poisons are extracted from jungle vines or lianas. Yet, the poison coating the tips of Urueu-Wau-Wau arrows came from the blood-red resin of a tall tree.

Puttkamer’s photos of Urueu-Wau-Wau and their arrow poison were featured in a 1988 National Geographic Magazine piece entitled “Last Days of Eden: Rondônia’s Urueu-Wau-Wau Indians”. The arrow poison caught the attention of Merck Pharmaceuticals, who arranged for additional material to be collected and sent to their New Jersey laboratories. Blood thinners or anticoagulants are big business. Today, the global market share for anticoagulants exceeds 9 billion dollars, the United States accounting for over 60% of that market.

Experts at the New York Botanical Garden were able to identify the tree as Cariniana domestica, a member of the Brazil nut tree family. Although C. domestica was first described by botanists in the early 19th century, it was not considered remarkable, just another Amazonian tree. In fact, the entire Brazil nut plant family was generally regarded to be chemically inert and not thought to harbor potentially valuable pharmaceuticals.

Urueu-Wau-Wau tiki uba arrow preparation

Arrow tips being coated with the toxic red sap squeezed from the stringy bark of the tike uba tree Photo: von Puttkamer/National Geographic

At Merck laboratories, the active principle was isolated from collected material and determined to be a potent anticoagulant inhibiting the thrombin, the basic protein of blood clots. When scientists from Merck published their findings, the tribe was not credited by name, the arrow poison was cited  ‘used by the native individuals of Rondônia, Brazil’. In the acknowledgements, multiple contributors were credited but not a single indigenous person.

Urueu-Wau-Wau successful birth.

A midwife helps young Urueu-Wau-Wau mother anoint her newborn son with red urucum to ensure health and vigor. Photo: von Puttkamer/National Geographic


For Acaté’s conservation partners, the Matsés people of the Peruvian Amazon, it is a story all too familiar.

Giant Monkey Tree Frog Phyllomedusa bicolor Peruvian Amazon Rainforest photo

Our health has always depended on the natural world. Since the dawn of history, mankind has relied on plants, animals, and microbes to alleviate suffering and disease. The lesson of the tike uba poison and the monkey tree frog is clear: it’s not about what we know, it’s about what we don’t know. What are we losing with each hectare of rainforest that is burned? © Acaté

This frog holds a secret. Locked within its skin secretions are several novel peptides with narcotic, antibiotic, and vasoactive properties that hold much promise in medicine. Although the giant monkey tree frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor) has been known to naturalists for centuries, this secret was only recently revealed to the outside world when the Matsés tribe was first encountered deep in the Peruvian Amazon.

The Matsés know the frog as acaté and have long used its potent skin secretions in hunting rituals. For the Matsés, ceremonial use of acaté confers not only strength and courage to an individual but is a medium for transmission of knowledge among participants. For these reasons, we adopted Acaté as the name for our organization in recognition of the wisdom of our conservation partners, the Matsés people.

After reports of its use emerged from the forest, investigations of the frog’s secretions in the laboratory revealed a complex cocktail of peptides with potent vasoactive, narcotic, and antimicrobial properties. Several pharmaceutical companies and universities filed patents on the peptides without recognition of indigenous peoples for which it has long held a unique and important role in their culture. The gene for one of the frog’s antibiotic peptides has even been transgenetically placed into the potato plant to enhance resistance to pathogens.

The eminent Yale anthropologist Weston La Barre, who worked with indigenous peoples in Colombia, wrote:

As scientists, we cannot afford the luxury of an ethnocentric snobbery which assumes that primitive cultures have nothing whatsoever to contribute to civilization. Our civilization is, in fact, a compendium of such borrowings. Indeed, a good case could probably be made that, in the long run, it is the ‘higher’ culture which benefits, the more thoroughly being enriched, while the ‘lower’ culture not uncommonly disappears entirely as a result of the contact.


In a few short years, the world of the Urueu-Wau-Wau would be devastated by contact with the outside world.

In a few short years, the life of the Urueu-Wau-Wau would be shattered by contact with the outside world.
Photo: L. McIntyre

In the decade that followed contact, most of Urueu-Wau-Wau population was killed off as a result of conflicts and a series of respiratory diseases that struck their villages. Today, only 115 remain. The Urueu-Wau-Wau, who refer to themselves as the Jupaú, have done much to regain their identity and footing. However, as is the case for many tribes, much of traditional knowledge of the elders was lost in the waves of disease and through the impact of missionary activities. The vast territory of Rondônia was overrun in a massive gold rush. Today, the region maintains the highest rates of deforestation in Brazil as well as continues to be plagued by violent conflicts between indigenous peoples and land grabbers, diamond prospectors, and cattle ranchers.

Urueu-Wau-Wau chieftan and younger warrior debating what do do about intruders on their territory.

Urueu-Wau-Wau chieftan and younger warrior debating what do do about intruders on their territory. Photo: von Puttkamer/National Geographic

Amazon rainforest.

The once pristine forests of Rondônia today have the highest rates of deforestation in Brazil. Photo: von Puttkamer/National Geographic

Each tribe is part of the tapestry of humanity. Acaté works with some of the remaining tribes in the forest – living on the knife-edge and struggling for their cultural survival amidst a profoundly shifting world – to return control of their cultural and environmental destiny back into their hands where it once belonged.

Please consider donating today and help the guardians of the rainforest protect the living heart of our planet, for all of us.

In Urueu-Wau-Wau cosmology, the sun is a benevolent being whereas the moon is a wasteland populated by nightmares that fall down upon the earth. Photo: McIntyre

In Urueu-Wau-Wau cosmology, the sun is a benevolent being whereas the moon is a wasteland populated by nightmares that fall down upon the earth. L. McIntyre

Urueu-Wau-Wau child with scarlet macaw

The macaw is the sacred totem animal of the Urueu-Wau-Wau, whom believe they are descendants of the resplendent bird. The characteristic facial tattoos of the tribesmen represent the circular three facial lines of the blue-and-yellow macaw. Photo: L. McIntyre

Urueu-Wau-Wau child mylar ballon

The process of acculturation transforms once proud cultures into fragmented remnants, their self-sufficiency and social cohesion stripped away, leaving younger generations to struggle and reclaim their identity in a new world marked by poverty and external dependence. Photo: von Puttkamer/National Geographic