Who killed this Indigenous family in the Peruvian Amazon? And why?

The killings of members of a once “uncontacted” tribe are tragic—and show how perilous the journey out of isolation can be.

By Chris Fagan
photographs by Charlie Hamilton James
Published 23 Nov 2020, 14:45 GMT
Shuri and wife Janet stand in front of their palm-thatched shelter, or maloca, in May 2017. ...

Shuri and wife Janet stand in front of their palm-thatched shelter, or maloca, in May 2017. On November 11, the bodies of Shuri, his other wife, Elena, and his mother-in-law, Maria, were found here shot with arrows, along with their pet dogs. Janet was not found but is assumed dead.

Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James, National Geographic

The brutal killing of an Indigenous family from the Mastanahua tribe in the Peruvian Amazon has local tribes on edge and authorities searching for answers.

The bodies of Shuri, his wife Elena, and mother-in-law, Maria, were found two weeks ago riddled with arrows near the charred remains of their maloca, or palm-thatched shelter, near the Curanja River in Peru’s Alto Purús region. Shuri’s second wife, Janet, has not been found and is presumed dead.

Shuri was his Mastanahua name, but he was also called Epa. The women’s names were given to them by Christian missionaries. Tribes living deep in the forest cut off from the outside world once were referred to as “uncontacted”—now they’re known as isolated tribes.

Shuri stands in front of a sign marking the control post for the Mashco Piro Indigenous Reserve for isolated tribes, which is administered by Peru’s Ministry of Culture and staffed by protection agents from local Huni Kuin tribes. Shuri and his family lived an hour’s walk from the control post and were frequent visitors, asking the guards for food or medical help. (The people shown in the sign are not members of the Mashco Piro tribe.)

Shuri’s family lived near the border of the Mashco Piro Indigenous Reserve for isolated tribes. The reserve overlaps Alto Purús National Park, Peru’s largest park, and protects some of the most remote and intact ecosystems in the entire Amazon Basin.

The region is home to one of the highest concentrations of isolated peoples anywhere on Earth. The Mashco Piro, Peru’s largest isolated tribe, estimated to number about 700, make up the large majority.

An investigative team including Peru’s Ministry of Culture, the police, indigenous leaders and other authorities are now on the Curanja River investigating the killings. The investigators have not yet released any information. But unofficial testimonies from Huni Kuin villagers who live downstream and discovered the bodies describe the bare footprints of 50 attackers and the kinds of arrows used by the Mashco Piro.

The Mastanahua and Mashco Piro have been locked in a conflict that likely spans many generations. Shuri himself had survived a previous Mashco Piro arrow attack and had a large scar across his ribs to show for it.

If the killers were Mashco Piro, this might be their latest attack against mortal enemies—or an attempt to defend what’s left of their territory and forest food sources.

Those aren’t the only possible explanations. Perhaps Shuri and his family were attacked by narco traffickers who are operating upstream, or by an isolated tribe they were friendly with or even related to. Perhaps they were targeted because Shuri was no longer able to provide machetes or other manufactured goods that they’d come to depend on.

For the past two decades, I’ve worked on the Curanja River with the Huni Kuin. Our team has helped them develop vigilance skills such as the use of GPS technology to protect their lands from loggers and other invaders, and we’ve helped them learn to manage their abundant resources—turtles, fish, medicinal tree resins—in sustainable and profitable ways.

Shuri, Janet, Elena, and Maria used to visit other members of their still isolated Mastanahua family in this remote village near the Peru-Brazil border, a few day’s walk from their maloca on the Curanja River.

I’ve seen first-hand the tenuous relationship among Indigenous groups vying for resources. They include the Huni Kuin, who have been living in settled villages for decades; the isolated Mascho Piro; and others such as Shuri and his family, who are in the early stages of contact with the modern world.

I’ve also had the privilege of visiting Shuri and his family from time to time and witnessing their remarkable—yet extremely difficult—transition from isolated hunters and gatherers to a settled life on the fringes of modern society.

I first met Shuri and his family not long after 2003, when they were lured out of the forest by evangelical missionaries from the United States. He was wearing nothing but a bark belt around his waist, beads on his upper arms and below his knees, and a round metal emblem crafted from a spoon hanging from his nose. He carried only a bow and two six-foot arrows, which seemed to tower above his barely five-foot frame.

The younger of Shuri’s two wives, Janet, followed behind. A massive tortoise and an even heavier basket of cassava root were slung on her back and supported by a vine wrapped around her forehead. I learned later that Shuri had to have his arms unencumbered to fire an arrow at any moment—thus Janet did the hard work of carrying their essentials.

‘They perfectly represented the complexities of contact’

Shuri lived between two distinct worlds. He traded tortoises, peccaries, and other jungle meat with the neighboring Huni Kuin in exchange for coveted items such as clothing and machetes. He also walked for days into the interior to visit with the remaining members of his Mastanahua tribe still living in isolation, numbering perhaps a few dozen. He was their connection to modern society.

In 2017, National Geographic photographer Charlie Hamilton James joined me on the Curanja to photograph Shuri for the magazine’s October 2018 cover story on threats to isolated tribes in the Amazon and the process of contact. Charlie has extensive experience working in Peru and a unique perspective on the challenges for Indigenous people of leaving their isolation deep in the forest. (Watch Charlie Hamilton James discuss the challenges and responsibilities of photographing isolated tribes)

Shuri’s mother-in-law, Maria, sits with her two pet dogs at the shelter she built behind the Mashco Piro Reserve control post.

“My experience meeting Shuri and Janet was that they perfectly represented the complexities of contact,” Hamilton James says. “They had fled a life of fear in the forest, to enter a world that had little to offer them and whose attempts at patronage were muddled and empty.” He says the family wanted to enjoy the benefits of modern life but weren’t equipped for it or given enough support.

“Meeting them was a sombre affair,” he says. “They complained of hunger and of worms. They wanted medicines to cure their maladies, and their dogs had all died, leaving them lonely and miserable.”

Theirs is a common story for Indigenous people coming out of isolation, he says: “They are abandoned to a world that they don’t have the skill sets to operate effectively in. The result is that they join society at its lowest rung and often face its harshest abuses.”

Shuri told me once that fear of the Mashco Piro was the main reason the family decided to leave the forest and join the missionaries.

Gallery: extraordinary images of life within Shuri's tribe

Isolation has been the Mashco Piro’s survival strategy. It likely was developed more than a century ago to escape violence and disease brought by rubber tappers who almost wiped the tribe out.

Today, their territory again is under siege. Satellite imagery shows that new coca farms established by migrant farmers from Peru’s central jungle region, and clandestine airstrips, are emerging practically overnight throughout the region. This is likely pushing the Mashco Piro into less remote, more populated areas such as along the Curanja River. That would set the stage for violent encounters as they search for food: animals such as tapirs and peccaries, and turtle eggs.

Avatar of another time

The tragic loss of Shuri, Elena, Maria, and most likely Janet is a harsh reminder of the vulnerability of Indigenous people in the region.

Brazil and Peru’s policies to open up more of the Amazon to roads and extractive industries is a direct threat to some of the world’s last isolated tribes. If the trend continues, it will make life more dangerous for tribes living in remote areas where government services such as the police, military, or protected-area guards are scarce or non-existent.

For me, Shuri was a living, breathing avatar of another time, another era.

To follow him through the jungle will forever remain a highlight of my life. I would watch how he carefully placed his massively wide feet on the forest floor while simultaneously searching the canopy and sniffing the air for animals. I would observe how he reacted differently to various bird calls and snapping branches in the understory, even as he pointed out thorns I was about to stumble into. Once, he casually motioned to a bullet ant—known for its painful sting—on a tree a few inches from my head.

Shuri epitomised the intimate connection with nature that Indigenous peoples have developed over numerous generations, a connection that has disappeared among most of us.

Being with Shuri gave me hope.

Chris Fagan is the founder and executive director of the Upper Amazon Conservancy. He has been working to protect the people and forests of the Peruvian Amazon since 2002. Follow him on Instagram @upperamazon and on Facebook @UpperAmazon.
Charlie Hamilton James is a photographer, filmmaker, and conservationist who has documented life in the Amazon for over 20 years.
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