Man of the Hole

South America’s Amazon Rainforest is, in many ways, the heart of our planet. The eponymous river drains more water than the next seven-largest waterways, approximately 20% of Earth’s total. The rainforest is the largest and most diverse in the world. Of all the plant and animal species extant, one in 10 lives in the Amazon. A healthy and robust Amazon Rainforest is key to the homeostasis of our pale blue dot.

Yet, by many estimates, humans raze roughly 10,000 acres of this forest every day.

The number of plant and animal species under threat from this encroachment boggles the mind. Over 10,000 distinct types of entities might vanish if we do not reverse course. And, as adorable and worthy of conservation as the jaguar and the White-cheeked spider monkey are – and they are adorable and worthy of conservation – plants and animals are not the only things at risk in the Amazon.

Jaguar - photo by Cburnett
White-cheeked spider monkey - photo from Palotoa Amazon Travel

According to the World Wildlife Fund, 2.7 million Indigenous humans inhabit the Amazon Rainforest, comprised of at least 350 ethnic groups. Likely, you have heard stories of Amazon tribes that choose to remain isolated from the outside world. The WWF estimates that 60 groups maintain solitary existences.

Just like all the other flora and fauna, deforestation threatens the lives of these people. Unlike the animals of the forest, strangled by encroachment with no way to fight back, humans looking to acquire land actively target other humans who already occupy those lands. Despite the Brazilian constitution granting rights to Indigenous Peoples to areas they have traditionally occupied, outside people often attack natives.

In the summer of 2022, an isolated tribe vanished from the planet.

Current and proposed Indigenous territories in Brazil - graphic by Limongi

In 1996, the Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI) – Brazil’s governmental protection agency of Indigenous Tribes – discovered a single man living in what is now called the Tanaru Indigenous Territory. This human lived a reclusive life, but he did not do so by choice.

FUNAI believes the majority of the man’s people were slaughtered in the 1970s by ranchers who wanted more acreage. In 1995, illegal miners massacred the last six members of the man’s tribe. From that point, the man forged an incredible, heartbreaking tale of survival.

Because officials never contacted the man, we do not know his name, the name of his people, or what language they spoke. The group attempted to keep tabs on him, however. For 25 years, the man subsisted on his own, by hunting and gathering. He constructed straw huts, though he moved consistently, perhaps to keep his position as secretive as possible. The agency observed more than 50 huts over the two and a half decades.

One of the straw huts built by the man - photo by J. Pessoa/Survival International

In 2007, FUNAI managed to officially protect 31 square miles of land on which the man resided. From that point, they attempted to thwart incursions from outsiders. Despite these efforts, gunmen attacked him in 2009. Miraculously, he endured.

Over the years, the man understood he was watched. FUNAI began to leave him tools and seeds. Sometimes, the man signaled to the agents to avoid pitfalls he had dug to trap animals or, maybe, for personal safety. Occasionally, the team encountered the man unexpectedly, which allowed them closer looks. On rare moments, they snagged photographs.

In 2018, a chance meeting even netted a video. Based on observations, they believed the man to be between 50 and 60 years old.

A close encounter - photo by Vincent Carelli

Imagine the experience of this human being.

As a child, you survived a genocide, but you watched almost everyone you know die. You and a handful of others scrabbled together an existence in one of the harshest environments on the planet without the aid of modern technology. As a young adult, evil stole the rest of the humans you loved. Everything in your being told you to stay away from the terrible people beyond your forest. What sort of crushing depression must this person have endured? How could you persist, the last of your people? No one with whom to converse. No one to share in physical burdens. No one from whom to solicit advice. Night after night of fearing the outsiders to come. No hope for a personal or collective future. Your people die when you die.

And yet, for 25 years, this man continued to live.

We lack most of the personal details we often utilize to humanize someone. Without knowing the man’s name, the agency provided a moniker: the Man of the Hole. In addition to the holes he constructed for trapping or defense, each of his huts featured a large cavity inside. He had dug a six-foot cavity each time he moved. Originally, researchers thought perhaps they served a similar function to his outdoor holes, but those postulations really don’t make sense. A hole in the abode will likely not catch animals, nor will it provide any semblance of cover from invaders. These holes, some speculate, held some sort of spiritual significance to the man.

One of the recesses produced by the Man of the Hole - image by J. Passoa

We will never know the true significance of the holes.

In August 2022, an agent on patrol found the man’s body outside a straw hut. The man had placed himself in a hammock and covered his body in macaw feathers. A dying rite, the man knew his end approached. Experts believe he probably perished in July. No signs of a struggle existed and his hut remained undisturbed. In death, it seems, the man had finally found a period of serenity.

An entire people gone, their stories and experiences, their knowledge and dreams. All for a bit of potential farmland. There has to be a better way. We need to craft a better way.

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