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Who are the “Naked Auca”? – the unpublished photos of the moment when an isolated tribe in the Amazon rain forest made contact with the outside world for the first time



The American explorer Jack Wheeler found lost images of his trip to the Ecuadorian jungle, where he met the “naked Auca”

“It was as if we were aliens from outer space,” is how Jack Wheeler describes the incredible moment when the “naked Auca”, an isolated Amazonian tribe in the jungle. It was the first time they made contact with the outside world, an extraordinary situation that happened 48 years ago but only now are the photographs known.

With Tony Stuart, and the little helicopter that took them on their adventure in 1972

Jack Wheeler, an American now 76, found lost slides in his attic of his home in Portugal. Bored by quarantine he did what millions on the planet ordered. And in that task he discovered one of his greatest treasures as an explorer.Now, he shared them with the Travel section of the British newspaper The Daily Mail.

The photographs, taken in 1972They show the “truly extraordinary” encounter of a young Wheeler – then a student and passionate explorer – with a family from the “Auca Desnuda” tribe after he landed in the dense Amazon jungle in a small helicopter.

Still moved by the recollection of anecdotes, Wheeler recounted how the moment was: “They have never seen paper or metal before. When we got out of the helicopter they looked at me and my pilot, as if we were aliens coming from outer space. ”

The adventurer knew the jungle of Ecuador. He first ventured there in 1960 as a curious young man with a keen interest in anthropology, and years later he returned and lived through this amazing moment. “I was a freshman at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) studying anthropology and read a magazine article about a medical doctor who lived with the Jivaro indigenous people in Ecuador who wanted to learn about the plants that the tribe used to shrink the skin of the human head to see if it served to reduce the ashy tissues, ”says Wheeler.

“That fascinated me, so I got in touch with him and he invited me to spend the summer of 1960 with him and the Jivaros he knew. I ended up staying in the jungle with the clan, a family of a guy named Tangamashi, ”he explained about his first adventure of this type.

Twelve years later, already as a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Southern California, he decided to return to Ecuador and visit his old friend Tangamashi and that was when his encounter with the uncontacted tribe occurred.

The episode, he says, was fortuitous. Wheeler dreamed of traveling down the Napo River, near where he was staying, to the point where it meets the Amazon River in Peru. But his friend Tangamashi warned him not to make the trip, because he could meet the Aucas naked. “Even the world’s most famous headhunters were afraid of the Aucas,” they warned him.

It’s just that the Aucas were feared for killing any outsider fool enough to enter where they lived, and had gained worldwide notoriety in a Life magazine story of their murder of five evangelical missionaries in 1956.

Despite being warned against the expedition to the river, Wheeler went out in a motorized canoe and hired a local boatman.

When he came down the river and approached the Peruvian border, he encountered a group of American men employed by Western Geophysical to find oil and gas deposits. “I was confused and confused that they were there and were not afraid of the Aucas, but they explained to me that the Auca people were very dispersed and isolated, living in small camps of a single large family, there were no villages or a large tribe”, detailed.

While talking to them, the pilot of the helicopter used by the oil workers, Tony Stuart, came ashore said he knew where some of these Auca camps might be.

“With a cold beer in the dining room – my first cold beer in a long time! – Stuart told me that a rain storm knocked him off course. He ran into an Auca cabin by chance. He told me that he would never have seen it differently and that he only saw a cabin with a small field planted near it. He said he surrounded them in his helicopter and that the men threw spears at him, ”he continued narrating his adventure.


“We landed, and the Aucas started to leave the cabin, there were a couple of men, several women, several small children. Only a few came down to see us, ”he recalled. And he added still shocked by the experience:“I have never smiled so much in my life. But it worked and soon we all laughed together. They did not show the slightest fear or animosity. ”

“We were the first white men they had seen and it was as if we were aliens coming in a spaceship, literally from outer space.

Wheeler was more impressed than they were by the experience: “They knew how big the world was, they could climb to the top of a tree and see the horizon, but we were from beyond”

The adventurer describes the tribe as friendly and very kind people. “We had a very happy time!

The images show one with a baby resting in a sling and breastfeeding. Both men and women have long hair although they all have distinctive bangs. According to Wheeler, “Most likely, they used natural obsidian crystal, found in stream beds and can be very sharp, for their haircuts.” In addition, she said, they all have ears stretched out, with large wooden discs housed in the lobes, as “a sign of beauty.”

The tribe was “completely naked,” with beads around their necks and ribbons in their hair. The only garment the Aucas had was a cloth made from crushed vegetable fibers that mothers used to carry their babies.

Three amazing mothers, three babies, a grandmother, an adult man and an older man who seemed to live in the camp participated in the amazing encounter.

“What most impressed me is that we were able to communicate with gestures and facial expressions that, I think, we must have genetically incorporated, otherwise we do not understand how we managed to understand ourselves, this being the first contact they had in their lives with the outside world”, explains the anthropologist.

As a sign of friendship, Wheeler and Stuart gave the Aucas some string, an old ax, and a small machete. And, he said, they were “amazed” since they had never seen the metal before.

Another of the most shocking moments was when they saw a box of matches. “They were fascinated and while lighting a match, they were ‘very excited’ to see the fire at their fingertips.

Another success was a magazine that the men had with them in the helicopter cabin. “Grandma screwed it up like it was something precious. They had never seen the paper before, much less with photos and colors on it. ”

Without asking, in exchange for your gifts, the Aucas gave Stuart a handmade stone ax and Wheeler a blowgun.

Wheeler and Stuart spent about an hour with the Aucas before taking off: “We knew there was danger, but that’s why we stayed short and we didn’t try our luck.” Later they confirmed that they were the first to come into contact with this particular Aucas settlement.

“The Auca territory is very large. The missionaries were far away in the western part. We were in a completely isolated area in the eastern part, near the border with Peru. Later I spoke with the missionaries in the Limoncocha nature reserve and they told me that they had never been to that part of the Auca territory, they did not know anyone who had done it, “explained the explorer.

Asked if he has ever returned to this remote part of the world, Wheeler revealed that he never did. “It was an experience that I will never forget but I have no idea what happened to them. I know that the missionaries from the western part of the Auca territory tried to “civilize” the tribes but, frankly, I hope that those we met on our expedition are among those who retreated far and still remain without contact. ”

Wheeler explains that there are other towns like these, without contact with the outside world, the best known are those of North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Islands of the Indian Ocean. “I hope we leave them alone so that they are as they always have been. They don’t need us”, Sentenced.

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