It was tempting to think we were going back in time, slipping the bonds of the modern world for tribal life in one of the last great bastions of indigenous culture, chronically jeopardized but still vital, intact, unvanquished. The outsiders who first ventured into the southeast Amazon Basin centuries ago—missionaries, El Dorado seekers, slave traders, jaguar-skin hunters, rubber tappers, wilderness explorers known as sertanistas—traveled by river on laborious boat journeys. We had a single-engine Cessna and good weather on a September morning late in the dry season.
The plane clawed through the haze of forest fires around the Brazilian frontier town of Tucumã. After half an hour heading south and west at a hundred knots, we crossed the twisting course of the muddy Rio Branco, and suddenly there were no more fires, no more roads, no more ragged clear-cut pastures stippled with herds of white cattle, nothing but trackless forest wreathed in mist. Below us lay Kayapo Indian country, five officially demarcated tracts of contiguous land that in sum make up an area about the size of Kentucky. The reserve, which is among the largest protected expanses of tropical rain forest in the world, is controlled by 9,000 indigenous people, most of whom can’t read or write and who still follow a largely subsistence way of life in 44 villages linked only by rivers and all-but-invisible trails. Our National Geographic crew was headed to one of the most remote, the village of Kendjam, which means “standing stone” and which took its name from a dark gray mountain that now appeared before us, arcing some 800 feet above the green canopy like a breaching whale. A little past the mountain lay the glittering braids of the Iriri River, the largest tributary of the Xingu, itself a major tributary of the Amazon. The Cessna swerved down on a dirt airstrip slashed through the forest between the rock and the river and taxied past small garden plots and thatch houses arranged in a circle around a sandy plaza.
When we got out, a dozen or so kids wearing only shorts or nothing at all swarmed around, crouching in the shade of the wings. If you caught their eye, they giggled, glanced away, then peeked to see if you were still looking. The ears of the youngest among them were pierced with conical wooden plugs as thick as a Magic Marker. Kayapo pierce their infants’ earlobes as a way of symbolically expanding a baby’s capacity to understand language and the social dimension of existence; their phrase for “stupid” is ama kre ket, or “no ear hole.”