When Brazil established the Xingu Indigenous Park in 1961, the reserve was far from modern civilization, nestled deep in the southern reaches of the vast Amazon forest. When I first went to live with the Kuikuro, one of the reserve’s principal indigenous groups, in 1992, the park’s boundaries were still largely hidden in thick forest, little more than lines on a map. Today the park is surrounded by a patchwork of farmland, its borders often marked by a wall of trees. For many outsiders, this towering green threshold is a portal, like the massive gates of Jurassic Park, between the present—the dynamic modern world of soy fields, irrigation systems and 18-wheelers—and the past, a timeless world of primordial nature and society.
Long before taking center stage in the world’s environmental crisis as the giant green jewel of global ecology, the Amazon held a special place in the Western imagination. Mere mention of its name conjures images of dripping, vegetation-choked jungles; cryptic, colorful and often dangerous wildlife; endlessly convoluted river networks; and Stone Age tribes. To Westerners, Amazonian peoples are quintessential simple societies, small groups that merely make do with what nature provides. They have complex knowledge about the natural world but lack the hallmarks of civilization: centralized government, urban settlements and economic production beyond subsistence. In 1690 John Locke famously proclaimed, “In the beginning all the World was America.” More than three centuries later the Amazon still grips the popular imagination as nature at its purest, home to native peoples who, in the words of Rolling Stone editor Sean Woods in October 2007, preserve “a way of life unchanged since the dawn of time.”