Rondônia is a state in the northwest of Brazil that shares a border with Bolivia. Covered mostly by rain forest (or, more commonly, deforested area that was once rain forest), Rondônia is the 13th largest Brazilian state (of 26) by area, but only the 23rd by population. It covers an area of just over 90,000 square miles, roughly the size of Michigan, Romania, or the United Kingdom, but it has only 1.5 million inhabitants.
Five of those people—the only five anywhere—make up the Akuntsu tribe.
Indigenous to Brazil, the Akuntsu tribe was all but unknown to outsiders until 1995. By the time government field workers made contact with tribe members that year, their population had dwindled to seven people: Konibu, their chief, a shaman currently believed to be roughly 70 years old; another male, Pupak (pictured above with Konibu), approximate age 40; Ururu, the female elder; and four other women in their 20s or 30s. The Akuntsu population was likely much larger in the 1970s and 1980s, but as development in the rain forests grew, so did violent land-grabbing — leading, sadly, to the deaths of an unknown number of undocumented aborigines.
Today, the Akuntsu population numbers a mere five members. In 2000, during a storm, a tree fell onto one of the Akuntsu's two houses, killing one of the younger women. In October 2009, Ururu, then likely in her 80s, passed away as well.
We'll likely never know the tales the survivors tell, because the Akuntsu have their own language — one that no one outside their tribe fully understands. The little we do know: the tribe are hunter/gatherers and, to a lesser degree, farmers growing corn. They believe in the supernatural, with Konibu known to use tobacco to communicate with the spirit world. The stories of violence are real: the two surviving men have scars from bullets. And, given the likely ages of the existing members, the extinction of the tribe is a near-certainty.
Survival International has a wonderful video of the final six Akuntsu before Ururu passed away:
To subscribe to Dan’s daily email Now I Know, click here. You can also follow him on Twitter.