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Which is something Possuelo wants to avoid. He wheels around and with a silent, dramatic wave directs our column to veer off the path into the dense undergrowth on our flanks. A half hour later, after slogging through boot-sucking mud and dodging branches that swarm with fire ants, we arrive by the steep banks of a clear, narrow creek, where Possuelo orders a halt to the march while we wait for stragglers to catch up.

The Flecheiros figure among 17 so-called uncontacted tribes living in the far recesses of the Brazilian Amazon. In this part of the rain forest, the Vale do Javari Indigenous Area, there may be as many as 1,350 uncontacted indigenous people—perhaps the largest such concentration anywhere in the world. Most of them are descendants of the survivors of massacres perpetrated by white intruders over the centuries. The Indians then scattered into the rugged folds of the region's headwaters and continue to shun contact with the outside world.

But violent clashes account for only a fraction of the deaths suffered by native communities at the hands of outsiders. Most died from epidemic diseases, including the common cold, for which they had no biological defenses. Ivan Arapa, one of our scouts, is from the Matis tribe, who were first contacted by the outside world about 25 years ago. Ivan still remembers the wholesale death that accompanied these very first visits of Brazilian government officials to his village.

"Everyone was coughing, everyone was dying," he recalls. "Many, many Matis died. We didn't know why."

More than half of the 350 Matis living along the Ituí River inside the Javari reserve perished in the months following contact, officials say.

It's a dismal story that's become all too familiar to Possuelo during his 40-year career as a sertanista, a uniquely Brazilian profession that folds all the skills and passions of a frontiersman, ethnographer, adventurer, and Indian rights activist into a single, eclectic vocation. That's why our mission is not to make contact with the Flecheiros but rather to gather information on the extent of their territory's boundaries, information Possuelo will use to bolster his efforts to protect their lands. In other respects, the Flecheiros are to remain, in large measure, a mystery.

As we passed through squalid Kanamari Indian settlements on our way up the Itaquaí River a month earlier, villagers gave vague, contradictory tales of the Flecheiros—third- or fourth-hand accounts, translated in halting Portuguese, of sightings of the Indians and clashes between them and logging crews that once operated in the area. Some said the Flecheiros are tall and muscular with long, flowing hair. Others told us they paint their faces and bodies red and clip their hair in a classic bowl shape common to many Amazon tribes. But the Kanamari all agreed on this: The Flecheiros are dangerous, "untamed," they said, and villagers carefully steered clear of Flecheiros lands upriver. "We don't go there," said a Kanamari man we met one afternoon as he paddled a small dugout in the honey-colored waters. "There are indios bravos, wild Indians, up there. That's their territory."

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