Explorer unearths photos of tribe's first contact with outside world

‘It was as if we were aliens from outer space’: Explorer unearths photos in his loft of the moment he met an isolated tribe in the Amazonian jungle that had never made contact with the outside world before

  • Dr Jack Wheeler, 76, ventured to the Ecuadorian rainforest as a 16-year-old with an interest in anthropology
  • He returned in 1972 and that’s when his remarkable meeting with a clan of the ‘Naked Auca’ tribe occurred
  • The tribespeople had never seen metal or paper and they were fascinated by a box of matches 
  • ‘We realised we were doing something truly extraordinary,’ he told MailOnline Travel

An explorer has unearthed an incredible set of photos he took of a meeting he had with an isolated tribe deep in the Ecuadorian rainforest – the event being the first time they had made contact with the outside world.

The pictures belong to Dr Jack Wheeler, 76, who is originally from Southern California. He told MailOnline Travel that he discovered the images on film slides while sifting through belongings in his loft during the lockdown and decided to get them digitalised.

The photographs, taken in 1972, show Dr Wheeler’s ‘truly extraordinary’ meeting with a family within the ‘Naked Auca’ tribe after he touched down into dense Amazonian jungle in a small helicopter. 

Dr Jack Wheeler, 76, ventured to the Ecuadorian rainforest as a 16-year-old with an interest in anthropology. He returned in 1972 and that’s when his meeting with a family within the ‘Naked Auca’ tribe occurred. He’s pictured here during the ‘truly extraordinary’ event

The Auca settlement as it appeared from Dr Wheeler’s helicopter, with trees cleared around the main hut

Remarkable: The uncontacted tribe waves at Dr Wheeler’s tiny helicopter, which was piloted by Tony Stuart 

A grandmother clings to a magazine Dr Wheeler gave her. The tribe had never seen paper before

The only apparel the Aucas had was cloth made from plant fibres that the mothers used to carry their babies 

The main Auca hut where the group sheltered, with a sloping roof made out of palm leaves

They had never seen paper or metal before and Dr Wheeler says the tribespeople looked at him and his pilot in the helicopter like they were ‘aliens coming from outer space’.

The adventurer was no stranger to the wilds of Ecuador. He first ventured there in 1960 as an inquisitive 16-year-old with a keen interest in anthropology.

He reveals: ‘I was a beginning freshman student at UCLA (The University of California, Los Angeles) studying anthropology and I read a magazine article about a medical doctor living with the indigenous Jivaro people in Ecuador. 

‘The medic wanted to learn about the plants the tribespeople used to shrink human head skin as it might shrink cancerous tissue.

‘This fascinated me so I contacted him and he invited me to spend the summer of 1960 with him and the Jivaros he knew. I ended up staying in the rainforest with the clan or family of a chap called Tangamashi.’

Twelve years on, as a doctoral graduate student in philosophy at the University of Southern California, Dr Wheeler decided to return to Ecuador and visit his old friend Tangamashi and that’s when his encounter with the uncontacted tribe occurred. 

The tribespeople had stretched ears with wooden discs in their lobes ‘as a sign of beauty’

Dr Wheeler said the tribe were friendly and welcoming – but he had been warned how dangerous they could be 

Dr Wheeler says: ‘Even the most famous headhunters in the world were afraid of the Aucas’ 

Being the adventurous young man that he was, Dr Wheeler had a dream of travelling down the Napo River, near to where he was staying, to the point where it meets the Amazon River in Peru.

But his friend Tangamashi warned him against making the journey – because he might encounter the Naked Aucas.

Explaining the tribeman’s fears Dr Wheeler says: ‘Even the most famous headhunters in the world were afraid of the Aucas.

‘The Aucas were feared for killing any outsider foolish enough to enter where they lived, and had gained worldwide notoriety in a Life magazine story of their killing five Evangelical missionaries in 1956.’

Despite being warned against the river expedition, Dr Wheeler set off in a motor-powered dugout canoe and hired a local boatman.

As he went down river and neared the Peru border he ran into a group of American men employed by Western Geophysical to find oil and gas deposits.

Recalling the chain of events, Dr Wheeler says: ‘I was puzzled and confused that they were there and weren’t scared about the Aucas, but the men told me they weren’t in the area.

‘They informed me that the Auca people were very scattered and isolated, living in tiny encampments of just one large family – there weren’t villages or a large tribe.

‘As I was talking to them, their helicopter pilot Tony Stuart came into land and I was told that he knew where some of these Auca camps could be located.

‘Over a cold beer in the mess tent (my first cold beer in a while!), Tony told me a rain squall came up that took him way off course. He chanced upon an Auca hut. He told me he would never have seen it otherwise and he saw just one hut with a small planted field near it. 

‘He said he circled around them in his helicopter and the men shook spears at him.

‘Before leaving he made sure to mark where the Aucas lived and every time he flew over them he would wave with a big smile to show that he didn’t mean any harm.

‘He said on his third trip above the camp the Aucas started smiling and waving back and on the next journey he couldn’t believe it as they had cleared off a flat place for him to land. They even made motions for him to come down and land.’ 

The biggest impression Dr Wheeler had was how they could all ‘communicate with gestures and facial expressions as fellow human beings’ 

Describing the moment of contact, Dr Wheeler said: ‘We landed, with Aucas appearing out of the single palm frond hut – a couple of men, several women, a number of small children. Only a few came down to see us’

Dr Wheeler asked Tony if he had landed at the Auca camp, but the helicopter pilot said he hadn’t because he was alone and he’d heard of other white men being attacked and being left with ‘nasty spear wounds’.

After a second beer, Dr Wheeler asked if he could go back with Tony to the Auca camp in a bid to make contact and the two men shook hands on it.

They set off a few hours later and packed a shotgun in the chopper ‘just in case of emergency’.

Describing the journey, Dr Wheeler says: ‘It took Tony a while to find it as the Amazon rainforest is really flat, vast, and featureless, an ocean of trees – and he had to avoid a squall.

‘And then, there it was, just like he said.

‘I felt excited, with some trepidation, but more excited. We realised we were doing something truly extraordinary.

‘We landed, with Aucas appearing out of the single palm frond hut – a couple of men, several women, a number of small children. Only a few came down to see us.

‘I have never smiled so much in my life. Soon we were all laughing together. They showed not the slightest fear of or animosity towards us.

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

‘They knew how big the world was – they could climb to a treetop and see “the world’s end” – the horizon – and we were from beyond that. Yet they were friendly and gracious with us, laughing and smiling.

‘We had a really happy time!’

Dr Wheeler’s photographs reflect this good feeling, with the Auca men and women smiling at the camera. 

Dr Wheeler says of the tribespeople he met: ‘They were completely Stone Age in their lifestyle with no outside implements of any kind’

Dr Wheeler (left) with helicopter pilot Tony Stuart. The two met by chance near the Peru border and Tony revealed that he’d seen an isolated tribal hut after poor weather forced him off-course. The pair then decided to investigate and land

One woman appears with a baby resting on her breast in a sling, and both sexes have long dark hair with fringes or bangs.

The men and women also have stretched ears, with large wooden discs lodged in their ear lobes as ‘a sign of beauty’. 

In total, Dr Wheeler says there were three mothers, three babies, a grandmother, one adult male and an older man who seemed to be living at the camp.

One image shows the main Auca hut where the group lived with a sloped roof constructed out of palm leaves. 

The biggest impression he had was how they could all ‘communicate with gestures and facial expressions as fellow human beings’.

He muses: ‘Such gestures and expressions have to be hardwired into all of us genetically as this was a true first contact.’

To further the good feeling, Dr Wheeler and Tony gave the Aucas some rope, an old axe and a small machete.

He said they were ‘amazed’ as they had never seen metal before.

They were equally fascinated by a box of matches and as he lit a match, ‘they became really excited’ to see fire at his fingertips.

Another hit was a magazine the men happened to have with them in the helicopter cockpit.

Dr Wheeler remembers: ‘The old grandma curled it up like it was something precious. They had never seen paper before, much less with photos and colours on it.’

Without asking, in exchange for their gifts, the Aucas gave Tony a hand stone axe and Dr Wheeler a blowgun.

The only apparel the Aucas had was cloth made from plant fibres that the mothers used to carry their babies.

One mother let the men see her baby, another covered hers up, but the remainder of the tribespeople were ‘stark naked’ bar some beads around their necks and headbands in their hair.

Dr Wheeler and Tony spent around an hour with the Aucas before taking off.

He added: ‘We knew there was danger, but that’s why we only stayed a short time and didn’t push our luck!’

They later confirmed that they were the first to come into contact with this particular Auca settlement.  

Dr Wheeler says: ‘The Auca territory is very big, well over a thousand square miles.’ Pictured here is the jungle landscape at the time of the adventurer’s visit 

Dr Wheeler, pictured in the Himalayas, now lives in Portugal. He is the founder of Wheeler Expeditions, which offers expedition-style trips around the world, inspired by his own far-flung adventures

Dr Wheeler explains: ‘Auca territory is very big, well over a thousand square miles.

‘The missionaries were far in the western part. We were in a completely isolated area in the eastern part near the border with Peru.

‘I later talked with missionaries in Limoncocha nature reserve and they told me they had never been in that part of Auca territory, didn’t know anyone who had or how they would get there without a helicopter, which they didn’t have.’

Asked if he has ever returned to this remote part of the world, Dr Wheeler concludes from his home in Portugal: ‘I have never been back nor had Tony. He passed on a few years ago and I am in touch with his widow.

‘This was an experience we will never ever forget. They were complete Stone Age with no outside implements of any kind.

‘I have no idea what happened to them. Missionaries in the western part of Auca territory have “civilised” them – but I hope they are among those who retreated far away and still remain uncontacted.

‘There are other such peoples – most well-known are those on North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Islands of the Indian Ocean. I hope we leave them alone to be as they always have been. They do not need us.’ 

Dr Wheeler went on to found Wheeler Expeditions, which offers expedition-style trips around the world, inspired by his own far-flung adventures.  

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