The Man of the Hole is dead.
The news was lost amid the noise that fills our days. The confidential records stashed at Mar-a-Lago. President Biden’s loan forgiveness plan. Gas prices. The fate of a nuclear reactor in Ukraine. Back to school. Serena Williams. A stunning drop in U.S. life expectancy. Extreme heat wreaking havoc.
And the profound sadness of the death of The Man of the Hole.
That was his nickname. His real name was unknown. No one could ask him because he wanted to be left alone. And, besides, no one knew his language.
The Man of the Hole was a member of an indigenous tribe in Brazil, in the western Amazon state of Rondonia. Human rights organizations that monitor the area say that evidence and accounts from other native peoples suggest that the rest of his tribe most likely was massacred by gunmen hired by ranchers who have been pushing into the rainforest since the 1970s and clearing it for livestock, buoyed by an administration hostile to indigenous peoples as it embraces development over conservation.
What is known for sure is that The Man of the Hole had been on his own, utterly alone, for at least 26 years. And he made it clear to those tracking and protecting him from afar that he did not wish to be contacted. The few glimpses of him in videos shot deep in the forest are heartbreaking.
There are so many tendrils to this story, so much pain on so many levels.
His death completed the genocide of his tribe. Their fate speaks to mankind’s cruelty toward its own. To the dangerous reach of our greed. To our immoral detachment from our role in extinction. And to the uncomfortable echoes of our own American history.
His nickname derived from the deep ditches he dug — some with sharp stakes inside, presumably for hunting — throughout the Tanaru Indigenous Territory established to protect him. Some holes, presumably for his own protection, were inside some of the straw-and-thatch huts he built, 53 of which had been tracked, the last being the one in which his body was found late last month. Besides the animals he caught for food, he planted corn, papaya, bananas and manioc, which we know as cassava.
Officials estimated his age at around 60. His passing marked the first recorded disappearance of what is called an uncontacted tribe. But most experts say it’s virtually certain other peoples we never knew about also have gone extinct. Brazil’s indigenous protection agency, Funai, reports signs of at least 114 isolated groups in Brazil alone, but has confirmed the existence of only 28. So the others, if they are out there, have no government protection.
This should be humbling, the extent to which we don’t know about our Earth and the people on it. Think of the culture that will forever be a mystery, the questions that will never be answered, the knowledge that is forever lost, the language that will never be learned.
What did he and his tribe know about the Amazon forest, its plants and wildlife, their benefits and dangers? What could we have learned from them? His body, when it was found, had colorful feathers around it. Was that part of his preparation for death?
Take what you will from his life. See him as a symbol of resilience and courage, but also loneliness and isolation. There was nobility in his perseverance, because imagine the trauma he endured and what he must have thought about his future. Did he see his survival as necessity or futility? Was he filled with determination or despair?
So much of this is beyond our comprehension. That perhaps is the saddest part of this story, that now we know there is so much we’ll never know.
Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.