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Giving the Amazon rainforest back to the Awa tribe

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Logging in the Brazilian Amazon has had a devastating effect on the rainforest and its indigenous people. However, a new operation by the army, air force and military police is designed to save an endangered tribe – by keeping loggers off their land.

It took Pira’I two small steps to get up into the helicopter, but those steps bridged two completely different worlds.

Pira’I is a member of a 350-strong tribe called the Awa. They live in the last islands of rainforest in what is now the extreme eastern edge of the Amazon.

He grew up in a tiny nomadic tribal group, completely separate from the rest of the world.

Now, together with his friend Hamo, he was taking his first ever flight, leaving the jungle where they have lived all their lives.

They gave me a nervous smile through the window, then the engine roared and their faces vanished in a great eddy of leaves and dust as the helicopter rose up into the air.

This was a momentous trip for them, and for the entire tribe.

Pira’I was one of two taken in a helicopter to see the destruction of farmers’ homes

The Awa are one of very few hunter-gatherer communities left in the Amazon basin.

Survival International, a pressure group that campaigns for the rights of indigenous people, has described the Awa as “the most endangered tribe on the planet”.

Over the last couple of decades illegal loggers and farmers have invaded their ancestral lands, destroying the forest.

I’d asked Pira’I what it was like growing up in the forest.

“We were always on the run,” he told me. “We would find a place to sleep, then the loggers would arrive again to cut down our trees and we would go on the run again.”

Pira’I and his family – like most of the Awa – were forced to give up their traditional lifestyle and move into villages. Incredibly, though, a few dozen Awa are holding out.

They remain uncontacted, living in the last stands of jungle in this region.

“It is a miracle they are not dead,” one of the officers of Brazil’s Indigenous People’s Department, Funai, tells me.

Video: Watch a preview of Justin Rowlatt’s Newsnight film from the Brazilian Amazon

With his extravagant beard, Leonardo Lenin, lives up to his dramatic name. He has dedicated his life to fighting on behalf of the tribal people of Brazil.

“This is a story of resistance,” he says.

“For 514 years our culture has been trying to dominate their culture, but they have survived.”

And, thanks to the efforts of people like Leo Lenin and Survival International they are now much more likely to do so.

That’s because for once there is some good news from the Amazon.

I had come back to witness the Brazilian government’s unprecedented effort to drive out the invaders and to take back the tribe’s ancestral lands.

It is called Operation Awa and is on an impressive scale.

The Brazilian army, air force and military police are working alongside Brazil’s environmental protection service. The operation is co-ordinated by Funai.

Farmers who have illegally settled on the indigenous reserve that comprises the Awa’s territory, have been served notice to leave. And they seem to be doing so.

The government has offered them plots elsewhere in the state.

I watched a family load up a truck with everything they own – including the tiles from the roof of the farm they’d lived in for 18 years.

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Toothache, as old as Agriculture

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It seems that the beginnings of tooth decay happened around the time that man became a static agriculturalist.

The principle culprit being corn.

Moroccan Stone Age hunters’ rotten teeth

Deep decay is seen in the molars on the right, with an abscess perforation of the jaw just below

Scientists have found some of the earliest evidence for widespread tooth decay in humans.

It comes from the skeletal remains of Stone-Age hunter-gatherers who lived in what is now Morocco more than 13,700 years ago.

The researchers tell the PNAS journal that the individuals were eating a lot of high-carbohydrate nutty foods.

The poor condition of their teeth suggests they were often in agony.

“At a certain point, the tooth nerve dies but up until that moment, the pain is very bad and if you get an abscess the pain is excruciating because of the pressure on the jaw,” explained Dr Louise Humphrey, from London’s Natural History Museum.

“Then, of course, the bone eventually perforates and the abscess drains away, and we see this in a lot of the jaw remains that we studied.”

With all our sugary foods, tooth decay has become a ubiquitous problem for modern societies, but it was not always quite so bad.

Dental health took a definite turn for the worse when people settled into agricultural communities with domesticated crops and started to consume far more carbohydrates. But even in earlier hunter-gatherer societies, it seems, the sugar-rich content in some plant foods was causing difficulties.

Bad bacteria

Scientists reviewed the dental condition of 52 skeletons dug up at the Grotte des Pigeons complex at Taforalt in eastern Morocco over the past 10 years.

These skeletons covered a period from 13,700 years ago to about 15,000 years ago.

All bar three individuals displayed tooth decay, with cavities or other lesions affecting more than half of the surviving teeth. In some individuals, the oral health was so bad that destructive abscesses had developed.

Wild plant remains at Taforalt indicate these Stone Age people were snacking frequently on sweet acorns, pine nuts and pistachios. Snails were also popular.

With little if any oral hygiene, the Taforalt diet would have fuelled the mouth bacteria that produce the acid that rots tooth enamel.

As well as pain, the individuals on occasion probably had extremely bad breath.

What is interesting about this study is that it identifies high rates of tooth decay several thousand years before the wide-scale adoption of agricultural practices.

The Grotte des Pigeons complex was used by hunter-gatherers as a base over thousands of years

But although the Taforalt people were still gathering wild plants, they had nonetheless become a relatively sedentary community.

This is evidenced from the long sequence of burials at Grotte des Pigeons and its deep “rubbish tip” containing plant discards – factors that enabled the scientists to examine both a large number of individuals and tie their oral health to the types of foods they were consuming.

Sweet acorns were a particularly dominant feature in the diet, said Dr Humphrey, and may have been the prime cause of much of the dental decay.

“Sweet acorns are neat, easily storable packages of carbohydrate. We think they were cooking them, and that would have made them sticky. The cooking process would have already started to break down the carbohydrates, but the stickiness of the food would then have got into the gaps in the teeth and literally stuck around. And if you’ve already got cavities, it becomes a bit of a vicious circle.”

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Sea Gypsies

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Moken nomads leave behind their ‘sea gypsy’ life for a modern existence

Brought to the world’s attention by the 2004 tsunami, the seafaring tribe is struggling to reconcile tradition and modernity


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Ngui takes one last breath and disappears with a tiny splash. Tunnelling through the turquoise waves, he dives past brightly coloured fish and coral, until he reaches the sandy bottom of the seabed, 20 metres deep, where he begins scouring for tonight’s dinner.

He wears no mask, no fins, and no diving tank. He prefers sarongs and button-down shirts decorated with seashell and starfish motifs but the most startling thing about him underwater is his eyes. They are wide open.

Ngui, 30, belongs to the Moken, a nomadic, seafaring tribe of hunter-gatherers who live in the southern seas of Burma and Thailand. Little is known about their origins, but it is believed they descended from migrant Austronesians who set sail from southern China around 4,000 years ago. Spending eight months of the year at sea, the Moken roam in small flotillas of kabang – boats fashioned from a single tree and shared by a nuclear family – and return to land only to barter fish and shells for essentials such as rice and petrol, or to wait out the monsoon season in temporary shacks. It is a way of life that has existed, unchanged, for centuries – but one that may not last for much longer.

The 2004 tsunami greatly depleted the source of the Moken’s only livelihood: the ocean’s once-abundant array of seafood. International fishing boats are now wiping out the little that’s left. Those Moken who have moved ashore are often forced to take dangerous jobs for menial pay. Those who stay at sea are sometimes arrested for lacking papers or permits. Others return to land after months afloat only to find their huts destroyed and luxury tourist resorts built in their place.

“The sea has changed and life has changed,” explains Ngui’s father, Jao. “Things we used to do we can’t do any more. Places we used to go we can’t go any more. Life isn’t fun any more.”

It would be difficult to find a family that represents the changes wrought on the Moken as well as Jao’s. He was born on a boat and spent his childhood at sea. He married at 16 and nearly pursued a traditional, aquatic lifestyle – until he and his wife decided to settle on land.

“Life was hard being illiterate,” says Jao in the cramped house in Kuraburi they now share with a 13-member extended family. “I wanted my children to go to school and have options.”

Education is still a relatively new concept to the roughly 2,000 Moken who live in the waters around Burma and Thailand, most of whom are stateless. A recent push by various charities and the Thai government to issue Thai identity cards has granted some access to state-run schools and healthcare, but claiming full-blown citizenship – by proving that they, or a parent, were born in Thailand – is a complex issue for a nomadic people who hardly use numbers and mark the date according to the tide, not the Gregorian calendar.

Even getting children to school can prove trying, said Sumana Sirimangkala, headteacher at the only school on Koh Lao, an island of 50 Moken families on the Thai-Burmese border. “Moken lack supplies like clothes, food, stationery, textbooks, shoes, raincoats, lifejackets, umbrellas – all the things that are necessary for children to come to school,” she says.

“Moken can’t afford any of these things, so the school has to provide it all – otherwise they don’t want to come.”

Moken children regularly drop out to help their parents earn money, students say. Some boys as young as eight are sent to work in construction, while others help their mothers dig for shells – backbreaking labour in the hot sun.

Nearly all the men on the island are hired by Thai fishing boats to plant explosives on the seabed, or to dive for expensive and exotic rarities such as sea cucumber. Sometimes they are sent down with air run through thin plastic tubes hooked up to a spluttery, diesel-run compressor; other times they dive without any air at all. Many succumb to decompression sickness (the bends) from ascending too quickly; some don’t return at all.

“I’m afraid of being killed, it’s so risky,” admits a 30-year-old Moken who has just returned from a fish-bombing expedition. “We wire together four to five dynamite sticks, connect another explosive wire that hooks up to the boat, and then I dive down to the bottom of the sea. When I come back up, the sticks are ignited with a battery.”

Sitdit, a Moken elder whose son died from decompression sickness during a job in the Nicobar Islands, says risks such as these are increasingly part and parcel of a new way of life.

“We are running out of resources, so our skills have to be adapted to the new challenges,” he says simply. “Sometimes the big boats get caught by the Burmese military and Moken are arrested. I had four relatives arrested by the Burmese military and they all died in jail.”

Apart from a handful of researchers who had studied their language and customs – notably the French father-son anthropologist duo Pierre and Jacques Ivanoff – the Moken were a relatively unknown lot until the tsunami, when headlines described the mysterious “sea gypsies [who] saw signs in the waves“. Charities and religious groups poured in with free supplies – food, petrol, boats and building materials – at such a velocity that some communities were left bewildered by the handouts.

“We had to become Christian to qualify for a boat, so I became a Christian – I even became a church leader!” explains Sitdit, his charity-built, two-room stilt house facing the “church”, an empty wooden structure with a simple roof. “All we had to do was follow the gospel and sing songs. But then the church [group] cheated us, and now nobody goes to church any more.”

Today, a different kind of communion is going on, one where Moken women in sarongs while away the afternoon heat with card games and whisky so strong it makes the eyes burn. When the men return from their jobs at sea, they too take to drinking and gambling.

“There’s an issue with their drinking a lot of alcohol – it’s everywhere,” says Jitlada Rattanapan of Plan Thailand, a charity working to support Moken children.

At Baan Tung Wah, a Moken village of around 70 families in the mainland resort town of Khao Lak, children with snotty noses and dirty T-shirts beg for sweets while elders take shots of strong drink. Most of the parents are away doing menial day jobs – working in construction, spraying insecticides, or scavenging for recyclables along the beaches and streets – leaving the children to play among puppies and chickens in the rubbish-filled streets.

“Everyone in this village drinks – they hit their kids, too,” says a shopkeeper, Kong Kwan, 35, who spends all day selling sweets and crisps to Moken children and petrol and whisky to Moken elders. “Sometimes the police come, but they can’t be bothered to deal with it.”

The community’s 20-year-old youth leader, Big, says that life in the village can be stifling, forcing many youths to look for a way out.

“We’re restricted to living in this area only – about five acres [2 hectares] – and because of the influx of hotels and resorts around here, the sea has been polluted,” he says. “That makes it difficult to go fishing. So a lot of young people just choose easier jobs, like working in hotels or at 7-Eleven.”

Big adds that the Moken youth have pretty much “assimilated seamlessly” into Thai society, so much so that “whatever ‘bad Thais’ do, Moken do now too”, he notes. “Drugs, stealing, marijuana, glue-sniffing. We never saw this before, and it’s getting serious.”

The village is trying to counter such behaviour by offering classes in Moken language and customs to the children, many of whom are unaware of their traditions. Other classes, directed at teens, offer training as tour guides.

The community leader, Hong, who heads the classes and created the village’s Moken museum, hopes that turning Baan Tung Wah into an ecotourism destination may help get people back on track.

“Moken are supposed to travel, to be nomadic, to travel freely. So if we cannot travel freely, we are dead, culturally at least,” he says. “Moken children use mobile phones, study English and choose to be educated. We’ve abandoned our old traditions so much we risk losing them entirely.”

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Oh how we ruin the innocent?

Göbekli Tepe- 12,000 Year Old Temple?

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7,000 years before Stonehenge

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by Patrick Symmes
“Six miles from Urfa, an ancient city in southeastern Turkey, Klaus Schmidt has made one of the most startling archaeological discoveries of our time: massive carved stones about 12,000 years old, crafted and arranged by prehistoric people who had not yet developed metal tools or even pottery. The megaliths predate Stonehenge by some 7,000 years. The place is called Gobekli Tepe, and Schmidt, a German archaeologist who has been working here more than a decade, is convinced it’s the site of the world’s oldest temple.
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The oldest structure attributed to man

They call it potbelly hill, after the soft, round contour of this final lookout in southeastern Turkey. To the north are forested mountains. East of the hill lies the biblical plain of Harran, and to the south is the Syrian border, visible 20 miles away, pointing toward the ancient lands of Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent, the region that gave rise to human civilization. And under our feet, according to archeologist Klaus Schmidt, are the stones that mark the spot – the exact spot – where humans began that ascent.

Standing on the hill at dawn, overseeing a team of 40 Kurdish diggers, the German-born archeologist waves a hand over his discovery here, a revolution in the story of human origins. Schmidt has uncovered a vast and beautiful temple complex, a structure so ancient that it may be the very first thing human beings ever built. The site isn’t just old, it redefines old: the temple was built 11,500 years ago – a staggering 7,000 years before the Great Pyramid, and more than 6,000 years before Stonehenge first took shape. The ruins are so early that they predate villages, pottery, domesticated animals, and even agriculture – the first embers of civilization. In fact, Schmidt thinks the temple itself, built after the end of the last Ice Age by hunter-gatherers, became that ember – the spark that launched mankind toward farming, urban life, and all that followed.

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