Finding the Lost Tribesmen: Aure and Aura
Today we're going to meet two of the most interesting people you're ever likely to learn about. If you have heard of them before, it was almost certainly from the 2018 NHK documentary Aurá: Last Survivor of an Unknown Tribe. That hour-long program, made for Japanese television, is about the only mention on the entire planet, plus only a handful of short press articles from Brazil, of these two unique men. And unique is the best word for them. Aurê and Aurá emerged from the Amazon jungle in 1987, speaking an unknown language and with no connection to any known tribe. The leading theory about the men — in fact, the only theory — is that they are the last survivors of a massacred tribe, orphaned as children, and the last speakers of their language. In today's episode, I'm going to argue that I don't think that's correct.
Normally, Skeptoid is about presenting the latest and greatest state of our knowledge on a topic, according to a consensus of the world's experts who study it. Today is a rare departure. I've done this exactly once before, in my 2017 show on the Norse Berserkers, in which I presented my hypothesis that dissociative PTSD episodes could explain some aspects of reported berserker behavior. I promise Skeptoid is not turning into a platform for new or fringe ideas, but as nobody else seems to have put any work into this aspect of the case of Aurê and Aurá, it seems there's a gap in the knowledge which we might provisionally fill today.
In 1987, two young men, probably in their early or mid 20s, were spotted by a logging crew and then approaching a settler's home in the Amazon. This kind of thing happens often enough that FUNAI, Brazil's indigenous affairs agency, has anthropologists called sertanistas whose whole job it is to handle such situations. The sertanistas determined that Aurê and Aurá spoke an unknown dialect of a language from the Tupi-Guarani family, the most common in the region, and were unable to communicate usefully with them. Aurê and Aurá ate only fruits, nuts, and small animals that they could catch with their hands, mainly turtles and armadillos, which they ate raw.
Over several years, Aurê and Aurá were taken to a series of reservations set aside for primitive peoples, but they were unable to assimilate anywhere. At one, populated by the Parakanã people, Aurê and Aurá seemed terrified, and this informed what was to become the standard model of their history: that they were from an unknown Tupi-Guarani tribe that had been massacred by the Parakanã.
At another reservation populated by the Assurini people, Aurê and Aurá were well accepted. A woman named Baya moved in with them. She did all their cooking and took care of them as if they were children, and served as their translator — in addition to having what FUNAI described as an "intimate" relationship with Aurá. It was at this point that a government linguist named Norval Oliveira Silva first met them — a relationship which was to last the rest of Norval's career. Norval began to learn their language, eventually building a lexicon of almost 300 words, nearly all of them nouns like familiar plants and animals, and little else. Norval declared it a new dialect, today known as Aurá. However Norval was able to learn almost nothing about the men themselves. They did not answer questions about themselves, and Baya had learned nothing either. Aurê was quite standoffish and would not speak at all with anyone but Aurá, and Aurá would answer anything with what appeared to be endless storytelling about various animals.
Their stay with the Assurini would not last long. Aurá got into a conflict with a respected shaman and killed him with an ax; the basis of the disagreement was never learned. The two men were moved again, and again, and again.
Eventually they ended up at a Guaji indigenous area called Miri Miri along with several FUNAI employees and frequent visits from Norval. Aurê fell ill at one point, and was taken to a hospital where he died, leaving Aurá alone. At the time of the NHK documentary, Aurá still lived there spending almost all his time in his hut, leaving only to get his meals at a nearby building. Any interaction he had with the employees and with Norval never changed: he would chatter away, naming plants and animals, and pointing a lot — looking like he was telling a very interesting story indeed — particularly when he pointed up at the ceiling and talked about jaguars. Ask him just about anything, and he would point up and talk about nonexistent jaguars.
Their names, Aurê and Aurá, may offer some clue about the men. In the Tupi-Guarani language family, these are very close homophones to a word that means we or us. As this is how both Aurê and Aurá referred to each other, it's like two friends calling each dude or hey you. One might guess that the men did not actually have names, or didn't know them, and grew up together using the closest syntax that they did know.
That seems to be the end of the story of Aurê and Aurá. Not a thing has been mentioned about them in the press, and nothing appears to have changed — as there are many such cases, theirs is likely not notable enough to warrant any special reports. Aurá, who is approximately 60 years old now, is probably in his hut, and Norval has learned nothing new. The theory remains that they were the sole survivors of a massacre in which a people known only for the Aurá language were wiped from the Earth.
It was upon my second and third viewing of the NHK documentary, along with my wife who is a mental health therapist, and in consultation with some others in the profession, that this new theory took shape. A consensus among all was immediately clear, and it wasn't the standard model of a massacre and the last survivors. Aurê and Aurá both presented as severely intellectually disabled. By all accounts from before his death, Aurê had been largely withdrawn and did not maintain any interpersonal relationships outside of his close brotherhood with Aurá. Aurá was only slightly better adapted. Even with Norval it would take him a while to warm up to any other person being in the room, at which point he would devote himself entirely to self-soothing behavior. These are activities, usually repetitive and habitual, which individuals use to regulate their emotional state. I hesitate to cite a Hollywood movie, but if you remember Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman's Oscar-winning portrayal of a severely autistic man self-soothed by rocking back and forth and reciting Abbott & Costello's Who's On First routine. This accurately depicted self-soothing, also called self-stimming for stimulating. In a stressful situation, people with autism spectrum disorder or other intellectual disabilities will often rock themselves, hum, tap, pull their hair, or talk to themselves. Aurá's reciting the names of animals presented in the documentary as textbook self-soothing behavior. Most of us practice some form of self-soothing or self-stimming, just not as dramatically as people as disabled as Aurá. Significantly, Aurá never makes eye contact with anyone — which is another indicator that he may have an autism diagnosis.
This hypothesis of Aurê and Aurá does not require the introduction of an apocryphal massacre, and also no need for there to have been an unknown tribe speaking an unknown language. Little film is available of Aurê, but his countenance was always wild and his behavior erratic. Aurá did not have this outward instability, but his left leg was severely injured, probably from an accident as a young child. His left ankle was fused at an awkward angle making it impossible for him to walk easily. Might such children, who would have been burdens, have been abandoned by their families?
And, having been fortunate to have met each other, or to have been abandoned at the same time, and having spent nearly their entire lives together in isolation from others, it's expected that the language they spoke would be largely of their own devise, founded upon whatever Tupi-Guarani language they had learned before their abandonments. No unknown tribe or unknown language needed.
I did attempt to find out whether there might be such practices among the indigenous Amazon peoples, but the one accurate thing you can say about those cultures is that there are so many of them, with such diversity of tradition and culture, that nothing can be painted with so broad a brush. In some primitive Amazon cultures, people with physical or intellectual disabilities are believed to be magical and are treated very well; in others they might be discarded as easily as a fruit rind.
I was reminded, however, of Skeptoid #567 on famous stories of feral children— children popularly believed to have been raised by wolves, or raised by monkeys or chickens, only to grow up acting like those same animals. With the benefit of modern science being able to examine contemporary cases, we find — almost without exception — that these were intellectually disabled children, possibly unwanted and abandoned by their families to fend for themselves. When they were later found and rescued by social workers, we find that what the newspapers called "acting like a chicken" or "acting like a monkey" was actually that child's own particular self-stimming — be it picking at the ground, spinning, walking in circles, chattering, or rocking. These are not people who think they are chickens or monkeys; those labels came from ignorant observers and reporters looking for a catchy headline.
In the documentary, Norval attempts to interview Aurá to learn details of the massacre, but it's clear that Aurá lacks the ability to meaningfully answer such abstract questions. The closest he comes to responding to anything is to repeat words that Norval says in his questions. Due to his disability, it would not be possible for a therapist to help him or to learn more about his history. For a linguist or an anthropologist to try the same thing would be even more hopeless. What Aurá has had has been decades of people asking him about the massacre — a concept that may not even exist in Aurá's mind. The documentary starts with this narrative as the accepted default and seeks to fill in the holes: When was the massacre? Who did it? Were the women and children killed as well? The story of Aurê and Aurá has been the story of people trying to complete a narrative they came up with themselves, a process we probably all follow to some degree when we have no other frame of reference. If this episode has any value, and that's a big "if" considering that neither I nor the professionals I consulted have ever examined the men outside of the small slice of life in the documentary, it might be to suggest another frame of reference for other professionals FUNAI may be able to access, such as behavior intervention specialists who work with adults with autism spectrum disorder.
Aurá: Last Survivor of an Unknown Tribe is available on YouTube. Thanks to my friend Carlos, editor-in-chief of the Journal of the Questão de Ciência, for his invaluable assistance looking up obscure Brazilian government documents and providing background information; and to Lisa Dunning for her expertise on autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and intellectual disability disorder (IDD).
Please join me in wishing the very best for Aurá.
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