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Brazil's indigenous Akuntsu tribe has been whittled to only five members after the group's oldest, Urur, died.

The ancient Amazonian tribe a generation ago boasted several hundred members, but has effectively been destroyed by a tragic mixture of hostility and neglect.

The survivors represent all that is left of a once-vibrant civilisation which had its own religion and language, and only made contact with modern Brazil towards the end of last century.

Considered the matriarch of the Akuntsu, Urur died of old age, in a hut built from straw and leaves.

News of her death emerged last week, when the tribe was visited by human rights campaigners, who have spent the past decade campaigning to preserve their homeland from deforestation.

Urur's death means the entire population of the Akuntsu now consists of just three women and two men.

All of them are either close family relations, or no longer of child-bearing age - meaning that the tribe's eventual disappearance is now inevitable.

The slow death of this indigenous community represents the long-planned realisation of one of the most successful acts of genocide in human history.

And the fate of the Akuntsu is seen by lobby groups as an object lesson in the physical and cultural dangers faced by undiscovered tribes at so-called "first contact".

Much of the Akuntsu story is undocumented. For millennia, they lived in obscurity, deep in the rainforest of Rondonia state, a remote region of western Brazil near the Bolivian border.

They hunted and had small gardens in their villages. Then, in the 1980s, their death warrant was effectively signed: farmers and loggers were invited to begin exploring the region, cutting roads deep into the forest, and turning the once verdant wilderness into lucrative soya fields and cattle ranches.

The new migrant workers knew that one thing might prevent them from creating profitable homesteads from the rainforest: the discovery of uncontacted tribes, whose land is protected from development under the Brazilian constitution.

As a result, frontiersmen who first came across the Akuntsu in the mid-1980s made a simple calculation.

The only way to prevent the government finding out about this indigenous community was to wipe them off the map.

At some point, believed to be around 1990, scores of Akuntsu were massacred at a site roughly five hours' drive from the town of Vilhena.

Only seven members of the tribe escaped, retreating deeper into the wilderness to survive.

Those seven were not formally "contacted" until 1995, when Funai investigators finally made it to the region and were able to have a 26,000ha area of forest protected for them.

They included the late Urur, who was the sister of the tribe's chief and shaman, Konib.

"We know little of what Urur's life was like," says Mr Algayer, who was among the Funai team that first discovered the tribe.

"In the 14 years that we have been with her, she was a happy, spontaneous person ... She recounts that she had four children who were all shot dead during the massacre. We don't know who her husband was or how he died."

One other member of the group of seven, known as Babakyhp, was killed in a freak accident in 2000, when a tree landed on her hut.

The others, who still survive, are PugapIa, Konib's wife, who is roughly 50 years old, their daughters, Nnoi and EnotEi, who are around 35 and 25 respectively, and a cousin, Pupak, who is in her 40s.

Evidence of their suffering is visible in bullet wounds which both Konib and Pupak showed to cameramen making a documentary about their struggle - Corumbiara: they shoot Indians, don't they? - that was filmed over the past 20 years and has just been released in Brazil.

Campaigners now hope the fate of the tribe, which will be publicly highlighted by Urur's death, will persuade the Brazilian people to further strengthen government protections for indigenous people.

Stephen Corry of Survival International, a human rights organisation that has been working with Funai, said: "Their genocide is a terrible reminder that in the 21st century there are still uncontacted tribes in several continents who face annihilation as their lands are invaded, plundered and stolen. Yet this situation can be reversed if governments uphold their land rights in accordance with international law.

"Public opinion is crucial - the more people speak up for tribal rights, the greater the chance that tribes like the Akuntsu will in future survive."

- INDEPENDENT