Do people in isolation forget their names?

I first learned of the man that Slate calls “the most isolated man on the planet” nearly a year ago. And I’ve been wondering about him ever since.

Who is he? He’s an indigenous Brazilian who lives in the Amazon. He appears to be the last survivor of his tribe, as he’s been living alone since the mid-1990s, maybe earlier.

No one’s been able to establish contact with him. No one knows what language he speaks. And no one knows what his name is. (They’ve taken to calling him the “Man of the Hole” because he digs deep, rectangular holes in each of his huts).

Specifically, the things I wonder are…

  • Does he have a name? If so,
  • Does he ever use it? (In thought? In speech, if he speaks to himself?) And, more generally,
  • Is it possible that a person who has no one left to communicate with, but decades left to live, could eventually forget his or her name?

I only know of two other lone survivors, and both have interesting name stories.

1. Ishi was the last of the Yahi, a sub-group of the Yana, a people indigenous to northern California. His tribe was decimated during the last half of the 1800s. He lived alone for three years before emerging from the wilderness and making contact with European-Americans in 1911, at about the age of 49.

I’ve seen several conflicting tales about the origin of Ishi’s name. The most plausible is that tribal tradition prevented him from revealing his real name, so “Ishi” was chosen for him:

Under pressure from reporters who wanted to know the stranger’s name, [anthropologist] Alfred Kroeber called him “Ishi,” which means “man” in Yana. Ishi never uttered his real name.

2. Juana Maria was the last of the Nicoleño, a people indigenous to San Nicolas Island. She was left behind after her tribe was relocated to the mainland. She lived alone for 18 years (1835-1853) before finally being taken to the mainland as well.

She passed away just seven weeks later. During those seven weeks, no one learned what her real name was. (I’m not sure why. Maybe, like Ishi, she couldn’t share it. Or maybe she just couldn’t remember it.) She was baptized Juana Maria just before she died.

Today, “Ishi” and “Juana Maria” are the names we use to refer to these two people, but these names aren’t their real names. They’re names bestowed by outsiders. Just as “Man of the Hole” was coined by outsiders.

Do you think we’ll ever learn the name of the “Man of the Hole”? And, do you think it’s possible that a person living in isolation could forget his/her name, if given enough time? (If so, how long?)


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