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Living in isolation: The world’s last uncontacted tribes

In pockets of dense forest and on remote islands, there are still many tribes that have never made close contact with the outside world.

There are around 100 uncontacted tribes that exist across the globe, according to human rights group Survival International.

Tribes are considered “uncontacted” when they haven’t had direct contact with the outside world or its inhabitants.

Despite this, according to experts in the field, such tribes certainly don’t live in ignorance of our existence.

They are, however, generally fearful of making contact. That fear is grounded in historical logic: contact between indigenous cultures and modern society has usually ended in disease, violence and oppression.

“They know far more about the outside world than most people think,” said Fiona Watson, research director for Survival International, in conversation with the BBC.

“They are experts at living in the forest and are well aware of the presence of outsiders.”

The majority of the remaining uncontacted tribes can be found in the dense Amazon rainforest, particularly in the Rondônia, Mato Grosso, Acre and Maranhão states of Brazil.

Other tribes are known to exist in the neighbouring countries of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, French Guinea, Guyana and Venezuela.

Many of these tribes are nomadic hunter-gatherer communities that are finding their territory shrinking as logging, plantations and roads cut through the Amazon rainforest.

The Brazilian government recently tried to clear one such tribe, the Awá, from the land. Other nomadic groups such as the Kawahiva are studied passively from afar by what they leave behind.

Some communities form settlements with farms and houses, and so face an even greater threat from the encroaching modern world. Roads, logging, mining and drug trafficking all bring the outside world into their lives and place these tribes at risk of abuse, disease and conflict with outsiders.

A first contact was filmed in the northern region of the Brazilian Amazon in 2014. Seven men from a tribe on the border of Peru and Bolivia made contact with other villagers.

Translators who spoke the closely related Panoan language discovered that the tribe had recently encountered hostile individuals thought to be illegal loggers or cocaine traffickers. The tribe seemed to be seeking help. Unfortunately, coming into contact with outsiders now puts them at risk of disease and infection.

“It’s hard to say what’s going to happen, other than to make doomsday predictions,” said Kim Hill, an anthropologist at Arizona State University, talking to BBC about the event.

“So far, things are looking just like they looked in the past.”

Outside the Americas, the Andaman Islands archipelago that lies off the east coast of India is home to perhaps the most remote and isolated population on earth. The Sentinelese live on North Sentinel Island, and have remained fearful and violent during several instances of planned and accidental contact.

They use metal weapons fashioned from a shipwreck, shoot arrows and have even killed fisherman who strayed too near.

In the Western section of New Guinea, journalists, researchers and human rights advocated are banned from making contact with the many uncontacted tribes, up to 44 of which inhabit the area.

Whether or not we should attempt to contact these tribes, to actively protect their solitude, or let our society destroy theirs are the questions surrounding their existence. Our past choices certainly hold some examples of what not to do.

Whatever the answer, it seems wrong not to attempt to alleviate their fear of our modern world.

According to Hill, “There is no such thing as a group that remains in isolation because they think it’s cool to not have contact with anyone else on the planet.”

[Feature image courtesy of G.Miranda/FUNAI/Survival International]

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