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What We Know About Uncontacted Peoples

These tribes have spurned contact with the modern outside world.

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  • Members of an uncontacted tribe in the Brazilian state of Acre, 2012.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

It can be difficult to believe that, in this age of instant global communication, there can still be groups that remain largely cut off from the rest of society, but it’s true. From South America to the islands of the Pacific, there are an estimated 100 to 200 groups of Indigenous peoples living in isolation, largely uncontacted by the outside world.

Usually, this is not for lack of trying on the outside world’s part. Desire to exploit the lands of such uncontacted peoples or to convert them to Christianity has prompted clashes, some of which have been violent. Even when such encounters do not turn violent, real dangers exist for the uncontacted, such as when an evangelical group contacted the Nukak tribe of Colombia. Initially open to the prospect of peaceful relations, the Nukak were exposed to respiratory infections that wiped out more than half the tribe, eventually leading the government to forcibly relocate many of their number to a nearby town, where they currently live in poverty.

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So it’s no wonder that many isolated peoples prefer to remain uncontacted. But what constitutes an “uncontacted” group? It doesn’t necessarily mean a tribe that has had no contact with the outside world. Indeed, considerable evidence exists to suggest that most uncontacted peoples are intensely aware of the outside world, and choose isolation, often as a form of self-preservation in the face of exploitation and violence. Instead, it means groups that do not have any kind of regular contact, including trade or other interactions. In 2009, the United Nations Human Rights Council recognized the right for people to choose self-isolation and introduced guidelines for interacting with uncontacted tribes—or, better still, leaving them in peace.

With the number of uncontacted peoples dwindling, however, what do we really know about those who remain? Here’s a brief roundup of a few of the uncontacted groups who exist throughout the world, and what we know about their situation and the challenges they face from an encroaching world.

The Sentinelese

The Sentinelese have been called “the most isolated tribe in the world”. Very little is known about the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island, part of the Andaman Island chain in India’s Bay of Bengal. Actually one of two uncontacted groups in the island chain, the Sentinelese have rejected contact with outsiders, sometimes violently—as when an American missionary undertook an illegal journey to the island in 2018 and was killed by the Sentinelese.

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Partly for this reason, the official government position has been an “eyes-on, hands-off” policy, which makes it illegal for any outsiders to visit the island. Based on what little we know about the Sentinelese, however, experts have suggested that they have remained isolated for thousands of years, as their language has developed in a way that is markedly different from other groups within the Andaman Islands.

The Awá of Brazil

Survival International, a human rights organization, considers the Awá to be the "earth's most threatened tribe". The Awá peoples of the eastern Amazon rainforest have experienced considerable conflict with logging interests which threaten their territory. The tribe has been estimated to consist of only around 350 individuals, around 100 of whom have had no contact with the outside world. In 1982, the government of Brazil received loans from the World Bank and the European Union that included riders demanding that the lands of Indigenous peoples—including the Awá—be protected, but the country has not always held up its end of the agreement. In one particularly horrific incident, illegal loggers murdered an 8-year-old Awá girl by burning her alive in 2011. Authorities suspect that there have been many other murders of Indigenous people in the region, most of which go unreported.

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The Nomole of Peru

In 1894, most of the Nomole peoples of Peru’s upper Manú River were murdered by the private army of rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald. Since then, the survivors have been living in isolation in Peru’s Manú National Park, voluntarily cut off from contact with the outside world. However, in recent years, there have been increased interactions between the Nomole and nearby communities, for reasons unknown.

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Current estimates place their numbers at only around 250 members at most, which is up considerably from earlier estimates. Though Nomole is the name they give themselves, they are more commonly known as Mashco-Piro, due to the fact that they speak a dialect of the Piro languages. However, this is considered pejorative, as the word “mashco” in the Piro language means “savages,” while "nomole" means "brothers" or "countrymen".

The Uncontacted Ayoreo

Thought to be the “last uncontacted peoples south of the Amazon basin,” the uncontacted Ayoreo make up a small minority of the total Ayoreo people, many of whom were converted (sometimes forcibly) to sedentary lives from their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle by European missionaries. It is estimated that there are around 5,600 Ayoreo people total living in Paraguay and Bolivia, but only about 100 of them remain uncontacted. The uncontacted individuals are divided among roughly a half-dozen groups living in the Gran Chaco region. Though aware of outsiders, they live in voluntary isolation, which is legally protected but is nevertheless threatened by cattle farming, deforestation, sale of Ayoreo lands, oil speculation, missionary groups, and more.

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The Many Uncontacted Tribes of West Papua

According to Survival International, there are more than 40 uncontacted groups living in the rainforests of the West Papua region of New Guinea, an area controlled by the Indonesian government. “It is imperative that we are imprecise as to the location and exact number of uncontacted tribes in order to help protect them from outside threats,” Survival International explains, adding that the region in which the uncontacted peoples live is exceedingly remote, and journalists and human rights organizations are banned from the region by the government. The Survival International website warns that these uncontacted groups face threats from disease, exploitation for commercial gain, military repression, and “deep-seated racism” which is described as “endemic” in Indonesian New Guinea. In fact, Survival International estimates that some 100,000 people have been killed since the Indonesian occupation began in 1963.

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