Uncontacted tribes and the bid to survive

By Katie Stone

In a world dominated by technology, few of us could imagine a life - or even an hour - away from some form of connectivity. It’s not just that technology has made our lives more comfortable. It’s allowed us to access almost anything and anyone, at any time. It’s how we work, shop, socialise, and define ourselves.

But in some pockets of the world, whole communities still defy this connectivity. These are the uncontacted tribes: the people who have chosen not to participate in the outside world, and instead, have forged an existence completely on their own. Several live just as primitively now as they have for centuries. And although the quest for land and resources has destroyed many of these tribes, some are flourishing.

The Sentinelese

The world was largely unaware of the Sentinelese until 2018, when news broke of an American missionary who had attempted to make contact with these indigenous people. He was killed - by arrows - shortly after landing on their tiny island.

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 13 minutes

In a world dominated by technology, few of us could imagine a life – or even an hour – away from some form of connectivity. It’s not just that technology has made our lives more comfortable. It’s allowed us to access almost anything and anyone, at any time. It’s how we work, shop, socialise, and define ourselves.

But in some pockets of the world, whole communities still defy this connectivity. These are the uncontacted tribes: the people who have chosen not to participate in the outside world, and instead, have forged an existence completely on their own. Several live just as primitively now as they have for centuries. And although the quest for land and resources has destroyed many of these tribes, some are flourishing.

The Sentinelese

The world was largely unaware of the Sentinelese until 2018, when news broke of an American missionary who had attempted to make contact with these indigenous people. He was killed – by arrows – shortly after landing on their tiny island.

Even now, little is known about this small, isolated tribe, which is believed to have thrived alone for up to 55,000 years. They inhabit North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal, which, at 59km² is just slightly smaller than Rarotonga (67km²).

Although related to neighbouring Andamans, the Sentinelese speak their own language and have rejected all interaction with outsiders. Estimates at their population size range from 50 to 200 people.

Like other uncontacted communities, the Sentinelese are extremely vulnerable to diseases from the outside world. For this reason, the Indian government has prohibited visitors to the island since the 1950s. The Sentinelese have otherwise managed to protect themselves by attacking any outsiders who have attempted to view them from boats or helicopters. They appear to live as hunter-gatherers, living off fish and crabs in the shallows and hunting wildlife in the forest as their ancestors did, with bows, arrows, and spears.

On the neighbouring Andaman Islands live three other tribes: the Jarawa, Onge, and Andamanese. The Jarawa are thought to comprise around 400 members, while the Onge are now estimated at barely 120. Around 400-450 Andamanese remain, but only the Jarawa and Onge continue to avoid contact with outsiders.

The Jarawa are believed to be thriving and possibly even growing in numbers. Their homes – called chaddhas – house around 40-50 people. They live off the land and, like the Sentinelese, use arrows to hunt pigs, turtles, crabs, and fish; they also gather fruits, tubers, and wild roots. When collecting honey, Jarawas will coat their mouths with sap from a bee-repelling plant to keep the bees from attacking. The honey-collector will then cut down the hive and carry it back to their village in a wooden bucket on his or her back.

Bathing after eating honey is compulsory.

Native Andamanese follow animism, an ancient form of worship in which natural phenomena possess a soul or spirit. The Andaman people also believe in a sky god called Puluga, who is responsible for everything that occurs on Earth. Puluga is invisible and immortal but is believed to live on Saddle Peak of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. According to Andamanese mythology, men were created out of split bamboo, and women from clay.

The Amazonian tribes

The Amazon rainforest is home to most of the world’s last isolated communities, and around one million indigenous people. The Amazon is vast, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the tree line of the Andes in the west. The people within make up around 400 tribes, each of which lives within its own territory and has its own distinct language and culture.

Very few tribes are nomadic. Some live within settled villages alongside waterways and have planted their own vegetables and fruits, such as cassava, corn, beans, and bananas. Others live deep within the forest and rely mostly on hunting and gathering.

Amazonian people of Brazil

Although the Brazilian government body Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI, or National Indian Foundation) has made moves to protect the people of the Amazon by setting up the Department of Isolated Indians, the livelihood of these groups is ever under threat by deforestation, missionaries, miners, and even rubber tappers. Over the past few decades, many have already been wiped out.

Among the most well-known of the Amazon peoples are the Yanomami, also known as Yanomamö. With a population of around 38,000, they are the largest isolated tribal group. In 1991, the Yanomami were granted almost 9.6 million hectares of territory by the Brazilian government: not much smaller than New Zealand’s North Island (11.5 million hectares).

Yanomami live in circular communal dwellings called yanos or shabonos: thatched wooden structures that house around 70 people. Yanos are built around a central area which is used for rituals, games, and feasts. Each community is independent and ruled, not by chiefs, but through a democratic system in which decisions are reached through long debates. Like many other clans, men do the hunting while women tend to crops. Around 80% of their food is sourced from their own plantations of vegetables and fruits.

Indigenous Colombian woman

Among the dozens of other tribes are the Yuris and the Passés, believed to be the last isolated communities in the Colombian Amazon. They have lived beyond the reaches of civilisation since South America was colonised some 500 years ago. Although the Yuris and Passés originated near the Amazon River during pre-Columbian times, they later migrated 150 miles north to the Putumayo River, deeper in the jungle, to escape Spanish and Portuguese slave traders. Once thought to have died out, they were rediscovered in 1969, but amount to fewer than one hundred families.

These people live in long wooden houses called malocas and grow cassava, chontaduro (peach palm fruit), plantain, and coca. Despite constant pressure to join civilisation or at least give themselves up as tourist attractions, most have managed to keep their ancient lifestyle alive.

Other populations, such as the ancient Taironas, have not fared so well. Now believed to have evolved into the indigenous Kogi, Wiwa, and Kankuamo people who live in the area today, the Taironas originated in 100 AD. One of their most famous settlements was Ciudad Perdida (Lost City), which was founded around 800 CE, 600 years before Machu Picchu. The Taironas were known for their skilful stone architecture, ceramic ware, bone, and shell ornaments, and incredible goldwork. Some of their ceramics are thought to date back to 200 BCE to 1650 AD. Excavations of their former dwellings have unearthed ornaments, gold jewellery, pottery, and even musical instruments.

In Peru, around 100 of the Mascho-Piro (or Mashco-Piro) people still eke out an existence in the Manú National Park. The word mashco means “savages” in their own language, and they prefer to call themselves Nomole. They reportedly fled into the jungle during the Amazon rubber boom of 1880-1914 and have remained there ever since. However, despite Peru’s ‘no contact’ policy with its indigenous tribes, the Mascho-Piro are now increasingly less isolated. Missionaries regularly attempt contact, and members of the group have emerged from the forest on occasion to request knives, food, and clothing from local townspeople.

Papua New Guinea and West Papua

Papua New Guinea was first inhabited some 50,000 years ago by people from the Malay Archipelago, when New Guinea and Australia were a single landmass called Sahul. Now almost twice the landmass of New Zealand, Papua New Guinea is home to nearly 7,000 different cultures. It’s believed that more than 40 tribes remain uncontacted.

West Papua – distinct from Papua New Guinea – is about the size of Korea. It inhabits over 300 different tribes, many of ethnic Melanesian origin, and many of whom are also uncontacted. Some live within the central mountainous region of Papua, farming pigs and sweet potatoes, while others live as hunter-gatherers in the swampy lowlands.

Like other isolated groups, West Papuan people have struggled to maintain their unique civilisations since the Indonesian takeover in 1963. Indonesia comprises more than 90% of the world’s sago forests, mostly in the provinces of Papua and West Papua and now, with commercial palm oil plantations encroaching on their land, livelihoods are at stake.

The Dani (or Ndani) are one of the largest societies in the Baliem Valley of the West Papuan highlands, with around 25,000 members. Although migration and tourism have exposed the Dani to modern life, they are often described as “people from the Stone Age” and remain more or less true to their traditions. Sweet potatoes are a major feature in their everyday life and are cooked in earth ovens with hot stones (similar to a hangi). Pigs are cooked in the same way but reserved for celebrations and special feasts.

Indigenous Papua New Guinean tribes

In neighbouring Papua New Guinea, the Yaifo are among the most remote people in the world. They live within crocodile-infested jungles of East Sepik and are thought to speak a dialect of the Nete language, in which consonants are pronounced between vowels.

The Yaifo are described as wearing cowrie-shell headbands, cassowary-skin sheaths, and bones through their noses. They are believed to practise headhunting, in which the heads of dead enemies or intruders are kept and preserved as trophies.

The Yaifo were thrown into the spotlight in 2017 when BBC presenter Benedict Allen went searching for the tribe and ‘disappeared’ for three weeks, prompting a wide-scale search and rescue operation. He was found, suffering from malaria and dengue fever, but went on to produce a six-episode series of his time spent with the people. He even took part in a secret and sacred initiation ceremony which left him with hundreds of ‘crocodile skin’ markings across his body.

The sad truth about these tribes is that, if contacted, their survival will be in the hands of the rest of the world – people they neither understand nor acknowledge. But, if left alone, they will surely continue to survive – without technology, without disease, and without us.

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