Isolated and uncontacted tribes give us a glimpse of what life was like before the advent of modern technology. Many of us see these tribes as pristine examples of humanity, a ‘noble savage’ trope that is all too common. Yet each one of these groups display the same needs and desires as the rest of humanity, as they navigate current law, cultural roots and the impact of deforestation.
So let’s explore some of the most remote cultures from around the globe and see how, in many ways, they’re just like us:
1. Sentinelese, Andaman Islands
The Sentinelses are thought to be the most isolated culture in the world. They inhabit the northern island of Sentinel on the Great Andaman Archipelago between Thailand and India. Population estimates range anywhere from 60-300, although because this group has been so resistant to outsiders, it’s impossible to accurately estimate how many of them there are.
Cultural expeditions have described them as hunter-gathers who rely heavily on the sea to supplement their food. After the tsunami in 2004, numerous people wondered if they managed to survive, and a helicopter was sent to bring aid to any survivors. However, upon arrival a Sentinelese man ran out onto the beach, with a spear, pointing it at the newcomers, proving the tribe was indeed very alive and doing well. Short videos of the tribe, taken from afar, and a photo of the man who greeted the helicopter with a spear can be found here (work warning: it shows tribal nudity). Prior to these encounters, the closest anyone had gotten to describing them had been, “short, brown and left handed”.
Now it’s clear that the Sentinelese are a healthy, active and a flourishing community, with various flyovers showing a number of pregnant women among the group at any given time. It’s hard to say if the tribe will ever be open to outsiders, but many anthropologists contend that their isolation is a good thing, as it’s doubtful they’ve acquired immunity to many of our common diseases.
2. Suri Tribe, South Sudan and Ethiopia
The Suri inhabit an isolated area called the Boma Plateau between South Sudan and Ethiopia. They haven’t shirked contact with the outside world, rather they are separated geographically by large swaths of hilly land. As it stands, it takes a three day hike through the bush from the nearest dirt road to reach their villages. Primarily agricultural with crops such as maize, beans, yams; they also keep sheep and goats to supplement their diets.
The Suri practice intricate forms of body decoration, creating symmetrical scars on their faces. The women use large lip plates, ear plates and both genders enjoy elaborate face painting. With a belief in God and numerous other spirits, including a local rainmaker, they have complex initiation ceremonies based on an age period of every 10 years. These ‘age sets’ are required to show the upmost respect to those in the age set above them, or risk severe beatings at the hands of the elders. However, marriage rites are performed much like they are in the West, with presents given to a bride and groom that must have separate bloodlines.
3. Ruc People, Vietnam
These people, who have no familial names or tribal name, were first spotted in 1959 in central Vietnam. They once lived in caves, although they left them almost 50 years ago, and spent their time hunting and gathering in the hilly mountainous area of Thuong Hoa.
Called the Ruc by local Vietnamese, they are well regarded for their supposed spiritual prowess including spells such as the ‘blow closed’, ‘blow open’ and ‘air cut’. When a woman wants to have sex without conceiving, she receives a “blow closed” spell. When she wants a child, words and various drinks are given for the “blow open.” And when the Ruc happen upon dangerous animals in the forest, they “air cut”; a spell so powerful that leopards, elephants and tigers shrink away in fear, at least according to legend.
When researchers made contact with one of the oldest shamans in the Ruc community, he was willing to show them the spells for “blow close.” He even boasted that he could stop bleeding and cure snake bites. But when they asked him to show the “air cut” ritual, he refused, telling them that nobody outside the Ruc community is allowed to know.
4. Ayoreo, Bolivia and Paraguay
This group was first encountered in the 1940s when Mennonite farmers made the mistake of building farms on their land. Killings ensued, and even as late as the 1980′s, fundamentalist groups from America, named The New Tribes Mission, began forcibly removing these tribes from their forest. Numerous Ayoreo died during these ‘gospel spreading’ encounters, many of them from disease.
Yet their troubles weren’t over. When a Brazilian company named Yaguarete Pora bought an almost 80,000 hectare plot on their land, the Ayoreo’s days in the forest became endangered as the company made plans to bulldoze the entire area for a cattle ranch. The Ayoreo moved up into uninhabited land, and are currently trying to have the region classed as a protected space, under local law. However the landowners, who no doubt want to expand the space for themselves have so far blocked the legal actions of the Ayoreo.
The Ayoreo are now starting to join labor forces for these ranches, and have been tightly controlled by the New Tribes Mission, which still wields a large influence over the area, suppressing their indigenous rituals and rites. At the bottom of this link, you will find out more on how you can help stop the deforestation around the Ayoreo.
5. Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, Brazil
Brazil is home to the largest collection of isolated peoples in the world. With special governmental protections and a system in place to secure their land, the vast Amazonian forest sustains numerous Terra Indigena (indigenous people). In the 1980′s the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau first came into contact with non-natives.
However, because of their isolated nature they (and many tribes like them) have no natural immunity to our regular diseases. Soon after contact their numbers began to drop, bottoming out to only 89 in 1993. However, in the mid-1990s they enjoyed a population resurgence, which has helped them develop into a number of subgroups.
Known for tattoos around their mouths, the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau have lately faced the problem of settlers pouring into their land. Although the government has removed these interlopers and confiscated their weapons, some settlers remain hidden on the land, exposing the group to new diseases that could devastate their population. A local NGO, Kaninde, has now set up protections surrounding the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, to try to keep outside influence to a minimum.