The lost tribes
Last week, missionary John Allen Chau was killed by a tribe on a remote Indian island. He was trying to contact the North Sentinelese — one of many uncontacted tribes from around the world.
So what exactly happened?
John Allen Chau was a missionary and self-styled explorer. North Sentinel Island is home to an ancient hunter-gatherer tribe — cut off from civilisation, technology and the modern world. Visitors have long been banned from visiting the island. But, Chau was determined to convert the tribe to Christianity. When he arrived, they killed him with bows and arrows.
Police have struggled to recover his body, wary of sparking more violence by going ashore. The tribesmen have long been hostile to outsiders, at times firing arrows at helicopters which have passed overhead.
What do we know about this tribe?
For one thing, there are not many of them left. Most estimates put the population at 100 or fewer.
In terms of their daily lives, they are similar to Stone Age humans. They hunt wildlife with arrows, catch fish with basic tools, and communicate in a language totally unrelated to any spoken on Earth. They do not even know how to make fire — observations suggest that the Sentinelese wait for lightning to strike, then keep the subsequent embers burning as long as possible.
How many other tribes are there like them?
According to Survival International, there are at least 100 uncontacted tribes left around the world. The majority of these groups are from South America, living in the Amazon rainforest. Other groups are spread out on islands and in forests around the globe.
Life must be tough living in the Amazon?
For sure — largely because of the actions of modern humans. Across the region, external forces are closing in on their ancient way of life. Areas of tribal land have been bulldozed by cattle ranchers and logging companies. Indigenous populations have also been devastated by common diseases they have no resistance to, like the flu, chicken pox and measles. In recent years, members of Peru’s Mascho-Piro tribe have made contact with outsiders, seeking protection from violent drug-traffickers.
Do other tribes face the same problems?
It depends. For example, the Yaifo tribe live amongst the thick jungles of Papua New Guinea. With no roads or neighbouring settlements, the tribe is more concerned with the jungle’s crocodile infested waters than deadly encounters with modern humans. British explorer Benedict Allen is one of the few people to have ever made contact with the group. Upon his first encounter, the tribe displayed “a terrifying show of strength [and] an energetic dance featuring their bows and arrows,” he writes.
Then there are the Nenets, who live in the Arctic plains of northern Russia (their name for the area they call home translates to “edge of the world”). For centuries they have battled -50C winters to tend flocks of reindeer. But now, climate change is melting the icy pastures they call home.
Would it be best to just leave all these people alone?
Possibly. Some people argue that uncontacted tribes have a right to be left in peace. If history is anything to go by, contact with modern humans can spark conflict, spread deadly diseases and lead to exploitation.
However, the picture is not totally clear cut. “People have this romanticised view that isolated tribes have chosen to keep away from the modern, evil world,” says anthropologist Kim 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.” Indeed, other academics have encouraged a policy of “controlled contact” — taking measures to prevent disease outbreaks, but sharing medicine and technology that could improve tribal people’s lives.
- Should remote tribes be contacted by modern humans?
- Imagine you have met one of the North Sentinalese islanders. They know nothing about modern civilisation and they ask you to describe what your world is like. What would you say?
- Someone who goes on a journey to promote a particular religion in a foreign country.
- Stone Age
- Prehistoric period during which stone was a widely used tool. It lasted around 3.4 million years and ended between 8700 BC and 2000 BC.
- A technical term to describe remote tribes, however many of the groups have come into contact with wider civilisation in varying ways.
- The world’s largest tropical rainforest, it covers much of northwestern Brazil and other South American countries.
- Papua New Guinea
- Country in the Pacific Ocean.
- Despite living in extremely inhospitable terrain, the Nenets are far more connected to the modern world than other tribes usually denoted as “uncontacted”.
- Someone who studies the history of human beings.