“The recent killing of an American missionary by members of an isolated tribe on a small island in the Indian Ocean has reignited questions about the fate of the last few groups of people living off the grid…experts say they may not survive undisturbed for much longer.” E. Londono, The New York Times
“In an era when people across the globe are hyper-connected by technology and increasingly interlocked economies, the survival of a few dozen groups of hunter-gatherers living in complete isolation may seem extraordinary. Because most of these groups are small and highly vulnerable, anthropologists and indigenous activists have been debating whether it makes more sense to leave them alone — or try to establish contact with them to offer basic medical care, such as vaccines.
Here are some basic facts about the world’s remaining isolated tribes.
How many are there, and where?
Anthropologists and activists who study the issue say it’s hard to know for certain. But based on satellite images and field research, experts believe there are more than 100 communities living in isolation. The only relatively large community outside of South America belongs to the Sentinelese, who live on North Sentinel Island. It is nominally part of India, but technically a sovereign territory.
That is where John Allen Chau, the American, was killed on a mission to convert the local residents to Christianity.
Why do these communities choose to remain isolated?
Based on accounts from people who have ceased living in isolation, and those who have had fleeting contact with these societies, experts say members of these communities are fearful that contact with outsiders would bring disease and mistreatment.
‘Many tribes in the frontier region of Brazil and Peru are probably survivors of the rubber boom who witnessed the enslavement and atrocities against indigenous peoples and fled to the headwaters of the Amazon to evade capture,’ said Jonathan Mazower, an expert on isolated communities at Survival, a London-based organization that advocates greater protection for the groups. ‘The historical memory of this era is likely to have been passed down to the current generation,’ he said.
Are these communities endangered?
Loggers, miners, cattle ranchers and drug traffickers have encroached on the territories of these groups, exposing them to violence and disease.
Anthropologists at the University of Missouri who study the size and resilience of these groups, based on satellite images and photos shot from aircraft, classify the ones they track as either ‘vulnerable’ or’critical.’
Is there a safe, ethical way to contact and support indigenous people?
Robert Walker and Kim Hill, two prominent anthropologists who study isolated societies, argued in an essay published in 2015 that it was time to reconsider the no-contact policy that governments like Brazil and Peru have maintained in recent years…Mr. Walker and Mr. Hill wrote in the essay, published in the magazine Science. ‘Disease epidemics, compounded by demographic variability and inbreeding effects, makes the disappearance of small, isolated groups very probable in the near future.’
Survival disagrees, and instead calls on governments to redouble efforts to keep outsiders from the territories where these communities live.
‘These uncontacted peoples make a judgment that they are better off remaining uncontacted and independent, fending for themselves,’ Mr. Mazower said. ‘Where their lands are protected and their right to remain uncontacted is upheld, they live healthy lives and are totally self-sufficient.’