The “uncontacted tribes” around the world exude a sensational strangeness to modern society partly because our own lives are so curtailed
Every once in a while, something happens to turn international attention on a supposed “uncontacted tribe,” a people that seem to live far off the grid of human civilisation. In August, Brazilian researchers released footage of a settlement in the middle of the Amazon rainforest taken by an aerial drone. It featured a hazy recording of a brown-skinned figure wearing limited clothing, ambling through a clearing with what looked like a bow. Here was visual evidence of an indigenous group unknown to the outside world, to whom the outside world was also unknown. The footage itself expressed a surreal contrast; a futuristic, flying robot hovered over a village, recording a people still practising millennia-old ways of life.
The killing recently of an American missionary in the Andaman Islands has reminded the world of the North Sentinelese, another uncontacted tribe who jealously guard their island and don’t allow outsiders in. The missionary died on the third attempt of an ill-fated escapade to bring Christianity to the famously remote people.
A story like this makes headlines in The New York Times and CNN not just because it features an American. There is a powerful and sensational strangeness to groups such as the North Sentinelese, who lead lives so different from those of anybody reading this column. According to Survival International, an indigenous rights non-profit organisation, there are around 100 remaining uncontacted tribes, mostly distributed in the jungly border region between Peru and Brazil and in the highlands of New Guinea. The North Sentinelese in the Bay of Bengal are considered to be one of the most isolated of the groups, their language unrelated to those of neighbouring islands, their practices and beliefs inscrutable, their diminished stature (the average height of North Sentinelese men is thought to be barely above five feet) itself proof of the phenomenon of “island dwarfism” — when a people remain confined in one small place for millennia.
But our bouts of interest in the North Sentinelese have much more to do with ourselves than with them. These groups attract our attention because they offer us a kind of fantasy, of the possibility of a people out of time, of little oases of unbroken calm in the midst of the churn of modernity. As we deal with relentless economic, political, social and technological change, we think that these tribes go on living as they always have, oblivious to it all.
The truth is that no tribe is actually “uncontacted.” In the late 19th-century, the British landed on North Sentinel Island and abducted four children and two elderly islanders. The older pair died soon after their kidnapping, possibly from exposure to unfamiliar microbes. Apparently chastened, the British returned the four children. This rough contact would be followed by other periodic attempts by representatives of the Indian State, by anthropologists and linguists, and even by a National Geographic expedition to build a relationship with the islanders. Though these efforts mostly failed, the remaining islanders are not innocently oblivious of the world beyond. They must maintain knowledge of these encounters and a sensitivity to the impact on their society, which (if the last Indian census is to be believed) may number only 15 people, barely enough to call it an extended family.
Many supposedly uncontacted tribes in the Amazon maintain relations with their “contacted” neighbours, engaging in trade and forging marriage alliances. Even the most secluded people aren’t pristine, not sealed off from currents of change. In previous centuries, there are many examples of Amazonian tribes using European firearms long before they ever encountered Europeans; technology, ideas and germs can travel faster and more invasively than people.
However removed from “modernity”, these tribal societies are dynamic, changing, living communities, not fossilised relics of a bygone age. The American missionary’s most acute delusion was in imagining the North Sentinelese as simple noble savages, their primitive world a blank slate for the inscription of his superior beliefs. According to some reports, he tried to speak to the locals of the island in the southern African language Xhosa, since the North Sentinelese are thought to be part of an early wave of human beings to migrate out of Africa. He fantasised about them, but they had a fairly cold, clear-eyed view of him; other Andamanese groups have been decimated by contact with outsiders.
In much of the coverage of the missionary’s killing, North Sentinel Island is described as being roughly the same size as the island of Manhattan. The comparison is deliberate; what better contrast is there for North Sentinel’s wild, empty unknown than Manhattan’s jungle of human density? And yet beneath the skyscrapers and asphalt is a Manhattan of forests and villages, a place that would have appeared to European invaders just as remote and as virginal as North Sentinel Island does to us today.
We were all uncontacted tribes at some point. Modern nation-states and economic systems don’t typically allow people to live beyond the remit of their knowledge and control. Well into the 20th-century, for example, it was common to see examples of nomadism in societies around the world, from tinkering gypsies to transhumant herders. That kind of floating life was methodically stamped out by enforced programmes of sedentarisation. Today, our identities become adumbrated by state institutions and tech companies, figments of data in an ever expanding universal network. If we marvel at images of naked hunter-gatherers in far away places, it is in part because the ways we live in our own societies have become so limited and curtailed.