The recent death of an American missionary at the hands of tribespeople on North Sentinel Island in India has brought the issue of uncontacted peoples back into the news. Often referred to as some of the most vulnerable people in the world, uncontacted tribes are both a legacy of the past and the responsibility of policymakers today as doing what is best for them often means trying to stay as far away as possible.
The Sentinelese are just one group that is classified as uncontacted. It is believed that there are over 100 uncontacted tribes in the world today, largely in South America and remote, rugged locations like West Papua in Indonesia and neighboring Papua New Guinea. Despite the term “uncontacted” some of these groups have experienced contact with the outside world, albeit such contact is generally negative and rarely voluntary. In the case of the Sentinelese, contact with the British led to the kidnapping of six Sentinelese in 1880, two of which became sick and died shortly after their capture. While the other four were allowed to return to the island unharmed, it is unknown what impact their exposure to British and Indian pathogens had for the rest of the tribe. However since then, the Sentinelese have made clear they want no part of dealings with outsides, regularly shooting arrows at boats that get too close to shore and passing helicopters surveilling the island from the air.
Reports on the Sentinelese often describe them as savage, violent and a remnant of the stone age. While they are believed to be descended from some of the first human migrations out of Africa, they have also demonstrated an adept ability to adapt to new situations and conditions. One of the only people to have made repeated contact in recent history views them as peaceful, but understandably protective of their land and people. Rather than primitive, surveillance footage shows them to be healthy with a thriving society, a condition that is dependent on remaining isolated from the outside world.
Their long-term isolation, ranging from centuries to millennia, means they have no immunity to modern diseases. When Europeans came to the Americas, they brought diseases ranging from the typically benign like influenza and strep to the more fatal smallpox. They also brought diseases like the bubonic plague, itself an import to Europe from Asia that ultimately killed possibly as much as half of medieval Europe’s population within a decade. For indigenous Americans, all of these diseases posed an existential threat. Over the next 500 years, an estimated 90% of the indigenous population would be killed. Certainly some of this is due to the other legacy of European colonization: massacres, mistreatment, enslavement and military campaigns. But it was common disease that brought about most of this death.
Many of the uncontacted tribes in South America actually fled these developments centuries ago. But the diseases and massacres they left back then still pose a threat today. In 2014, Brazilian authorities made contact with members of the Xinane tribe. But within a day of this casual conflict, observers noticed that several members of the tribe were coughing and looking ill. It turned out some members contracted the flu and doctors were able to immunize those directly infected, but the tribespeople disappeared back into the rainforest after a few days, still carrying the potential to infect other members. The experience highlights the difficult decisions facing governments, researchers and anthropologists when it comes to even voluntary contact with these groups.
The recent election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil may imperil the uncontacted indigenous groups there. The indigenous population of Brazil – which numbers around 900,000 people – was a frequent target of his on the campaign trail, and he has repeatedly stated his intention to shut down existing indigenous reserves and open up the Amazon to more commercial activity such as logging and mining.
Already activists say that his election has emboldened illegal operators in the Amazon that have threatened indigenous groups for years. This is an issue for all indigenous groups in Brazil, but it is the estimated 113 uncontacted tribes in Brazil who stand to lose the most. Many of the contacts initiated by tribes in Brazil and neighboring Peru in recent years are suspected to be a result of hunger and desperation as deforestation threatens their communities and livelihoods. Bolsonaro’s promise to increase resource extraction and commercial activity – as well as shut down the country’s agency for indigenous affairs known as FUNAI – will only speed this clash of cultures with little evidence that Brazil is ready to engage with uncontacted tribes in a responsible way.
Similar economic conflicts exist in other countries such as India where keeping uncontacted tribes separated often means giving up potential expansion in tourism. In 2010 the Supreme Court of India blocked the development of a resort in the Andaman Islands just three kilometers from a protected reserve for the isolated Jarawa people. The creation of a major road near the reserve in the 1970s and emerging contact in the 1990s led to several outbreaks of measles, mumps and even malaria among the Jarawa. There is a growing concern over encroachment as more of the Andaman Islands become developed for tourism. But despite numerous court rulings and laws that make contact illegal, the tribespeople themselves have become attractions in a type of “human safari” for several local tour companies. It is not only disease they now have to fear, but basic exploitation by those who are supposed to protect them.
Thus, even with the best intentions the outside world presents significant risks to uncontacted tribes and the potential harm increases substantially when the needs of the uncontacted conflict with the economic interests of others. If the past is prologue, then we are all too aware of the devastation that faces these groups from unwanted outside intervention and forcing foreign cultures onto their societies. It is also important to acknowledge that they have the same human rights to land, cultural preservation and self-styled development as other indigenous groups as recognized under international law. That doesn’t mean contact is never warranted or can’t be done responsibly, but we need to recognize that these people require different considerations based on their circumstances.