Uncontacted peoples

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Members of an uncontacted tribe photographed in Acre near Feijó, Brazil in 2012
A map of uncontacted people, around the start of the 21st century

Uncontacted people are communities or groups of indigenous peoples living without sustained contact to neighbouring communities and the world community. In 2013 there were thought to be roughly 100 uncontacted tribes worldwide, half of whom live in the Amazon rainforest.[1][2]

Knowledge of uncontacted peoples comes mostly from encounters with neighbouring indigenous communities and from aerial footage.


While sporadic contact may occur and products from outside might be acquired, uncontacted peoples sustain communities living in isolation either unintendedly, actively out of need, or voluntarily. To highlight their agency in staying uncontacted or isolated, international organizations emphasize calling them "indigenous peoples in isolation" or "in voluntary isolation".[3] Otherwise they have also been called "peoples in initial contact", "hidden peoples", "uncontacted tribes",[3] or even incorrectly "lost tribes".[4]

Relations with outsiders[edit]

Indigenous rights activists call for indigenous peoples in isolation to be left alone, saying that contact will interfere with their right to self-determination as peoples.[5] Countries have been legislating policy to leave them alone, though such laws are often difficult to enforce or suffer deprioritization. Since isolated peoples lack immunity to common infectious diseases, up to half of them can die of respiratory disease following first contact.[2][6] It has been proposed[by whom?Discuss] that isolated populations are not viable in the long term[7] and that a controlled contact is more humane than the uncontrolled contact that is currently happening. Controlled contact for example has been occasionally used by the Brazilian state organization National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) to prevent conflicts and deliver vaccinations.[8] Some isolating peoples might even want to have trading relationships and positive social connections with others, but choose isolation out of fears of conflict or exploitation.[9] Other threats are usually related to the outside world's desire to exploit their lands. This can include lumbering, ranching and farming, land speculation, oil prospecting and mining, and poaching. Evangelical missionaries also pose a threat.[10]

Uncontacted peoples in culture[edit]

Uncontacted peoples have been romanticized, objectified and used for satisfying modern fascinations for claiming first contact or claiming a projected state of nature,[11] historically by colonial endeavours and contemporarily by people paying tour operators who offer adventure tours to search them out.[12] Indigenous peoples, and specifically those in voluntary isolation, have been an object of colonial exploration and its search for the Ten Lost Tribes, being incorrectly associated with them and sometimes named as such.[13]


Aerial photograph of North Sentinel Island

The Sentinelese people of North Sentinel Island, which lies near South Andaman Island in the Bay of Bengal, reject contact. Attempts to contact them have usually been rebuffed, sometimes with lethal force. Their language is markedly different from other languages on the Andamans, which suggests that they may have remained isolated for thousands of years.[14] They have been called by experts the most isolated people in the world,[15] and they are likely to remain so.[14] However, private people have attempted to intrude upon them repeatedly. Such attempts are against the law.[16] Most recently, in November 2018, American missionary John Allen Chau was slain by the Sentinelese during an illegal expedition to the island. Chau had an intent to convert the tribe to Christianity. During the 2001 Census of India, a joint expedition conducted during 23–24 February 2001 identified at least a few dozen individuals, but it was not exhaustive.[17] Helicopter surveys after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami confirmed the Sentinelese had survived,[18] and there have been a few limited interactions with them since. The local Andaman and Nicobar administration has adopted an "eyes-on and hands-off" policy to ensure that no poachers enter the island. A protocol of circumnavigation of North Sentinel Island has been made and notified in consultation with the Indian government.[19][20]

Another Andamanese tribe, the Jarawas, live on the main islands, largely isolated from other peoples. They are thought to number a few hundred people.[21]

South America[edit]

About 50 groups of indigenous peoples of the Americas live in isolation.[1]


The Toromona are an uncontacted people living near the upper Madidi River and the Heath Rivers in northwestern Bolivia.[22] The government has created an "exclusive, reserved, and inviolable" portion of the Madidi National Park to protect the Toromona.[23]

Among the Ayoreo people of the Gran Chaco are a small number of uncontacted nomadic hunter-gatherers in the Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco National Park and Integrated Management Natural Area.

Pacahuaras are believed to be living in voluntary isolation in Pando Department.[24]


Members of an uncontacted tribe in Acre, Brazil in 2009

Until the 1970s Brazil attempted unsuccessfully to assimilate or move anyone on lands that could be commercially cultivated. Then, in 1987, it set up the Department of Isolated Indians inside FUNAI, facilitating the work of Sydney Possuelo and José Carlos Meirelles, and declared the Vale do Javari perpetually sealed off, encompassing an area of 85,444.82 km 2 (32,990 mi 2).[25] In 2007, FUNAI reported the presence of 67 uncontacted indigenous peoples in Brazil, up from 40 in 2005.[26]

The Awá are people living in the eastern Amazon rainforest. There are approximately 350 members, and 100 of them have no contact with the outside world. They are considered highly endangered because of conflicts with logging interests in their territory.[27]

The Kawahiva live in the north of Mato Grosso. They are usually on the move and have little contact with outsiders. Thus, they are known primarily from physical evidence they have left behind – arrows, baskets, hammocks, and communal houses.[28]

The Korubu live in the lower Vale do Javari in the western Amazon Basin.[29] Other tribes may include the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, and the Himarimã. There may be uncontacted peoples in Terra Indigena Uru-Eu-Uaw-Uaw and Terra Indigena Xinane Isolados.

As of 2020, uncontacted peoples in Brazil are threatened by illegal land grabbers, loggers and gold miners, as the government of Jair Bolsonaro wants to develop the Amazon and reduce the size of indigenous reservations.[30]


With the creation of gigantic tribal reserves and strict patrolling, Colombia is now regarded as one of the countries where uncontacted indigenous people are offered maximum protection.[31]

The Nukak people are nomadic hunter-gatherers living between the Guaviare and Inírida rivers in south-east Colombia at the headwaters of the northwest Amazon basin.[32] There are groups, including the Carabayo, Yuri and the Passé, in Río Puré National Park.[33][34][35]


Two isolated indigenous peoples of Ecuador live in the Amazon region: the Tagaeri and the Taromenane. Both are eastern Huaorani peoples living in Yasuni National Park. These semi-nomadic people live in small groups, subsisting on hunting, gathering, and some crops. They are organized into extended families.[10] Since 2007 there is a national policy which mandates: untouchability, self-determination, equality, and no contact.[10] In 2013, more than 20 Taromenane were killed by other Huaorani.[36]


Approximately 100 Ayoreo people, some of whom are in the Totobiegosode tribe, live uncontacted in the forest. They are nomadic, and hunt, forage, and conduct limited agriculture. They are the last uncontacted peoples south of the Amazon basin, and are in Amotocodie.[37] Threats to them include rampant illegal deforestation.[38] According to Survival International, Brazilian company Yaguarete Porá S.A. is converting thousands of hectares of the Ayoreo-Totobiegosode tribe's ancestral territory into cattle ranching land.[39] The Union of Ayoreo Natives of Paraguay is working for their protection, with support from the Iniciativa Amotocodie.[10]


The Mashco-Piro are nomadic Arawak hunter-gatherers who inhabit Manú National Park in Peru. In 1998, the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs estimated their number to be around 100 to 250.[40] They speak a dialect of the Piro languages.[41] Amid incursions on their land, the tribe has made it clear they do not wish to be contacted.[42] As of 2013, all the bands seem to be surviving. Other groups include the Machiguenga, Nanti, Asháninka, Mayoruna, Isconahua, Kapanawa, Yora, Murunahua, Chitonahua, Mastanahua, Kakataibo, and Pananujuri. Many of them speak dialects of Panoan languages.[10] There are five reserves for uncontacted peoples. However, the law designed to protect those peoples does not prevent economic operations there.[10]


In Venezuela some groups from the Hoti, Yanomami, and Piaroa tribes live in relative isolation. The Ministry of Indigenous Peoples has no policies designed to protect these people specifically.[10]

New Guinea[edit]

There are over 40 uncontacted tribes living in West Papua. Many of these tribes have had contact in recent years, since being discovered. Most of the contact was of a negative nature, so it is now illegal for journalists and other organizations to make contact. There is no dedicated government agency for the protection of these tribes, and it is unclear how the no contact laws are being enforced. Human rights organizations including Survival International have argued that there is a need to raise awareness of the existence of uncontacted tribes, for example to prevent the development of infrastructure near their lands. On the other hand, remaining vague about the exact location and size of the tribe may help to avoid encouraging contact.[43]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Isolated tribe spotted in Brazil". BBC News. 30 May 2008. Retrieved 5 August 2013.
  2. ^ a b "How many uncontacted tribes are left in the world?". New Scientist. 22 August 2013. Retrieved 3 July 2016.
  3. ^ a b Tarsicio Granizo. "Guardians of the forests…or refugees? Indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation in the Amazon". Retrieved 4 April 2020.
  4. ^ Kirsch, Stuart (1997). "Lost Tribes: Indigenous people and the social imaginary". Anthropological Quarterly. 70 (2): 58–67. doi:10.2307/3317506. JSTOR 3317506.
  5. ^ Nuwer, Rachel (4 August 2014). "Future – Anthropology: The sad truth about uncontacted tribes". BBC. Retrieved 24 July 2015.
  6. ^ Adams, Guy (2 February 2012). "Close camera encounter with 'uncontacted' Peruvian tribe". The New Zealand Herald.
  7. ^ Jeffrey Kluger (4 June 2015). "Uncontacted Tribes: Is it Ethical to Leave Them Alone?". Retrieved 16 April 2019.
  8. ^ Dom Phillips (5 April 2019). "Brazil: high-risk expedition to contact isolated tribe declared success". Retrieved 4 April 2020.
  9. ^ Robert Walker; Kim Hill (5 June 2015). "Protecting isolated tribes". Retrieved 16 April 2019.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Shelton, Dinah; Vaz, Antenor; Castillo, Beatriz; Nassar, Carlos; Bello, Luis; Colleoni, Paola; Proaño, José; Mahecha, Dany; Franky, Carlos (June 2013). Indigenous Peoples in Voluntary Isolation and Initial Contact (PDF). Instituto de Promocion Estudios Sociales. ISBN 978-87-92786-32-6. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  11. ^ Grande, Alexander (2014). Erst-Kontakt (Thesis). Vienna: University of Vienna. doi:10.25365/thesis.31693. Retrieved 4 April 2020.
  12. ^ "A Dangerous Controversy". Survival International. Retrieved 21 January 2020.
  13. ^ Kirsch, Stuart (1997). "Lost Tribes: Indigenous people and the social imaginary". Anthropological Quarterly. 70 (2): 58–67. doi:10.2307/3317506. JSTOR 3317506. Retrieved 23 October 2012.
  14. ^ a b "The most isolated tribe in the world?". Survival International. Retrieved 15 April 2020.
  15. ^ Nuwer, Rachel. "Anthropology: The sad truth about uncontacted tribes". Retrieved 22 January 2018.
  16. ^ "A Human Zoo on the World's Most Dangerous Island? The Shocking Future of North Sentinel".
  17. ^ "Enumeration of Primitive Tribes in A&N Islands – A Challenge" (PDF). Census of India. Retrieved 19 August 2016.
  18. ^ "Stone Age cultures survive tsunami waves". Associated Press. 4 January 2005. Retrieved 22 January 2018.
  19. ^ "Various facilities provided to tribal population of A&N Islands: Minister". IP Division, Directorate of Information Publicity & Tourism, Andaman & Nicobar Administration. 26 February 2016. Retrieved 19 August 2016.
  20. ^ "Directorate of Health Services: Tribal Health". Directorate of Health Services. Retrieved 19 August 2016.
  21. ^ "Estimation".
  22. ^ International, Survival. "Bolivia covers up evidence of uncontacted Indians". Survival International. Retrieved 19 January 2020.
  23. ^ Quote from Stolton, Sue; Nigel Dudley (31 May 2010). Arguments for protected areas: Multiple benefits for conservation and use. Earthscan. ISBN 978-1-84407-881-3.
  24. ^ Indigenous Peoples in Voluntary isolation and initial contact. Dany Mahecha R., Carlos Eduardo Franky C. (eds.). International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) and Instituto de Promoción Estudios Sociales (IPES). 2013. pp. 104–109. ISBN 978-87-92786-32-6.CS1 maint: others (link)
  25. ^ Hammer, Joshua. "The Lost Tribes of the Amazon". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 21 January 2020.
  26. ^ Colitt, Raymond. "Brazil sees traces of more isolated Amazon tribes". Reuters. Retrieved 19 October 2014.
  27. ^ Chamberlain, Gethin (21 April 2012). "'They're killing us': world's most endangered tribe cries for help". The Observer. The Guardian. Retrieved 23 April 2012.
  28. ^ Wallace, Scott (23 May 2016). "Brazil Seeks to Save Isolated Amazon Tribe Threatened by Loggers". National Geographic News. Retrieved 19 January 2020.
  29. ^ Raffaele, Paul. "Out of Time". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 19 January 2020.
  30. ^ Wallace, Scott (10 September 2020). "Expert on Amazon tribes killed by arrow from uncontacted group". The Guardian. Retrieved 11 September 2020.
  31. ^ Plotkin, Mark. "'Lost Tribes' Saved through Creation of Massive Colombian Park". livescience.com. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  32. ^ "Nukak". Survival International. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  33. ^ https://www.amazoniasocioambiental.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Sistematizacion_Edici%C3%B3n-frida.3.pdf
  34. ^ https://www.elespectador.com/noticias/medio-ambiente/firman-decreto-para-proteger-los-pueblos-indigenas-aislados-de-colombia-articulo-801245
  35. ^ Butler, Rhett A. (19 April 2012). "Photos: Uncontacted Amazon tribes documented for first time in Colombia". Mongabay Environmental News. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  36. ^ "Death in the Amazon". The Economist. 8 November 2013.
  37. ^ Brice, Arthur. "Legal battle over forest is victory for Paraguayan Indians - CNN.com". CNN. Retrieved 21 January 2020.
  38. ^ "Signs of uncontacted Indians seen as forest is cleared around them". Survival International. 2007. Retrieved 21 January 2020.
  39. ^ "Survival names winner of 'Greenwashing Award' 2010". Survival International. Retrieved 21 January 2020.
  40. ^ Diana Vinding (1998). Indigenous women: the right to a voice. International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA). pp. 40–. ISBN 978-87-984110-5-5. Retrieved 2 February 2012.
  41. ^ Pedro García Hierro; Søren Hvalkof; Andrew Gray (1 January 1998). Liberation through land rights in the Peruvian Amazon. IWGIA. pp. 200–. ISBN 978-87-90730-05-5. Retrieved 2 February 2012.
  42. ^ "Mashco-Piro 'uncontacted' Peruvian tribe pictured". Bbc.co.uk. 31 January 2012. Retrieved 5 August 2013.
  43. ^ "Question and answers: Uncontacted tribes of Papua". www.survival-international.org. Survival International. Retrieved 16 June 2020.

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