Uncontacted peoples

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

Uncontacted peoples are communities or groups of indigenous peoples living without sustained contact to neighbouring communities and the world community, and includes "indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation".[1] In 2013 there were thought to be roughly 100 uncontacted tribes worldwide, half of whom live in the Amazon rainforest.[2][3]

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 unintentionally, 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".[1] Otherwise they have also been called "peoples in initial contact", "hidden peoples", "uncontacted tribes",[1] or, incorrectly, "lost tribes".[4]

Relations with outsiders[edit]

Opinions differ between anthropologists, national governments and the medical community on how to handle uncontacted peoples. In an extreme case, Peruvian President Alan García claimed in 2007 that uncontacted groups were only a "fabrication of environmentalists bent on halting oil and gas exploration".[5]

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.[6] 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.[3][7]

Another approach has been to make controlled contact such as on rare occasions employed by the Brazilian state organization National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) to prevent some 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. Missionaries also pose a threat.[10]

Right to self-isolation[edit]

Recognizing the myriad problems with contact, the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2009[11] and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2013[12] introduced guidelines and recommendations along with a right to self-isolation.[13]

Uncontacted peoples in European culture[edit]

Uncontacted peoples have been used for satisfying modern fascinations for claiming first contact or claiming a projected state of nature,[14] historically and contemporarily by people paying tour operators who offer adventure tours to search them out.[15] Indigenous peoples, and specifically those in voluntary isolation, have been its search for the Ten Lost Tribes, being incorrectly associated with them and sometimes named as such.[16]


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 have been isolated for thousands of years.[17] They have been called by experts the most isolated people in the world,[18] and they are likely to remain so.[17] However, some individuals have repeatedly attempted to intrude upon them, although such attempts are against the law.[19] In November 2018, American missionary John Allen Chau was killed by the Sentinelese during an illegal expedition to the island. Chau had intended 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.[20] Helicopter surveys after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami confirmed the Sentinelese had survived,[21] 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.[22][23]

Another Andamanese tribe, the Jarawas, live on the main islands, largely isolated from other peoples. They are thought to number a few hundred people.[24]

South America[edit]

About 50 groups of indigenous peoples of the Americas live in isolation.[2]


The Toromona are an uncontacted people living near the upper Madidi River and the Heath Rivers in northwestern Bolivia.[25] The government has created an "exclusive, reserved, and inviolable" portion of the Madidi National Park to protect the Toromona.[26]

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.[27]


Members of an uncontacted tribe in Acre, Brazil, in 2009

Until the 1970s Brazil attempted unsuccessfully to 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).[28] In 2007, FUNAI reported the presence of 67 uncontacted indigenous peoples in Brazil, up from 40 in 2005.[29]

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.[30]

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.[31]

The Korubu live in the lower Vale do Javari in the western Amazon Basin.[32] 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 2021, uncontacted peoples in Brazil are threatened by illegal land grabbers, loggers and gold miners, as the government of Jair Bolsonaro has signalled its intention to develop the Amazon and reduce the size of indigenous reservations.[33]


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.[34]

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.[35] There are groups, including the Carabayo, Yuri and the Passé, in Río Puré National Park.[36][37][38]


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.[39]


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.[40] Threats to them include rampant illegal deforestation.[41] 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.[42] 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.[43] They speak a dialect of the Piro languages.[44] Amid incursions on their land, the tribe has made it clear they do not wish to be contacted.[45] 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 region in Indonesia although contact is usually established upon their initial encounter. It is illegal for journalists and other organizations to enter West Papua, yet there is no dedicated government agency for the protection of isolated indigenous groups. 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.[46]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Granizo, Tarsicio. "Guardians of the forests…or refugees? Indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation in the Amazon". Retrieved 4 April 2020.
  2. ^ a b "Isolated tribe spotted in Brazil". BBC News. 30 May 2008. Retrieved 5 August 2013.
  3. ^ a b Holmes, Bob (22 August 2013). "How many uncontacted tribes are left in the world?". New Scientist. Retrieved 3 July 2016.
  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. ^ Kluger, Jeffrey (4 June 2015). "Uncontacted Tribes: Is it Ethical to Leave Them Alone?". Time. Retrieved 16 April 2019.
  6. ^ Nuwer, Rachel (4 August 2014). "Anthropology: The sad truth about uncontacted tribes". BBC. Retrieved 24 July 2015.
  7. ^ Adams, Guy (2 February 2012). "Close camera encounter with 'uncontacted' Peruvian tribe". The New Zealand Herald.
  8. ^ Phillips, Dom (5 April 2019). "Brazil: high-risk expedition to contact isolated tribe declared success". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 April 2020.
  9. ^ Walker, Robert S.; Hill, Kim R. (2015). "Protecting isolated tribes". Science. 348 (6239): 1061. Bibcode:2015Sci...348.1061W. doi:10.1126/science.aac6540. ISSN 0036-8075. PMID 26045407. S2CID 30371221.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Shelton, Dinah; Vaz, Antenor; Castillo, Beatriz; et al. (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. ^ Guidelines on the Protection of Indigenous Peoples in Voluntary Isolation and in Initial Contact of the Amazon Basin and El Chaco
  12. ^ Indigenous Peoples in Voluntary Isolation and Initial Contact in the Americas: Recommendations for the Full Respect of Their Human Rights
  13. ^ Gregg, Benjamin (April 2019). "Against Self-Isolation as a Human Right of Indigenous Peoples in Latin America". Human Rights Review. 20 (3): 313–333. doi:10.1007/s12142-019-0550-x. S2CID 150900416. Retrieved 12 November 2020.
  14. ^ Grande, Alexander (2014). Erst-Kontakt (Thesis). Vienna: University of Vienna. doi:10.25365/thesis.31693. Retrieved 4 April 2020.
  15. ^ "A Dangerous Controversy". Survival International. Retrieved 21 January 2020.
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ a b "The most isolated tribe in the world?". Survival International. Retrieved 15 April 2020.
  18. ^ Nuwer, Rachel. "Anthropology: The sad truth about uncontacted tribes". Retrieved 22 January 2018.
  19. ^ Dobson, Jim (28 September 2015). "A Human Zoo on the World's Most Dangerous Island? The Shocking Future of North Sentinel". Forbes.
  20. ^ "Enumeration of Primitive Tribes in A&N Islands – A Challenge" (PDF). Census of India. Retrieved 19 August 2016.
  21. ^ Misra, Neelesh (4 January 2005). "Stone Age cultures survive tsunami waves". Associated Press. Retrieved 22 January 2018.
  22. ^ "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.
  23. ^ "Directorate of Health Services: Tribal Health". Directorate of Health Services. Retrieved 19 August 2016.
  24. ^ "The Jarawa". Survival International.
  25. ^ "Bolivia covers up evidence of uncontacted Indians". Survival International. 14 November 2008. Retrieved 19 January 2020.
  26. ^ 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.
  27. ^ 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)
  28. ^ Hammer, Joshua (March 2013). "The Lost Tribes of the Amazon". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 21 January 2020.
  29. ^ Colitt, Raymond (17 January 2007). "Brazil sees traces of more isolated Amazon tribes". Reuters. Archived from the original on 23 February 2015. Retrieved 19 October 2014.
  30. ^ 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.
  31. ^ Wallace, Scott (23 May 2016). "Brazil Seeks to Save Isolated Amazon Tribe Threatened by Loggers". National Geographic News. Retrieved 19 January 2020.
  32. ^ Raffaele, Paul (April 2005). "Out of Time". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 19 January 2020.
  33. ^ Wallace, Scott (17 September 2020). "Tragic attack sparks concern for future of isolated Amazon tribes". National Geographic. Retrieved 24 February 2021.
  34. ^ Plotkin, Mark (3 October 2013). "'Lost Tribes' Saved through Creation of Massive Colombian Park". Live Science. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  35. ^ "Nukak". Survival International. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  36. ^ https://www.amazoniasocioambiental.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Sistematizacion_Edici%C3%B3n-frida.3.pdf
  37. ^ https://www.elespectador.com/noticias/medio-ambiente/firman-decreto-para-proteger-los-pueblos-indigenas-aislados-de-colombia-articulo-801245
  38. ^ Butler, Rhett A. (19 April 2012). "Photos: Uncontacted Amazon tribes documented for first time in Colombia". Mongabay Environmental News. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  39. ^ "Death in the Amazon". The Economist. 8 November 2013.
  40. ^ Brice, Arthur (14 November 2008). "Legal battle over forest is victory for Paraguayan Indians". CNN. Retrieved 21 January 2020.
  41. ^ "Signs of uncontacted Indians seen as forest is cleared around them". Survival International. 13 September 2007. Retrieved 21 January 2020.
  42. ^ "Survival names winner of 'Greenwashing Award' 2010". Survival International. 20 January 2010. Retrieved 21 January 2020.
  43. ^ 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.
  44. ^ 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.
  45. ^ "Mashco-Piro 'uncontacted' Peruvian tribe pictured". BBC News. 31 January 2012. Retrieved 5 August 2013.
  46. ^ "Question and answers: Uncontacted tribes of Papua". www.survival-international.org. Survival International. Retrieved 16 June 2020.

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