It’s often all too easy to romanticize the uncontacted peoples of the world as “Stone Age” or “primitive.” But the truth is, these people live a completely normal life —to them. Being uncontacted, or at least left alone, is part of their ordinary life in the modern world.
That’s the thing about “normal”: it’s a subjective concept. What’s ordinary to one person might be fascinating and strange to someone else. And, to those of us who live a very different life from that of uncontacted peoples, their lives can seem intriguing indeed.
Most “uncontacted” people have been contacted in some way, at some point. It’s nearly impossible to live anywhere in the world without seeing a plane flying overhead, or running into an errant wildlife researcher. But uncontacted peoples have decided they’d rather remain undisturbed after what they’ve seen of the rest of the world.
This means it’s vital to leave uncontacted tribes alone—even though that makes it difficult to learn much about their way of life. What do we know about them so far? Let’s take a look at some of the uncontacted peoples that still exist today, and what life seems to be like for them.
The Dani tribe lives in a remote part of Western New Guinea. They’re known for wearing striking facial jewelry, and for a grieving practice that involves cutting off fingertips. When a loved one or relative dies, the tribe women traditionally amputate the tip of a finger in mourning and to keep restless spirits at bay.
Although this practice is now illegal under the Indonesian government, it’s hard to enforce the law among people who want to be contacted as little as possible.
In another interesting tradition, the men of the Dani tribe also wear kotekas, a sort of elaborate codpiece made of dried gourds.
Although this tribe lives mostly uncontacted, they’re not as hostile to outsiders as some uncontacted tribes are. Researchers and photographers have spent days at a time with the Dani tribe, giving us a pretty good idea of who these people are—or at least what they look like.
Most of the world’s uncontacted peoples live in the Amazon rainforest, like the Awa tribe. Most members of the Awa tribe are in contact with the outside world. However, a few groups still live mostly uncontacted in the rainforest—although extensive logging is now threatening their privacy.
Like many uncontacted tribes, the Awa live as hunter-gatherers. They often travel to find food, as hunter-gatherers must, but return to more permanent locations when they aren’t hunting or gathering. Increasingly, the Awa people must also travel to avoid the activity of loggers.
They make six-foot-long bows and arrows for hunting and also create other tools like hammocks out of what the rainforest provides. Sometimes, tribe members find other tools, like shotguns, left by nearby people, and they put them to use.
It doesn’t make sense to call tribes like these “Stone Age,” because they’ve adapted and changed over many centuries, just like the rest of us have. They’ve just decided to adapt in different ways, such as by using shotguns they find, rather than going out and buying them.
The Sentinelese have become the most famous of all uncontacted peoples in recent years. When a Christian missionary named John Chau broke the law and tried to contact them in 2018, the tribe killed him. When the news broke, popular opinion mainly sided with the tribe—they had the right to be left alone, and Chau invaded their space and ignored their warnings.
The Sentinelese live on North Sentinel Island in India, an island about the size of Manhattan. This small island is far from major shipping routes and lacks natural harbors, making it an ideal place for people who want to remain uncontacted. The tribe appears to have about 80 to 150 members.
Researchers have successfully visited the tribe on occasion, so we do know that they live in lean-to huts, fish from canoes, and hunt and defend themselves with bows and arrows. They often use metal that washes up on shore to make their weapons.
However, no one, not even nearby island tribes, understands the Sentinelese language, as they’ve been uncontacted for so long on their remote island.
Why are the Sentinelese and other uncontacted tribes so fiercely determined to remain uncontacted? It’s merely an act of self-preservation. These tribes don’t have immunity to most modern diseases, and their few encounters with the outside world in the past have led to deadly illness or violence.
Even if the Sentinelese were contacted peacefully, the diseases the outsiders brought would likely wipe out the tribe. So, these people have a good reason for attacking—and even killing—outsiders that get too close.
The Jarawa are effectively the neighbors of the Sentinelese, though even they don’t seem to understand the Sentinelese language. They live on a different island in the same Indian island chain as the Sentinelese, called the Andaman Islands.
The Jarawa don’t treat outsiders with as much hostility as the Sentinelese do, but maybe they should. Tourism from outsiders who want to see the Jarawa way of life up close has put this tribe at serious risk in recent years, as has the activity of nearby poachers.
Tourists often come bearing gifts of food and supplies, which helped the Jarawa decide to stop being hostile to outsiders. Historically, the Jarawa were hunter-gatherers who didn’t rely on outside assistance. While they may welcome this outside help, contact with other people has led to disease outbreaks in the past and continues to threaten the Jarawa lifestyle in the future.
Many “uncontacted” peoples have been contacted sporadically beginning as early as the eighteenth century. Reports of disease and destruction from this early contact made these tribes fiercely devoted to avoiding outsiders. But, as far as we know, the Korowai tribe in the jungles of Papua New Guinea wasn’t contacted until the 1970s. This tribe truly may not have realized the rest of us existed.
One of the most interesting things about this tribe is their homes. The Korowai live in treehouses that rise as far as 140 feet above the jungle floor. The houses are propped up by tall, narrow stilts, making them look more precarious than they are. To reach one, you must climb a wooden ladder. This design keeps the Korowai safe from other villages that would attack them, as they can retreat to safety when needed.
Reports persist that the Korowai practice cannibalism, but we don’t know for sure if that’s true. As the story goes, the Korowai believe that if someone gets possessed by a demon, that person must be killed and eaten. However, it’s possible that the tribe members themselves made up the story to keep outsiders from getting too close.
Today, some tribe members have decided to leave their old way of life and join nearby towns. Although that is their right to choose, it also means that the Korowai traditional lifestyle may disappear sooner rather than later.
The Yanomami live in the Amazon rainforest, like the Awa and many other uncontacted peoples. Like the Awa, there are thousands of Yanomami tribe members, but only a few of them continue to live uncontacted.
The uncontacted faction of the Yanomami is called the Moxihatetema, and they even avoid contact with other Yanomami tribe members. However, gold miners in the area have been known to be violent with these people, posing yet another threat to their lives and lifestyle.
Moxihatetema people build communal circular villages, leaving the central part open for social gatherings. People sleep in hammocks and cook food over the fire at their family’s dwelling on the edge of the circle. In addition to hunting and gathering, they also grow crops, which make up the majority of their diet.
This tribe lives primarily in the Chaco forests of northern Paraguay. Like other South American uncontacted peoples, they now often travel to avoid logging and deforestation, even more than they would typically travel to find food.
And, like many uncontacted peoples, the uncontacted only make up a small percentage of all the Ayoreo people. As of 2010, only 50 or fewer tribe members still avoid the rest of the world. But, unlike some tribes, the uncontacted Ayoreo have the support of the government. Paraguay’s government has made efforts to protect its uncontacted peoples from threats to their territory.
That said, tribe members have still faced other threats, such as that of missionaries who have gone so far as to kidnap tribe members in the past. Disease epidemics have also wiped out large numbers of tribe members in recent years. Between deliberate attacks and accidental contact, these people face many challenges in continuing to live safe and uncontacted.
What’s the Future of Uncontacted Peoples?
As modern civilization spreads and activities like tourism, logging, and mining grow, it becomes more and more difficult for uncontacted peoples to maintain their lifestyles. Only those who have both government protection and isolated land to live on, like the Sentinelese, continue to ward off outsiders successfully.
Many outsiders want to come to these peoples’ lands for many reasons, such as converting them to a new religion, learning more about them, or using the local resources. Yet, all it takes is a few instances of contact, and disease will quickly wipe out large swaths of a tribe.
Unless governments do their best to protect their uncontacted peoples, it may only be a few generations until these cultures no longer exist at all. Although it’s exciting to learn more about uncontacted peoples, any research must be done carefully. Otherwise, even the most well-intentioned expedition will put these people even more at risk than they already are.