A Peek Inside the Most Isolated Tribes in the World

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:57:21 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Gleilson Miranda/Secretaria de Comunicação do Estado do Acre/Wikimedia Commons

If you think we've discovered and explored every single part of our world, you would be dead wrong. The truth is we don't even know anything about some of the people living on it with us. It’s hard to believe, but hundreds of tribes around the world continue to live in complete isolation from modern civilization.

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Many of these tribes are extremely serious about no outside contact, and if you happen to stumble upon them, it won't end well for you. Just wait until you hear about one man who has been living in the Amazon Rainforest by himself since the 1990s! Curious? Let’s take a peek inside some of the most isolated tribes in the world.

Winner of the Most Isolated Award

The Sentinelese have lived on the Andaman Islands for more than 50,000 years. They live in a completely remote location that is directly in the path of many tsunamis. Nonetheless, the Sentinelese continue to occupy the islands, and they refuse to share anything about themselves or interact at all with the rest of the world.

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Although people have tried to reach out many times in hopes of helping them deal with natural disasters, the Sentinelese remain hostile toward any people outside their tribe. Their language is also different from any other language around them, which suggests they have lived in isolation for thousands of years.

Approached by a Missionary

When the Sentinelese were approached by a missionary, it did not end well. When they say they don’t want to be contacted, they mean it. In 2018, John Allen Chau was on a mission to preach Christianity to the tribe, despite knowing it would be very dangerous. He admitted he was scared after the first visit, when a teenager shot an arrow at him, piercing his Bible.

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He was killed with arrows after landing on North Sentinel Island the second time. Indian authorities even struggled to retrieve his body due to confrontations with the hostile tribe.

Contact Reserved to Government Officials

Although isolated tribes should be left alone, it's important that the countries they live in become more involved in protecting them and their rights. In many cases — the Sentinelese being an obvious exception — contact initiated in the right way by the right people with the right intentions can be extremely beneficial, especially when it comes to spreading awareness about the tribe's living situation.

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It’s important that people who contact these tribes do so with the right motives. Due to initially hostile attitudes in many such communities, it's best if the curious public leaves the tribes alone and leaves all communication to the experts.

Monitoring with Modern Technology

Because modern civilization sometimes threatens to encroach on isolated tribes, it’s our duty to monitor the situation and help whenever we can. Scientists have revealed they keep tabs on many tribes using satellites. This allows them to incorporate non-invasive tracking and protection from any natural threats.

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In order to help make sure the tribes continue to live on, the researchers are also trying to determine the exact number of undiscovered species in these areas. Satellites provide an efficient way to make sure the tribes remain safe as we gather as much information as possible.

Tribes Making Contact

While many tribes have a strict (sometimes hostile) "no contact" policy, other previously isolated tribes have started to reach out to government officials in recent years. This is often due to shrinking tribe populations. As their numbers dwindle, some decide to ask for help and protection in order to survive.

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Brazil and Peru are two key locations where tribes are increasingly making contact with the government in order to receive more help. Researchers predict that more and more of them will come out of the jungle in the upcoming decades.

67 Uncontacted Tribes in Brazil

In 2007, the FUNAI organization (Fundação Nacional do Índio) confirmed that there are 67 isolated tribes in Brazil. That gives the country the highest number of uncontacted tribes, surpassing some of the other areas around the world, including the island of New Guinea.

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As of 2013, an estimated 100 tribes have had minimal contact with the rest of the world. More than half of those tribes reside in Brazil’s forests, while others can be found on abandoned islands, far away from the general population of the country. Many tribes have reportedly fled from their land in hopes of remaining undiscovered.

The Large Apiacá Tribe in Brazil

The Apiacá community suffered a population decline due to illnesses that infected their people after they were discovered by various settlers. In 2001, the tribe had around 192 members, but by 2009, the numbers seemed to significantly jump, as officials noted an increase of more than 1,000 members.

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Due to such a shift in population numbers, the tribe went through several language changes, especially after they came in contact with Neo-Brazilians. It has been noted that only a few people are still able to speak the original Apiacá language, while the rest stick to a version of Portuguese.

Many Hostile Tribes

Although it may seem unbelievable that anyone could still live like this on our planet, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to try to contact them to change things. It’s important to understand how serious their "no contact" policies actually are when they exist. Like the Sentinelese, many tribes violently refuse any contact with the outside world, making it dangerous for both us and them.

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It’s highly likely that contacting or visiting them in any way would result in harm, and it would be extremely difficult to get any bodies or survivors out and back to civilized areas. Many officials insist that it’s best to leave these tribes alone and let them live in their own way.

Development of Isolated Languages

Living in isolation brings out many unexpected survival skills, including developing your own language. While many tribal languages resemble languages found in nearby areas, it completely depends on how long the tribe has existed. Many tribes have their own language, completely independent of any other known language.

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This makes it much harder to communicate with the outside world, as they are incredibly difficult to understand with no point of reference. Among the many tribes around the world, the Sentinelese tribe is one that has developed a completely unique way of communicating.

Weak Immune Systems

Beyond the risk of harm, one of the key reasons the public shouldn’t contact native tribes is because of the diseases and germs we typically carry. In 1910, a Brazilian engineer befriended a member of the Nambikwara tribe. It was a seemingly innocent act, with the man’s only intention being to offer peace and friendship.

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As it turned out, the engineer unknowingly carried germs that were, of course, passed on to the tribe. This simple interaction resulted in the death of more than 4,000 tribe members, many of whom passed away from the common cold and other simple illnesses.

Man of the Hole Alone in the Amazon

It’s hard to imagine being isolated as a community, but imagine being the last surviving member of an isolated community. Known as the Man of the Hole, this man is the last surviving member of his tribe, and he lives alone in the Amazon Rainforest.

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Not much is known about him, but over the years, officials have managed to capture some of the most fascinating footage of him chopping down the jungle trees. It has been reported that the man has lived by himself since the last members of his tribe were killed in 1996.

A Symbol of Resilience

The Man of the Hole is considered a symbol of strength. After surviving genocide and living in the jungle by himself — all while knowing there is another world out there — the man is obviously incredibly tough. He is said to be in his 50s, and many officials view him as the ultimate example of resilience.

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The government has been on a mission to establish contact with the man since 1996, but they have failed every time due to his hostility. However, they make sure to leave him tools and crop seeds in order to help him continue with his lifestyle of choice.

Forbidden Zones

In order to protect the tribes, associated governments have started establishing forbidden zones designed to allow them to live their lives in peace. Thousands of acres have been declared as "no trespassing" areas to help protect the known as well as the unknown tribes.

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Although these limits aren’t always respected by exporters, many of the government officials as well as the countries' leaders are aware of the tribes' existence and the importance of protecting them. It’s extremely important to understand why people should leave them alone, despite how fascinating their isolated lives may be.

Tribe with a Large Population

As crazy as it might seem, the Amazon Rainforest features way more indigenous people than you might think. The Yanomami group consists of more than 30,000 people in around 250 villages, all located in the rainforest. They are the largest isolated tribe ever discovered and live in a large territory spread across 9 million hectares.

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The community has been around for tens of thousands of years. The Yanomami group became endangered with the rise of malaria and other diseases. It has been predicted that the only way the community can survive is through the involvement and protection of the government.

Contact with the Fascinating Yanomami

The Yanomami tribe has a pretty impressive total population, considering they mostly live in an isolated territory. It’s considered to be the largest territory belonging to indigenous people in the world.

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They aren’t completely isolated and have been contacted many times before, but they remain largely resistant. They first came into contact with the modern world in the 1940s by complete accident. Unfortunately, the discovery led to more organizations trying to help them, and the contact with outside people led to many illnesses that ultimately caused the deaths of many tribe members.

Human Rights Groups Working with Yanomami

The Brazilian government continues to make sure the Yanomami receive much-needed support. Organizations have launched several awareness campaigns that highlight the human rights of the community. These groups continue to highlight the oppression of the Yanomami people as they face attacks on their natural living environments.

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The tribe also created its own organization called Hutukara Associação Yanomami. In December 2019, the Yanomami shaman received the Alternative Nobel Prize for his campaign to protect the tribe’s territory. He continues to be the face of the tribe, making sure more and more people are aware of their existence and their culture.

Incredible Hunting Skills

The semi-nomadic Moken tribe lives in the Mergui Archipelago, and they have some of the most incredible hunting skills. The community has also developed diving skills like no other, leading some to refer to them as a sea tribe. They have refused any help from the government, insisting they can fend for themselves with their incredibly powerful eyesight.

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They are able to focus underwater without any tools other than their eyes, and their natural vision allows them to dive into the depths of the ocean and still see clearly. It has been suggested that their kids’ eyesight could be as much as 50% more powerful than the eyesight of European children.

Finding Tribes with Google Satellite Images

We already mentioned modern satellite technology, so let’s take a look at how Google Earth can help track the lives of isolated people. Obviously, we can’t use it to see the details of everything the group does, but it can help us see when the group decides to migrate to another location and where they go.

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Robert Walker, an anthropologist at the University of Missouri, revealed that an isolated group based in Peru seems to leave their existing location year after year. It appears they may feel forced out of their location to avoid detection, and then they run away to a safer option.

First Contact Expeditions

Expeditions to establish first contact with some of the Brazilian tribes have been going on for years. The government believed making contact was the best way to offer protection to these people, but many expeditions have been canceled in recent years due to ongoing concerns over the invasion of privacy.

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It has been largely accepted that the isolated tribes should remain as they are. Now, instead of expeditions, the government conducts occasional flyovers on their land to check for any illegal activity by loggers. This also helps monitor the tribes’ sizes to detect if they start becoming smaller.

Practicing Cannibalism?

It has been reported that cannibalism may still be widely accepted in some of the tribes. However, over the years, officials have determined that one of the last isolated tribes to practice cannibalism is the Korowai. It’s unclear whether the community continues to eat their own today. Past traditions indicated men’s bodies were sometimes overtaken by witches, and those witches could only be expelled if the man was killed and eaten.

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Another tribe rumored to still practice cannibalism is the Letin clan, which allegedly has no trouble eating the human brain. Confirmation is difficult, as they remain one of the least contacted tribes in the world.

Skilled at Archery

Considering that hunting is the primary way these tribes get their food, it’s not surprising that they have incredible archery skills. Their arrows are often tipped with poison, particularly when they feel endangered by outsiders.

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Their hunting skills are like no other, which should serve as a strong warning for outsiders to stay away. They will show no mercy when provoked. It’s still unknown what other skills they may possess. However, considering some of the tribes have been around for thousands of years, it’s clear they learn how to fend for themselves from an early age.

Danger in the Form of Greedy Thieves

The tribes are no strangers to genocidal attacks, as they are often launched by their own people or other nearby tribes. One of the largest mass murders of isolated people reportedly occurred when a group of miners bragged about killing some tribes. They were overheard by an anonymous person who recorded the conversation and notified the authorities.

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Gold miners, ranchers and loggers repeatedly threaten the tribes by trying to steal their land. Many of the tribes try to get away from them in hopes of being left alone, but that doesn’t always happen. In some cases, the men returned and killed members in the most gruesome ways possible.

Immune to Bribery

You may think it’s easy to befriend these communities if you offer them something they need, but they have continuously rejected technology and other items that would help them survive and improve their living conditions. However, they are not completely immune to bribery.

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It has been noted that although the Sentinelese pretty much destroyed any peace offers coming their way, they did accept aluminum cookware. Strange, right? Officials have left items like that nearby for the tribe to find, but they no longer dare go anywhere near the Sentinelese to ensure they don’t get attacked.

Finger Amputation

Some of the tribal customs and traditions seem absolutely absurd to the outside world. For example, the Dani people, which are located in New Guinea, are known for finger amputation. This ritual is practiced across the island.

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If a man is killed by another person, his wife faces the prospect of having her fingers completely chopped off. Although it seems obscene and bizarre, this is a common tribal tradition of the Dani that has been practiced for hundreds of years. Although they have accepted contact with outsiders since 1938, they continue to practice rituals that are widely considered controversial and barbaric.

Sentinelese First Contact

Although the world didn’t know much about isolated tribes until the rise of the internet, expeditioners have known about them since 1880. Hundreds of years ago, Maurice Vidal Portman and his men were the first to discover the Sentinelese.

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This first contact was actually the one that convinced the Sentinelese that outsiders don’t mean well. Some of the tribe's members were kidnapped by Portman’s crew and later passed away due to contact with the common germs carried by his men. Since then, the Sentinelese have remained extremely hostile to protect their own people from unknown outside dangers.

Accidentally Finding a Tribe

Imagine innocently exploring and then suddenly coming across a community of people who have never seen anyone like you before. In one of the weirdest Indian expeditions ever, the anthropologist Triloknath Pandit came across an aggressive tribe that managed to successfully scare off his ship.

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After the ship left, the tribe began a mass-mating display, which included the women pairing off with men in passionate embraces. After the men successfully protected their tribe, they all returned into the forest. Pandit, who certainly wasn’t happy about the encounter, returned back to India.

Two Drunk Poachers

By now, you know that the Sentinelese are to be avoided at all costs. In 2006, two poachers were hunting for mud crabs when they unwittingly entered the exclusion zone that was protecting the territory of the Sentinelese tribe. The men got drunk and fell asleep on their boat.

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During the night, the waves pushed the boat toward the island. This, of course, led the Sentinelese to attack. The men were instantly killed, and the tribe wasn’t blamed for the attack. The government acknowledged that the tribe has the right to defend their border, and people who cross it face imminent danger.

High-Risk Expeditions

The FUNAI organization launched a high-risk expedition to find Brazil's Korubo community — consisting of 22 people — which had suddenly gone missing. Despite the dangers of coming in contact with hostile tribes, the expedition was deemed necessary. The search was difficult due to the size of the indigenous lands, but the tribe was successfully located.

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The Korubo community lives in a large area in the Javari Valley, one of the largest indigenous territories in Brazil. High-risk expeditions are also sometimes deemed necessary due to Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro’s claims that he will stop the protection of indigenous people and their lands.

Facing Genocide

Speaking of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, human rights organizations have reported that his disdain could lead to future genocide and annihilation of the tribes. Considering Brazil is home to more than 50 such unique communities, it’s extremely important to take steps to protect them.

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Bolsonaro has made plenty of controversial remarks surrounding the indigenous people. He was quoted as saying that he refuses to defend the lands for these tribes. The Amazon is home to plenty of high-value minerals, and Bolsonaro prioritizes those resources over the protection of indigenous people and their homes.

Destroying Their Homes

Destroying the Amazon Rainforest means destroying the home of thousands of humans who have lived on the land for hundreds of thousands of years. Economic progress is threatening many tribes as they flee due to the destruction of their living areas.

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The Kawahiva tribe — consisting of just a few dozen people — is just one of the tribes currently on the run in order to find a safe home within the Amazon Rainforest. Due to deforestation, the tribe had to abandon the home they once knew. Should this tribe disappear, it would add to the growing list of silent genocides with zero witnesses.