Uncontacted Peoples

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Podcast Transcript

If you are listening to me speak these words, regardless of where in the world you live, you are part of a global network we call human civilization. You share in the ideas, technology, and goods created worldwide and by people in your community.

Most people on the planet are a part of this system.

But not everyone. Some people have remained separated from this system and still live in their traditional ways today.

Learn more about uncontacted people, who they are, and where they live on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

When we talk about uncontacted people, an explanation is in order because the phrase is a bit of a misnomer. 

Uncontacted people know that there is a world beyond themselves and their immediate community. They have seen airplanes flying overhead, they have probably seen lights moving rapidly in the night sky, and they probably, at some point, did, in fact, have contact with the outside world. 

It was usually the experience they had with their contact with the outside world that resulted in their reluctance to deal with them. 

We are not talking about people who are simply isolated. For example, someone who lives in the far north of Canada has little contact with the outside world, but they will probably still get supplies at least once a year.

The Yanomami people of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela still largely practice their traditions, but they have had contact, and anthropologists have studied their culture and language. 

We are talking about people who still live a neolithic lifestyle of either hunting and gathering or very small-scale subsistence agriculture. 

When most native people who lived in the Americas, Australia, or remote islands encountered Europeans who showed up, it usually resulted in widespread death. This is usually due to disease, as I discussed in a previous episode, but also often violent clashes. 

Uncontacted people had the exact same experience as most native and aboriginal people did. The difference was that they lived in a place that was very difficult to reach or was of little interest to outsiders. 

They could hide and fight to keep outsiders away, often using violence. 

In the old world, roughly defined as Europe, Asia, and Africa, it is believed there are no uncontacted peoples, with one known exception that I’ll get to in a bit. 

That isn’t to say there weren’t once people who were unknown to the rest of the world. 

Vietnam has had a flourishing culture for thousands of years. Yet, in 1959, a small group of about 100 people were discovered by soldiers who living in caves. Known as the R?c people, they were naked, subsisted on hunting and gathering, and somehow managed to escape the attention of the Vietnamese for centuries. 

Today they are still somewhat isolated but live in a valley growing crops.

In 1911, a 50-year-old man who was called Ishi walked into Oroville, California, wearing full tribal regalia. He was the last surviving member of the Yahia tribe. Everyone else in his tribe had been killed. The Three Knolls Massacre, which took place in 1865, killed 40 members of his tribe. Of the 33 survivors, half were killed by cattlemen and miners. 

That left a small group that hid in the mountains for 44 years. By 1911, Isihi was the last remaining Yahia, and he decided to come down from the mountains. 

Ishi was not actually his name. It is the word for  “man” in the Yana language. He couldn’t say his name because the custom in the Yahia tribe was that you could only speak your name after being introduced by another member of the tribe. About his name, he told researchers, “I have none, because there were no people to name me.”

Ishi has been called the last Native American. 

In a previous episode, I told the story of the Pintupi Nine. A small family who lived in the Australian outback until 1984. They were believed to have been the last uncontacted Aboriginal people in Australia. 

Fast forward to the 21st century, and there are still a small number of people who are considered to be uncontacted around the world. Current estimates are that there are approximately 100 uncontacted tribes around the world today, although the exact number is uncertain. The total population may be around 10,000 people. 

For the most part, there is little about them we know precisely because they are uncontacted. We know they exist, there might have been rare photos taken of them, and we know where they roughly live, but that’s about it.  We know that most uncontacted tribes and communities are usually less than 100 people, and often much less. 

We also know from cases where contact was made that their stories are very similar to that of Ishi or the Ruc people in Vietnam. They live in hiding after having had disastrous contact with the outside world in the past. 

There are only three areas on the plant where uncontacted people can be found. Two small areas in the eastern hemisphere and one large area in the western hemisphere, which accounts for the vast majority of uncontacted people.

The first group in the eastern hemisphere, and the exception I mentioned before, is located in the Andaman Islands in India in the Bay of Bengal. These are the Sentinelese who live on North Sentinal Island. 

I previously mentioned these people in my episode on Terra Nullius or unclaimed land. North Sentinal Island is nominally part of India, but they have passed legislation preventing anyone from even approaching the island. 

In the 19th century, the British tried to establish contact but were unable to as none of the native people from nearby islands could speak their language. The Sentinelese, which is a name we give them, as we have no clue what they call themselves, have also always attacked anyone who tried to land on the island. 

In 1984 there was a shipwreck that resulted in 50 men in canoes coming out to attack the ship. 

In 2006, two Indian fishermen were illegally harvesting crabs off the island when their anchor broke, and they accidentally drifted into the island. The Sentinelese immediately attacked and killed the fishermen with axes. The bodies of the fishermen were then seen to be propped up on the beach like scarecrows.

In 2018, an American missionary named John Allen Chau attempted to visit North Sentinel to convert the people there to Christianity. He tried approaching the island and singing hymns, he tried speaking to them in Xhosa, which is actually a language from South Africa. 

On his final visit, he was killed by the islanders, and the fishermen who dropped him off saw his body being dragged away. 

While we know almost nothing about the Sentinelese, we do know that they want to be left alone. We also know that they have used metal from shipwrecks to create weapons. 

The other area in the eastern hemisphere with uncontacted people is the Indonesian province of Papua, the western half of the island of New Guinea. 

There might be as many as 40 uncontacted tribes that live in inaccessible mountainous parts of the island.  Moreover, there is some evidence that at least some of those people still practice cannibalism. 

Because these people live in areas that are so hard to reach, most of the native people on the island don’t even know much about them or who they are. 

Unlike India, which has established legal protections for the Sentinalese, there are currently no protections in place by the government of Indonesia.

By far, the largest number of uncontacted people all live in the Amazon Rainforest. The Amazon is vast and mostly inaccessible. Most of these people live in Brazil or near the border in other Amazonian countries such as Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela.

There is also believed to be one uncontacted tribe living outside the Amazon in the forests of Paraguay.

These people, while linguistically and culturally might be quite different, they all share some things in common. They are primarily hunter-gathers who might engage in limited agriculture. 

Prior to 1967, the Brazilian government had a policy of relocating people who lived in areas that could be used for agriculture, timber, or mining. It was in 1967 that they established the Fundação Nacional dos Povos Indígenas, also known as the FUNAI or the National Indigenous People Foundation.

These uncontacted people of the Amazon were often subject to killings and massacres by people who wanted their land. This was often people pursuing timber or mining interests, but more recently, also by drug cartels. Because of their isolation, people were literally people getting away with murder. 

The dangers weren’t just people who wanted their land for nefarious purposes. Even non-malicious contact could have disastrous consequences. 

One anthropologist in Colombia met a group of uncontacted people just to understand them better. During one of his meetings, he embraced one of the members of the tribe in a friendly gesture. Unbeknownst to him, he was carrying a host of modern diseases with him that caused an epidemic that killed hundreds of people. 

While there is more we don’t know about these uncontacted people than we do know, there have been certain cases that have been brought to the attention of anthropologists and government officials.

One example was a solitary person known as the ‘Man of the Hole.’  He was believed to be the last member of his tribe and was the only inhabitant of an area known as the Tanaru Indigenous Territory in Brazil, that had a size of 8,000 hectares or 20,000 acres. 

The other members of his tribe were believed to have been killed by settlers in the 1970s. 

We have no idea what the name of his tribe was, what language he spoke, or his name. He was called ‘Man of the Hole’ because he would leave a deep hole in every site he lived in. The holes were 1.8 meters or almost six feet deep. 

He moved frequently hunting and gathering and left over 50 dwellings that he built. 

He was found in 2022 “lying down in [a] hammock, and ornamented [with macaw feathers] as if waiting for death”. He was estimated to be around 60 years old.

The Piripkura tribe is a small tribe consisting of only two people, an uncle and his nephew. As with the ‘man of the hole’, most of the Piripkura were killed several decades ago in a massacre. 

The two men survived in the rainforest by themselves, hiding from the rest of the world. They were known to FUNAI, but little was known about them beyond that they existed. 

FUNAI was debating reaching out to them when they actually ended up reaching out to FUNAI. It turns out that the two men had kept a fire going for 18 years, and it had finally gone out. 

They came into a settlement to relight their torches. The locals entertained them for a while and even were able to watch television, but as soon as they got their torches lit, they headed back into the forest. 

The Awa people in the eastern Amazon have gone from being settled agriculturalists to nomadic in order to survive. There are approximately 350 members of the Awa, of which about 100 are believed to have no contact with the outside world. 

The massacres and tragedies that have afflicted these people are not things of the past. They are still ongoing today, largely because there is a great deal of money at stake and because these remote areas are largely lawless. 

In 2011, illegal loggers in Brazil burned an 8-year-old Awa girl alive after she wandered out of her village. They did so as a warning to other members of her tribe. 

Between 2003 and 2011, an estimated 450 uncontacted people in Brazil alone may have been murdered. This number should be put into the context of the extremely small numbers of these people. It would make for a murder rate higher than anywhere else on Earth. 

The protection of uncontacted people varies radically between countries. Colombia has probably the best laws regarding their protection, whereas Indonesia has done almost nothing in West Papua.

The status of land set aside for these uncontacted people in Brazil is in constant flux. Some preserves are temporary, some may change in size as different politicians come to power.  The influence of logging, ranching, and mining interests is very powerful and hard for local politicians to resist. 

The future for uncontacted people is very uncertain. In places like Sentinal Island, the protections offered by the Indian Government, plus the defensive nature of people who live there, seem to ensure that people there will continue to live unmolested for the foreseeable future. 

However, in parts of the Amazon rainforest, the future of uncontacted peoples is very much in doubt. Some do live in protected areas and are isolated enough to stay safe, but others find themselves in the crosshairs of economic interests that want their land. 

100 years from now it is likely that some such people will still exist on Earth, but their numbers may be far less than today.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener ‘dw-asheville’ over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

So much in a small package!

I don’t know how host Gary Arendt does it, but he provides more real information in a 15 to 20-minute podcast than others do in an hour. And the subjects are interesting, not fluff! I loved the one on Thorium. I don’t miss a day!

Thanks, DW! While all of the episodes of this podcast are things I find interesting, I never know which episodes will strike a chord with people. I’ve had a surprising response to the episode on Thorium. (shoutout to everyone listening at Oak Ridge National Labs!)

It is nice to see more people taking an interest in one of the least useful but potentially most important elements on the periodic table. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.