Uncontacted or voluntarily isolated?
By Himanshu Verma, Contibutor
News of uncontacted tribes has filtered into the press from time to time, but are there any undiscovered tribes, or is it purely sensational rut? The question springs up naturally as the possibility of any group or tribe whose existence is totally unknown to the rest of the world seems to be quite unbelievable.
According to Rebecca Spooner of Survival International, an English non-profit organization that advocates for the rights of indigenous people, there are roughly more than a hundred uncontacted tribes around the world, mostly found in the Amazon and New Guinea. However, according to the Brazilian government’s likely more accurate count—taken through aerial survey and talking to more westernized indigenous groups about their neighbours—there are 77 uncontacted tribes. In addition to these, there are an estimated 15 uncontacted tribes in Peru, a few in Amazonian countries, a couple dozen groups in New Guinea, and two tribes in the Andaman Islands off the coast of India. There is also the possibility of some groups scattered in Malaysia and Central Africa.
Survival International labels uncontacted tribes as “people who have no peaceful contact with anyone in the mainstream or dominant society,” but according to Spooner, most of them are in contact with other isolated tribes, who may have further contact with other indigenous people who are in touch with outside world. Hence, whatever little contact they have with outside world is indirect.
According to Alex Golub, an anthropologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the belief that isolated tribes live in the wilderness is a common misconception. He says, “Almost all human communities have been in some contact with one and another for as long as we have historical or archaeological records.” According to him, it is mainly because of the fear factor that they avoid any contact with the outside world.
Spooner also agrees with the fear factor being a cause of avoiding contact. She says that many Amazonian tribes avoid contact because of their unpleasant experience with the outside world in the past. Glenn Shepard, an ethnology curator at Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi in Belém, Brazil, says, “This came after rubber companies massacred tribespeople at the turn of the 2oth century.”
Survival International has spoken likewise, “Uncontacted tribes are in fact the survivors or survivors’ descendants of past atrocities. These acts—massacres, disease epidemics, terrifying violence—are seared into their collective memory and contact with the outside world is now to be avoided at all costs.” Hence, they could be called “voluntarily isolated” rather than “uncontacted” according to some anthropologists.
Amidst all these claims of them being voluntarily isolated due to the fear factor, recent emergence of isolated groups from forests of Peru and Brazil has started a fresh debate on the issue of whether the “no contact” policies of these governments should continue or a fresh beginning of “first contact”—under controlled conditions—be allowed and practiced as Amazon’s wilderness harbours highly vulnerable indigenous groups.
Time and again, some indigenous tribes have been trying to contact the outside civilizations. An article in New Scientist published on August 22, 2013, claimed that an indigenous tribe in the Peruvian Amazon, the Mashco-Piro had been trying to make contact with outsiders. The tribe has avoided contact in the past,sometimes even killing people they have encountered. The article sought public opinion as to what should be western society’s response to their initiative. In another article, published in August 2014, Rachel Nuwer, a freelance science journalist, who had been investigating the cases of uncontacted people, stated, “On July 1, FUNAI, the Brazilian governmental agency in charge of indigenous Indian affairs, quietly posted a short press release on its website: two days earlier, they said, seven members of an isolated Indian tribe emerged from the Amazon and made peaceful contact with people in a village near the Peruvian border.”
This was the first official contact with the tribe since 1966, but it didn’t startle the people, as local villages in Brazil’s Acre state had been reporting the presence of the tribal people in their territories who stole their crops, cattle, and metal tools. These people did not try to make contact because of their material needs, but because of fear. They had explained through a translator that violent attacks by outsiders had forced them to come out of the forest. There had been other cases of their elders being killed, houses burned, and other atrocities by illegal loggers and cocaine traffickers in Peru.
These isolated people have a history of contact mainly from past exploitation or simply being observed aerially. The Brazilian government has tried in the ‘70s and ‘80s to establish a peaceful contact with isolated groups by setting up “attraction posts,” offering the groups tools and other things. Officials tried to lure them to come out of hiding, but the experiment was a fiasco as it ended in either violent altercations or epidemic breakouts, wiping out most of the populations.
In 1987, Sydney Possuelo, then head of FUNAI, decided that these people should not be contacted at all and said, “Isolated people do not manifest among us—they don’t ask anything of us—they mostly live and die without our knowledge.” He says that, once contacted, they often share the fate of “desecration, disease, and death.” Let them be uncontacted, or leave them to be voluntarily isolated.