People living as part of isolated tribes have long been a source of fascination in the western world; it’s hard not to be intrigued by a group of people whose lifestyles are so very different from our own. Though the number of genuine tribes has sadly seen a huge decrease in modern times, largely thanks to outside interference, there are surprisingly still small communities of people living in the wild as they have been for generations.
Despite living mainly in isolation, there have been incredible instances of tribes people coming into contact with the outside world throughout history. Though many of these encounters have involved outsiders taking it upon themselves to seek out the tribes for whatever reason (often with unfortunate outcomes), in recent times there have been an increasing number of cases of previously un-contacted people actively seeking out outsiders. Read about both types of contact below, and find out about the many shocking and even tragic results of the rare contact between those who live inside modern society and those who do not.
15. Acre Tribe
Around a decade ago, many officials in Peru refused to believe that un-contacted tribes still existed in the Amazon. In 2007, even then President Alan Garcia stated that the tribes were ‘created by environmentalists’ opposed to oil exploration. With this in mind, Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) set out on a mission in order to provide evidence that the tribes were still out there, so they could be protected from those looking to grab their land.
Though not technically a case of ‘contact’, when FUNAI captured photos in 2008 showing a tribe living in the rainforest of Acre, it was an extremely important step forward for the tribes people. Of course, they didn’t know this themselves, and as a result fired arrows at the plane flying overhead. According to nearby Indians who have been contacted, these un-contacted tribes use animal noises to express emotion; jaguar is anger and pig is fear, to let others know where they are. The black and red dyes on their skin are made from crushed seeds and are thought to signal aggression.
14. Tagaeri People
In 1987, 67-year-old Bishop Alejandro Lavaca and 50-year-old Sister Ines Arango travelled to Yasuni National Park, in the Ecuadorian Amazon Basin, where they hoped to preach Christianity to the isolated Tagaeri people. However, when their helicopter pilot returned to pick them up a few days later he came across a disturbing sight; the pair had been murdered, their corpses left as a warning to other outsiders.
Their bodies had been pinned to the ground by 21 wooden spears, and had 109 other spear wounds, which had been stuffed with leaves in order to decrease the blood flow and prolong their suffering as a result. Their deaths are thought to have been in retaliation to the European oil companies that were exploiting the region. Dynamite explosions set off by explorations teams searching for petroleum were a particular problem for the tribe as they were apparently scaring off nearby monkeys – their main food source.
13. Biami People
The Biami people of Papua New Guinea practiced cannibalism just a few decades ago, so you could forgive TV naturalist Sir David Attenborough for being a little apprehensive when meeting them for the first time. The previously un-contacted tribe were contacted as part of the 1971 BBC documentary A Blank on the Map. Despite their history, the members of the tribe that the crew encountered offered a friendly greeting, but understandably became anxious when the crew tried to follow them home, and soon vanished back into the forest.
More recently, explorer Piers Gibbon spent time with the clan, who were happy to divulge stories of their cannibalistic past. One particularly shocking story came from a man who told how he had killed two women who were apparently saying ‘bad things’ about another male member of the tribe. The women were roasted over the fire before their flesh was cut up and eaten. Another member of the tribe, one of its last ‘song leaders’ explained how he was given visions of those who were practicing bad magic. Those accused would then be killed and eaten.
12. Sentinelese People
The most famous of all the uncontested tribes that are still around are probably the people of North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean. Though they are definitely aware of the outside world, they have always actively avoided being a part of it. In the years between 1967 and 1997, several attempts were made at making contact, to which the Sentinelese people responded by firing arrows and spears. They have however, accepted gifts from outsiders in the past, including metal cooking appliances.
One such incident during this time occurred in 1974, when a documentary maker from National Geographic was speared in the leg while trying to make contact with the tribe. Several other people have been hurt and even killed over the years, and as a result the Indian government has had a policy of leaving them well alone since the mid-nineties. The most recent contact ended in two fishermen being killed by the Sentinelese after they found them in the waters illegally. An Indian Navy helicopter was sent to retrieve the fishermen’s bodies, but was driven away by a sea of spears and arrows.
11. Man of the Hole
In 1996 a rumor spread amongst loggers in Rondônia, Brazil, of a wild man living alone in the forest. After a long search, agents finally encountered the man for the first time. Unclothed, aged in his mid-30s (now in his 50s) and armed with a bow and arrow, the man was hostile to outsider contact and shot arrows at anyone who came near; one agent was shot with an arrow in the chest. The man still remains something of a mystery; authorities are unsure what tribe he belonged to and what language he speaks, but it’s thought the rest of his clan were killed by illegal loggers in early 1996 after the remains of a village were found.
He has been nicknamed ‘man of the hole’ thanks to the deep holes he digs, either to hide in or to trap animals. It’s thought that he hunts animals such as monkeys, deer and armadillos using basic tools and may also fish. In 2007 the Brazilian authorities declared a 31-square-mile safe zone around the man, but was reportedly attacked in 2009 by gunmen believed to be ranchers opposed to efforts to protect him. Thankfully, he seemed to survive the attack and it’s believed he is still alive, albeit in a rather lonely existence.
10. Taino People
When Christopher Columbus and his Spanish crew arrived on an island in the Bahamas October 12, 1492, they were the first Europeans to have contact with the Taino people. Columbus described them in a very good light, writing:
“They traded with us and gave us everything they had, with good will … they took great delight in pleasing us … They are very gentle and without knowledge of what is evil; nor do they murder or steal…Your highness may believe that in all the world there can be no better people … They love their neighbours as themselves, and they have the sweetest talk in the world, and are gentle and always laughing.”
However, despite this glowing account of his new acquaintances, Columbus was far from gracious towards them. On his second voyage he made it a rule that each Taino member over the age of 14 had to deliver a bag of gold every three months; those who did not had their hands cut off and were left to bleed to death. The Taino women, who were free and powerful pre-contact, living in a matriarchal society, also suffered a cruel fate at the hands of the Spaniards; they were r*ped, traded like meat and kept as concubines.
9. Nukak People
For a prime example of a tribe being left in ruins thanks to outsider contact, look no further than the sad case of the Nukak people, who lived in the forests northwest of Colombia’s Río Puré National Park. In 1981, U.S. evangelical group, New Tribes Mission visited the tribe, despite not having permission. They brought gifts of machetes and axes with them, and persuaded some members of the clan to go to their jungle camp. This contact after generations of isolation lead the tribe to seek out other nearby communities – and caused disaster in the process.
Around half of the tribe died from respiratory infections, there were violent clashes with land grabbers and drug smugglers, and eventually ended in the forced removal of the remaining group to the town of San José del Guaviare, where they remain living in terrible conditions. In 2006 the tribe’s leader Maw-be’ committed suicide by drinking poison; his friends said he had become desperate after being unable to secure a safe return home for his people, or a better quality of life.
8. Brazilian Tribe
In 2014 members of a previously un-contacted tribe from the Amazon suddenly appeared at the Upper Envira River in Brazil, where they requested help from locals, including weapons and allies. They told Zé Correia, a member of the native Brazilian Ashaninka tribe who met them, that they had been attacked by outsiders, most likely drug traffickers.
“The majority of old people were massacred by non-Indians in Peru, who shot at them with firearms and set fire to their houses,” Correia told the Amazon blog of Terra Magazine. “They say that many old people died and that they buried three people in one grave. They say that so many people died that they couldn’t bury them all and their corpses were eaten by vultures.”
However, the visit from the tribe members almost proved disastrous, as after they spent three weeks with a group from FUNAI, several of them contracted influenza. This is potentially deadly to isolated tribes as they have no immunity to it. Though FUNAI stated that the group were treated and made a full recovery, there is still concern that they may have passed it on to other tribe members before they were treated, something that could have had a huge knock on effect in their forest home.
7. Ruc People
After a large-scale bombing campaign by American forces during the Vietnam War, Ca Xeng border guards in Thuong Hoa, Quang Binh Province, were left stunned when a group of tribes people emerged from the jungle. The North Vietnamese soldiers described the group as ‘forest people’, who were very shy, wore only loincloths and were able to climb trees and cliffs with the skill of wild animals.
Despite contact efforts by the Vietnamese government to relocate the tribe, some still live in their jungle habitat, utilizing a complicated cave system thought to span around 60,000 meters in total. Some of the entrances and chambers are closely-guarded secrets, with only the tribe’s elders knowing their exact location. For many of them, the cave is where they were born and grew up. Other members of the tribe have since entered into the outside world, though their traditions and beliefs have sometimes caused tensions between them and the authorities.
6. Pintupi Nine
In 1984 a group of unknown Aborigines were spotted in Western Australia. After they ran away they were pursued and eventually tracked down by people who spoke the same language as them. The Pinup Nine, as they would later be called, consisted of two sisters and their seven teenage children who shared one father, and are thought to have been the last un-contacted tribe in Australia.
Before contact was made, the group hadn’t known that Europeans had arrived on the continent, and were unaware of the existence of cars and even clothing. One member of the nine, Yukultji, described seeing a plane as a child: “The plane would fly over and we would hide in the tree. We would see the wings of the plane and we would get frightened. We thought it was the devil…” Though most of the group made the decision to relocate to the town, one member opted to return to the Gibson Desert, where he still lives today.
5. Tribes of West Papua
In 2006 a documentary from BBC Four shed light on a controversial tour operator offering expeditions to West Papua, Indonesia with the aim of “discovering” un-contacted tribes. The company, run by a US man named Kelly Woolford, has since come under fire thanks to the question of ethics surrounding their tours, and they have even been accused of faking ‘first contact’ meetings, with some experts pointing to the tribespeople’s over the top dress in photos from the expeditions.
However, there are still plenty of people who are willing to sign up for the trips, including explorer Mark Anstice, who described a ‘first contact’ meeting with the company in an article for The Guardian:
“All four were naked but for penis gourds, and the men held bows and arrows; it was immediately apparent this was a friendly meeting. Vigorous hand-shaking was still in progress as Woolford and I joined them. We smiled and, squatting in the mud, smoked each other’s tobacco and tried to communicate. I felt relief at their obvious ease – and the fact that they wore plastic bead necklaces.”
4. Jarawa People
The Jarawa tribe inhabit the rainforests of India’s Andaman Islands, where they are thought to number around 400 in total, having migrated from Africa around 50,000 years ago. Though they had previously been hostile to outsiders, they began to voluntarily seek contact with the outside world in 1997, starting on 31st October when a group of around 25 left the forest and appeared by the side of a road that had recently been built through their land.
Nobody knows exactly why they began to seek out contact, but since then it hasn’t exactly been trouble-free for the tribe. They have had two outbreaks of the measles and have become a tourist attraction for ethically questionable tour operators offering ‘human safaris’ to visit them. Outsider contact also caused tragedy in March 2016 when a 5 month old baby was murdered by the tribe due to it being light-skinned; believed to be the result of an encounter with a Jarawa women and non-Jarawa man.
3. Mastanahua People
Since the 1990s members of the Christian Pioneer Mission have sought contact with indigenous groups who reside along the Rio Purus and Rio Curanja basins. They finally succeeded in 2006 when Shury, a member of the Mastanahua tribe, was taken to their mission village along with his family. They lured him by offering gifts, which they left on the tribe’s trails. “It took a long time before we would even touch them,” Shury said. “But when we did, we thought the metal things in particular, like knives and machetes, were very tempting.”
When the rest of the tribe wanted to cut contact with the missionaries, it led to a disagreement which eventually ended with Shury and his family being cast out. After they refused to take up permanent residence at the mission village, the missionaries eventually gave up and left, and Shury subsequently moved his family into the now empty village. However, it is far from a happy ending; now living as outcasts from their own people they have become reliant in part on begging for food from nearby communities. Another example that proves that outsider contact can often do more harm than good.
2. Ishi of the Yahi
After the Three Knolls Massacre in 1865 and a following massacre by cattlemen, it was believed that the Yahi tribe of California had become extinct. However, there were several survivors; four family members who had gone into hiding for over four decades. Unfortunately, they were not able to stay hidden forever; in 1908 land surveyors attacked their camp, causing them to flee. The only member to return to the camp was a middle-aged man who would later become known as Ishi.
Ishi remained at the camp for another three years, but with little food he made the decision to enter the outside world in August 1911. After being picked up by police while foraging for food, he was eventually sent to the University of California, Berkeley where he was studied by the curious professors there. After suffering from many illnesses due to his lack of immunity, Ishi died of tuberculosis in 1916. Despite Yahi tradition requiring the body to be left intact, the doctors at the University of California medical school performed an autopsy before Ishi’s friends at the university were able to prevent it.
1. Mashco-Piro People
In 2014 the world was fascinated by images of a previously un-contacted tribe from the Peruvian Amazon, who had travelled to a riverbed near a remote outside community in order to make contact with the locals there. Over 100 members of the Mashco-Piro tribe appeared at the river over a span of three days, resulting in a tense stand-off that had locals “fearing for their lives”. The clan is known to kidnap women and children from other tribes, and were armed with lances, bows and arrows.
After asking for bananas, rope and machetes they tried to cross the river, but were stopped by local rangers who instead directed them to a banana pitch on their own side of the river. Though it remains unclear exactly what spurred the encounter, authorities believe the tribe could have been angry about illegal logging on their land, or possible drug smugglers passing through it. It is illegal to make contact with the estimated 15 “un-contacted” tribes in Peru (made up of around 15,000 people in total), mainly to protect them from disease.