In an age when it’s possible to connect instantly with someone on the other side of the world, a globalized economy, and international news available almost anywhere and at any time, it’s nearly impossible for most of us to imagine being completely cut off from it all. Having never used the Internet, watched a television broadcast or read a book or newspaper is difficult to comprehend nowadays. Yet, entire groups, tribes and nations of people still refuse contact with others in the outside world, essentially keeping themselves in the dark from the modern world.
From one of the world’s most famous examples, the notoriously reclusive country of North Korea, to lesser-known and smaller groups of people who prefer to keep to themselves on their island homes or live deep in forests and deserts that are difficult to reach, there are still many people in the world today that are completely disconnected from the outside world. There are even individuals who isolate themselves within larger societies; the hikikomori phenomenon in Japan, for instance, is characterized by hundreds of thousands of young adults who refuse contact with the outside world for months at a time. Many of these nations of people are isolated by choice: the Seninelese, for example, reside in the Andaman Islands and have made it clear for centuries that they do not want to be bothered by the outside world.
Although at first glance it might seem eerie and even a little bit sad that these people have no connection with others, in other ways they are free of the constraints, pressures and negative aspects of the modern world. The following are a few people and nations (that we know of) that have chosen to isolate themselves.
The Sentinelese are an indigenous group of people who live on the Andaman Islands in the Andaman Sea, near the Bay of Bengal. Outsiders have attempted to establish contact with them off and on in the 19th and 20th centuries; however, most contact attempts were met with extreme violence and in some cases, death. 20th century explorers and anthropologists left gifts such as fruit and objects in an attempt to establish contact, but such attempts were eventually abandoned out of fear of introducing disease to the Sentinelese. The Islands are technically considered a part of India, but there is no direct political influence from India on the island; they are considered de facto self-governing people. In 2006, two fishermen were illegally fishing too close to the island and were killed by the Sentinelese. The Sentinelese also drove off helicopters that attempted to retrieve the bodies. Little is known of them other than they are a hunter-gatherer population, surviving off of fish, wild game and plants that grow on the island. It is unclear how many Sentinelese there are; estimates range from only a few dozen to a few hundred.
Also located in the Andaman Islands, the indigenous Jarawa live on the main Andaman Islands. They traditionally refused all contact with outsiders. However, in the 1990s, a road was constructed through their main island. Many suffered from a measles epidemic that broke out soon after. Following these events, they have begun to contact outsiders more frequently. Many tour groups operate in the area by private companies that bring tourists closer to the Jarawa people, who then beg for money. Although these tour groups are illegal under Indian law, they continue to operate.
Although in the strictest sense North Korea is not completely cut off from the international community – it has maintained tenuous relationships with some 165 states including Canada and a few European Union countries – North Korea is still considered one of the most isolated countries in the world. North Korea is controlled by a single party state, which manages and tightly regulates almost every aspect of the everyday lives of the North Koreans. It has one of the worst human rights records in the world, with Human Rights Watch ranking it very low in terms of rights. North Koreans are not allowed to travel outside of their country, and tourism to the country is very tightly regulated, with visitors only allowed in if the are accompanied by state-owned guides. The economy is almost entirely government-planned and state owned, and international trade is extremely restricted, with its main economic partner China. Media and telecommunications are also tightly restricted.
Pintupi in Australia
The group of indigenous people called the Pintupi traditionally lived in the remote areas of Western Australia. A well-known group of nine of these individuals was oblivious to the outside world until as recently as 1984, when they re-encountered some relatives and learned of the modern world. Now, the Pintupi continue to live isolated lives, living in communities on their traditional homelands in a very remote part of Australia.
Uncontacted tribes in New Guinea
Many parts of New Guinea, in the South Pacific, are still unexplored because of the treacherous landscape of mountains and thick forests. Furthermore, the indigenous tribes there are often hostile and refuse contact. There are an estimated 44 tribes in New Guinea, and not much is known about many of them.
A relatively new phenomenon, hikikomori are Japanese individuals who refuse most contact with the outside world. These hikikomori refuse to go outside or participate in activities for 6 months or more at a time. Some contend that this behavior is not connected to a particular psychological problem. Rather, they can be considered “modern day hermits.” There are up to 700,000 individuals living as hikikomori and most are members of younger generations (in their 20s or 30s). Researchers are not quite sure what has caused this phenomenon in Japan. Many have suggested that it is hard for these individuals to transition to adult life and it is possible that the social conduct and hierarchies in Japanese society contribute to extreme pressure on these individuals, causing them to withdraw.
Nukak people of Columbia
The Nukak are nomadic hunter-gatherers located in Columbia, living near the Amazon basin in the tropical rainforest. They had been completely uncontacted by outsiders until 1981, and then subsequently succumbed to disease after making contact. In addition to disease, their present-day threats include farmers, ranchers, guerrilla fighters, the army, and paramilitary all who infringe upon their territory. Presently, some Nukak live in settlements and others live on reservations.
Ayoreo and Toromona in Bolivia
There are several groups of people who live in Bolivia who have not been contacted. Among those include individuals who are a part of the Ayorea people, who live in voluntary isolation and are threatened by deforestation. They are hunters, gatherers and farmers. Another group that lives in voluntary isolation is the Toromona, who live in a national park in a remote part of the country. Their remote location protects them against outsiders such as missionaries and loggers. The Toromona have never been contacted by other non-native people, and were once known by the Spanish as being merciless protectors of their land. A Norwegian biologist attempted to find them in the 1990s, but disappeared in the area where they were thought to be located. What little is known about them has only been relayed by other native peoples in the region, who have had limited and very occasional contact with the Toromona.
Uncontacted people in Brazil
Brazil has the largest amount of uncontacted tribes in the world. Brazil has seven indigenous reservations for people who wish to remain isolated, mostly in the thick, remote rainforest lands of the country. There are so many uncontacted tribes that some details about these groups, including their names, language and population size are not even known. Some of the indigenous people are quite hostile to outside contact – both with other native groups and non-natives – as many have had bad experiences with others and have even been massacred throughout history. Other groups have been threatened in recent times by logging and ranching in their territories. One group in Brazil is the Awa-Guaja people, who originally lived in settlements but adopted a nomadic lifestyle to avoid European settlers and some eventually refused all contact with the outside world. Many of these people are hunters and gatherers, so it is important that their lands are protected. Tribes range in size from a few dozen to several hundred people.
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