The Fate of the Isolated.

Article first published as The Fate of the Isolated on Technorati.

It may be difficult to believe that in this era of globalised culture, telecommunication and corporatism that there are places on our little planet that remain untouched by our worldwide civilisation. Places where human beings exist completely outside of our realm of influence. But these people do exist  in many parts of the world, from Asia to South America, Australia to Mexico and even the United States. These societies are anachronisms of a time long past, a window into the lives of our ancestors; their entire knowledge and existence, their microcosm universe and everything they know is completely alien to us, and we to them. Everything you know, everyone you have ever met, every technological comfort, philosophical or religious belief and every single word you think or speak is utterly, completely and entirely alien to these people. All of our trivial issues, our politics and meaningless everyday routines are incomprehensible to groups of humans that are alive today.

States containing uncontacted peoples (Wikimedia). Uncontacted tribes exist in nations across the world, from South East Asia to North Sentinel Island off the coast of India. However, most isolated peoples inhabit the vast expanse of the dense Amazonian rainforest.  

In February 2011, the Brazil National Indian Foundation (also known as Funai), aerially photographed for the first time an isolated Amazonian tribe living in a protected area on the border between Peru and Brazil. These are extraordinary humans who have had extremely limited, if any, contact with any other humans or society; they are completely isolated and insulated from our way of life: our science, technology, politics, our celebrity fetishes and economics. They exist in a world separate to the one that you and I share. Bounded by vast expanses of pristine Amazon rainforest but still spatially contiguous with ours, their world is separated culturally, linguistically and religiously from our own.

A village of uncontacted indigenous people in Brazil, 2008. (Funai/Gleison Miranda)

We know very little about these people and how their society is structured. We can gleam some superficial information from these remarkable images, mainly regarding their diet, which seems to consist of bananas, papaya and manioc sourced from communal gardens. Whilst there is some evidence from the images of inter-tribal trading, contact with outside peoples is unheard of. We know nothing of their religious beliefs and have no means of uncovering the intricacies of their language or culture. We should not consider these tribes to be ‘primative’ however. They appear healthy and, from what little can be inferred from the images, are thriving in one of the most extreme and hostile environments on Earth. Given the availability of resources, their weaponry is impressive and effective; some bows up to 4 metres long with 2 metre arrows have been recovered from abandoned villages. They are adorned in red dye (known as urucum) from the annatto shrub, which presumably has some cultural signficance. We should therefore recognise the universal adaptability of the human species to all environments and our common desire for survival and persistence.

Contact with these tribes should remain completely out of the question. Often, as with the inhabitants of North Sentinel island in the Bay of Bengal, uncontacted peoples are fiercely territorial and will attack and kill outsiders on sight. Crucially, they possess no immunity to Western infectious diseases such as the common cold and mortality rates would be extremely high if these diseases were to spread to their tribe. History provides many tragic examples of the decimation of previously isolated populations by the contraction of diseases after contact with other tribes or explorers. Campaigners for the rights of uncontacted peoples cite the fact that they also have the right to self-determination and like all humans have infallible rights that should be protected. Illegal logging, mining and ranching in the Amazon rainforest is placing increased pressure on the environment, and bringing the prospect of unplanned and unintentional contact with these tribes closer. The likelihood, as has happened many times in the past, is that is that if contact is made with these people it will lead to the collapse of their society; either through hostility towards the armed clandestine loggers and ranchers, or through demographic collapse via the inevitable waves of epidemics likely to sweep through their village. It is therefore imperative that governments act now to protect these people, their lands and their way of life to give them a chance at shaping their own destiny and to preserve their culture.

Bruce Parry, campaigner for Survival International and BBC journalist renowned from his work with indigenous peoples across the world as the host of documentaries such as Tribe and Amazon, summed up the situation very poignantly: “Protecting the land where uncontacted tribes live is of global importance. We have consistently failed to introduce them to our world without inflicting terrible traumas. It is for them to decide when they want to join our world. Not us.”

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For more information on uncontacted peoples visit the websites of Survival International and their Uncontacted Tribescampaign.

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