News emerged this week that an indigenous tribe in the Peruvian Amazon, the Mashco-Piro, has been trying to make contact with outsiders. In the past, the Mashco-Piro have always resisted interaction with strangers, avoiding – and sometimes killing – any they encounter. How should Western societies respond to these so-called uncontacted tribes? New Scientist looks at the issue.
How many uncontacted tribes are still left?
No one knows for sure. At a rough guess, there are probably more than 100 around the world, mostly in Amazonia and New Guinea, says Rebecca Spooner, of Survival International, a London-based organisation that advocates for the rights of indigenous peoples. Brazil’s count is likely to be the most accurate. The government there has identified 77 uncontacted tribes through aerial surveys, and by talking to more Westernised indigenous groups about their neighbours.
There are thought to be around 15 uncontacted tribes in Peru, a handful in other Amazonian countries, a few dozen in the Indonesian part of the island of New Guinea and two tribes in the Andaman Islands off the coast of India. There may also be some in Malaysia and central Africa.
Have they really had no contact with the outside world?
Most have had a little, at least indirectly. “There’s always some contact with other isolated tribes, which have contact with other indigenous people, which in turn have contact with the outside world,” says Spooner.
Many of the Amazon tribes choose to avoid contact with outsiders because they have had unpleasant encounters in the past. The Mashco-Piro, for example, abandoned their settled gardens and fled into the forest. According to Glenn Shepard, an ethnologist at the Emilio Goeldi Museum in Belem, Brazil, this came after rubber companies massacred tribespeople at the turn of the 20th century. For this reason, some researchers refer to such tribes as “voluntarily isolated”, rather than uncontacted.
More recent incursions, especially by miners, oil workers and loggers, may have reinforced the tribes’ xenophobia. In 1995, oilfields were encroaching on the homeland of the uncontacted Huaorani people of eastern Peru. A visitingNew Scientist reporter was warned that any unclothed native should be regarded as uncontacted and, thus, very dangerous.
Are there guidelines for how best to approach such tribes?
In Peru, laws prohibit outsiders from initiating contact with isolated groups in most cases. They also provide protected areas where tribes can live in peace – but there are loopholes that allow oil and mining companies into the region. Brazil has similar laws and policies that allow contact only in life-threatening situations.
Anthropologists have an ethical obligation to do no harm to their research subjects, according to the American Anthropological Association’s Statement on Ethics. However, they are rarely the first people to make contact with indigenous groups – missionaries and resource developers almost always get there first, says Kim Hill, an anthropologist at Arizona State University who has worked with several recently contacted tribes. As a result, there is no standard practice for initial contact, he says.
Why would tribes choose to end their isolation?
Often, they feel forced out by encroaching civilisation, says Spooner. Survival International has documented some cases where settlements have been bulldozed and tribespeople harassed – or even killed. This leaves the survivors feeling like they have no option but to give up.
Others see a more benign process at work, at least some of the time. Tribes may seek contact with outsiders because they begin to trust their intentions, says Hill. “As soon as the tribes believe they might have some peaceful contact, all these groups want some outside interaction,” he says. “It’s a human trait to want to expand our contacts.” Modern medicine, metal tools and education can also exert a powerful pull.
What happens then?
Often, there is a lot of disease because the tribespeople are exposed to novel pathogens. It is not uncommon for half the population to die of respiratory illness – unless outsiders bring sustained medical care, says Hill. Also, the newly integrated tribespeople frequently end up on the lowest rung of the society they join. Still, he says, when he interviews such people years later, “I don’t find anyone, pretty much, who would want to go back to the old situation.”