The science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. These technologies are commonplace to us, but even in our very modern world there are still a small number of remote tribes living a way of life largely unchanged for thousands of years.
Some of these tribes are so isolated that we know very little about them; others are classified as uncontacted.
This doesn’t necessarily mean they are entirely unaware of or have never encountered anybody from the outside world. All too often they are painfully aware of our existence, as their territory is invaded and their people murdered.
The uncontacted tag simply means that they have no ongoing peaceful contact with the outside world.
This list takes a closer look at the dwindling number of isolated and uncontacted tribes that still cling to existence in what is all too often a hostile world.
8. The Man of the Hole
Deep in the Brazilian rainforest the Man of the Hole lives one of the loneliest existences imaginable. He has survived entirely alone for more than twenty years; so far as is known he has not spoken to another human being in this entire time.
The man has been monitored at a distance since 1996 by FUNAI, a branch of the Brazilian Government dedicated to the protection of indigenous peoples, but even so he remains something of an enigma. His tribe is unnamed, his language unknown, and he has only ever been captured on a couple of grainy photographs and shaky video footage.
We do know that the Man of the Hole, who is believed to be around sixty years old, digs deep pits to capture animals and survives by hunting small prey with a bow and arrow. All attempts to communicate with the man have failed, and he has fired arrows at those attempting to do so.
This aggression is entirely understandable. It’s believed the rest of his tribe were massacred by farmers in 1995, leaving the man of the hole as the last surviving member of his tribe.
7. The Piripkura Tribe
Whatever the Man of the Hole’s people once called themselves, sadly they are not the only tribe facing imminent extinction.
The Piripkura Tribe, known as the butterfly people for the way they flit through the forest, now number no more than three. One of these, a woman called Rita, chose to abandon the nomadic lifestyle and her ancestral rainforest home. She has explained how she made her decision after her family and most of her tribe were murdered.
This leaves just two men, an uncle and his nephew, known as Tamandua and Pakyi. Efforts have to be made to locate the pair every two years in order to maintain their protection, but they are highly elusive and understandably suspicious of outsiders.
They have only a few possessions, the most important of which by far is their palm bark torch. This is so essential that it had been kept continuously lit for almost twenty years. However, in 2018 the flame finally went out.
6. The Kahawiva Tribe
Once a numerous and settled people who produced much of their food through farming crops such as corn and sweet potatoes, the Kahawiva Tribe are now threatened with extinction. Their old way of life has been destroyed, and the last few survivors eke out a precarious, nomadic existence in Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest.
The rainforest itself is priceless, but its raw resources are worth billions. Loggers, ranchers, and miners have steadily moved in to occupy the Kahawiva Tribe’s territory. However, in 1988 Brazil ruled that any land occupied by indigenous tribes belonged to that tribe.
In some respects this was good news, but the new laws all too often failed to afford Indian tribes any real protection and brought unintended consequences. Many Indians were simply slaughtered by the encroaching forces of civilization. If the Indians weren’t there, they couldn’t have any rights to the land.
There are now as few as twenty to fifty members of the Kahawiva Tribe remaining. The settlements and gardens where they once grew their food have been abandoned. They now exist as hunter gatherers, moving from place to place. This has meant changing their traditional way of life, but their mobility affords them better opportunity to rapidly flee deeper into the forest at the first sign of danger.
5. The Dani People
Spanning 309,000 square miles the island of New Guinea is the second largest island in the world. It had been discovered by Portuguese explorers in 1527, but deep in the heart of its forested interior the Dani People had lived almost entirely undetected for centuries. That was until they were spotted by an eagle-eyed anthropologist named Richard Archbold as he flew overhead in 1938.
The Dani People’s way of life was based around farming, hunting and gathering. Their tools were created from wood, stone, and bone, and each of the men wore little more than a penis gourd. Women did most of the work, such as tending crops and looking after the children, and pigs were the measure by which a man’s wealth was measured
When Richard Archbold published his account of the Dani People, and what he described as their paradise on Earth, it caused something of a sensation.
Perhaps fortunately for the Dani People the rest of the world would be distracted by World War Two for the next several years, and they were left to their own devices for a little longer. However, hostilities eventually came to an end and the mysterious tribe in new Guinea had not been forgotten.
Missionaries descended on the island, all of them intent on civilizing and converting the Dani People.
These once isolated people have now become something of a tourist attraction. However, even now there are a handful of scattered villages where life goes on for the Dani People almost entirely untouched by the outside world. Their numbers are dwindling rapidly as their young people increasingly abandon the old way of life, and it remains to be seen how far into the Twenty-first Century their traditions can survive.
4. The Korubo Tribe
Sydney Possuelo is a Brazilian explorer who has probably done more than anybody else in history to discover and protect South America’s most isolated tribes. He has devoted his life to fighting for the rights of indigenous peoples, and he is rightly considered the world’s leading expert on remote Indian tribes.
Making first contact can be potentially dangerous, and this was certainly the case in 1996 when he led an expedition in search of the Korubo tribe.
Like many other Amazonian tribes, the Korubo are suspicious of outsiders. Many of them had been killed in clashes with ranchers, loggers, and other settlers. However, the Korubo tribe, also known as the club people in recognition of their favored weapon, fought back fiercely and had themselves killed many outsiders who trespassed on their territory.
Possuelo approached with caution, easing himself in gently by leaving gifts such as axes and knives for the Korubo Tribe to find.
This softly-softly approach proved successful, and Possuelo succeeded in convincing the tribe that he posed no threat. The tribe remain extremely isolated and rightfully suspicious of outsiders; what little we do know of them is largely thanks to Sydney Possuelo.
3. The Ayoreo-Totobiegosode
Across the globe something in the region of 31,000 square miles of forest is destroyed every year. This works out to an area roughly the size of Austria.
Nowhere is this deforestation happening faster than in Paraguay’s Gran Chaco Forest, where up to 14 million trees are cut down every month. This rapidly diminishing ecosystem is home to South America’s last uncontacted tribe outside of the Amazon basin.
The Ayoreo people are made up of numerous subgroups, the most isolated of these being the Totobiegosode, which translates as the people from the land of the wild pigs. For generations the Totobiegosode have lived off the forest, cultivating a few crops and hunting tortoises and boar. However, the destructive forces of civilization are drawing ever closer.
Hemmed in on all sides, with their ancestral lands being bulldozed to make way for cattle ranches and soy plantations, some Totobiegosode have emerged from the forest to ask for help. Others have been kidnapped and forced into slavery. As the outside world closes in, it brings diseases to which the tribe have no built up immunity. In recent years a tuberculosis epidemic has cut swathes through the community and cost many lives.
Nobody can be certain how many of the Totobiegosode still survive in the depths of Gran Chaco Forest or what the future holds for them. However, there was some good news in 1996 when the Ayoreo people were granted the land rights to 100,000 hectares of the Gran Chaco Forest. However, they believe this is less than half what may be needed to ensure the survival of their most isolated kin in the forest.
The struggle for land continues, and after a hard-fought, protracted battle the legal rights to another 18,000 hectares was secured from the government in 2019.
2. The Yanomami Tribe
The Yanomami Tribe are another of the isolated tribes that call the Amazon Rainforest home. However, their culture is rather different to most of the others. This is most apparent in that they don’t have any leaders. Rather than take orders from a chief, the tribe get together to discuss any important decisions that might need to be made. The outcome is only decided when group consensus is reached.
Around 20% of the Yanomami tribe’s diet is made up of the monkeys, birds, armadillo, and deer they hunt with bows and arrows. However, the hunter himself will never eat anything he has personally caught. It is instead shared out amongst others.
While the hunting is done almost exclusively by the men, the women use their extensive knowledge of the forest to gather berries and edible insects. It’s believed that they regularly make use of more than 500 different types of plants with which to provide medicine, body paints, dyes, poisons, and even hallucinogenic drugs.
In keeping with a hunter gatherer lifestyle, a typical working day of just four hours is enough to provide the Yanomami with everything they need to survive and thrive.
So far the Yanomami have fared better than many of South America’s isolated tribes, and it’s believed there are still around 35,000 of them living in up to 250 scattered villages across Brazil and Venezuela.
1. The Sentinelese
North Sentinel Island is a scrap of land covering barely more than 23 square miles. It can be found in the Bay of Bengal, just a few hundred miles from India, the world’s second most heavily populated country. Despite this, North Sentinel Island is one of the most remote and mysterious places on the planet.
Only a handful of outsiders have ever set foot on the island, and even fewer have made it off alive. It is home to the Sentinelese Tribe, arguably the most isolated tribe of anywhere on Earth, and somewhat paradoxically also one of the most famous.
Very little is known of the Sentinelese people. We don’t even have any clear idea of how many of them there are, with estimates ranging between anything from 15 to 500 individuals.
Their island home is under the protection of the Indian Government, which periodically attempts to take a census from the air. This is all that can be attempted; the Indian authorities have made it illegal to set foot on the island without permission, and permission to visit is almost never granted.
The law is designed not just to protect the islanders, who have no natural immunity to many common diseases, but also for the safety of any prospective explorers. The Sentinelese have shown little desire to interact with the wider world, they are skilled archers, and when they feel threatened they are prepared to defend themselves with force.
In 2018 this remote tribe became headline news across the world. An American missionary named John Chau paid local fishermen to illegally transport him to the island, where he intended to convert the locals to Christianity.
While there is no question that his actions were well intentioned, he placed both himself and the Sentinelese people in terrible danger.
Chau’s diary entry records that he offered gifts, only for a young boy to fire an arrow that struck his waterproof bible. The young American retreated but unfortunately failed to heed what was a very clear warning. His diary records that he determined to make another attempt to approach the Sentinelese people.
Sadly, his determination cost him his life. The Indian authorities concluded it would be too risky to attempt to recover his body.