December 2, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

This article is taken from the Winter 2011 issue of I, Science.

Douglas Heaven asks Dr. Michael Stewart if there really are any uncontacted tribes left out there.

In January 2006, two Indian fishermen were killed by indigenous tribesmen when their boat drifted too close to North Sentinel Island, a tiny outcrop in the Andaman archipelago between India and Burma. When an Indian coastguard helicopter later approached the island to investigate, Sentinelese warriors repelled it with spears and arrows – but not before the helicopter’s down-draft had revealed the fishermen’s bodies lying in shallow graves on the beach. This at least put paid to local rumours that the unfortunate men had been eaten by this uncontactable tribe, a people reportedly without the ability to work metal or use fire.

Keen to know more about these isolated Andaman Islanders, I contacted Dr. Michael Stewart, an anthropologist at University College London. “It’s all fantasy, the idea of an uncontacted tribe!” he interrupts, when I broach the subject. “It’s a total fantasy. And the Andaman Islanders are a wonderful example of that. The Andaman Islands are one of the major tourist destinations for South Asian tourists. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands go there every year”.

It is the Sentinelese who are at threat from an encroaching outside world. Their Andaman neighbours, the Jarawa, have suffered disruption, measles outbreaks, and unwanted tourist attention since the 300km-long Great Andaman Trunk Road was built through their forest homeland. Private companies operate illegal sightseeing tours for curious outsiders to take photographs, while dislocated Jarawa beg at the roadside. Legislation has been put in place to offer some protection but the fate of these people may still end up being similar to that of the Native Americans. “When the Andaman Islanders throw things at people it’s because they know them and they’ve had a bad experience with them”, Stewart wryly suggests. “It’s precisely the opposite of an uncontacted people”.

The fantasy of unknown peoples is a compelling part of popular culture and promoted by TV programs like BBC2’s Tribal Wives. “It’s more a kind of romantic fantasy that it would be possible to really get away and hide – it’s a humanized version of the yeti story”, Stewart says. He mentions an episode of Tribal Wives featuring the Huaorani – a remote Ecuadorian tribe – which doesn’t quite manage to keep the airstrip the Houarani have built to receive tourists out of shot. Similarly, in The Tribe That Hides From Man, a famous 1970 documentary film about ‘first contact’ with a Brazilian tribe: “If you watch it with a critical eye, it becomes quite clear that these people have steel axes – steel axes don’t grow in the Amazon jungle, they’ve got them through barter with other people”.

That’s not to say there aren’t pockets of truly isolated people, but it’s more accurate to think of them as reclusive than uncontacted. “There are Huaorani who are living in the Amazon who travel around in very small groups – just a family – a man, a woman, and some children – who really do avoid, as far as is possible, contact with other people. There are people who systematically avoid contact”. The Mbuti – an indigenous pygmy people from the Congo region of Africa – are another group who are “ambivalent about contact with outsiders”, as Stewart puts it. For the Mbuti a history of indebtedness and exploitation at the hands of neighbouring tribes led them to shun interaction.

If such people have deliberately sought isolation, there are obviously ethical questions about studying them. “It’s a constant source of self-questioning”, agrees Stewart. Generally, he believes social research is for the public good, noting parallels between much ethnographic research and journalism. As in the Leveson Inquiry, the issue is where to draw the lines. “Somebody who in some way betrays the secrets of a population they do research with – if that includes where they hide out, as it were – that would be universally condemned”.

But are there truly no unexplored peoples left in the world? “If people don’t want to be studied then they don’t get studied”, he says. “Famously, anthropologists don’t study the super rich of the Western world, who don’t want to have their lives exposed – there’s no ethnography of the Saudi royal family – these people stop you. Anthropologists have tried to do ethnography of the super rich and the super powerful but they don’t want to let anthropologists in”.

And the super rich are a lot better than indigenous tribes at keeping outsiders away.

Update > Since this piece was written, The Observer published videos apparently showing topless Jarawa women being made to dance for policemen and tourists on “human safari”.

More > Read the accompanying interview with Survival International’s Stephen Corry.

Location: Ecuadorian Amazon
Population: 2500-4000

Location: Democratic Republic of the Congo
Population: 30000-50000

Location: North Sentinel Island
Population: ~250 (incomplete but official census: 39)

Location: western side of South Andaman and Middle Andaman Islands
Population: 250-300

Population: ~150 in 1950s. So few that their lands were considered uninhabited and used as an atomic-bomb test site. They have since been allocated a protected conservation area.
Location: Great Victoria Desert, Western Australia.

Image: flickr | christiancaron2000