Skip to main content

Main Area


Isolated and uncontacted peoples around the world

  • Isolated and uncontacted peoples around the world

    In 2018, an American missionary named John Allen Chau was killed by the Sentinelese tribe, which exists mostly as it has for thousands of years on the remote island of North Sentinel. The incident brought global awareness to the existence of human beings who continue to live as people did for millennia, unaware of space shuttles, inkjet printers, Instagram, and stock market downturns.

    The Sentinelese are notoriously hostile to outsiders—and for good reason. The rise of agriculture and permanent settlements 12,000 years ago ushered in an era that has not been kind to the world's indigenous populations, especially the last few centuries of industrialization, global exploration, and trade, which have extinguished virtually all traces of the world that came before.

    A few small and isolated tribes, however, have resisted modernity and remained frozen in time. They're scattered around the world, but the vast majority live in South America, mostly in the Amazon region. Although virtually no one on Earth has had no contact with outside society, the most isolated people are classified as "uncontacted." Some fled into forests centuries ago to escape conflict, others broke off from larger groups and established their own tribes, and others experienced contact but then retreated back into the wilderness.

    All, however, have one thing in common: vulnerability. With each passing year, their lands and numbers get smaller as the industrialized world's relentless expansion drives them deeper and deeper into refuges that offer fewer and fewer places to hide from the tide of change.

    RELATED: 30 of the world's most endangered languages

  • Sentinelese people of North Sentinel Island

    The remnants of a 60,000-year-old tribe whose members are direct descendants of the earliest humans in Africa, the Sentinelese are probably the most isolated people on Earth, living where they always have on North Sentinel Island in the vast Bengal Bay. The last major contact with the group came in the late-1800s when a British Royal Navy explorer kidnapped people in the tribe, subjected them to bizarre sexual experimentation, and introduced diseases that decimated their population. Little is known about them, and contact is forbidden with the tribe, which remains ferociously hostile to visitors.

  • Jarawa people of the Andamanese Islands

    North Sentinel is part of the Andamanese Islands, which is also home to another ancient people, the Jarawa, who have been living there for 55,000 years. Their quest to remain untouched by modernity, however, has not been as successful as that of their Sentinelese neighbors, though some small groups of the 400-strong nomadic tribe do still remain uncontacted. Although India's Supreme Court halted construction in 2002, corporations built a section of highway through Jarawa land, which continues to attract poachers, drug dealers, and, most disturbingly, "human safari" tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the prehistoric hunter-gatherers.

  • Awa of the Amazon

    Illegal logging, deforestation, and other encroachment have made the Awa among the most vulnerable uncontacted tribes on Earth. The Amazon rainforest that straddles the border of Peru and Brazil has supported the Awa for millennia, but today, only about 60-80 of the roughly 600 remaining Awa still live nomadic, uncontacted lives that depend solely on the bounty of the land. The rest live in isolated and protected jungle villages.

  • Lacandon of Mexico

    Deep in the Lacandon Rainforest of southern Mexico and northern Guatemala, the Lacandon people still exist, some of them uncontacted and isolated deep in the vast forest. Now numbering fewer than 1,000, the Lacandon are descended from Maya people who fled to the jungle interior in the wake of the Spanish conquest.

  • Yuqui of Bolivia

    The Yuqui were originally contacted by the Spanish in the mid-16th century but were then left isolated from modern society for more than 400 years until the 1960s. They were at that time thought to be part of a larger group called Siriono, but through their unique language, also called Yuqui, the Yuqui people were determined to be a distinct tribe. Although they once ranged over a large part of the Bolivian Lowlands, the known population now numbers roughly 130, although it is likely that some remain uncontacted and uncounted.

  • Wajãpi of Brazil and French Guiana

    Wajãpi is the name given to a group of indigenous people who speak the Tupi language and live in a range that straddles the border between Brazil and French Guiana. They are scattered among smaller groups called "kin," which, depending on which side of the border they live, have had varying degrees of contact with outsiders.

  • Ayoreo of Paraguay

    The pristine wilderness that is the Paraguayan Chaco region has long been the range of the Ayoreo people, but it is now suffering the fastest rate of deforestation on Earth. Many Ayoreo have been contacted since the first Mennonite farmers established colonies there in the 1940s and 1950s, but some still remain isolated. Their hiding places, however, grow smaller and fewer every year as foreign ranching companies buy their land and destroy the forest to make vast clearings for cattle.

  • Totobiegosode of Paraguay

    Paraguay's Totobiegosode people are a distinct offshoot of the Ayoreo, but they are even more isolated from modern society—their name means "people from the place of the wild pigs." These last survivors live life mostly on the run from bulldozers and hostile cattle ranchers. Even still, some have managed to retain a nomadic lifestyle and avoid all contact with the outside world, even though efforts to modernize or remove the Totobiegosode have forced large numbers of them from the forest.

  • Palawan Island tribes of the Philippines

    About 40,000 indigenous people live in the southern portion of Palawan Island in the Philippines. Despite significant encroachment from mining and the thousands of settlers the industry has attracted, some tribes deep in the interior remain virtually uncontacted. Among them are the Tau't Bato, who reportedly live in caves in the crater of an extinct volcano.

  • Yuri and Carabayo of Colombia

    In 2012, Cristóbal von Rothkirch of the Colombian National Parks Unit and Amazon Conservation Team took photographs that prove the existence of uncontacted people living in the remote rainforest on the border of Colombia and Brazil. The photographer documented five longhouses called malokas, traditional structures built by both the Carabayo and Yuri tribes, deep in the Rio Puré National Park.

2018 All rights reserved.