NOTE: This article is not entirely about objective “science” but is more about social philosophy and my views on life in non-industrial societies (which I believe is more horrible than most of us can comprehend) on cultural preservation (which I think is all well and good, but not at the expense of humanity) and on freedom of choice (which I think is important, but not infinite, especially with those who can’t necessarily make a fully informed choice because of the circumstances)
Deep within the Amazon and in a very few other places in the world there remain a scant few individuals who live in what are known as “uncontacted tribes.” These are the last remnants of an age before communication and transport linked the world into a global society. They live with no knowledge or understanding of the rest of the world, sometimes speaking languages that have never been recorded or translated. Most that exist today are in South America. , though a few also exist in New Guinea.
To say that they are completely isolated from humanity is not always 100% true. In many cases they have had contact in the past, although possibly generations ago. This contact usually being in the form of conflict. During the rubber boom, their areas were invaded by heavily armed outsiders seeking to tap the areas rubber trees. Poachers, miners and drug lords have also come across these tribes. This contact has been limited to a few skirmishes and the outsiders have been little more than strangers with loud machines and thundering firearms who the tribes fled from. They have a few items that came from the outside world, such as simple metal tools. These were scavenged from things discarded or traded with other tribes in the area.
More direct contact may well have occurred during the Spanish Colonial period. Many of these groups are likely remnants of larger bands of tribes which escaped into the rain forests during the conquests. As their individual histories remaining undocumented, it’s hard to say for sure whether they ever interacted with foreigners, although it would have been generations ago. Today they have infrequent contact with neighboring tribes and no established relations with outsiders.
What we know of them comes from a scant few sources. The most regular source of information is a program of monitoring of the tribes by the Brazilian government. It uses aircraft, usually keeping their distance and relying on telephoto lenses to document the existence of the tribes without coming in too close. On occasion, one buzzes in for a closer look. The people react in various ways, sometimes throwing spears at the strange flying object. We know that they do see aircraft fairly regularly, whether in the form of distant passenger jets streaking across the sky or the occasional loud rumble of a military helicopter passing overhead. Of course, we can only speculate as to what this might mean to them. Perhaps they are terrified or perhaps they believe they are some kind of evil gods.
The groups are quite small, with the maximum number per tribe usually less than one hundred, though a few may be close to a thousand. They live in small settlements and seem to be primarily hunter-gathers, although they also cultivate a handful of crops in gardens. The small size of the tribes means that they can be in a state of flux, decade to decade, dying out relatively quickly, splitting up or moving.
They seem to build small living areas, settling into small cleared areas and building very simple shelters composed of vegetation piled on top of tree branch frames. They are known to paint their bodies red and black with a vegetable-based dye. This is a common custom amongst South American natives. They have no footwear at all and wear little if any clothing. If not completely unclothed, they may have material tied around their waste or neck. Although it can be hard to tell from limited photographs and videography, all available images show only young and able-bodied tribe members.
The only other source of current information is other tribes in the region, some of whom are more prone to trade or interact with outsiders. They come in contact with the uncontacted tribes, though only occasionally and usually for the purpose of conflict. For the most part, even other tribes in the region only get a fleeting look at the uncontacted people, unless a skirmish occurs.
There is a strict policy against intentionally initiating a first contact or reaching out to the uncontacted tribes. It’s stated that their lifestyle needs to be protected, their culture and their sovereignty respected and not intruded upon Of course, we can only assume that their culture is worthy of respect. For all we know, they may engage in the most heinous and inhuman of cruelty against each other. For all we know, some of them may cry out for one of those magical flying objects to come rescue them as fellow tribe members burn them alive. It’s not as if such things are unheard of in primitive societies. But regardless of how benevolent or cruel they may, be, it would be unfair to impose our ideals of justice and civilization on them, or so we are told.
What is for sure is that they do not seem to want to contact us and make every effort not to. We therefore are told that they have the right to not be contacted and that if they wished to be in contact with the rest of humanity, they certainly could find the opertunity to do so.
This may well be true, but it begs the question of whether this decision by the tribes to not be contacted can be considered to be a valid one. After all, it’s not really informed consent when you have no information at all. These tribes know absolutely nothing of outsiders. They don’t know what else humanity has to offer or that there are whole other societies or that they live in a country called Brazil and that an organization called the “United Nations” is off debating what steps need to be taken to avoid their being contacted. They have no concept of any benefit from the outside world, since the limited encounters of generations past have all been negative.
It is also said that efforts must be made to keep them protected from invaders who might do them harm. Efforts must be made to keep drug runners, illegal loggers or poachers away. The unconnected tribes are, of course, completely defenseless due to their ignorance. They don’t know that it’s quite useless to charge at gun-toting poachers with spears, or if they do know, it’s because they found out the hard. They don’t know that what the hostile outsiders are doing is illegal or that they live in a society where the government would send police forces in to arrest these people, if they were alerted to their presence. Of course, even if they did, they have no way of contacting the authorities for help should they be attacked.
Their ignorance is so great it’s almost infant like. That’s not to insult them, because it’s not their fault. The rest of the world has the benefit of knowledge accumulated by innumerable minds over generations of history. Yet the uncontaminated tribes live in a kind of pitch darkness.
Perhaps most ironically, they we actually known them better than they may know themselves. When a member of one of the tribes sits down and ponders their own life, who they are and where they fit into the world, they have little to work with. They have no written history and nobody ever told them that they are the descendants of a race of per-columbians that were largely wiped out by the Spanish. They don’t know that their forefathers were pushed into the depths of the jungle by men seeking the sap of rubber trees to produce industrial products. They don’t know that they are a carbon based life form, living on a round planet, orbiting the sun and having descended from primates. They could not find their location on a map or recognize a globe. They don’t know that they inhabit a world that stretches far beyond the horizon and includes massive glaciers, deserts, vast oceans, animals of all descriptions and human cultures. They can see the moon, but don’t know what it is, or that they are part of a species that can and did visit and set foot upon it.
Like all peoples, of course, they do know death, pain, difficulty and fear. In fact, they surely know these things better than any of we do. In such a society, death is much different. Death is not something that happens to old people in hospital beds, sedated and on pain killers as they give their final goodbyes to family. The death of young people in accidents is not a rarity or a shocking event, but a common reality. They don’t know why it happens. They don’t know that the human body needs oxygen delivered to all its cells, but they do know sometimes their loved ones go away. They know that most cuts and scrapes will heal but that sometimes, for reasons unknown to them, they get swollen and fill with puss and that this may be accompanied with a fever and excruciating pain. They know that when this happens, the person sometimes gets better and sometimes dies. They certainly don’t know that there are people near them who have pills that would make it all go away.
They know fear in ways we do not either. Nothing breeds fear like ignorance, and for them, ignorance is a way of life. Whether aircraft or a distant sight of a river boat or tractor, they see things that confuse them and go far beyond their comprehension. They know what it is for almost every event to have undertones of fear. Births, for example, may well be celebrated, as they often are in our society, but also with a realization that the mother may well die in the process and that the infant has a pretty good chance of dying before getting very old.
So are they noble and happy?
Are these people noble, innocent, perfectly in harmony with the world? Are they humanity at its best and most untainted? No, not really. They live the only way they know because that’s all they have. If they’re anything like most tribal societies, they probably occasionally do things to each other we’d have a very hard time finding defensible. That is not to insult their intelligence or capacity for good, but it’s just the way things tend to be in a prehistoric-like society.
We are told that they are very healthy. It’s pointed out that all photographs show people who appear to be in very good physical shape and have no trouble getting around. That’s not surprising. After all, the unhealthy would not be expected to last very long in such an environment. Also, health tends to deteriorate with age, and we’re seeing them in their prime, because they don’t last much beyond that.
It is repeatedly noted that their diet is very healthy. Thankfully, unlike many primitive peoples, they live in an area where one can rely on relatively favorable growing seasons and their primitive cultivation seems to produce a reasonably steady stream of vegetables. There seem to be a lot of undertones from information sources about how great it is that they are living on these simple foods, grown “organically” and without the additives that we have. To be sure, it’s unlikely that anyone in their villages suffers from diabetes or obesity. Then again, there’s a pretty good chance that a fair number are deficient in iodine or zinc or are otherwise not quite as well nourished as they seem. We don’t know for sure, because we haven’t actually tested their blood. It’s certain that their food does make them violently ill from time to time, since they have no concept of germ theory and would not understand how to avoid contaminating it with pathogens. However, death from tainted food or water is rare in otherwise healthy individuals.
The way that some of the “advocates” for these people speak is a little strange. They discuss the uncontacted tribes in a manner that is almost animalistic, describing how their area must be protected and preserved. Also engrained in the modern view of these tribes is the importance of preserving their culture and way of life exactly as it is. This strikes me as a bit hypocritical and condescending. Our culture is not static. It changes, sometimes radically and we manage. We absorb new ideas from other cultures. We don’t value tradition so much as to demand that nobody change how things are done.
It seems almost as if these tribes are thought to exist for our pleasure – that preserving their way of life allows us the rare opertunity to marvel at a primitive society that no longer is widespread. We can view them from our airplanes and pat our selves on the back for the great diversity there is in the world. We can publish the indirect accounts of their existence in National Geographic magazine and read about their romantic existence.
It is also stated that when most primitive tribes have been contacted by the outside world, the results have been very negative for them. That’s certainly true, historically, but only because those who made contact usually were looking to conqueror or enslave. It is not always negative and does not have to be.
Should contact be made?
In case you have not realized it by now, I strongly believe it should be. Granted that doing so in a manner that is not threatening and does not make things worse will certainly not be easy or without risk, but the fact that something is difficult is never a good reason to not do it. There is a bit of a paradox when it comes to figuring out how to best respect their humanity, due to the fact that they do not have a favorable view of outsiders and try to avoid them, but that may not be insurmountable.
I will make a suggestion that will probably make some of the “protectors” of these tribes brand me as the devil. While some might say it would somehow contaminate their simple way of life or technological virginity, the best way to make sure that they will be welcoming of contact and see outsiders as a good thing is to provide them with some modern items to make their lives easier. If airplanes just buzz their villages, they will likely see them with nothing but fear and disdain. However, if airplanes buzz their villages and drop some plastic tarps, rolls of duct tape, canteen cups and other such items, the response will be much different. Being as industrious as any people, it won’t take them long to realize that lashing branches together or repairing a hole in a roof is a lot easier with duct tape than it is with natural fibers. They’ll find plastic tarps are a godsend for making a waterproof shelter and that canteen cups beat hallowed out vegetables for transporting water, hands down.
As mentioned, these tribes do have a few industrially-produced items, mostly scavenged from those discarded. They have been photographed with machetes and metal cans. They would recognize the utility of such outside items and their value. Hence, any items of such utility will quickly become welcomed. The process can happen progressively more directly, starting with items dropped from low-flying aircraft, followed by being left near villages by expeditions that approach slowly closer. There is also the risk that they might immediately presume the outsiders are some kind of gods (it’s been known to happen) so how to deal with that scenario must be considered.
Despite objections to the importance of the purity of their culture, I would contend that even if such an operation were ultimately unsuccessful and that the tribes continued to avoid contact, even despite repeatedly providing various useful items, they would not be a complete loss, because just the fact that the tribes would undoubtedly use the items and that having these materials and tools would improve their lifestyle.
There’s no doubt that such an operation would take a lot of time and effort. It would almost certainly be met with resistance at first, and thus needs to be so gentle. It may take longer than expected to gain enough trust to approach and interact with the tribes, and there’s no doubt there will be fear and skepticism on their part. For those who are tasked with approaching them, there also exists a danger that the tribe could unexpectedly turn violent.
A difficult task, to be sure, and there’s no way that there won’t be quite a lot of culture shock. That said, humans are very adaptable creatures and will often surprise everyone by how rapidly they can grow accustomed to major change and embrace it. New generations of the tribes especially, do not need to grow up in a world where there is only ignorance and fear.
As for the possibility that doing this could lead to the tribes vanishing, I’m not necessarily one to consider that a tragic thing. If within one or two generations, every member of the tribe has decided not to continue the tribal life and have instead decided live in an apartment in Rio de Janeiro, then I’m perfectly fine with that. The nostalgia for the tribal life is far less important than freedom and quality of life of modern society.
Here are a few of my responses to “uncontactedtribes.org“
So are there any pristine societies?
All peoples are changing all the time and always have, including uncontacted tribes. Survival doesn’t talk about ‘pristine’ tribes or cultures. They are not backward or ‘Stone Age’, they just live differently.
Lets not allow the political correctness to get out of control here. They don’t just live differently. They are backward in the sense that nearly everything about how they live is inferior to how we live. They are unaware of their options or what else is out there in the world. They lack the tools we have to improve health, safety and comfort. When one of them gets bitten by a snake and dies, it’s not because that’s how it is in their culture and that’s the way they want it. They almost certainly do not *want* them to die, yet they have no concept of the existence of antivenom.
Their lives, like all pre-industrial lives are back-breaking, fearful and short.
What’s Survival position on going there?
No one should go to tribes which aren’t in regular contact with outsiders. It’s dangerous for everyone. We only publicize their rough location when it’s needed to protect their lands.
As mentioned, yes, there is danger and it’s a tough thing to do in a manner that is not going to cause harm. However, they are our fellow human beings. They are part of the human family and entitled to be welcomed into it and benefiting from the vast resources beyond their tribal lands.
The Brazilians used to have ‘first contact’ expeditions. What’s Survival’s position?
Those leading such expeditions ended up regretting them. They believed that contact was necessary to save the Indians, but the tribe often ended up destroyed anyway. Enlightened thinking now is that the Indians must be left alone, and effort put into protecting them.
The fact that problems have occurred in the past does not negate the importance or honor of the mission. Indeed, some of the expeditions may have failed to appreciate the importance of not approaching too directly and of using the utmost caution and appreciating the fear the tribes had for outsiders. It is not more “enlightened” to simply say that these people are basically to be treated like an endangered species.
And as mentioned, I don’t consider it a tragedy if the tribe dissolves or radically changes when outside options are introduced.
But could this be because they don’t see the benefits of ‘our’ way of life? If they knew, might they want to join us?
They won’t get the chance. In reality, the future offered by the settler society is to ‘join’ at the lowest possible level – often as beggars and prostitutes. History proves that tribal peoples end up in a far worse state after contact, often dead.
The lowest rung of a modern society is infinitely better than anything they have. But the logic here is flawed. The reason most of them ended up at the lowest part of society is that most societies that encountered them saw them as little more than an impediment to exploitation of resources or as a source of slave labor.
If they do become part of modern society, we owe it to them to offer the services necessary to NOT end up at the bottom rung. Normally I’m opposed to a lot of social intervention, but since the countries they live in largely are to blame for neglecting these people, it’s only fair that they receive some assistance in coming out of the stone age.
They won’t end up dead if we make it a point not to go there to kill them. Although they probably will if others get there first with less noble intentions.
Why are they threatened?
Outsiders want their land or its resources, for timber, mining, dam or road building, ranching, or settlement etc. Contact is usually violent and hostile, but the main killers are often common diseases (influenza, measles, etc.) to which the uncontacted people have no immunity and which often prove fatal.
We have vaccines for all these diseases and could inoculate or screen our exhibitions first. The only reason contact is usually violent and hostile is because no effort is made to do so peacefully. Ranchers, miners and loggers exist. Eventually some of them will get through, and if you let them be the first on the scene, it will be disastrous. Similarly, outside diseases will likely, eventually make their way in, and it would be far better to avoid the unplanned introduction of an unplanned pathogen.
And lets not kid ourselves about the dangers here. You don’t exactly see a whole lot of these people with white hair and wrinkles, do you? They are threatened by snake bites, infections, giving birth, falling out of trees, being burned by cooking fires and all the other things that have decimated humanity and continue to do so to these people.
What do they need?
Their lands to be protected.
Get off your high horse. You don’t know these people or what their lives are like. However, I can tell you that it’s a pretty safe assumption that they have more to worry about than outsiders.
Surely they can’t be left alone forever.
If the alternative is their destruction, why not? Whose choice should it be, theirs or ‘ours’? If a people chooses to make contact with wider society, they’ll find a way. If we think they’re human beings, then they have human rights. The problem is that the belief that they are primitive and incapable of deciding for themselves is still widespread.
Destruction is not the only alternative. They are not primitive, but their lives and societies are.
Why is it important that they be allowed to survive?
Firstly, although small in number they are the most vulnerable peoples on the planet. If we care about human rights at all, we should surely care about the most endangered.
You really don’t know what it is to be “endangered” do you? Maybe we should drop you naked in the Amazon for a few days and then you can figure out what kinds of things are actually putting you in danger.
Secondly, their languages, knowledge of the plants and animals in their environment (including medicinal plants) and view of life are unique. They know things we don’t.
Yes, and we know things that they don’t. What they know could fill books, and should be documented to the extent possible. But the knowledge we have is
Thirdly, as the ‘most different’, they add enormously to the diversity of human life. If diversity in any sphere is important, this must be amongst the most valuable.
This seems to go back to the whole idea that they exist for us to marvel at. If by diversity of life you mean different levels of suffering, then your diversity has no value. I don’t want that kind of diversity. I want everyone to have relatively similar levels of comfort, opertunity and safety.
Isn’t this unrealistic romanticism?
It’s asserting peoples’ right to decide for themselves, rather than be destroyed at the hands of an invading society. No one thinks it’s ‘romantic’ to oppose colonialism, slavery, or apartheid etc.
No, but apparently some are romantic about letting people live to the age of 30 in filthy huts.
As stated above, every effort should be made to avoid contacting these tribes by force. Gaining their favor by approaching slowly will be a difficult and hit-or-miss kind of thing. We owe it to them. We, the outsiders from the industrialized world taught them to run in fear, with our banana plantations and rubber expeditions. We violated their areas and made them fear us.
They are people, just like you and me and are entitled to be part of humanity. We should do what it takes, however difficult to show them we are not hostile and gently make contact. It would be anti-humanist not to.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 31st, 2012 at 8:45 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Culture, Misc, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
View blog reactions