Uncontacted tribes: What do we know about the world's 100 hidden communities?

As you live in our hyper-connected world, it may seem strange to realize that thousands of people still live in so-called uncontacted tribes, utterly cut off from modern civilization.

On July 1st, 2014 seven members of an Amazon tribe emerged from the jungle and made their first contact with the rest of the world—out of dire and tragic necessity. Despite 600 years of Portuguese-Brazilian history, this tribe only came out to interact with their new neighbors now, and we discover more things about uncontacted tribes all over the world every day—which is not necessarily a good thing.


Uncontacted Peoples

According to Survival International somewhere around 100 so-called uncontacted peoples still exist. The estimates for how many such peoples there are can vary dramatically. For example, Brazil claims to have 77 uncontacted peoples living in the Amazon Rainforest, while National Geographic claims there are 84. When the estimates of uncontacted peoples are taken together and compared, around 100 tribes worldwide is a reasonable answer to give, though the real number is likely higher. Sources for these numbers include observations from aircraft flying over the isolated regions and accounts by contacted peoples living nearby.

“Uncontacted” is a bit of a misnomer, as it's likely that even the most isolated tribe in the world has interacted with outsiders in some way, whether face to face or by exposure to modern artifacts such as planes flying overhead and inter-tribal trading. However, they are unintegrated into global civilization, retain their own cultures and customs, and can have little interest in communication with the outside world—or too much fear. “They know far more about the outside world than most people think,” Fiona Watson, research director for Survival International, told BBC. “They are experts at living in the forest and are well aware of the presence of outsiders.” 

Where do they live?


Darkened areas indicate regions where uncontacted peoples still live. (Wiki Commons)

As you can see on this map, the tribes live in some of the most difficult-to-reach places in the world, such as the deep interior of the Amazon, the Congo, and the mountains of New Guinea. Two groups are known to live on islands off India. 

Why don’t they come out to visit?

The reasons why a group of people might want to remain isolated can vary, but in many cases, it is just that they want to be left alone. Others may have fled into hiding long ago to escape atrocities. Fear is also suggested as a primary motivation by anthropologist Robert S. Walker of the University of Missouri. In the modern world, their isolation can be romanticised as defying the forces of globalization and capitalism, but as Kim Hill, anthropologist at Arizona State University, puts it: “There is no such thing as a group that remains in isolation because they think it’s cool to not have contact with anyone else on the planet.”

Why don’t we visit them?

Technically speaking, most of these tribes have been visited in some way. The so-called "most isolated tribe in the world" (more on that later) was first contacted in the late 1800s by the British Raj, though they have remained extremely isolated ever since. Brazil conducts flyovers of many tribes not only for anthropological curiosity but also to assure that illegal logging is not taking place, and to confirm survival after natural disasters. Many of those tribes in Brazil have items that originated far away and were obtained via trading with other tribes.

The tribes have rights to self-determination and to the land they live on. As the arrival of outsiders would dramatically change their way of life no matter what they might desire, it is thought best that the outside world should stay away so those peoples can determine their own futures.

Historically, tribes that have been contacted have done poorly in the period immediately afterward and the decision to make contact would perhaps lead to more suffering than it is worth in the short run, as many tribes are stricken by illness right after the first contact. 

Their isolation causes them to lack immunity to many common diseases, and there is a history of first contacts resulting in epidemics, even to this day.

Should we contact them?

Well, the arguments against visiting them should be pretty clear after reading the previous paragraph. However, a couple of arguments do exist for the other side as well. Most notable is the argument anthropologists Walker and Hill make in Science, that, "isolated populations are not viable in the long term," and, "well-organized contacts are today both humane and ethical. We know that soon after peaceful contact with the outside world, surviving indigenous populations rebound quickly from population crashes."

This argument is rejected by most supporters of indigenous rights and is somewhat lacking in supporting evidence. An example of what can happen will be discussed below in the section about Brazil.

Who are they?

Below are five uncontacted and recently contacted tribes. They were selected for geographic diversity and on the availability of information. Much of this information can be taken with a grain of salt, as it is partly based on distant observation.

Sentinelese 


The Sentinelese as seen from a distance (Survival International).

“The most isolated tribe in the world” lives on the Andaman Islands off India. Contacted by the Raj in the 19th century, the tribe has remained isolated and hostile to outsiders ever since. The last official attempt at contact was in 1996; no further attempts have been tried, not only to protect the tribe from disease but also because they have a tendency to shoot arrows at anybody who gets too close.

They remain a hunter-gatherer society with no known agriculture. They have metal tools but can only fashion them out of the iron they recover from nearby shipwrecks. They have been isolated for so long that their language is not mutually intelligible with their nearest neighbors and remains unclassified, suggesting hundreds if not thousands of years of isolation.

The common estimate for the Sentinelese population is around 250.

Jarawas 


(Gethin Chamberlain)

Another isolated tribe in India, they also live on the Andaman Islands. They are a self-sufficient hunter-gatherer society and are, by several accounts, rather happy and healthy this way.

In the early nineties, the local government presented a plan to bring the tribe into the modern world but has backed off from this plan as of late. In 1998, members of the tribe began to visit the outside world. Recently more communication between the Jarawas and outsiders has taken place due to the increased settlement near their villages.

This contact caused two outbreaks of measles among the tribe, who had no immunity to it. The tribe is also increasingly subject to visits by misguided tourists and increased settlement near their ancestral home. Government interest in encouraging the tribe to adapt to a more modern lifestyle waxes and wanes.

The population is estimated to be near 400.

Vale do Javari


A member of the recently contacted Matis tribe of Brazil. (Getty Images)

The Javari Valley in Brazil is an area the size of Austria which is home to approximately 20 indigenous tribes. Of the 3,000 persons estimated to live there around 2,000 of them are thought to be “uncontacted”. The information on these tribes is fleeting, but evidence suggests they utilize some agriculture alongside hunting. They have metal tools as well as metal pots they acquired by trade. 

In the 1970s and '80s, it was the policy of the Brazilian government to contact isolated tribes for their benefit. The story of the Matis tribe of this region stands out. As a result of the diseases they were introduced to, the tribe saw three of its five villages wiped out, and their population dropped drastically. The Brazilian government no longer engages in this behavior.

The threat to this population now comes from miners and loggers.

New Guinea


An elderly member of the Dani People (Getty Images).

Information on these isolated tribes is fleeting, as the Indonesian government has done a good job at keeping people out of the highlands. However, some tribes have been contacted over the last century while remaining fairly isolated and retaining their traditions. 

One example is the Dani people and their story. Located in the heart of Indonesian New Guinea, the tribe has contact with the outside world but retains their customs. They are well known for their use of finger amputation to remind them of the departed and an extensive use of body paint. While the Dani have been in contact with the rest of the world since 1938, they can offer us a glimpse of the people we have yet to meet.

The Congo

The Mubti with an early European Explorer, Osa Johnson. (Public Domain).

Many of the forest-dwelling peoples in the Congo have been contacted infrequently over the last century. However, it is supposed that many uncontacted tribes still exist. The Mbuti, a 'pygmy' people, a contacted but isolated case which can give us an idea of how the uncontacted tribes may live. 

The Mbuti are hunter-gatherers who see the forest as a parental figure that provides them with everything they require. They live in small, egalitarian villages. They are largely self-sufficient, but they do engage in trade with outside groups. Their way of life is at risk due to deforestation, illegal mining, and genocide being carried out against pygmies

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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