Contacting the Uncontacted


Pietro Topa

Sylvie Klingborg ’21 advocates for missionaries to respect the wishes of uncontacted groups.

For some, a world before smartphones is unimaginable. Others can’t fathom life without electricity. However, no one can say that they remember a time before modern civilization. Or rather, nearly no one.

To many, it may be a challenge to imagine living within a tribe of only a few dozen, sleeping in a home made from whatever can be scavenged from the forest, and eating only what can be hunted or gathered. This way of life, which dates back to nearly two million years ago, is not necessarily ancient history. Loincloths and wooden huts, although regarded as relics from a time before history, remain a reality for small populations of people around the world.

Referred to as uncontacted peoples, these groups have remained isolated from the civilized world. This isolation is due to a variety of factors, mainly stemming from the nature of their environments. Tribes may live deep in the snowy desert of Siberia, like the Nanet, or even in the Amazon, like the Awá.

One such tribe inhabits the North Sentinel island, among the Andaman Islands located in India. They are regarded as the most isolated tribe in existence, as there has been little successful contact with them despite several efforts made throughout their history. They are referred to as the “Sentinelese” by outsiders, as no one knows what they call themselves.

The Sentinelese have inhabited North Sentinel for around sixty-thousand years, and are believed to be descendants from the first group that migrated out of Africa. Their violent reactions to the outside world have kept them in their tribal ways. When Marco Polo, the thirteenth-century explorer, visited the Andaman Islands, he described the Sentinelese as violent and cruel cannibals.

Although their practice of cannibalism has never been confirmed, they have been known to kill unwelcome visitors in the past. In 2006, two poachers, while asleep on their boat, drifted too close to the island and were murdered by members of the tribe. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, a helicopter was sent to investigate the island and was met with attacks from bow and arrow wielding tribesmen, shooting to kill. Most recently, in November of 2018, missionary John Allen Chau was murdered after trespassing onto the island.

Some may see these violent reactions as overreactions, unjustified and inhumane responses to seemingly insignificant misdemeanors. However, the senseless genocide and abuse of countless native tribes has been a trend for hundreds of years, and the Sentinelese are no strangers to this fact.

“Our presence amongst them is enough to put them in danger,” Sharif Hassan ’21 said. “We risk spreading disease and killing these people.”

The Jarawa, known to inhabit the Andaman Islands and remain in contact with the Sentinelese, have recently become features in human safaris. Tour operators have been bringing paying tourists along a road within the Jarawa’s forest, with passengers gawking at and photographing any curious tribespeople.

Profiting through the treatment of indigenous peoples as animals is not uncommon in the history of European and American imperialism, with many human zoos being created and maintained in Africa and North America in the 19th and 20th centuries. Despite the Indian government’s attempts to protect the Jarawa from the tourism industry, buses of camera-toting foreigners continue to harass them.

The Sentinelese themselves have also faced cruelty from outsiders. In the late 1800s, British explorers kidnapped six Sentinelese tribe members. The two elderly members died while in British custody and the four other abducted children were returned home.

Besides these egregious examples of abuse, another issue remains in regards to contact with the modern world. “Our presence amongst them is enough to put them in danger,” Sharif Hassan ’21 said. “We risk spreading disease and killing these people.”

Since uncontacted peoples have been isolated for so long, they don’t have the same immunities to diseases that those in the modern world have. Something as simple as the flu has the potential to wipe out an entire tribe. The Yanomami tribe, living in Venezuela, has faced various measles outbreaks since the 1960s, with around 500 having been infected this year.

With all of this in mind, it becomes apparent that forced contact with these peoples can potentially endanger both the tribe and the person contacting. Modern-day missionaries, like John Allen Chau, although seemingly harmless in comparison to other dangers and threats, can become a gateway for further unwanted attention, leading to irreversible harm.

“Missionaries, while they don’t mean too, are still endangering people’s lives,” Sylvie Klingborg ’21 said. “They [the Sentinelese] don’t want to be contacted, and everyone suffers when it’s forced.”