The Past in the Present: Coexisting with Isolated Tribes by Megan Lucey

Despite the incredible technological advances of the modern world, some people still live using technologies and traditions from past eras. Across the world, there are tribes of indigenous people who rely solely on nature and live as hunter-gatherers. In a time when humans are more connected than ever, these tribes live secluded lives in the wild, isolated from industrialized society. There is no exact number of isolated tribes and people, but the Brazilian government has identified 77 uncontacted tribes that still exist (Holmes, 2013). This number, combined with the estimated number of tribes in other regions, gives a rough estimate of around 100 uncontacted tribes today (Holmes, 2013). Many of the isolated tribes reside in Amazonia and New Guinea. Others, like the Sentinelese tribe, live on remote islands. Industrialized society has long had a complex relationship with these isolated tribes, often doing them more harm than good. Today, tribes face dangers such as disease from outsiders, cultural decimation from integration with society, damaging effects of climate change, and threats of environmental exploitation. Although industrialized society is disconnected from modern-day tribes, it causes these threats. These tribes are an important part of humanity’s present and future. They hold natural knowledge of the environment that is scarce in the modern world and maintain 80% of the planet’s biodiversity in 85% of the world’s protected areas (Raygorodetsky, 2011). Due to the threat that industrialized society has on indigenous tribes, it is responsible for protecting them.

A prime example of an isolated tribe is the Sentinelese tribe, deemed the world’s most isolated tribe. The Sentinelese live on the North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal (Survival International, n.d.). The tribe is primitive, not knowing agriculture or much beyond basic survival skills, and lives in an unstructured society without a chief. According to Tim McGirk (1993) from The Independent, “their way of life is comparable to that of humans 15,000 years ago.” It is estimated that less than 400 people live in this tribe, but the number cannot be easily determined due to the Sentinelese people’s refusal of visitors (McGirk, 1993). Most outsiders who attempted contact in the past were killed or injured by the tribe’s barrage of arrows crafted from shipwrecks. Cameron Clark (2019) from The Harvard International Review remarks on their aggression by stating that “the Sentinelese are known for using propped-up corpses as warning signs to other potential invaders” (p. 10). As a result of their violent attitude towards outsiders, the Sentinelese have been largely uncontacted for 60,000 years (Clark, 2019, p. 10).

However, the hostile demeanor of the Sentinelese has not completely warded off curious visitors—there have been numerous attempts at contact with varying results. One of the earliest known encounters with the Sentinelese was in the 1850s when the British came to set up colonies in the Andaman Islands, one of them being the North Sentinel Island (McGirk, 1993). Back then, there were many more Sentinelese people inhabiting the island. Some researchers estimate 5,000 individuals were in the tribe at that time (Schönhuth, 2019, p. 4). However, this number was quickly reduced when the tribe, using their primitive weapons, attempted to fight off the British intruders and lost many of their members. This was not the end of the British visits to the North Sentinel Island, though. In 1880 Maurice Vidal Portman, a British officer responsible for the Andaman Islands, visited and abducted several Sentinelese people for “scientific purposes” (Schönhuth, 2019, p. 4). Portman sent the tribe members to a colonial base on the main island, which led to two of the Sentinelese captees dying from illnesses. The remaining captees were returned to the North Sentinel Island with gifts but may have introduced further sickness to their tribe. Evidently, the British of the 19th century did not coexist well with the Sentinelese by slaughtering and abducting them.

In order to protect the tribe from outside interference, unauthorized visits to the North Sentinel Island have been prohibited by the Indian government since the 1990s (Schönhuth, 2019, p. 6). But this warning did not stop 26-year-old American missionary John Allen Chau from visiting the North Sentinel Island with a goal to preach Christianity (Clark, 2019, p. 10). Chau was persistent in his evangelical quest— he “prepared for his mission with a total of four trips to the Andaman Islands since 2015” (Schönhuth, 2019, p. 4). Though journeying to the island was prohibited, Chau had visited by bribing local fishermen to bring him there. On his trips to the untamed island, Chau attempted contact but was shot at by the tribe’s barrage of arrows. During one encounter, the arrows came hurtling towards Chau, who was lucky to be clutching a thick Bible against his chest. The book was pierced by one of the deadly projectiles aimed precisely at Chau, and saved his life (Clark, 2019, p. 10). Despite his near death, Chau persisted in this mission. In November of 2018, Chau made a final visit to North Sentinel Island where he died from an arrow wound. People have had mixed feelings regarding Chau’s actions. According to Megan Specia (2018) from The New York Times, some missionaries “were quick to praise the young man on social media, calling him an inspiration and a martyr for their shared cause.” However, other missionaries “argue that his push to contact the tribe on North Sentinel Island, a group protected by Indian law, was reckless and unjustifiable” (Specia, 2018).

The 19th century British invasion of North Sentinel Island, Chau’s actions, and the controversy surrounding them all demonstrate that our globalized society does not know how to coexist with isolated tribes such as the Sentinelese. Modern societies can pose a serious threat to these uncontacted groups. In addition to violence, outside contact puts them at an increased risk for developing illnesses that they were previously never exposed to. For example, records show that two Sentinelese tribe members died from disease after being brought to a colonial base in 1880 (Schönhuth, 2019, p. 4). Due to their isolation, indigenous tribes lack immunity to foreign pathogens. Any outside interaction comes with the risk of transmitting potentially fatal diseases that could eradicate them entirely. Thus, separation between modern society and isolated tribes should be maintained for their health.

Contacting isolated groups not only threatens their health, though; it can also interfere with their culture. According to Clark (2019), colonizing areas like the North Sentinel Island can be “physically and culturally detrimental to indigenous people as their belief systems and societal norms were replaced by Western standards of society” (p. 10). They could lose valuable traditions, their unique language, and pieces of their culture from assimilation with modern societies. Had Chau succeeded in his mission, he would have disrupted the culture of the Sentinelese islanders and replaced it with his own. Isolated tribes have a unique way of life and culture that should be preserved. They have knowledge of the natural world that is largely unknown in our modern age and could quickly be lost from integration. Therefore, modern societies should not interfere with isolated tribes and should allow them to preserve their unique cultures.

Natural disasters threaten indigenous people; at the same time, they possess traditional knowledge that can protect them from some events (Bhaumik, 2005). To date, natural disasters have not yet had any tremendous impacts on the Sentinelese islanders or other Andaman island tribes. After a powerful tsunami in 2004, a naval helicopter hovered above the North Sentinel Island of the Sentinelese tribe to assess damages (Bhaumik, 2005). A photo from Survival International (n.d.) captures the scene—standing his ground on the pale, rocky beach beneath the aircraft, a tribe member was photographed firing arrows upwards at the helicopter. Although he appears to be a mere silhouette in the picture, the Sentinelese man aimed his bow courageously at what must have been a perplexing and mysterious intruder in his eyes. The loud whirring of the helicopter’s blades and the powerful gusts of wind blowing from the machine are not something an isolated islander sees often. Yet, this Sentinelese man fired upon the aircraft with determination. From the bird’s eye view of the helicopter, the Sentinelese tribe appeared to be thriving after the tsunami and were strong enough to continue fighting off intruders. They appear to have adapted to these environmental threats and taken precautions to protect themselves.

However, the global environment is changing rapidly. Due to climate change, “global temperatures are increasing, the sea level is rising, and precipitation patterns are changing, while storm surges, floods, droughts and heat waves are becoming more frequent and severe” (Raygorodetsky, 2011). The Sentinelese and other isolated tribes have lived sustainably for thousands of years on their land. But are they equipped for the changing environment? These indigenous people depend on nature to support themselves, and do not have advanced protection against the harmful effects of climate change. Despite being able to withstand natural disasters in the past, indigenous people may not be equipped to protect themselves against disasters as they grow increasingly dangerous from climate change.

Another danger to these tribes is environmental destruction and exploitation caused by industrial intrusions. According to Rainforest Foundation Norway (n.d.), “roads, industrial agriculture, and oil, gas, mining and logging operations, are constantly pushing their way into the isolated tribes’ territories.” When outsiders wanting the land and resources of the isolated tribes invade their territory, it forces the tribes to flee their homes. This puts many of these groups at risk, as their lives depend entirely on their environment. Many of the known isolated tribes live in the Amazon rainforest, which has recently been experiencing destructive wildfires, many of which were purposefully started to clear land for cultivation or pasture (Correa, Lobao, & Kaiser, 2019). With their ecosystem endangered, the tribes in the Amazon rainforest are threatened and need their land protected to ensure their well-being.

First, as seen by the British interactions with the Sentinelese tribe, colonizing their land results in the death of isolated tribes through murder and disease. They are very vulnerable to disease and cannot have outsiders enter their territory and interact with them. Second, as shown by Chau, attempting to interfere with the culture of isolated tribes does not end well, and their culture can be lost if they are integrated into modern society. Third, isolated tribes have not been severely threatened by natural disasters in the past. However, with climate change, the environment is changing, and it is uncertain if they will remain safe from natural disasters. Lastly, isolated tribes are put at risk from people trying to exploit and destroy their land, as seen with the tribes in the Amazon rainforest. Given all these devastating encounters in the past, how should modern society coexist with these isolated tribes?

Modern society should give isolated tribes much-needed protection from all these threats, which are ultimately caused by us. The threat of outsiders spreading illness, disrupting culture, or damaging the environment could be handled by declaring the tribes’ territory as a tribal reserve and prohibiting travel into or near the area with armed patrols. The Sentinelese tribe has this protection from the Indian government; however, Chau was still able to visit their island multiple times, proving that the boundary must be enforced more strongly. The threat of climate change is more complex and could only be handled by serious action being taken to prevent further environmental damage. Although isolated tribes live archaic lives and are disconnected from the modern world, they are threatened by it and need protection. They hold natural knowledge, which is not only scarce in industrialized society, but also timelessly relevant. Although our advancing society is constantly moving further from nature, we still rely on it. Without the preservation of these tribes, historical knowledge, traditions, and languages may be lost forever. As the cause of danger to indigenous tribes, industrialized society should act and protect them.




Bhaumik, S. (2005, January 20). Tsunami folklore ‘saved islanders’. BBC News. Retrieved from

Clark, C. (2019, April 1). All quiet on the water-front: uncontacted tribes in the modern era. Harvard International Review, 40(2), pp. 10-11. Retrieved from

Correa, L., Lobao, M., & Kaiser, A. J. (2019, August 29). Brazilian indigenous people speak out as Amazon fires rage. Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved from

Holmes, B. (2013, August 22). How many uncontacted tribes are left in the world? New Scientist.  Retrieved from

McGirk, T. (1993, January 10). Islanders running out of isolation: Tim McGirk in the Andaman Islands. The Independent. Retrieved from

Rainforest Foundation Norway. (n.d.). The threats isolated tribes are facing. Retrieved from

Raygorodetsky, G. (2011, December 13). Why traditional knowledge holds the key to climate change. United Nations University. Retrieved from

Schönhuth, M. (2019, August 4). Dead missionaries, wild Sentinelese: An anthropological review of a global media event. Anthropology Today, 35(4), pp. 3-6. Retrieved from

Specia, M. (2018, December 3). He died evangelizing. Some call him reckless, others a martyr. New York Times. Retrieved from

Survival International. (n.d.). Sentinelese. Retrieved from





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *