Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Thursday, April 19, 2012

Beyond Civilisation

What if one day you looked up and saw a Flying Saucer hovering over your school?

By Kazim Ibn Sadique

In this age of internet, satellites and supersonic stealth jets, it may sometimes feel like we've seen most of everything. Other than the occasional feats of individual superhuman abilities - like that guy who can eat tubelights and glass - there're very few awe-inspiring things in life. Then there's the fact that we've only discovered around 10% of the world's oceans, which is twisted by sensationalists to suggest the Kraken might really be hiding somewhere in the deep trenches of the Earth. Or you can consider the uncontacted tribes.

What are they?
An uncontacted tribe is a group of indigenous people who have lived their lives without contact with the outside world. Wrap your heads around that for a moment. They live in the jungles, living mostly as they have lived for the past few thousand years, without contact from the outside world. For them, the world is few thousand acres of rainforest. They hunt with bows and arrows while the rest of the world watched Man land on the moon. They run around in loincloths while we have models who - well, to be fair - run around in loincloths.

Where are they?
According to The Independent UK, there are more than a 100 uncontacted tribes around the world. Most of them reside in the dense rainforests of the Amazon. There are approximately 70 of them in Brazil and several others in the border regions between Brazil, Peru and Bolivia. But they are not only strewn around South America. Papua New Guinea, specifically West Papua, has such impregnable forestation that it hasn't been properly determined how many uncontacted tribes actually live there. Estimates vary from 15-40. If that's not enough, there's a well documented uncontacted tribe in our backyard, the Andaman Islands. The Sentinelese are thought to be one of the most isolated tribes in the world, having lived on the same island for roughly the past 60'000 years. Yes, you read that right, sixty thousand, about 50'000 years before the first farms.

How do they live?
Life for them has been similar to what they have been doing for generations. They hunt, they gather. Some of them even farm. Understand though, that no tribe is completely isolated. If there is a neighbouring tribe, they will trade with them. That neighbouring tribe may trade with another, who may have been trading with the outside world. Through this chain, some tribes have acquired woven cloth, metal utensils and weaponry. Some even have guns, proving once again that arms dealers can sell to anybody, anywhere.

Though most of them use bows and arrows and have been living in the same place for a long time, it doesn't mean that their civilisation hasn't evolved somewhat.

How have they reacted to contact?
It hasn't been easy for them. It is generally thought that they may have come across settlers in the early days of colonisation. If you have seen the movie Apocalypto, you'll know there were some tribes that retreated into the forests when the Europeans came. Smart choice, as many indigenous tribes of South America were wiped out by the diseases carried by the Conquistadores.

That still holds true for these tribes. You see, when you are living is such isolated populations, you miss out on the great disease wars that the human body has fought against the germs for the past few centuries. As such, our bodies have developed immunities and we have made vaccines that are not available to these people. So when they come into contact with us, they die from diseases like influenza, TB and measles to name a few.

First contact is always difficult. Imagine meeting an alien for the first time. You wouldn't know whether to hug it or shoot it. Out of sheer nervousness and uncertainty, you might just decide to kill it to solve the problem. And that has happened with uncontacted tribes. They have killed people trying to contact them. Of course, we're not all innocent either. There have been massacres of entire villages and tribes conducted by oil companies, loggers and miners, some of whose employees are remarkably remorseless about killing an entire people.

What threats do they face?
These people live in areas rich with resources. The Amazon is a veritable gold mine of timber, rubber and actual gold mines. There's also oil, which is, if the Americans are of any indication, even more expensive than gold. This attracts a flock of settlers hell-bent on making money. There's also the “minor” concern regarding poachers.

Should they be left alone?
As it happens with all things, there are differing viewpoints here. Some people feel that these uncontacted tribes should be incorporated into the modern world and enjoy the benefits of the Golden Age of science. Others argue that, most of the tribes who have been contacted and “incorporated” generally suffer from a variety of diseases and are amongst some of the poorest people in the world, struggling to find their place in society. Some of their children, or children's children might make it to mainstream society, but globalisation will definitely make sure that these diverse people conform to the norms of the modern society.

There are other wronged parties who complain that the tribes have uncivilised societies and commit crimes, including murder of first contacters, which is kind of hilarious, considering any sovereign nation in the world will reply with violent force if their territory is invaded.

The overwhelming view of human rights activists is that these uncontacted tribes should be left alone and the choice of contact should be upon them. Many such tribes have made it clear, through hostile reactions towards fly-bys, contact attempts, etc, that they would rather remain the way they are. Others have come forward on occasion and initiated contact by themselves.

Can they survive by themselves?
When most of South and South-East Asia was reeling from the tsunami of 2004, the Sentinelese survived and are still healthy and thriving. So yeah, they can handle themselves.

So what's your point?
The point is their habitats are no longer safe havens. They may have escaped the Conquistadores or the colonists, but the modern world is hard to keep away. There are several sites online, specifically www. survivalinternational.org and www.uncontactedtribes.org which are actively campaigning and lobbying for the rights of the uncontacted tribes to be left alone. They keep tabs on the tribes, tracking their movement and try to protect their lands. Occasionally they are forced release information about the tribes' general location to inform loggers or oil companies to leave a certain area of the Amazon alone. You can log in and help by sending letters and signing petitions, which doesn't sound like much, but helps the sites gain the power of numbers and allows them to exert more pressure on governments to act in favour of their cause.

Hearing about uncontacted tribes for the first time is kind of disconcerting. It makes you wonder that perhaps there are aliens up there somewhere, who are looking down at us, keeping tabs on our progress, debating whether or not they should let us know that there is a galaxy full of people using Teleporters and Light Sabres. Maybe Men-In-Black was right; we got the Velcro technology from them and we don't even know it.



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