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An uncontacted tribe in the jungle of Brazil

The Uncontacted Frontier: Tribes of the Amazon Want To Be Left Alone


The Amazon rainforest is home to more uncontacted tribes than anywhere else in the world. It is hard to imagine that even today, there are more than 100 tribes who have never seen anything outside their home in the jungle.

Although most people in the world now live in industrial and post-industrial societies, there are communities in remote areas who still live the way that humans have lived for thousands of years. One of these areas is the western Amazon.

Deep within the Amazon rainforest are many people-groups that, rather than being incorporated into industrial civilization, have chosen to isolate themselves from the outside world. This is because of past pain and suffering that has resulted from contact with outside peoples. The rainforest is, however, at risk and will need to be protected if these tribes are to continue to maintain their traditional lifestyle.

Historical Background of the Amazon

Humans first settled the Amazon around 13,000 years ago. Although the Amazon is often thought of as a pristine wilderness, there is actually evidence that the biodiversity of the Amazon has been shaped by human activity. Archaeological investigations reveal evidence of numerous towns and possibly even cities which once existed in the Amazon.

Furthermore, many of the most common trees in the vicinity of archaeological sites are domesticated species. This is not uncommon for archaeological sites of course, but it suggests that at least some of the wild vegetation in the Amazon today was significantly influenced by the presence of humans. Although the Amazon appears to be a pristine wilderness, it may in part be a human creation.

Amazon River, Amazon. (Grispb / Adobe)

Amazon River, Amazon. (Grispb / Adobe)

The human population in the Amazon appears to have been much larger in prehistory. It is possible that entire civilizations once flourished within the vast 6 million square kilometer rainforest.

The good fortune of the people of the Amazon changed with the arrival of Europeans as many native Amazonian peoples were subjugated, enslaved, or killed in war or from disease. Because of these unpleasant experiences, some Amazonian peoples have chosen to withdraw altogether into the rainforest to escape from the horrors of the past. These are called the uncontacted groups or uncontacted tribes.

Lifeways of Uncontacted Peoples

The uncontacted peoples are hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers living deep in the western Amazon. Unlike the eastern Amazon, the western Amazon is a relatively stable ecosystem with enormous diversity in plant life as well as mammal, amphibian, and bird species. The uncontacted people live by fishing along the rivers, collecting turtle eggs, and hunting animals in the forest. Some groups will also practice subsistence agriculture, farming at least part of the year. Some are nomadic while others live in small settlements.

Because they rely heavily on their natural environment, they prioritize taking care of it. For this reason, it has been argued that protection of uncontacted peoples, as well as indigenous people living off the land in general, is important for conservation because many of them make great conservationists.

Hunting instrument in Tena Amazon. (Fionashek22 / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Hunting instrument in Tena Amazon. (Fionashek22 / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Threats to Uncontacted Peoples

Since the discovery of tribes living in voluntary isolation, governments nearby these areas have made attempts to honor the desire of these people and the rights they have to their ancestral lands. In parts of Brazil and Ecuador, for example, the lands of uncontacted tribes have been made legally off-limits to loggers, oil companies, and other outsiders.

In addition to the danger that logging, and oil exploration pose to the environment on which uncontacted people depend for their livelihood, contact can also be very dangerous for the uncontacted people themselves. Most of these uncontacted populations have never been exposed to modern diseases.

The Nahua were a tribe accidentally contacted by a Shell exploration team in the early 1980s. Within a few years of contact, 50% of the Nahua had died from diseases such as hepatitis B and tuberculosis. Another group called the Matis were contacted in Brazil in 1978. This contact quickly led to most of the Matis dying from introduced diseases. By 1983, all but 87 individuals had died. This disaster caused them to stop practicing their ceremonies and having children out of grief. The Matis survive to this day, but they are still bearing the consequences of that event.

Indigenous man in the jungle of Brazil. (filipefrazao / Adobe)

Indigenous man in the jungle of Brazil. (filipefrazao / Adobe)

Because of these past tragedies it has been suggested that whenever contact is made, a team of medical experts should be sent to stay nearby and monitor the health of the people within the recently contacted group.

The danger posed by contact is one of the reasons that uncontacted peoples living in voluntary isolation tend to be hostile to outsiders and not just avoidant. There have been cases where people entering their lands have been killed without provocation. In 2008, an illegal logger in Ecuador was killed by being speared by a member of an isolated tribe because he entered their territory. To uncontacted indigenous people, the appearance of outsiders often means death, suffering, and impending doom for their people.

Uncontacted indigenous tribe in the Brazil defending their territory. (Arthur to / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Uncontacted indigenous tribe in the Brazil defending their territory. (Arthur to / CC BY-SA 2.0)

An Uncertain Future

Although the western Amazon is faring better than the eastern Amazon, which has been subject to extensive deforestation, the western Amazon is also at risk. The western Amazon is known to have abundant oil and timber reserves. Loggers and oil companies are very interested in gaining access to these resources.

The governments of nations within the western Amazon have made certain areas off limits to oil exploration and logging, but some of the zones in which oil companies and loggers are allowed to do business overlap with the territories of indigenous people, including those living in voluntary isolation. This has led to indigenous groups and international humanitarian organizations taking action to help protect the land of these uncontacted groups living in isolation. These people have chosen to live apart from industrial civilization, but will industrial civilization let them?

Top image: An uncontacted tribe in the jungle of Brazil (CC by SA 2.5)

By Caleb Strom


Finer M., Jenkins C.N., Pimm S.L., Keane B., Ross C. 2008. Oil and Gas Projects in the Western Amazon: Threats to Wilderness, Biodiversity, and Indigenous Peoples. [Online] Available at:
Panko, Ben. 2017. The Supposedly Pristine, Untouched Amazon Rainforest Was Actually Shaped By Humans. [Online] Available at:
Wade, Lizzie. 2014. Searching for the Amazon’s Hidden Civilizations. Science Magazine. [Online] Available at:
Who Are They? N.D. Survival. [Online] Available at:



Pete Wagner's picture

But just imagine, have a small town in middle America or northern Europe, where an ethnic people have been there for hundreds of years, many generations, living somewhat in isolation from the outside world (at least had been), and they collectively like who they are and what they’re doing, living sustainability, raising new generations they way they want (to carry on the traditions and beliefs of their forefathers, in a real way - not costumey or commercialized for money like the Amish have become), free and happy, enjoying the day, NOT working too hard, sharing both the harvests and hardships, in true human spirit, etc.  They tell the outside world, WE WANT TO BE LEFT ALONE!  A stranger can visit every now and then, but be respectful and not stay too long.  That would be as, if not MORE, interesting.  We should see this in certain places everywhere.  It's a viable alternative, more logical in many ways.  JUSTICE AND EQUALITY FOR ALL?  Or always cherry-picked by tyrannical cultural overlords to further a global agenda?

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

Tervel Nikolov's picture

The world is full of savages. All over the civilized world there are neighborhoods conquered by people no different than those on the picture! Is it even possible to explore the universe when our civilization allows savages to exist? Someone who's savage children may someday press the red button claiming: We all die, but I go to the man in the sky and you go to hell.

Pete Wagner's picture

Is Jesus just another trick in the devil’s big bag?

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.


It would be better for these people if we leave them alone. There's really nothing we can offer them. They seem to be doing fine on their own.

Caleb Strom's picture


Caleb Strom is currently a graduate student studying planetary science. He considers himself a writer, scientist, and all-around story teller. His interests include planetary geology, astrobiology, paleontology, archaeology, history, space archaeology, and SETI.

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