Controlled contact key to protecting isolated tribes


Rebecca Howe

In the jungles of South America, it is believed that around 50 indigenous societies live with no or limited contact with the outside world. These tribes, like the Native peoples of the past, are vulnerable to the disease and dangerous motives often brought by outsiders.

Spurred by the emergence of isolated South American tribes over the past few years, Science magazine has devoted a special section of its June 5 edition to the subject.

Included is an editorial essay by Arizona State University anthropologist Kim Hill and University of Missouri-Columbia anthropologist Robert Walker that outlines a best-practices approach to the complex situation.

Their recommendation is for outside entities to adopt a strategy of controlled contact rather than to avoid contact altogether.

They believe that it is currently unethical for governments to take a “leave them alone” stance because it opens these populations to damaging contact, whether accidental or planned. As evidence, some of the contemporary emerging tribes were pushed into contact and fled their homes when drug smugglers, loggers, miners and others infiltrated their territories.

Because it is unrealistic to assume that these peoples can continue to live indefinitely in isolation in our rapidly developing world, Hill and Walker state that it is only a matter of time before all such tribes are forced into contact.

In preparation, they suggest that governments create a well-informed plan before reaching out. Initial contact should include medical professionals and cultural translators prepared to remain on site for at least a year, as well as adequate food and supplies and a reliable system for monitoring the health of tribal members.

Hill notes that previously isolated tribal members frequently report having lived in isolation because of fear of enslavement or death at the hands of outsiders. When they are introduced to the outside world in a peaceful fashion, they tend to be resilient and appreciative of the amenities, medical care and social interaction that come with integration.

Hill is a professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and a researcher in the Institute of Human Origins in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He has worked with hunter-gatherer tribes for nearly 30 years, primarily the Ache of Paraguay, the Hiwi of Venezuela and the Yora, Matsiguenga and Mascho-Piro of Peru.