Shouldn’t we invite the uncontacted tribes into the modern world?

Incredible as it may seem in 2008, there are indeed some remaining uncontacted human tribes (click that link for the pictures alone). These are people living with no contact with the modern world apart from the occasional airplane sighting, doing things in all likelihood as they have been done for centuries or millennia. While modern civilization has washed across the globe these past few thousand years, it has as of yet failed to spread to the some of the most remote corners of it. I find that absolutely fascinating.

But it also brings to my mind a moral quandary. These are people like you and I; they are not “savages”. It’s not that they were incapable of coming up with civilization on their own, it’s simply that their environment isn’t amenable to it (for more details on this thesis, I refer you to the Pulitzer prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond). Yet civilization is a great thing that uplifts the human experience, right? So don’t they deserve the benefits of civilization, what with the much better medicine, modern agriculture, the Internet, et al? Who the hell are we to not gift all of this to them when it’s perfectly within our abilities to do so, solely because we want to keep them around as a sort of curious sideshow, a museum exhibit on the human condition before the march of progress revolutionized it? Isn’t that at its core more arrogant than not contacting them at all?

Haven’t we reached a point in the evolution of humanity where we should go back to all of the unfortunate folks who missed the rising tide and fill them in on the great news? We’re sending space probes to distant worlds they likely know of as nothing more than wandering objects in the sky, if that! Were I in their position, I would at least want the knowledge of modern times, even if I did not want the style of modern life. And you have to admit, there is some strange lure to living simply, but I draw a distinction between living simply by choice and living simply in ignorance. Don’t they at least deserve a choice in the matter? It’s their lives. There are a couple of people dying from completely curable illnesses at this very moment in the uncontacted tribes. Shouldn’t we at least ask them if they want our modern medicine? If I was dying of a completely curable disease and someone somewhere had a cure, but refused to announce themselves and alleviate my suffering because they preferred that I remain in an “untouched and pure” state, along with all of the unnecessary suffering that entailed, I’d have a few choice words for them.

Unfortunately, if we do not proactively address the issue of our first contact and do it in a responsible manner, it will be handled by unprofessionals in a completely irresponsible manner. Humanity is sweeping across the globe. Already, the territory of the outermost uncontacted tribes is being infringed upon by loggers and poachers. And their first reaction is often simply to murder the uncontacted tribesmembers using firearms; they simply want the trees and the animals, and don’t want any pesky people defending their land shooting arrows at them to get in the way. Don’t we owe them better than that as an introduction to modern civilization? They’re going to experience civilization one way or another, either in the form of an amazing present or in the form of a large boot squishing them beneath it.

And there’s one more issue at play here. The linked article mentions that the uncontacted tribes haven’t built up many immunities to disease owing to their utter state of isolation. Illnesses following first contact can prove fatal to up to one half of their populations. It’s like the American Indian situation all over again, but even worse, because the diseases are more deadly and more global now than they were centuries ago. Yet loggers are increasingly encroaching upon the uncontacted tribes’ territories, so they will eventually get these diseases regardless. Shouldn’t it happen under the auspices of modern medicine instead? Isn’t that the only moral way to do it? With modern immunizations and hospital care, the mortality rate can be brought way down. We owe them their first contact in a conscientious manner, if for no other reason than so they don’t experience waves of deadly illnesses after their first accidental contact with people who don’t care about their wellbeing.

So, I say we invite the remaining uncontacted tribes into the fold of the rest of humanity. They can turn down all of our amazing technology and continue living life exactly as they do now if they want to, but at least give them the simple choice. They’ve already seen our airplanes buzzing above them. I do not think a simple direct introduction will faze them much further. It is to our great disservice that we patronizingly use the rationalization of “they wouldn’t be able to handle it without their society collapsing” in actively avoiding first contacts. If there’s anything we’ve learned in our own many-thousand-year journey through civilization, it’s that humans are infinitely adaptable.

It’s time to stop leaving them in the dark and turn on the light.

14 Responses to “Shouldn’t we invite the uncontacted tribes into the modern world?”

  1. Toby Says:

    For a start, isolated tribal peoples aren’t in need of being introduced to the modern world – they’re already part of it. Their society has taken a different path to ours, but has also been changing and “developing” over time.

    It’s not just “up to one half” that usually die during contact — in some cases it’s been everyone. Annihilation. Or genocide.

    It’s not a question of them “not being able to handle it”. In reality, these peoples have mostly, if not always, had some contact in the past – for example during the rubber boom of the 19th Century. Their negative experiences have led them to *choose* not to have contact. This much we can tell from those other tribal peoples who have been contacted by outsiders (and survived to talk about it).

    The real choice we can offer them is to protect their lands and *allow them* to decide when to make contact. They’re not living in some pristine isolation oblivious to the outside world — most often they’re on the run from ranchers, loggers and oil exploration teams. It’s pretty trivial for them to make contact if they want to. And maybe they will – but this must happen on their terms, not ours.

  2. Joe Anderson Says:

    We shouldn’t make first contact with them: they’ll be scared, quite possibly get diseases, and I imagine they’re happy. Who’s to say our way of life is better?

  3. Cyde Weys Says:

    Joe Anderson: I believe I anticipated all of the points you just brought up and addressed them already in my post. “They’ll be scared?” Give them more credit. “Quite possibly get diseases?” This’ll be a lot worse if they have irresponsible contacts with loggers. “Imagine they’re happy?” Who’s to say they wouldn’t be more happy with the benefit of modern technology? Having a high infant mortality rate can’t make parents very happy. Anyway, refer to the post above for mroe detailed points.

  4. Jeff V Says:

    If I were a betting man I would imagine that the uncontacted tribes will be first contacted by Christian Evangelicals trying to win new conversions.

    Let’s hope there are still a few cannibalistic tribes left.

    On a more serious note: I like your point about the risk of disease spreading and creation of a de facto second “Columbian Exchange”. If it is to be done–which seems inevitable–it should be done with the help of modern medicine.

    Deep thought: In the future if humanity colonizes other planets, will the Human population become so segmented that a human from one planet can’t visit another human from a distant planet because of a deficiency in immunity? If so, do uncontacted tribes present an unparelleled opportunity for scientist and doctors to study how to merge segmented societies and deal with different immunities?

  5. Cyde Weys Says:

    That would be a travesty if the first people they had contact with were those who had absolutely no interest in their wellbeing (as evangelicals never do).

    The spread of diseases across a galaxy of human planets is an interesting subject to consider. Each (mostly) isolated population, along with its unique environmental conditions, would evolve its own unique set of diseases very rapidly. I guess our best hope is that, by the time we are capable of colonizing other planets, our medicine will have evolved to the point where it’s capable of dealing with all sorts of diseases. I’m envisioning nanobots running through your bloodstream programmed to take out anything foreign. And then, when you arrive at a new planet, but before docking, download the data on all of their diseases and program your nanobots with exactly what to watch out for.

    You know, this wouldn’t be a terrible scifi story.

  6. Kelly Martin Says:

    And Jews are all money-grubbers, too.

    While it’s certainly the case that some evangelicals routinely fail to show interest in the well-being of those they proselytize to, it is profoundly insulting for you to tar all evangelicals with that broad brush. I have known many evangelicals who give glory to God by selflessly helping those in need without expectation even that the recipient will convert or worship. A friend of a friend was given the money for the security deposit on an apartment by an evangelical Christian who asked nothing of her in return…. no expectation of going to church, or to accept Jesus, or anything.

    “By their works you will know them.” Much good is done by Christians in pursuit of their faith; please do not diminish their altruism because it is motivated by beliefs you don’t agree with.

  7. Cyde Weys Says:

    My simple rejoinder is that the evangelicals you describe who do nice things for people are doing so because they are actually genuinely nice people (which has nothing to do with being religious, because we all know of the existence of many hateful, bigoted religious people). Maybe my original comment would be better clarified by using the phrase “as evangelicals in their evangelizing never do”.

  8. llywrch Says:

    Cyde, you overlook half of the problem that follows making contact with these people: culture shock. In countless cases, when these people are contacted by a modern society, after the usual appallingly high number die of disease & physical aggression, the survivors are left struggling with depression brought on by culture shock.

    Consider this: you are a part of a group of people suddenly whisked 10,000 years into the future. Not only are all of your skills obsolete, but you find yourself struggling to cope in a radically alien culture. To pick up on an idea you mentioned, imagine that this future society is inhabited by Fundamentalist Christians. Who practice ritualized child abuse. And exhibit countless other peculiarities that you find nonsensical, offensive, or undeniably unsafe. You can’t ignore these things because you have to live in their world, not yours, & if you insist on doing things in the way you believe is normal (say, make breakfast or read a book), the future people are likely to call their equivalent of the police to make you stop. In the end, you’d find yourself self-medicating & possibly struggling with substance abuse problems — just as countless other contacted people struggle with drug & alcohol addiction.

    That is the potential situation these uncontacted people are in. The best short term solution is to leave them alone. Although you believe they might be better off over the long term integrated into our society, they might not survive long enough to have a long term. And besides, over the long term we are all dead.


  9. drinian Says:

    Even more than culture shock, which modern world are you talking about? This is rural Brazil. Stepping into the outside world would more than likely mean becoming slash-and-burn subsistence farmers.

    The best we could do for them would be to give them XOs and a satellite Internet connection along with a linguist, but no easy transport out.

  10. jad Says:

    They are not an “uncontacted” tribe. This tribe has been in contact with civilization for years. Some reporter decided to call them an uncontacted tribe and it stuck. I am too lazy to go look it up but there has recently been quite a few articles refuting the idea that these people are uncontacted. If you are interested, google should help you find more info.

  11. Lisa Says:

    we should leave them alone.. or cure them without them knowing it.. I had a dream once about being in one such SUPER undeveloped tribe.. we had no tools or at least only tools we had would be for defense not really to kill seeing we only ate bird’s eggs all the time.. but kenw to leave an egg in the nests.. were’t as many of us as there were birds so that kinda worked.. and we didnt’ even have clothes(and no we weren’t any more sexual due to this fact)well we had a fine dust cover no not mud but just dust very fine to keep the suns rays off. but the one thing that set us apart from typical man was we had no language.. ok two.. no technology whatsoever and we were pretty healthy people. and had no material posessions just survival and love for eachother.. and btw extreme empathy. we could feel eachother’s emotions(not physical pain)not by sending it to someone exactly .. No language if u didn’t hear yet. we lived purely on feelings and gestures of our heads but didn’t really need them.. sure we’d scream if hurt but that wasn’t saying OW. I remember the last half of the dream.. these similar but alien like beings(modern humans) coming to see us.. they took out their weapons (which we had no idea they were) and pointed them at us and shot one I think so we then knew it was a weapon and to think we were going to accept them however different they were and assumed they were friendly due to being civilized and advanced(ha my ass!)anyway at the end I was alone and confused and scared and very deeply sad because my connection to my family was severed and it was very important to us. it was so rare to be alone(btw its a dream) lol but omg I woke up crying .. at the base of a dam with barely a trickle of water left to drink.. and the eggs we got were aside a small river. I guess the humans took the birds too. and no we weren’t neandarthals we looked just about exactly like modern we weren’t even coloured(No Offense) we didn’t care what we looked like though.anyways.. it was a hell of a dream.

  12. Lisa Says:

    ps have you all forgotten peopple in tribes have different immune systems? like if we come in they could very well die from the common cold. .and we all know that’s not curable so even with all our medicine could we cure them if they caught a virus? I think no!

  13. Cly Says:

    Leave them alone. That’s all we need to do.

  14. Byron Smith Says:

    It may be worth doing a little research on these peoples and their experiences at the hands of “civilisation”, which have been almost universally horrific (which is why they choose to remain isolated and generally reject opportunities for contact, many of them reacting with hostility). The mortality rates at first coming into contact with the common cold (which, as Lisa points out, is incurable) or chickenpox can be well over 50% and in some cases 100%. If you had a choice to lose over 50% of everyone you know and love, to lose your culture, the usefulness of your skills, your history and tradition, your language, your home, your way of life in return for being able to look at pictures on the internet and read books written in languages you’ve never learned amongst aliens who have proven themselves repeatedly hostile and exploitative, would you choose to make contact?

    You might like to check out this site and the videos and information it contains.