The lost tribes

Multi-lingual: Of the world’s 7,000 languages, 4,000 are spoken by tribal people.

John Allen Chau was killed by a tribe on a remote Indian island. He was trying to contact the North Sentinelese — one of many uncontacted tribes from around the world.

  • Can we go and find the lost tribes?

    That’s probably not a good idea.

    John Allen Chau was a missionary and explorer. North Sentinel Island is home to an ancient tribe. They are cut off from technology and the modern world. Visitors are banned from visiting them. However, Chau wanted to convert the tribe to Christianity. When he arrived in November 2018, they killed him with bows and arrows.

  • What do we know about tribe?

    For one thing, there are not many members. There are probably only 100 of them left.

    In terms of their daily lives, they are similar to Stone Age humans. They hunt wildlife with arrows, catch fish with basic tools, and communicate in a language totally unrelated to any spoken on Earth. They do not even know how to make fire. Instead they wait for lightning to strike, then keep the embers burning as long as they can.

  • How many other tribes are there like them?

    According to Survival International, there are at least 100 uncontacted tribes left across the world. Most of these groups are from South America, living in the Amazon rainforest. Other groups are spread out on islands and in forests around the globe.

  • Life must be tough living in the Amazon?

    For sure — largely because of the actions of modern humans. Areas of tribal land have been bulldozed by cattle ranchers and logging companies. Tribes have also been devastated by common diseases to which they have no resistance, like flu, chicken pox and measles. In recent years, members of Peru’s Mascho-Piro tribe have made contact with outsiders, seeking protection from criminals.

  • Do other tribes face the same problems?

    It depends. For example, the Yaifo tribe live amongst the thick jungles of Papua New Guinea. With no roads or neighbouring settlements, the tribe is more concerned with the jungle’s crocodile-infested waters than deadly encounters with modern humans.

    Then there are the Nenets, who live in the Arctic plains of northern Russia. For centuries, they have battled -50C winters to tend flocks of reindeer. But now, the climate crisis is melting the icy pastures they call home.

  • Would it be best just to leave all these people alone?

    Possibly. Some people argue that uncontacted tribes have a right to be left in peace. If history is anything to go by, contact with modern humans can spark conflict and spread diseases.

    However, the picture is not totally clear-cut. Others think we should try “controlled contact”. This is when precautions are taken to prevent disease outbreaks, but medicine and technology that could improve tribal people’s lives are shared.

You Decide

  1. Should remote tribes be contacted by modern humans?


  1. Imagine you have met one of the North Sentinalese islanders. They know nothing about modern civilisation, and they ask you to describe what your world is like. What would you say?

Word Watch

Someone who goes on a journey to promote a particular religion in a foreign country.
Changing from one religion to another.
Stone Age
Historical period during which stone was a widely used tool. It lasted around 3.4 million years and ended between 8700 BC and 2000 BC.
A small piece of burning or glowing wood or coal left in a dying fire.
The ability to not be affected by something.
A highly-contagious, infectious disease that causes a fever and a red rash.
Actions taken to stop something from happening.

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