A good article on ‘uncontacted tribes’

Over at the BBC’s “Future” website, science journalist Rachel Nuwer has a 2,000 word piece up entitled Anthropology: The sad truth about ‘uncontacted tribes’. The piece focuses on Latin America, but is refreshing because it manages to avoid the usual clichés about ‘stone age innocents’. “Today’s so-called uncontacted people all have a history of contact, whether from past exploitation or simply seeing a plane flying overhead,” Nuwer writes. “It is almost always fear that motivates such hostilities and keeps isolated groups from making contact. In past centuries and even decades, isolated tribes were often murdered and enslaved by outsiders.”

It’s a bit lachrymose — what anthropologists would call a ‘tristes tropiques’ approach to the Amazon — but then, again, it’s a pretty lachrymose topic. I think the piece does a good job of explaining what cultural anthropologists know: that there are no people ‘without history’.

Of course, I’m partial to the piece because I’m quoted in it:

This gets to the heart of a common misconception surrounding isolated tribes such as the one in Acre: that they live in a bubble of wilderness, somehow missing the fact that their small corner of the world is in fact part of a much greater whole – and one that is dominated by other humans. “Almost all human communities have been in some contact with one another for as long as we have historical or archaeological records,” says Alex Golub, an anthropologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “Human prehistory is not like that game Civilization where you start with a little hut and the whole map is black.”

Nuwer’s piece is useful to teach or pass along to friends who are overly enamored of Edenic States of Nature. But its also proof that anthropologists can, must, and should talk to science journalists. I know that may sound obvious, but actually many professors prefer not to speak with the press because they feel like they will be misquoted, or fear that they can’t control the story. Hiding inside the Ivory Tower might work for some, but for anthropologists — who study people — it’s unacceptable. So take heart, here is an example of good science journalism. And remember: its your responsibility to help science journalists make more.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

One thought on “A good article on ‘uncontacted tribes’

  1. Caption: Two members of an isolated indigenous tribe from the Amazon investigate a settled community of villagers in Acre, Brazil (Funai)

    Question: Does anyone think we would ever refer to anyone in USA as villagers?

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