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ASU anthropologist argues for better process when dealing with isolated tribes

August 25, 2014

Members of a previously “uncontacted” tribe emerged last July from the forest in Brazil near the Peruvian border seeking voluntary contact with the outside world. In a recent BBC article, ASU anthropologist Kim Hill provided insight into understanding what motivates these tribes to stay isolated.

“People have this romanticized view that isolated tribes have chosen to keep away from the modern, evil world," said Hill. "There is no such thing as a group that remains in isolation because they think it’s cool to not have contact with anyone else on the planet."

Hill, a research associate with the Institute of Human Origins and a professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, explains that the groups are usually afraid to come out of the forest after prior violent confrontations with outsiders or previous intrusive exploitation, and therefore retreat further into isolation.

In this part of the Amazon, the tribes are often forced to emerge after experiencing continued violence from drug traffickers or being pushed out by illegal loggers.

And judging by history, what happens next, Hill says, is particularly threatening to the welfare of the tribal community.

Once a tribe has emerged and made contact, disease can wipe out nearly half of a village’s population in a matter of weeks, Hill said. In the case of this new contact, "it’s hard to say what’s going to happen, other than to make doomsday predictions. So far, things are looking just like they looked in the past.”

The tribespeople who met with Brazilian officials have come down with the flu, though there is disagreement whether it was contracted through contact with the officials or from earlier contact with outsiders in the forest. The result is that Brazilian medical officials have now treated and immunized this small group, but the group has returned to their village in the forest without additional medical assistance and follow-up care.

Commenting in “Did Brazil’s uncontacted tribe receive proper medical care?” for, Hill said that “a health worker or anthropologist should have been sent with the departing individuals to administer antibiotics.” Without properly administered antibiotics, Hill said “a third to half of the population will die.”

Hill states that it would benefit these isolated tribes better if contact were initiated from the outside in a controlled way, designed to minimize disease transmission and create a long-distance relationship. Such an arrangement would include meeting with medical personnel and anthropologists who would then go to the tribal village for several months to build communication skills and trust.

The School of Human Evolution and Social Change is in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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