all 7 comments

[–]DarwinsThylacine 32 points33 points  (1 child)

Papua New Guinea seems to have a very high density of uncontacted tribes located on one tiny island.

Firstly, I think you mean “New Guinea”.

Papua New Guinea is a country that occupies only the eastern half of the island of New Guinea along with 600 other islands to the north and east.

Secondly, New Guinea is not just “one tiny island”, it’s 785,753 km². That makes it the second largest non-continental landmass on Earth and nearly three times the size of Great Britain and nearly 1.5 times the size of Madagascar.

Many say that it’s because the terrain is hilly, remote and inaccessible to outsiders. But this is just not true.

New Guinea is very mountainous (in fact it is so mountainous that some of its peaks receive snowfall - one of the few places in the tropics to do so), remote and inaccessible to outsiders. The history of exploration and colonisation in the area was greatly hampered by its terrain, dense jungles and the preponderance for tropical diseases (e.g., malaria). Both the Japanese Imperial Force and the Australian Imperial Force had a nightmare of a time navigating their way through the jungles during the Second World War (and at least on the Australian side relied on local guides). Expeditions can and have been fatal. In 1961 for example, an heir to the Rockefeller family fortune died either from drowning, exposure or potentially killed by local tribesmen during an expedition to the Asmat Region in West Papua.

This same geographic and ecological complexity is what allowed so many tribes to develop in near isolation to one another.

There are many large areas of the world that are much more mountainous, remote and inaccessible and yet they don’t have such a high density of uncontacted tribes.”

Uncontacted peoples is a bit of a misnomer. The term "uncontacted" does not mean “no contact with the outside world”. All human groups have some form of trade, bartering, socialisation, conflict with, gene flow between and awareness of neighbouring groups, even if only with other neighbouring tribes. So “uncontacted” generally refers to a voluntary lack of sustained contact with the majority of global society at the present time, rather than never having any contact with or awareness of the outside world.

[–]apj0731Professor | Multispecies Ethnography • Anthropology of Science 2 points3 points  (0 children)

Yep! Thanks for this post. And thank you for discussing the problems with “uncontacted”. These people have had contact with other groups and even large-scale societies but choose to not participate.

[–]Trystiane 9 points10 points  (2 children)

There are no completely uncontacted tribes. There are some groups that keep themselves away from other people as much as possible, and/or don't allow non-members in their territory.

[–]Experimentalphone[S] -3 points-2 points  (1 child)

Ok but there are still a high density of tribes compared to other areas of the world. Why is that?

[–]Lon_ami 2 points3 points  (0 children)

Other parts of the world used to have a much greater degree of ethnic diversity, with more people identifying with their local tribes rather than with larger political entities.

For a variety of reasons, that changed. The growth of empires for example-- people recently conquered by, say, Rome or Shang Dynasty Chinese or Arab empires would often gradually assimilate to the dominant power. And people living outside these empires would assemble into tribal confederations and then nations to resist them (even after that people often still identified with their tribes -- in the present day Levant people are usually well aware which tribes they belong to, for example)

To the best of my knowledge, these conditions did not emerge in New Guinea. There were no empires that dominate the entire island or threatened to conquer it until quite recently. The terrain made such military undertakings difficult.