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Cultural Gems

We live in a day and age where the entire world is ours for the taking – or more appropriately, visiting. We can hop on a plane and be anywhere on the planet within 24 hours. It seems as if every corner of the Earth and every exotic culture has been visited, photographed or otherwise documented. The fact is, almost all cultures have. But there are still a handful of tribes that are so “out there” that they have been affected little, if at all, by the outside world.

These are tribes that inhabit remote locations in less-traveled parts of the world that insist on retaining their traditional ways and are often protected by law so that they will be left alone. From the Sentinelese of the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, to the “Tree House Tribe” of Papua New Guinea, the world still offers a few unknown cultural gems that have been hidden from even the most seasoned adventure travelers.

Andaman Loners

Often referred to as “the world’s most isolated tribe”, the Sentinelese of the Andaman Islands in Southeast Asia consist of roughly 200 members and live an ancient lifestyle.

This tribe has lived for thousands of years on a small island along a highly trafficked trade route with virtually no interference from outside civilization. We have known about them for centuries, but unlike many other tribes all over the world who open their doors to visitors, the Sentinelese respond to people who approach with extreme hostility and violence. They have been known to shoot arrows, throw spears and kill anyone who they suspect may do them harm. The rarity of such an “un-contacted” tribe is well known by local authorities and a law stating that no person is to come within 3 miles of their island has been in effect for many years. The problem is, the coast of their island is excellent for fishing and trapping lobsters. Many fishermen break the law in order to reel in a better catch. Often the law goes un-enforced, resulting in deaths of fishermen and other boaters.

Any knowledge we have of the Sentinelese as a people comes from long-range observation or comparison with other Andaman tribes that have allowed visitors. They are a very dark-skinned race, more similar to people who originate from Africa than the neighboring regions. They typically don’t wear any clothes, but are dress themselves in leaves, headbands and other items made from vines. Though they use stone and bone to make most of their tools, they are not averse to using pieces of metal that have drifted up onto the beaches. It is also believed that they do not engage in any agricultural activities. Because Sentinelese go to such great lengths to keep visitors away, they are likely the most socially isolated culture that exists today.

By one account, there are around one hundred tribes throughout the world that have been for the most part “un-contacted”. The exact extent to which they have been contacted by the outside world is unknown, but around half of these tribes are said to exist in the jungles of West Papua.

Tree People

In recent years, a number of anthropologists have made the trek through the West Papuan jungles to make “first contact” with remote and isolated tribes; or at least that’s what they think.

One of the tribes that has been contacted is the Korowai, also commonly referred to by anthropologists as “The Tree house Tribe”. A hunter-gatherer culture, the Korowai migrate towards food every few years and build tree houses for shelter. Their lifestyle is extremely simple; men wearing wooden guards to cover their genitals and women wearing skirts made from available leaves. Until a few decades ago, they were completely unaware that there were other people who existed in the world. Though little is known about them, there have been reports that the tribe practices ritual cannibalism.

Another tribe from a nearby region, the Dani, has also managed to largely avoid contact with the outside world. Residing in the Baliem Valley, they survive on a diet that consists mainly of sweet potatoes, yams and other root vegetables. They were completely isolated for most of their history as swamps and mountains surround them. They live in huts with thick-hatched roofs and display the ability to adapt extremely well to environmental changes. In 1954, the first missionary parachuted into the Baliem and ever since, modernizations have been introduced. While no paved roads have been built, an airstrip has been constructed in order to deliver supplies. But for the most part, the Dani continue to live a life that is similar to their ancient ways.

In an extremely modernized world that makes it easy to reach the furthest corners of the globe, it is important to find a balance between tourism and sensitivity to delicate cultures.

Tourist Infrastructure

There is more than one school of thought when it comes to whether or not it is socially responsible to approach an isolated tribe. Some anthropologists and other experts believe that it is highly irresponsible to breach the boundaries that these tribes have created because we could threaten their existence in numerous ways, which include introducing diseases that their immune systems cannot handle. We could also put ourselves in danger of being attacked. That said, the “don’t leave a trace” approach to tourism, does in fact leave an innocuous massive “trace,” by supplanting the historical culture with a “tourist culture.”

Tusker Trail’s own Eddie Frank has seen such a phenomenon happen on the island of Zanzibar over the last several decades. There was a time when he would take groups there on dhows that had sailed down from the Gulf of Oman – there was no tourist infrastructure and this was the only way to get there. When they arrived, he would send them off to find lodging in the homes of locals since there were no hotels. The lack of tourist infrastructure at the time, quickly grew into an uncontrollable explosion in tourism.

Today, Eddie likens the eroding Zanzibarian culture to “watching a glacier melt”. The island is now jammed with hotels, restaurants, bars, fishing and scuba diving operators.   Cruise liners from Europe now dock there. Mass tourism has taken over at the expense of the historic culture that once existed. Traditional culture, on its face, has been supplanted by a tourist culture.

Finding Balance

The line may be thin and at times obscured, but there is a fine balance that allows for tourism to coexist with ancient cultures and make it a positive experience for both natives and visitors. As we have seen in numerous exotic locales throughout the world, overdevelopment of tourist infrastructure can ruin a culture, but limited and controlled tourism can be a mutually rewarding experience. Tusker Trail’s treks in Mongolia are a perfect example.