Define Undiscovered People

Humans have been dispersed throughout all the continents except Antarctica for many thousands of years. So the concept of a group of people being "undiscovered" really exists only in the imagination of an explorer from somewhere else. Sometimes that imagination runs wild. Centuries ago, when the Europeans were first starting to venture beyond their own continent, their mapmakers filled in the spaces that they didn't know anything about with lands inhabited by fanciful mutants and half-men-half-beasts. [source: Harvey]. It must have disappointed them when they eventually discovered that the inhabitants of the Americas' unknown places had anatomy markedly similar to their own.

A people is one of those lofty-sounding academic terms whose precise meaning is seldom explained. When we're talking about unexplored places, it seems to be a euphemism for tribe. That's the archaic anthropological term for a separate group of humans who share a common territory, language, history and culture -- the mishmash of knowledge, beliefs, morals, rules, ideas, customs, arts and whatever else gives them a distinct identity [source: Anthrobase].

Even today, when we talk about the possibility of undiscovered groups of aboriginal people, we're really talking about ones we don't know about. Other aboriginal people in an area, who may have traded with them or warred against them, might know all about that "mystery" group. Another trap that unwary people (the journalists who botched the lost-tribe-aiming-arrows-at-airplanes story, for example) fall into is using the word "undiscovered" interchangeably with "uncontacted." The latter actually refers to a group that we know exists, but with whom we haven't interacted, at least not recently. Survival International, a London-based organization that works to protect aboriginal peoples, estimates that there are about 100 uncontacted tribes around the world, in locations ranging from South America to the islands in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific [source: Survival International]. Even defining who qualifies as uncontacted gets a little tricky, so in recent years, the term isolated -- meaning groups that simply avoid contact with outsiders -- seems to be used more and more.

Whether undiscovered, uncontacted or isolated, it's easy for us to imagine these groups as simple, naïve forest dwellers, ignorant of the wonders of modern civilization. In reality, according to Survival International, most of them know all they need to know about our society and want no part of it. In the next section, we'll discuss why.