Should We Play Hide-and-Seek with Undiscovered People?

As recently as the late 19th century, when one geographer estimated that one-eighth of the planet's land surface was still unmapped, a nature-savvy, self-sufficient band of "primitives" probably could have evaded civilized stalkers without too much difficulty, simply by fleeing deeper into the vastness of the wild. Today, though, there aren't that many unexplored stretches of wilderness left, and what remains is rapidly shrinking, thanks to logging, farming and oil companies. Beyond that, new technological tools available to outsiders, such as satellite photography and GPS tracking devices, make it increasingly difficult for groups to hide. When the supposedly lost Brazilian tribe was spotted and photographed from the air in 2008, they were in a clearing that someone had first noticed on Google Maps [source: Downey]. Since then, the Brazilian government has equipped aircraft with heat sensors that can track isolated tribes from above, even if they can't be seen [source: Associated Press].

Even if we're not quite there yet, the day will eventually come when it's no longer possible to hide. That's potentially both good and bad news for the isolated tribes. If government agencies in Brazil and elsewhere can locate the reclusive aboriginal peoples, it may enable officials to protect them and their home areas from encroachment, before they're discovered and wiped out by those who covet their lands. On the downside, as it gets easier to find isolated tribes, it's going to be tougher and tougher for them to avoid contact with a civilized world that is both repulsed and fascinated by them. Seed Magazine reports, for example, that four isolated Peruvian Indians died from respiratory infections in 2008, after a reality TV show crew illegally slipped into their government reservation. And after the media went gaga over the not-lost Brazilian tribe in 2008, the Indian expert who helped the government locate them was approached by travel agents, who proposed setting up "Savage Tourism" trips.