Stunning Photographs Of The Last Surviving Tribes On Earth

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From the comfort of our modern lives that get sorted with a click of a button, it is barely impossible to imagine a day in the lives of people moving about in freezing temperatures that go down to minus fifty degrees Celsius, without basic requirements like food, shelter and clothing.

As we become more interconnected, more and more indigenous groups get pushed to the verge of extinction, even as we speak. British photographer Jimmy Nelson  spent about three years documenting the lives of some of the world’s remotest tribes. He spent two weeks with each tribe, trying to understand and capture their way of life.


His detailed work, titled, “Before They Pass Away”, exhibits mindblowing portraits of secluded indigenous people showcasing their unique jewellery, hairstyles and clothing, in their natural elements. According to Nelson, his mission was to assure that the world never forgets how things used to be:

“Most importantly, I wanted to create an ambitious aesthetic photographic document that would stand the test of time. A body of work that would be an irreplaceable ethnographic record of a fast disappearing world.”


Here are some of the spectacular images from his collection about a disappearing world in their truest beauty and emotion.

His full photographic book is available here on Amazon


New Zealand

As a polytheist culture, the Maori worshipped many gods, goddesses and spirits. Maori believe that ancestors and supernatural beings are ever-present and able to help the tribe in times of need. Myths are set in the remote past. They present Maori ideas about the creation of the universe and the origins of gods and of people.

Defining aspects of Maori traditional culture include art, legends, tattoos(Ta moko), performances (notably Kapa Haka), customs, hospitality and community.

Kai is the Maori word for food. The Maori diet was based on birds and fish, supplemented by wild herbs and roots. In their tribal gardens, Maori also grew root crops including yams, gourds and kumara (sweet potatoes).

Traditional kinship ties are actively maintained, and the whanau (extended family) in particular remains an integral part of Maori life.

An individual’s place within society was often signified by their garments and tattoos. People of high social status were always tattooed, whereas indigenous men with no tattoos were considered worthless.


Kenya and Tanzania

The Maasai’s entire way of life has historically depended on their cattle, following patterns of rainfall over vast land in search of food and water.

The Maasai live in Kraals (Boma). Their huts are loosely constructed and semipermanent. They are made of mud, sticks, grass and cow dung. Skins and hides are used as bedding. The fence around the Kraal is made of acacia thorns, which prevent lions from attacking the cattle. Men are responsible for fencing off the boma, while women construct the huts, supply water, collect firewood, milk cattle and cook.

To be a Maasai is to be born into one of the world’s last great warrior cultures. From boyhood to adulthood, young Maasai begin to learn the responsibilities of being a man and a warrior. The role of a warrior is to protect the livestock from human and animal predators and to provide security to their families.

The Maasai’s nomadic way of life follows patterns of rainfall over vast land in search of food and water for their large herds of cattle.

Though they traditionally dressed in animal skins, typical Maasai dress in the modern era is a red length of cloth (Shukka) wrapped around the body, as well as a great deal of beaded jewellery worn on the neck and arms. These are worn by both men and women and may vary in colour depending on the occasion.


Indonesia and Papa New Guinea

The legendary Asaro Mudmen first met with the Western world in the middle of the 20th century. Legend has it that the Mudmen were forced to flee from an enemy into the Asaro River where they waited until dusk to escape. The enemy saw them rise from the banks covered in mud and thought they were spirits. The Asaro still apply mud and masks to keep the illusion alive and terrify other indigenous groups.

“The circumstances in the mountain swamps were physically very arduous, but not particularly dangerous.” – Jimmy Nelson


Siberia – Yamal

The Nenets are reindeer herders, migrating across the Yamal peninsula, thriving for more than a millennium with temperatures from minus 50°C in winter to 35°C in summer. Their annual migration of over a 1000 km includes a 48 km crossing of the frozen waters of the Ob River.

The Nenets live in one-family chums, made of reindeer skins laid over a skeleton of long wooden poles. During migrations, chums are moved every other day.  Their favourite beverage is the Sri Lankan black tea. Apart from that, the Nenet nomads rarely depend upon outside sources for their food, living on reindeer, fish and
whatever else they can forage from the forbidding Arctic soil. In summer, when meat can’t be stored, fish becomes the main diet.

The reindeer is also revered as a symbol. The Nenets believe that people and deer entered a kind of social contract, where reindeer offered themselves to humans for their subsistence and transport, and humans agreed to accompany them on their seasonal migrations and protect them from predators.

The men take care of grazing the reindeer, slaughter, choosing pastures etc. The women’s role is primarily to prepare and cook the staples of meat and fish, to repair clothing, to pack and unpack the households during periods of migration and to look after children. When talking amongst themselves, Nenets speak a Finno-Ugric language. However, every Nenet under 50 speaks fluent Russian, as from the late Stalin period onwards, all children have been enrolled in Soviet boarding schools.

The Nenets still rely on traditional clothing sewn by the women. Nenets men wear a Malitsa, which is a coat with hood made of around 4 reindeer skins, fur on the inside and leather on the outside. In extremely cold conditions, men wear yet another layer of reindeer fur, known as a Gus. The women wear a Yagushka which has a double layer of around 8 reindeer skins.


India – Ladakh

The Ladakhi share the beliefs of their Tibetan neighbours. Tibetan Buddhism, mixed with images of ferocious demons from the pre-Buddhist Bon religion, has been the principal religion in Ladakh for more than a thousand years.

The people of Ladakh are conservative and traditional, and their lifestyle is much the same as it was 2,000 years ago. They have a rich folklore, remarkable for its songs and legends, some of which date back to the pre- Buddhist era.

Men are the head of the family and the eldest son inherits the property of his father, which passes to the next brother after him. If there are no sons in the family, the father brings in the husband of the eldest daughter and property gets transferred in the daughter’s name and then passes on to her first son.

Buddhism has very deep roots in Ladakh, as this region was introduced to the faith as far back as the 7th century AD. The culture and lifestyle of the people of Ladakh are quite deeply influenced by their Buddhist religion, with ancient Buddhist inscriptions and rock engravings scattered liberally throughout this mountainous region. Lamas are believed to be the messengers between the physical and the spiritual world and often act as astrologers and oracles, predicting the auspicious time to start any major enterprise.

Most of the Ladakhi festivals fall in winter, and serve as an excuse for social and convivial gatherings. In summers, archery competitions and a native version of polo are common. Folk songs and dances add to the jovial atmosphere and chang, the local barley wine, flows liberally. Boys are generally promised or married by the age of 16 and girls
by the age of 12. The relatives of the groom bring gifts to the bride’s home. If accepted, the wedding takes place within a few months. Newborn children are given a warm welcome, with celebrations on their 15th and 30th day in the world, as well as on their first birthdays.

Typical Ladakhi costumes include gonchas of velvet, elaborately embroidered waistcoats and boots and hats. Well-to-do Ladakhi women have a striking and opulent appearance. Their gonchas are made of heavy Chinese silk and they wear impressive jewellery, with baroque pearls, turquoises, coral and amber bedecking their necks and ears. The gonchas of the less fortunate are made of coarse, home-spun, woollen cloth in a dark shade of maroon. Weaving is an important part of traditional life in eastern Ladakh. Both women and men weave, although they use different looms. The nomadic indigenous peoples of the Changpa rear longhaired goats and sheep, whose under-fleece is used for the famous Kashmiri Pashmina shawls.



The Kazakhs are the descendants of Turkic, Mongolic and Indo-Iranian indigenous groups and Huns that populated the territory between Siberia and the Black Sea. The ancient art of eagle hunting is one of many traditions and skills that the Kazakhs have been able to hold on to for the last decades. They rely on their clan and herds, believing in pre-Islamic cults of the sky, the ancestors, fire and the supernatural forces of good and evil spirits.

Kazakhs have a tradition of oral history. They lean heavily on their clan and are supposed to remember at least seven generations of their ancestors names in order to ‘not to forget where we come from’. They wear beads and talismans to protect themselves from evil. Many Kazakhs are skilled in the performance of traditional music.

The Kazakhs indulge in richly embroidered clothing; women wear bright headscarves (ah jaulih) and men wear skullcaps (tuhia) or fox-fur hats. Kazakh culture is quite different from Mongolian culture: even Kazakh saddles are a different shape.

Many families move several times a year with their herds between fixed seasonal  settlements. Others with smaller herds stay closer to their winter home during the summer but will nevertheless set up a yurt (kiiz yi, meaning ‘felt house’).

The geography of Mongolia is varied, with the Gobi Desert to the south and with cold and mountainous regions to the north and west. Most of the country is hot in the summer and extremely cold in the winter, with January averages dropping as low as 30 °C.  For hundreds of years, Kazakhs have been herders raising fat-tailed sheep, camels, and horses, relying on these animals for food, clothing and transportation. Mutton and horse are the preferred meats.  There is widespread practice of salting and drying meat to preserve it, and there is a preference for sour milk, as it is easier to store and therefore better suits their nomadic lifestyle.


Indonesia and Papa New Guinea

The Huli are traditionally animists who abide by strict ritualised offerings to appease the spirits of their ancestors. Sickness and misfortune are thought to be the work of witchcraft and sorcery. The indigenous groups fight over land, pigs and women. Great effort is made to impress the enemy. The largest indigenous group, the Huli wigmen, paint their faces yellow, red and white and are famous for their tradition of making ornamented wigs from their own hair. An axe with a claw completes the intimidating effect.

The highlanders live by hunting, done primarily by men, and by gathering plants and growing crops, done primarily by women. The men help clear the land, but the rest of the cultivation is the responsibility of the women.



The  Mustangs still believe that the world is flat, illness is caused by evil spirits and monks heal diseases with exorcisms. Honoring an ancient Tibetan custom, a woman can marry several brothers at the same time. This is because the fertile land is scarce and if each brother married a different wife, the land would be divided, making the family poor.

Daily life in arid Mustang revolves around animal husbandry (goats, horses, mules, donkeys, cows and yaks), agriculture, trade and – since 1992 – tourism. The presence of water makes sustenance agriculture possible. The main crops are barley and buckwheat, while maize, apples, apricots and different vegetables are also grown. The land is carefully terraced and irrigated. In winter, a large migration takes place into the lower regions of Nepal to escape the harsh conditions.

The spring season symbolises the regeneration of life, and the festival is about hope, revival and affirmation of life.
Dressed in their finery, people from all over Mustang gather in Lo Manthang to celebrate. In summer, the capital is host to the Yarlung horse festival, with races, dancing, drinking and all sorts of festivities.


Papua New Guinea – Simbai

Simbai is the home of the Kalam tribe in the heart of the highlands of Madang. It is one of Papua New Guinea’s most secluded places where people still live a subsistence lifestyle in traditional villages scattered through pristine wilderness territory and untouched. This has kept the culture strong and rich and from assimilating to the rest of the world.

When it comes to body decorations, their bodies are heavily donned with “Bilas” (body ornaments) such as large Kina shells, Hornbill (Kokomo) beak necklaces, cuscus fur, wild garden flowers and arm bands. Pig fat provides the final shine.

The crowns of the head-dresses are decorated with bird feathers comprising those of the cockatoo, parrots, lorikeets and bird of paradise species. Small round Kina shells are hooked on to and hang suspended from the hole in the nose while others insert King of Saxony bird of paradise feathers.

They are hunter gatherers and hunting is primarily done by men, as it is, with most tribes. Women are responsible for planting and growing crops and also look after their children. The residents have plenty of good food, close-knit families and a great respect for the wonders of nature.

Once a year, the week-long cultural festival, which is normally hosted in the third week of September, features the initiation of young boys by nose piercing (“sutim nus” in tok pidgin). Young boys about 10 to 17 years old go into a “hausboi” (men’s house) to learn about initiation rites from village elders and get their noses pierced.


Kenya and Tanzania

As cattle-herding Nilotes, The Samburu tribe reached Kenya some five hundred years ago, moving southwards along the plains of the Rift Valley in a rapid, all-conquering advance. They relocate every 5 to 6 weeks to ensure their cattle can feed themselves. They are independent and egalitarian people, much more traditional than the Masaai tribe.

Their huts are built from mud, hide and grass mats strung over poles. A thorny fence is built around the huts for protection from wild animals. These settlements are called manyattas. The huts are constructed to be easy to dismantle and transport when the Samburu move to a new location. Men take care of the grazing cattle, which is their main livelihood. Women are in charge of gathering roots and vegetables, milking cows, fetching water, gathering firewood, cooking and tending to children. They are also in charge of maintaining their homes. Duties of boys and girls are clearly delineated along the same division of labour, helping their fathers or mothers.

Fertility is very important for the Samburu. A fertility ritual involves placing a mud figure in front of the woman’s house. One week later, a feast will be given in which the husband invites neighbours to join him in eating a slaughtered bull. The people gathered will pray for a child.

Community decisions are normally made by men (senior elders or both senior and junior elders),
often under a tree designated as a ‘council’ meeting site. Women may sit in an outer circle and may make comments or express concerns through a male relative. However, women may have their own meetings and then carry the results of such discussions to men for consideration by the men’s council.

Both men and women wear brightly coloured traditional Shukka, a length of cloth that they loosely wrap around their bodies. This is enhanced with many colourful beaded necklaces, earrings and bracelets. Both men and women wear jewellery, which is made by the women. Samburu men dye their hair with red ochre, and warriors keep their long hair in braids. The Samburu paint their faces using striking patterns to accentuate their facial features.

The Samburu love to sing and dance, but traditionally use no instruments, not even drums. They have dances for various occasions in life. The men’s dance involves jumping, and high jumping from a standing position is a very popular sport. Most dances involve the men and women dancing in their separate circles with particular dance moves for each sex. They do however coordinate their dances.


India – Gujarat and Rajasthan

For almost 1,000 years, the Rabari have roamed the deserts and plains of what is today western India. It is believed that this indigenous group, with a peculiar Persian physiognomy, migrated from the Iranian plateau more than a millennium ago.

Rabari have a very rich cultural past and present. Embroidery is a vital, living and evolving expression of the crafted textile tradition of the Rabaris. As far back as the group’s collective memory stretches, Rabari women have diligently embroidered textiles as an expression of creativity, aesthetics and identity. Designs are taken from mythology and the tribe’s desert surroundings. Girls learn the art of embroidery at a young age, practising their new-found skills by working on a collection of embroidered items that will later become their dowry. This collection can sometimes take two or three years to complete.

While the men are on the move in search of grazing pastures for their livestock, the women and children remain in the villages. The villages are usually small, featuring no more than the most basic amenities, and they are almost always set in bleak, barren surroundings. In a typical village, two-room rectangular houses (Vandhas) with whitewashed mud walls and tiled roofs may look stark, but the interior decoration of these houses reflect the Rabari’s fondness for adornments of all sorts.

For hundreds of years, the indigenous women have practiced tattooing for decorative, religious and therapeutic purposes. Traditional patterns (Trajuva) are passed down through the generations. The female elders of the tribe women still work as tattoo artists at fairs, festivals and markets where the Rabari gather to trade their goods.  Nearly all surfaces of the body are tattooed. Womenfolk usually wear long black headscarves (Lobadi) and distinctive heavy brass earrings.

Marriage, which celebrates the vitality of life and ensures its continuity, is  considered of utmost importance. Traditionally, weddings can be extravagant events, and they take place on a particular day of the year: the feast of Gokulashtami, Krishna’s birthday. Childhood marriage is still very much in vogue with the tribe. Rabaris marry only within the indigenous group and often into families that are closely related.


India and Pakistan

Around 2,500 Drokpas live in three small villages in a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. Their cultural exuberance is reflected in exquisite dresses and ornaments. Their main sources of income are products from the well-tended vegetable gardens.

The Drokpas are completely different – physically, culturally, linguistically and socially – from the Tibeto-Burman inhabitants of most of Ladakh. Drokpa men and women are tall and fair, with big, lightly coloured eyes, full lips and distinctive noses and eyebrows. As a result, they do not marry into other communities. This insularity is how the group preserves its ethnicity.

Daily life consists of husbandry and (primarily subsistence) agriculture. The fertility and temperate climate of the valley makes for lush greenery.

Drokpa males wear a large woollen dress held at the waist over woolen trousers. The women don special woolen dresses and adorn themselves with shells, beads and silver jewellery. Goatskin capes complete the traditional dress. Both men and women wear unusual headdresses decorated with flowers, coins and seashells.

The Drokpas are fond of music, dancing, jewellery, flowers and barley wine. Their cultural exuberance is reflected in exquisite dresses and ornaments, worn particularly at festivals such as the latesummer Bonano festival, when both men and women dance for three nights in a row.

Now, can you live like them for even a day? Tell us in the comment section below!