What is the oldest tribe that still exists?

The question of which tribe is the oldest that still exists today is a fascinating one for anthropologists and historians alike. To answer this, we must look far back into human prehistory and track the origins and migrations of different tribal groups over thousands of years. Modern genetics and archaeology have provided many clues, but there are still open questions and debates about the oldest continuous human cultures.

What is a “tribe”?

First, to answer this question accurately, we need to define what constitutes a “tribe.” Anthropologists use the term to refer to communities that share a common culture, ethnicity, language, and geographic territory. Tribes are often – though not always – organized around kinship networks, with members tracing descent from common ancestors. Tribes are also associated with a pre-industrial, non-urbanized social organization. However, finding a tribe that has remained completely static or isolated for millennia is extremely rare. Cultures and communities have mixed and changed throughout human history. Still, there are cultural groups today seen as modern extensions of ancient tribal identities.

Candidates for the oldest tribe

With this definition in mind, several different groups have been proposed by scholars as potentially being the “oldest tribe” that still exists in some form today:

San people

The indigenous San people of Southern Africa, sometimes referred to as “Bushmen,” may have the longest continuous lineage as a distinct ethnic and cultural group. Genetic studies have shown the San people carry some of the most ancient Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA haplogroups known, dating back over 100,000 years. Their languages use distinctive click consonants and are believed to be the oldest extant languages. The San were traditionally nomadic hunter-gatherers, relying on skills like tracking and traditional medicines. Today they inhabit desert and arid grassland regions of countries like Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and South Africa.


The Sentinelese people of North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean are believed to have inhabited the remote island for around 55,000 years, making them another candidate for being possibly the oldest tribe. They have remained largely isolated from the outside world and are an uncontacted people hostile to outsiders. Their language, movements, and cultural practices remain very much a mystery to outsiders. There is almost no direct modern archaeological evidence about the tribe, but they are believed to descend from some of the earliest populations that traveled from Africa through Asia to eventually settle islands in the Indian Ocean. They continue to subsist as hunter-gatherers on the small forested island.

Khoisan Tribes

The collective term Khoisan refers to the indigenous hunter-gatherers of Southern Africa who share linguistic similarities, including tribes like the San, Khoikhoi, and Sandawe peoples. These tribes inhabited southern Africa for millennia before the arrival of Bantu groups in the region around 2,000 years ago. In addition to the San people mentioned previously, the Khoikhoi and Sandawe share genetic links suggesting ancient common ancestry dating back over 100,000 years in the region.

Andaman Islanders

The indigenous tribes of the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, including the Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa, and Sentinelese peoples, are believed to have inhabited the islands for several thousand years, isolated from mainland influence. They are considered remnants of some of the earliest human migrations out of Africa. While contact and colonization have drastically reduced their populations over the last two centuries, several groups still maintain a traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the Andaman Islands.

Siberian Tribes

Indigenous ethnic groups of Siberia like the Yakuts, Evenks, Chukchi, and Nenets are believed to be among the oldest continuous cultures in Northern Asia. These tribes are thought to be the descendants of ancient Paleo-Siberian peoples who migrated across Beringia into Siberia thousands of years ago. For example, the Yakuts migrated to Siberia from Central Asia around the 13th century but have much older links to indigenous cultures. These nomadic tribes have traditionally survived the harsh Siberian climate through hunting, reindeer herding, and fishing.


The Basque people inhabiting northern Spain and southwest France are considered by some anthropologists to be the last remnants of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers in Western Europe. Genetic research suggests the Basques descend from populations that were isolated from other European groups for thousands of years. The Basque language is also unrelated to any other known language, adding to the cultural uniqueness. However, other historians argue the Basques likely assimilated many other influences over the millennia, even if they have occupied the same region for a very long time.

Arab Bedouin

The traditional nomadic Bedouin tribes have inhabited the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt for thousands of years. They developed a culture deeply adapted to survival in the harsh desert climate. The Bedouin tribes trace their ancestry back centuries, passing down oral traditions, poetry, and songs from generation to generation. However, the Bedouin have interacted extensively with other groups over the centuries, so debate persists around whether they can claim to be the world’s oldest isolated tribe.

Other Candidates

Several other tribal groups around the world have claims to being the oldest, continuous cultures and ethnicities, though the evidence is less definitive. For example, the Inuit and other Eskimoan peoples are thought to be among the oldest groups in North America. Tibeto-Burman ethnic groups like the Limbu in the Himalayas also stake a claim. Several ethnic groups in New Guinea, the Amazon, and West Africa are also potentially very ancient, but research is limited.

Challenges in determining the oldest tribe

There are several factors that make determining the definitive oldest tribe a challenge:

  • Lack of evidence – Our knowledge grows limited the further back in time we look. Written records are absent, and material culture and artifacts can be scarce.
  • Genetic complexity – Modern genetics reveals that ancestral mixing and migration was common. Pure genetic isolation over huge timespans is extremely rare.
  • Cultural change – Even remote tribes have adapted and changed their culture, beliefs, and language over the millennia.
  • Extinction and absorption – Some of the oldest cultures on records have since gone extinct or been absorbed into other ethnicities.
  • Criteria debates – There is debate around whether continuity of territory, language, ethnicity or culture is most vital in determining a tribe’s longevity.
  • Definition problems – The concept of a “tribe” is hard to definitively apply over such vast timespans and migrations.

So while we can identify candidate tribes that potentially represent the oldest continuous cultures, determining one definitive tribe scientifically remains challenging.

Clues about the lifeways of ancient tribes

Though we may not be able to decisively determine the world’s single oldest tribe, studying cultures like the San, Sentinelese, or Basques can still provide clues about how ancient tribal human societies lived:

  • Nomadic – Most appear to have been nomadic or semi-nomadic, moving across landscapes in search of food and shelter rather than settling permanent villages.
  • Hunter-gatherer – Foraging for plant foods and hunting wild game seems to have been the predominant means of subsistence, requiring great ecological knowledge.
  • Egalitarian – They lacked rigid social hierarchies and class systems seen in later civilizations, with more equal distribution of resources.
  • Kinship-based – Extended family bonds and clans were the foundation of most social organization and vital for survival.
  • Oral tradition – Stories, myths, songs, and ancestor lore were passed down orally rather than through written records.
  • Symbolic culture – Early art, jewelry, and rituals hint at sophisticated symbolic and spiritual belief systems.

Studying groups like the San also provides insight on foraging approaches, primitive tool technologies, and early migration patterns when composed with archaeology and genetics.

Impacts and threats facing ancient tribes today

Unfortunately, most remaining groups representing the world’s oldest tribal cultures face severe threats to their future existence and cultural integrity today:

  • Loss of lands – Development, agricultural expansion, and extractive industries are destroying formerly remote tribal homelands.
  • Effects of globalization – Increased outside contacts accelerated cultural changes and breakdown of isolation.
  • Discrimination and violence – Mistreatment and crimes against indigenous groups undermine communities.
  • Assimilation pressures – Governments often forcibly integrated tribes into mainstream society.
  • Population decline – Disease, malnutrition, and warfare took huge tolls on tribes historically, even wiping out many groups entirely.
  • Cultural erosion – Many ancient languages, spiritual practices, and traditions are being lost as elders die without passing on knowledge.

As a result, almost all groups proposed as the oldest tribes are endangered and reduced to relatively tiny populations spread across small, marginal areas of their original homelands. Many anthropologists consider the protection and preservation of their cultural heritage an urgent priority.


Pinpointing the absolute oldest existing tribe on Earth may remain scientifically impossible. However, groups like the San bushmen of southern Africa or Andaman Islanders possess clear hallmarks of ancient genetically and culturally distinct indigenous populations, even if mixed and changed over millennia of migrations. Studying these groups provides windows into human existence and society during prehistoric eras. But the remaining tribes deemed most ancient now verge on collapse and irreversible assimilation due to modern global industrial expansion. Understanding that the mosaic of ethnicities we see worldwide today is just a tiny remnant of the huge diversity of human cultures that once existed should inspire us to value and protect indigenous groups as crucial living links to our deepest ancestral past.

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