Whether it’s sweltering heat, frigid temperatures, or vicious storms, the human race has been learning how to combat the elements since the beginning of time. It’s just how we’re wired, and how we’ve survived for so long. There is one thing, however, we haven’t figured out: getting by without oxygen.

Oxygen is an absolute necessity to humans (hence mermaids only existing as mythical beings). That being said, one tribe in Malaysia has come pretty darn close to getting by without it. Scientists from around the world are trying to understand these people’s incredible adaptions that are putting Ariel herself to shame.

The idea of a life spent on the water is incredibly romantic. Those breathtaking photos of small homes hovering on the crystal-clear ocean are constantly going viral. Yet, as most of us are fairly committed to dry land, it begs the question: who actually lives there?

While pictures make it seem like living this way would be the ultimate oasis, life on the water comes with it’s own challenges. The Banjau people, who have lived in and on the water surrounding Asia for thousands of years, know a thing or two about its turmoil.

Multiple legends offer accounts of how the Banjau ended up spending 60% of their lives in water. In one, the “sea nomads” are sent to rescue a princess. When they couldn’t retrieve her, they stayed in the water to avoid the king’s wrath.

Another folktale tells of a giant stingray that brought them out to sea. No matter what version, the ending is the same: a group of people that live and work in the ocean. Logistically, there are many things they must work around.

Most members of this tribe scattered across Asia do not have a home at all on the shore. Essential to this lifestyle is their small boats called “lepa-lepa.” The most incredible aspect of their lives on the waves are the homes they have constructed.

Instead of having a traditional foundation, their homes are famously built on stilts rising just above the water’s surface. In the event of a major storm, they will evacuate to the shore. Every other day of their lives is spent out in the ocean.

In their unique situation, they truly live off of what the ocean can provide for them. The Bajau people have become expert divers and fisherman in order to survive. Most often, they utilize spears to catch fish and their diving ability to scour the ocean floor.

Therein lies both the problem and solution for this distinctive group. Being an expert fisherman is great and all, but you’re still beholden to the laws of being a human. One of the most basic of which involves needing oxygen on a very regular basis.

National Geographic

Which is a problem for humans because diving too deep underwater may cause blood vessels in the lungs to rupture, often causing death. So how in the world do these superhuman swimmers navigate the ocean like they have gills?

Darwin would be stoked to see how this group has evolved to thrive in an ocean environment. So was geneticist Melissa Ilardo when she observed the behavior of the Bajau people. She did a study on them to understand how they can do what they do.

Surprisingly, the physical element that controls how long you can hold your breath underwater isn’t your lungs. All those breath-holding contests you lost brain cells to in your youth were controlled by another organ: the spleen.

A study was conducted on aquatic mammals such as seals, and the findings were centered around the size of the spleen. Oddly, this organ plays a huge role in supplying oxygen to the body when there is none. It hoards extra oxygen in case of emergency.

Therefore, the bigger the spleen, the longer you can hold your breath underwater. Insanely, some members of the tribe have been known to hold their breath for almost twenty minutes. Yet when Ilardo finished her study, she was stunned by the results.

She compared the spleen size of the Banjau to those of a sample population on the mainland. The oceanic tribe boasted spleens about fifty percent larger than their on-shore counterparts. Melissa Ilardo confirmed her theory and made another unexpected discovery.

The Atlantic

While examining the DNA of the Bajau people, Ilardo found a specific gene called “PDE10A.” This particular coding gene controls thyroid hormones and has been linked to spleen size, thus offering DNA evidence of the tribe’s adaptation.

Melissa Ilardo and her team of researchers do not know when the Banjau left the mainland and began this evolutionary change, but it is estimated at around 15,000 years ago. Aside from the wonder of the Banjau, there may be greater use for these findings.

In the world of trauma medicine, oxygen levels are a major concern. Understanding these adaptations that allow for reserve oxygen in extreme situations could have practical implications for doctors. The Banjau tribe could end up inadvertently saving lives.

The tribe has been doing this for centuries, but the modern world is proving a challenge to their way of life. The members of the tribe do not have citizenship on the mainland and industrial fishing has made it difficult to catch fish.

Sadly, the perils of the 21st century have caused some members of the ancient tribe to abandon their maritime lifestyle and head for dry land. The rapidly changing world requires them to continue to adapt not only to deep waters, but to modern life.

Whether the fate of the Bajau leaves them on land or sea, the incredible evidence of human adaption and evolution right before our eyes is compelling. Getting a glimpses at tribes like this is crucial to our understanding of other cultures.

Remote peoples like the Bajau, whose culture is contained and completely unique to their island homes, are difficult to get to know. Nestled between India and Myanmar, in the middle of the Bay of Bengal, are a group of picturesque islands. But, despite their appeal, visitors need to approach with tremendous caution.

The World News

The India government requires visitation permits for every form of entry. Some of the islands in the cluster are tourist hubs and access is allowed with proper documents. Others are forbidden, namely the North Sentinel Island, and for good reason!

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While the indigenous tribes of the Andamans have long fascinated anthropologists, they don’t look kindly on any intrusions from the outside world — and they aren’t just giving visitors the cold shoulder…

Travel Tour Guru

Visitors must approach with caution because the tribes are regarded as some of the most dangerous and violent in the world. They prefer to have no outside contact and have rejected many who tried to infiltrate their territory.

National Geographic

Throughout history, anthropologists carefully organized missions to visit, make friendly contact, and hopefully get the chance to learn more about these fascinating people. But there was a pretty big problem…

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Any visitors, no matter how cautious or kindly intended, have been met with open hostility and extreme suspicion. Some visitors to the island have even been killed.

Getting to know them seemed impossible. But there was someone who was about to change all of that, and in the process, change our understanding of the tribe.

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Doctor Madhumala Chattopadhya wanted to accomplish what so many others had lost their lives trying to do. But the path to doing just that wasn’t going to be easy for her.

Picdeer

As a young girl, the indigenous tribes off the coast of her home of India fascinated Madhumala. She was the top of her class and went on to study anthropology at the University of Calcutta. While hitting the books, these tribes were her focus.

Glassdoor

In 1991, Madhumala got to live out her dream of making the first-ever recorded friendly contact. She was working as an associate of the Anthropological Survey of India. Along with a team of 13, Madhumala set out to attempt a connection no one had ever survived before.

BBC News

But Madhumala knew she and her team would have to do something different to successfully engage the tribe — something other visitors hadn’t tried. So she brought coconuts!

First Post

As her team’s boats crept closer to the shore, the researchers started throwing coconuts out for the tribe as a peace offering. Not long after, some of the more curious members of the tribe waded into the water to take the coconuts.

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Standing with bows and arrows ready on the shore, the tribe was skeptical of the visitors. They kept the coconuts coming, and eventually, Madhumala was able to enter the water and physically hand the offerings to the tribal members.

Another factor contributed to Mudhamala’s groundbreaking contact with the tribe: she was a woman! On her next visit in the same year, she led an expedition on land into the Jarawa tribe’s territory and made history once again.

Jarwa women spotted Madhumala, the only female member of her team, on the boat and yelled to her, “Milale chera!” It translated as “friend come here!” and broke out in an impromptu dance.  She was the first woman to visit, and they welcomed her!

Intercontinental Cry

The tribal women approached Mudhamala and examined her hair and skin. But then she made a bold move that could have ended in complete disaster…she embraced one of the natives in a hug. By a miracle, her gamble paid off. The tribe reacted with happiness!

The tribe had never taken to an outsider like they did with Madhumala. They let her assist in chores, and even hold their children.

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Nurturing an intense trust, they let Madhumala enter their huts, which was another historical first. She shared food with the tribe, and offered medical assistance. They allowed her to tend to their wounds and act as their doctor.

Homegrown

Despite her monumental strides in communications and anthropological discoveries, Madhumala hasn’t really been regarded as one of the great anthropologists in history. She lived amongst one of the most dangerous and mysterious tribes in the world, but her legacy remains a hidden gem for most of the world to discover.

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As of early 2019, she continued to work for the central government, in the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. Madhumala’s texts about this secretive tribe were considered the standard of study for universities worldwide.

Times of India

There are some places on this planet that even the most intrepid explorers will never get a chance to visit. While they’re not necessarily difficult to access—they’re just totally off-limits. From islands like North Sentinel to top-secret government facilities, these places are totally forbidden to tourists.

Lascaux Caves, France: The 20,000-year-old cave paintings located in the south of France were being damaged by the carbon dioxide exhaled by tourists. To preserve the paintings, the government has closed off the site to visitors.

Ise Grand Shrine, Japan: Only Shinto priests and priestesses to the royal family of Japan are ever allowed in this sacred temple. It’s also torn down and rebuilt every 20 years in keeping with the Shinto philosophy.

Club 33, Disneyland: If you can afford to pay $20,000 as an initiation fee and $10,000 annually in dues, then you might be able to nab a seat at one of the most exclusive supper clubs in the entire world.

Metro 2, Russia: This secret subway system underneath the city of Moscow was the brainchild of Stalin himself. Though the government has remained mum about Metro 2, some people who helped create it have revealed its existence.

Mount Weather, Virginia: Located 48 miles outside of Washington, D.C., in the Blue Ridge mountains, Mount Weather is the underground facility where the President would be kept in case of a doomsday-type emergency. Photos of the interior, however, are hard to come by.

Vatican Secret Archives, Vatican City: While the name makes it clear that you aren’t welcome inside of the Vatican’s secret archives, you can absolutely request to view any document they hold that is over 75 years in age.

White’s Gentlemen’s Club, London: This exclusive gentlemen’s club is the most prestigious in England. In order to be invited to join their ranks, you’ve got to be male, a member of the royal family, or someone else in a position of power.

Room 39, North Korea: This top-secret government building is said to be the heart of countless illegal operations. How illegal? Well, that depends: how does counterfeiting and practicing insurance fraud sound to you?

RAF Menwith Hill, England: The Royal Air Force, with the help of the NSA (yep, you read that right), run this monitoring center. It is said to be one of the most comprehensive in the entire world. Have you ever gotten the feeling someone was watching you? It was probably someone working here.

Coca Cola Recipe Vault, Atlanta: For decades, the top secret recipe to this popular soda was locked inside a bank just down the street from the Coca Cola headquarters. They have since created a vault of their own for storing the recipe.

Area 51, Nevada: No list about forbidden places is complete without Area 51. The United States Air Force base is where, for years, people have theorized that research and experiments have been conducted on aliens and UFOs.

Mezhgorye, Russia: This top-secret town doesn’t welcome visitors. That’s probably because the town was established as a place for employees at the nearby major nuclear facility to live… and hide from NATO.

Snake Island, Brazil: This island’s name isn’t an accident. There are more than 5,000 different types of venomous snakes living on this island, making it totally unpleasant, if not downright uninhabitable, for anyone who is not a snake.

Surtsey Island, Iceland: This is one of the newest islands on planet Earth. It recently emerged after a volcanic eruption in the 1960s and it is in near pristine conditions. Iceland wants to keep it that way, and only a few scientists have been allowed to visit the island so far.

Google Data Center, Oregon: If there is one thing Google takes seriously, it’s security. Their data center in Oregon is probably more well-protected than Area 51, and as far as we know, there aren’t even any alleged UFOs here!

Tomb of Qin Shi Wang, China: The Chinese government has been intensely protective of the tomb of their first Emperor, Qin Shi Wang. The tomb contains the famous terra cotta soldiers, but what else it holds we may never truly know.

Bank of England Vaults, London: In order to access the vaults, you need a key that is more than 35 inches long! Getting the key itself would be a problem since the names of people with access to vaults is a strictly kept secret.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway: If all of the plants in the world were ever to be wiped out, the seeds stored in this top secret vault could literally bring the Earth back to life. Even countries who have contributed seeds are not granted access, though!

Bohemian Grove, California: More myths than truths are known about the West Coast secret society of elites. They are rumored to have single-handedly begun the entire Manhattan project. Many ex-presidents have been among its members, as well.

Pine Gap, Australia: Controlled by the Australian and United States governments, Pine Gap is home to a satellite monitoring facility. These aren’t any old satellites, either. Pine Gap is central in receiving and transmitting spy communique.

Chapel of the Arc of the Covenant, Ethiopia: This chapel is said to house the Arc of the Covenant, which contains the 10 Commandants as handed down to Moses. Other than the priest who tends the church, no one else is allowed to enter.

Woomera Prohibited Area, Australia: This is the largest bomb testing stretch of land in the entire world. Rather than risk people stumbling into the wake of a bomb, the government went ahead and made it known just how off-limits the place was in its very name.

Propiyet, Ukraine: While you can technically get into Propiyet, you might not want to visit this tiny town in Ukraine. That’s because it is literally the most radioactive town in the entire world. Definitely give it a miss.

Mariana Trench, Pacific Ocean: While the Mariana Trench is not exactly “forbidden,” it’s not easy to get to, either! This trench is the deepest in the entire ocean if you can believe it. Only three people have successfully visited it.