14 Stories Of People Who Survived While Isolated From Civilization

Throughout history, countless individuals have found themselves totally alone - cut off from the rest of humankind - marooned in isolation, either by chance or by choice. However, this kind of aloneness in no way equals a death sentence for those who find themselves in it; in fact, there are many tales of  people who survived in isolation. Amazingly, a handful have survived to tell harrowing tales of survival, and many of their stories make it to the big screen. 

And the people who've managed to survive this way might surprise you. From an elderly woman in Siberia to a young boy in the Ugandan jungle, the tales of harrowing (and sometimes really pleasant) forays into the un-humaned world demonstrate the incredible resilience and endurance of the human body and psyche.

Photo: John Game / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

  • Scotsman Alexander Selkirk Survived Alone On Mas a Tierra

    Alexander Selkirk was born in 1676 in Scotland and is one of the most overlooked castaways in history. Those familiar with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe may not find it surprising that Selkirk’s story of being marooned on Isla Juan Fernandez played an inspirational role in Defoe’s masterpiece. 

    Selkirk, the wee son of a cobbler, left Scotland around the age of 19 due to a family feud with legal implications. In the process of fleeing, he joined the crew of a chartered privateer vessel and set out to begin raiding Spanish ports and merchant vessels. After several particularly dangerous battles with the Spanish, Selkirk began butting heads with the ship’s captain. It's not clear whether he voluntarily went ashore or was forced off the ship, but the young Scotsman soon found himself left to his own devices on the island of Mas a Tierra, one of several islands making up the Juan Fernandez Island chain of Chile. 

    The year was 1704 and Selkirk was thousands of miles from home with only a few provisions with him. Amazingly, Selkirk made the best of a seemingly bitter experience and collected many animals as pets and as food. He built himself a shelter, hunted and fished and ended up surviving for about five years until, in 1709, he spotted a British ship. He was able to start a fire to signal the ship to shore and was rescued. Unbelievably, one of the sailors that made contact with him once ashore, had been on Selkirk’s privateering voyage.

    In a strange twist of events, being stranded on the island for five years may have been one of the best experiences he could have had. He later learned that the privateering ship he had originally set out on had been attacked and sunk. The entire crew, with the exception of his captain, had drowned, and his captain had been jailed in South America by the Spanish. 

    Selkirk joined the crew of the vessel that had rescued him and took part in their own privateering adventures, eventually becoming very rich as a result. He returned to Scotland and was reunited with his family. Around 1713, he recorded his adventures privateering, being marooned on the island and being rescued on paper. His story then caught the eye of author Daniel Defoe. 

  • Marguerite de la Rocque Was Abandoned By Her Own Cousin

    Roughly 162 years before Alexander Selkirk’s voyage ran afoul, a young noblewoman from France named Marguerite de la Rocque joined an expedition sailing from France to what is now Canada along with her cousin, Jean-Francois de la Rocque, who had recently been named Lieutenant-General of the French colony. 

    Along the trans-Atlantic journey, Marguerite took a lover, and Jean-Francois discovered the torrid affair, which (unfortunately for Marguerite) he couldn't ignore because it put his professional reputation on the line. With his rep at stake, Jean-Francois forced Marguerite and her lover off the ship and left them, along with another female servant, on an island in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. 

    Once stranded in Northern Canada, Marguerite, her lover, and her servant, Damienne, were forced to live off the land with limited provisions. To make matters more dire, Marguerite was pregnant and gave birth to a child. Tragically (but perhaps unsurprisingly), her child did not survive infancy. 

    After some time, Marguerite’s lover as well as Damienne, both died of unknown causes, leaving Marguerite totally alone in a land completely alien to her; she had no choice but to continue on. Several contemporary accounts suggest that she was able to survive partially by teaching herself to shoot with a musket she had been left with when marooned in the gulf. While the exact dates of key points in her life are only guesswork, Marguerite eventually managed to be rescued by fishermen and brought back to France. 

    In addition to Marguerite’s own account, her survival in the Canadian wilderness was preserved on paper by Queen Marguerite de Navarre and Andre de Thevet, a Franciscan friar and historian. 

  • Agafia Lykova Survived Alone In Siberia For Decades

    The early Soviet government isn't exactly known for its openness and acceptance of nonofficial belief systems, something Agafia Lykova knows very well. Early on, the Soviets began a campaign of persecuting specific religious groups throughout its territory. One group, a conservative Russian Orthodox sect called the "Old Believers," was particularly marginalized. Priests were rounded up and many were imprisoned in a gulag or executed. 

    Fearing the worst after his brother was executed by the communists in 1936 at the start of Stalin’s political purges, Karp Lykov took his family and moved out to the Siberian wilderness to hide from the Communist regime. In 1943, Karp’s wife Akulina gave birth to their daughter, Agafia, one of four children. Amazingly, Agafia and her family survived World War Two and most of the Cold War with absolutely no contact with any other people. 

    In 1978, several Russian scientists spotted Agafia’s homestead and made contact with the remaining members of the family Lykov for the first time since 1936. Sadly, within ten years of their isolation, Agafia’s father and her siblings passed away leaving her as the sole survivor. Her isolation was so extreme that during the first contact in ’78, it was reported by eyewitnesses that the language Agafia and her family spoke had not evolved with the rest of the Russian language, as they used words and phrases that were old fashioned or out of date. But, regardless of old-fashioned language, Agafia survived for decades completely by herself in the Siberian wildnerness (AKA one of the harshest environments in the world).

  • Ada Blackjack Lost Her Exploration Companions But Made It Back To Civilization

    Wrangel Island is an isolated landmass that sits in the Siberian sea just over the Russian side of the Bearing Strait Meridian. This crazy, intimidating location, however, did not stop a small expedition from venturing to the island in 1921 in an attempt to claim it for Canada. Ada Blackjack, an Alaskan Native American seamstress, joined the expedition to earn money she planned to then use to pay for a doctor to treat her son who was very ill. 

    Initially meant to be traveling for six months, Ada, 23, and four others became trapped on the island with supplies running critically low. Three of the four explorers attempted to find help while Ada was tasked with taking care of the ailing fourth explorer. Soon though, the man succumbed to his illness, and Ada was left alone on the island with no companions and no where to go. Worst of all, the supplies remaining were almost entirely depleted. For two miserable years, Ada survived alone on the island. In one especially life-threatening moment of her isolation, she was almost killed by a polar bear. 

    Finally, in December of 1923, Ada was rescued and returned to civilization. 

  • Hiroo Onoda Surrendered 29 Years After WWII Ended

    Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara once called the WWII Pacific Theater of Operations, ‘One of the most brutal wars in all of human history’ and it certainly left a profound psychological impact on all of those whom it affected. Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda of the Imperial Japanese Army is one notable example. 

    Born in 1922 in Wakayama, Japan, Hiroo Onoda joined the Imperial Japanese Army, commonly known as the IJA, in 1942 and was trained in guerrilla fighting tactics. 

    His last post was in the Philippines near the island of Corregidor where he stayed until 1945. Cut off from civilization with only a few other soldiers, he and his comrades noticed that airplanes began dropping leaflets declaring the war to be over and encouraging any remaining imperial forces in the field to surrender. He and the soldiers with him believed this to be an allied trick to get them to come out of hiding. 

    Onoda remained concealed in the jungle for 29 years, hunting and trapping animals and living off the land while still in his uniform. One after another of his comrades either surrendered to the local Philippine constabulary or were killed in post-war skirmishes. Onodo, though, stuck to his oath to not surrender. 

    Then, in 1974, he was found by Norio Suzuki, a student who didn’t believe the official line that Onoda was dead. Initially, Onoda refused to return to civilization and still believed this to be a trick by allied forces, Suzuki gathered information to prove that the war had ended 29 years earlier. He returned and convinced Onoda that World War Two had been over for decades. Meanwhile, to be sure, the Japanese government sent Onoda’s former commanding officer to personally assure Onoda. 

    The two emerged from the jungle and Hiroo Onoda officially surrendered and turned over his arms to the president of the Philippines. Soon afterward, his story of survival exploded in every newspaper. 

  • Tom Neale Willingly Chose His Tropical Island Paradise Isolation

    Some individuals have willingly and enthusiastically chosen to detach themselves from society and travel to distant places to live alone, far away from the noise and congestion of their human brethren. The charm of running away to an uninhabited tropical paradise and living a leisurely jungle life is probably a fantasy that many across the world have contemplated. For New Zealander Tom Neale, this became a reality and a successful undertaking. 

    Born in 1902, Mr. Neale, of Wellington, was enthusiastic about striking it out and surviving in the wilderness and chose to live in the Suwarrow Atoll, which is part of the Cook Island chain. Making his home there, he built a small house, fished, explored and spent the rest of his life there. In all, it seems he spent six years there consecutively while returning to New Zealand temporarily on a few occasions. 

    He passed away in 1977 and a successful book, An Island To Oneself, about his experience was published nine years earlier.