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This area is thought to contain more uncontacted tribes than anywhere else on the planet, with an estimated 2,000 individuals across up to 20 isolated groups

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    You're parsing it slightly incorrectly. It's not "across up", it's "X is across Y" where Y is "up to 20 isolated groups". – stangdon Sep 13 '17 at 14:07
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It means someone didn't have a proper editor look it over before publishing. It's two separate phrases, merged:

across 20 isolated groups

up to 20 isolated groups

The first expression means spread out between 20 groups. The second means at most 20 groups.

Put them together and, as you found it, it's confusing even for native speakers. Assuming we don't really care about the exact number of groups, I would have instead written:

... an estimated 2000 individuals across 20 or so isolated groups.

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    your rewrite means a different thing though (and personally I don't find the original at all confusing). The original means that there are no more than 20 groups though there could be less. Your rewrite makes it possible that there are 23 groups. The difference isn't marked especially given that this seems to come from one of the newspaper articles about the slaughtering of local tribesman in Brazil and I doubt the journalists really did any research. – DRF Sep 13 '17 at 6:24

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