Ever since Breath of the Wild’s debut demo at E3, there has been a lot of buzz surrounding what many people consider to be one of the possible focuses of the game in terms of its story—the Sheikah tribe. The Sheikah have always been shrouded in mystery ever since the tribe’s debut in Ocarina of Time with Impa, and, if he counts, Sheik, though his existence is little more than a cover story for Zelda as a way to hide from Ganondorf. From the events in Ocarina of Time, we gather that the Sheikah are charged with guarding the Royal Family from danger, and that the village of Kakariko used to be a Sheikah-only settlement, until Impa opened it to the public, as mentioned,
“This village used to be a Sheikah village, but the great Impa opened it to everyone.” - Guard outside of Impa's former house
Despite this fact, if one looks around Kakariko and the rest of Hyrule in Ocarina of Time, Impa is the only one of her tribe to be seen. The near extinction of this people group is a trend that continues across many of the Zelda titles to acknowledge the existence of the Sheikah tribe, with Impa usually being the only remaining attendant to the Royal Family. So, what could have caused the dwindling number of the Sheikah? Some speculate that the mysterious tribe turned against the Royal Family at some point in Hyrule’s history and were banished to a different realm as a result.
However, it could be that the Sheikah are not only responsible for keeping watch of Princess Zelda and the Royal Family, given the Royal Family’s lineage. It is possible that there could be a hidden network of the Sheikah tribe, charged with keeping Hyrule’s secrets and developing new technology. Impa is the only Sheikah we see, following this logic, because she is the figurehead of the operation. Throughout many Zelda titles, we see various bits of technology scattered throughout Hyrule that bear the recognizable Sheikah symbol of the eye with a tear coming from it. In Ocarina of Time, the Lens of Truth, the Gossip Stones, and the Mask of Truth give evidence to this fact. In Twilight Princess, the Howling Stones bear the mark, and Skyward Sword’s Time Shift Stones have an elaborate Sheikah symbol on them.
In Breath of the Wild, we see some of the theoretical network potentially coming to light. There are Sheikah monks in shrines who await the arrival of Link—the one who can pass their tests and be deemed worthy of saving Hyrule. Link is also granted use of the mysteriously advanced Sheikah Slate.
This evidence of highly prevalent Sheikah technology in various forms throughout the Zelda series seems to indicate that the technology may not be entirely “lost” to Hyrule or Hylians/Hyrulians as much as it is misunderstood. After all, if the Royal Family did commission new technology to be made, it is likely such things would be kept secret from the general public and/or passed off as “magic” depending on the time period of Hyrule’s existence within a particular Zelda title.
Take the Composer Brothers from Ocarina of Time, for example. While they might have been Sheikah, since they were buried in the Graveyard, they created a song that gave power over Hyrule’s day/night cycle, and were charged to study the Royal Family, as seen here,
“All the people in this village are born to serve the Royal Family of Hyrule. We brothers also served the Royal Family, and were assigned to study the mystic hereditary powers of the family. Though we never could figure out the power of the Triforce, we had almost completed our study of controlling time with tones of ocarinas.” - Sharp
It would be understandable that even the Royal Family’s composers would want to hide such a power from the enemy of the kingdom. In fact, both Sharp and Flat lament that their names will not be present in Hyrule’s history because they died to protect their research.
Likewise, within The Wind Waker, the King of Hyrule admits to creating the mysterious stone that allows Tetra to watch Link’s actions and communicate with him through it,
“That stone is an enhanced version of the Gossip Stones long spoken of in the legends of the Hyrulian Royal Family. I am the one who made it.” - King Daphnes Nohansen Hyrule
While the King says he crafted it himself, it is just as likely, given his royal position, that he had a Sheikah create the stone for him in a time of need—namely the destruction of Hyrule and the evacuation of his daughter Zelda, who, through her line, would eventually birth Tetra. In this circumstance, it would be logical for a father to want to remain with his daughter and her descendants for as long as he could through the use of Sheikah technology.
Through these instances of technology, one can logically conclude that the Royal Family knows that their technological advancement could be turned against the people of the land. Perhaps in their trial and error, the Sheikah came to be known as the Shadow Folk through their experiments and knowledge of Hyrule’s “bloody history of greed and hatred” mentioned in the Shadow Temple in Ocarina of Time. The Shadow Temple, above the Graveyard of Kakariko Village—formerly a Sheikah Village—would be the perfect place for the Royal Family’s less than reputable orders to be carried out. It’s possible that the Shadow Temple marks not only war, torture, and destruction, but also signifies the times when the Sheikah—the ones lurking behind Hyrule’s advances through the years—failed.
It’s possible that their technology, or some of it, malfunctioned and killed ones that the Sheikah swore to protect. Faced with the grief and shame of their actions, it is probable that the Sheikah would then have been forced to hide even further in the shadows and appoint a figurehead or go between for them and the Royal Family’s orders. Who better to accomplish this than the Princess’s attendant, Impa, who was most likely freed from a sense of shame and guilt because of the legacy her name implies.
Of course, we won’t have answers to any of this theory until Nintendo decides to divulge more information on the Sheikah tribe, which might be happening within Breath of the Wild’s story.