Only here is man an island
For most of us, defining our culture through isolation from others would be a heavy burden. Almost all cultures share and derive customs and traditions from exchanges with other peoples and places. But the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal consider that being alone and away from civilisation is far better for their tribe. Isolation has made them one of the most distinct peoples in the world.
The stone-age way of life on their island of 60 square kilometres is far from the luxury and glamour of most "civilised" peoples. They lack not only technology but also the modern standards of diplomacy and decorum that are becoming more universal with time. Accounts of the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island come from the few successful encounters they have had with outsiders. Religious missions and all attempts at permanent contact have failed. Most of the time, the Sentinelese have welcomed unknown visitors by firing arrows or brandishing axes.
The Sentinelese are part of the Andamanese people who live in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, an archipelago that stretches south into the Indian Ocean. In appearance, they resemble pygmies and do not usually wear clothes. Short in stature, rarely reaching five feet tall, they have frizzy hair and dark skin. Tribes on the islands live an ancient, nomadic lifestyle. The Sentinelese spend their lives gathering food from the forest and the sea with spears and other weapons. No sign of agricultural development on the island has been recorded. They are, in fact, a window into humanity's ancient, hunter-gatherer past.
From the few fleeting contacts that have been made with the Sentinelese, scientists assume that they do not have any knowledge of the outside world. Both the British colonial rulers of India and the Japanese military during the Second World War recorded accounts of confrontations with the wary Sentinelese. Notes from British officials describe disease among the tribe brought on by their contact with the British. In the 1940s, Japanese troops killed many members of the tribe in an attempt to control all the islands of southeast Asia. How many Sentinelese have survived colonial contact is anyone's guess. There has been no definitive census to document how the population declined or recovered. The population could be as few as 50 people, although most anthropologists put the upper limit at 300.
Remarkably, the Sentinelese survived the December 2004 tsunami that killed more than 100,000 people on the nearby shores of Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Ashish Roy, a lawyer who represents the Sentinelese and tries to protect them from contact with outsiders, told Associated Press at the time that the tribe's acutely developed natural instincts might have saved them. "They can smell the wind. They can gauge the depth of the sea with the sound of their oars. They have a sixth sense which we don't possess," Mr Roy said.
Others have suggested that the lack of concrete structures, automobiles or large metal projectiles may have made it easier for the Sentinelese to survive. When members of the Indian Coast Guard attempted to survey the area for damage after the tsunami had devastated coastlines around the Bay of Bengal, they were met by a Sentinelese man who loosed off an arrow in the direction of their helicopter.
If we consider ourselves civilised, perhaps the civilised thing would be to leave these people alone. While they have no sovereign claim to the land and no known ruler, their presence on the island should be sufficient. Some scientists speculate that details of past contacts with "civilisation" that spread disease and war among the tribesmen may have been passed down through the ages, making them averse to establishing permanent relationships with the outside world today.
Although lacking the niceties of civilisation they have sent the outside world what is possibly the clearest message any people in the world could send: leave us alone. Their actions and gestures tell us more than ambassadors or heads of state from other nations ever could. The people of North Sentinel island may not allow us the contact we would like, and perhaps that's because they have a simpler, perhaps more beautiful vision of life than all that modern progress can offer. Could it be that we need them more than they need us?
Dr Salem Humaid is an Emirati writer and researcher in cultural and anthropological studies based in Dubai.
Updated: July 8, 2008 04:00 AM