Monday, February 13, 2006

Survival comes first for the last Stone Age tribe world

The fascinating story of what may be the only tribe in the world that lives in complete isolation from the modern world. (From the UK Observer). And they defend their isolation violently.
Describing the Sentinelese tribe of India's remote Andaman islands in his travel journals, the notoriously trite 13th-century explorer Marco Polo wrote: 'They are a most violent and cruel generation who seem to eat everybody they catch.'

While their cannibalism has never been proven, little has changed here in the remotest parts of the Bay of Bengal over seven centuries and Delhi's furthest-flung outpost is still occupied by aggressive 'stone-age' tribes who hunt wild pigs and fish with arrows, believe that birds talk to spirits, and lack both the skills to make fire and a word to describe a number greater than two.

Having survived occupations of the islands by the Burmese, the British and the Japanese and most recently a tsunami which took the lives of almost 2,000 other islanders in the archipelago, the elusive Sentinelese remain one of the most enigmatic peoples on earth - but today the very existence of the tribe may be under threat, and not because of the encroachment of the rest of the world.

The remarkable story behind the murders of Indian fishermen Sunder Raj, 48, and Pandit Tiwari, 52, sounds like a chapter from a Joseph Conrad novel, but it happened here in the Andamans late last month. The two men were killed by loin-clothed Sentinelese warriors on 27 January, after their boat accidentally drifted on to the shore of North Sentinel Island, a tiny outcrop in the Indian Ocean.

Other fishermen, who witnessed the attack from the water, described how the pair, believed to be drunk on palm wine, died after they were attacked by near-naked axe-wielding tribal warriors when their craft beached on the island, a preservation area strictly out of bounds to the outside world.

An Indian coastguard helicopter, sent out to investigate, was attacked with bows and arrows by the same tribal warriors, leaving the pilot under no illusions as to the safety of landing. The fishermen's macheted bodies were exposed in their shallow graves when the down-draught from the chopper's rotor blades blew away the sand. One of the crew later remarked to police that he was surprised to see bodies. 'I thought they roasted and ate their victims,' he said.
Some of the victims' families are calling for justice, but one thinks his son got what he deserved for breaking the law. The local authorities will not interfere, both because there is no way really to talk to the tribe (without armed conquest, basically), and because international groups would decry any interference in their life. There's also great scientific interest in the tribe.
Anthropologists separate the indigenous tribes living on the archipelago into two groups. It's thought that those living on the Nicobar islands - the Shompen and Nicobaris - are of Asian descent, while the four surviving Andaman tribes - the Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa and the Sentinelese - all originated in Africa, a fact that makes their survival all the more remarkable.

The most reclusive of all are the Sentinelese, who have violently rebuffed all approaches from the outside world. According to a recent study of the tribes carried out by a team of biologists at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, the indigenous islanders, often described by anthropologists as 'pygmies', may actually represent the first Asians - an early wave of 'out of Africa', who reached the Far East more than 40,000 years ago and have since evolved separately from most of the other native people of Asia, the South Seas and Australia.

The scientific team's findings, based on DNA samples, fit into an ongoing debate about how and when the hominids who evolved in Africa to become Homo sapiens moved out into the Middle East, Asia and the rest of the world. One relatively new idea is that beaches exposed by low sea level provided a useful pathway, and the oceans supplied reliable food, allowing these humans to migrate easily.

The 'Stone Age' moniker, so regularly applied to the islanders, refers to the fact that the Sentinelese have lived in isolation for 60,000 years: genetically, therefore, there is a direct line between them and their pre-Neolithic ancestors. Unlike real Stone Age tribes, though, they probably use metal salvaged from shipwrecks, although their hostility to outside incursions means nobody has properly studied the question.
Read the whole thing!

I couldn't help but think of End of the Spear. Christian missionaries have had no success here at all. And one thinks of the Naga headhunters of northeast India, who were successfully Christianized in the 19th century and now form the largest single collection of Baptists in Asia.

All kinds of questions: is it acceptable for a "stone age" tribe to get away with murder? Is their isolation from the modern world justifiable, even if it be on romantic ("oh cool savages, let them not die out. so quaint!") or scientific ("hey we can test various evolutionary theories here!") grounds? Does the state (in this case the Indian state) simply let them be, since they're isolated, and do not attack unless provoked, and otherwise do not interfere with the rest of the populace?

And perhaps the most provocative, at least in some circles: would their "Christianization" be a horrible thing? A destruction of their culture? Imperialism?(The descendants of the Naga headhunters don't think their fate was so horrible.)


Jennifer said...

That was a very interesting article that I probably would never have come across my computer screen any other way. Thanks! The following is my two cents...

The tribe should be punished and colonized (am I old-fashioned?). As the mother of a 3 year old and a toddler (who, in their defense, have never killed another living being), I know that "uncivilized" human beings will do whatever they're allowed to get away with as often as they like. It takes a lot of work and pain and suffering to help people grow into proper adults. I will probably be considered politically incorrect for saying so, but killing other humans because they're boat accidentally came ashore on your island sounds like pre-school/toddler mentality. Get rid of the person impeding the world of "mine!". I'm sure that it doesn't happen all that often, but the next unlucky souls to come to that island will meet the same fate if nothing is done. Like it or not, we all have to live and play together nicely on this planet. You can isolate yourself from society as much as you'd like, but it doesn't change those facts. If anyone or any other group were to isolate themselves today and kill any and all intruders, there would be global outrage - and rightly so.

Gashwin said...

Not sure if pre-school/toddler is the best description or just a closed worldview that views anything on the outside as entirely hostile. Almost as if they were not part of the human race, as if they're aliens, or another species.

The difference with any other group of course is that these haven't chosen to isolate themselves. They've been here for millenia, and have defended their isolation violently. They're lucky in one sense, that previous attempts at outreach/mission/colonization basically weren't successful, and the Brits and then the Indians, have left them alone.

Would it be justifiable to launch basically a police or military style offensive, in order to subjugate this tribe, when many innocent lives would be lost in the process?

What of the fact that previous attempts at contact have lead to disease? That in many cases, societies such as these that are brought into the modern world are also decimated by alcoholism and other addictions -- signs of an inability to adjust (the article mentions the Great Andamans tribe which has only 41 members left).

They're not aggressive -- that would be a different situation. They defend their territory. Also, the others in the area know this to be the case --- the ones who were killed were poachers, who took a risk.

Again, this doesn't justify the response, for sure. It just qualifies it a bit maybe?

I guess the way I view this is: do we view these as human beings who need to be brought into the "real world" or as a dangerous kind of animal that should be left in isolation?

It's a tough one.

coray said...

I don't see this as a "civilization" thing or a "culture" thing. If a group of people makes it clear they just want to be left alone, especially through violence, you erect a bunch of warning signs and buoys (maybe a small fence?) and then leave them alone. If anyone crosses the boundary they have given consent.

Gashwin said...

I guess that's what I was trying to convey with the "dangerous animal" analogy. You put it better. :)

Now, a completely separate question. What of the Gospel mandate to evangelize all peoples [Since these are not, in fact, animals]?

Gashwin said...

PS: And there's no need for a fence in this case. They have their own island.

Now, what happens say if there is a shipwreck on the island? Or a planecrash (shades of "Lost")? Survivors will get hacked and possibly eaten?

Ok, 'nuff hypotheticals already ...

coray said...

The world is in enough flux that proper occasions for evangelization should arise on their own. I suppose one of your hypotheticals could manufacture the opportunity, as long as we haven't exhausted our credibility trying to draw them out. You can't apply too much force if what you're interested in are their hearts and minds.

Assuming Islam doesn't get there first. They seem much less worried about disturbing the peace.

Jennifer said...

Those are all good points. There are too many variables to make an instant judgement. It would make for a very intersting short story or novel. I wonder how this tribe treats its own? Do they have any form of religion or spirituality? If so, what's that like? Would there ever be any circumstance where an "intruder" would not be killed? What if a tiny baby were found washed up on the beach like Moses? Has anyone ever tried to leave the tribe? Assuming success in that area, could they pick up another language, social skills, etc... Would this person's lot be to end up in a side show somewhere? Who knows. It is kind of interesting to even know a society like this still exists in the modern times. Like I said, it could make for an interesting story - and a story is all it will probably ever be. It's not like a sociologist is going to be allowed to watch them from the trees.

assiniboine said...

I trust my silence has been noted. It is a considered editorial commentary on what has gone before.