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.'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.
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.
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.Read the whole thing!
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.
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.)