Sunday (Social?) Science: Secretive Sentinelese

Christmas is one big hustle. Then there’s New Year, where TV brings live images of people celebrating all around the world over a 24 hour period. It’s hard to imagine a place where this all passes by without even the slightest awareness of what’s going on in the world. Imagine no further: the place exists, and the people who live there are the Sentinelese.

I can’t remember when I stumbled across this story, but it blew me away. The Sentinelese have been living on North Sentinel Island, in the Andaman Islands, for 60 000 years. As they have a very different language even from neighbouring islanders, it’s estimated that they’ve not made outside contact for thousands of years.

The red dot shows where the Andaman Islands are… isolated indeed!

The Sentinelese are typically very hostile to outsiders, firing arrows at boats and helicopters that come near the island. There’s only been a small number of ‘friendly’ encounters, despite repeated attempts from the 1970’s to 1990s to reach out with gifts such as fish and coconuts.

The Indian government abandoned attempts to make contact with the tribe, and now discourage others from doing so. While there’s dozens of other uncontacted peoples around the world – especially in Brazil – the Sentinelese are, for my money, the most likely to remain that way. They’ve got their own slice of paradise, a tropical island which they can guard ferociously. Similar tribes on mainland regions will be hard pressed to avoid the inevitable expansion of human civilisation; some have already been affected by roads built into their territory or governments seeking them out for relocation.

Scientists who study such tribes must face a terrible conundrum. Getting close to, and interacting with, such tribes provides great insight into features of humanity such as language, relationships, genetics and general history. However, any contact runs the risk of spreading infectious disease to the isolated population, or irreversibly changing the very culture to be studied.

A palm fringed tropical beach in the Whitsundays… bliss…

I wish them all the best. They have a life without electricity, without conventional medicine, without all the tools and trappings we take for granted – but they have a unique, untouched culture, a pristine tropical island, and a blissful ignorance of world affairs. Events such as the global financial crisis are put in perspective when considering the Sentinelese: we have built a system capable of inflicting misery, stress and hardship on millions around the world, but there’s still people out there, living as they always have, with no concept or need for currency exchange, ‘depressions’, sub-prime mortgages and banker bonuses.

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Categories: Science | Tags: , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Sunday (Social?) Science: Secretive Sentinelese

  1. if only we could have the best of both worlds!!

    very interesting story, I had no idea about their existence. something to think about …

  2. peter

    astonishing. it is interesting that these people live a life that many westerners would consider an ideal holiday.

  3. Wow, very interesting post. It’s hard to even imagine that such people still exist. At the same time it’s hard to imagine they don’t. Maybe I just needed to give it more thought. Thanks for sharing! Happy New Year!!

  4. Yes, it sort of makes sense when you think about it, but… it still blows my mind a bit! I think if I was given the choice to ‘life swap’ I’d stay with my current life though…

  5. Wow, and I thought I was antisocial at times! ;-)

    I suppose that if you’ve never known a different life, it would be okay. Like you, I would like to remain in my current one. With all it’s stresses.

    Maybe escaping to a place like that for a period each year might be nice though. It’s basically what we do when we go to the Kalahari – few people; no electronic distractions or phones; a return to nature and slow daily pace dictated by the sun and the weather.

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