The Sentinelese stand guard on their island's beach. Most contact with the tribe has been made from boats sitting just outside arrow range. Photo: Christian Caron / Creative Commons
The Sentinelese stand guard on their island's beach. Most contact with the tribe has been made from boats sitting just outside arrow range. Photo: Christian Caron / Creative Commons

Missing American John Chau, presumed dead, fetched an unwanted but fascinating global spotlight for the Sentinelese, a prehistoric tribe inhabiting North Sentinel Island in India’s Andaman archipelago.

In November, Chau had bribed local fishermen to sneak him on to the Sentinel island of mystery in the Bay of Bengal – forbidden territory that the Indian government has made off-limits to the world. He did not return.

As the world’s most isolated tribe, the Sentinelese refuse contact with the rest of humanity; they usually greet visitors with arrows shot from primeval bows. An arrow might have ended Chau’s life.

The violently reclusive 55,000-year old Sentinelese in a way prompt the 21st-century world to re-explore the word “civilization,” and hidden angles to it.

Our ancestors 55,000 years ago may have lived like the Sentinelese now. Human brilliance across millennia propelled our species into quantum leaps of progress, from the Industrial Age to the Internet Age, to satellites shooting off to space like technology-raining confetti of our times. Are tribes like the Sentinelese unfortunate or fortunate, to have the missed this march of technological time?

North Bay Island in India’s remote Andaman archipelago, 59km from North Sentinel island, home to the Sentinelese for 55,000 years.

The Sentinelese shot a time-freezing arrow at civilization’s ticking clock. They inhabit another world in our world, without our mundane needs and joys: They travel through life without trains and cars; have no electricity, Internet, cellphones. No craving for a hot coffee, a cheese-oozing pizza. No Diwali or Christmas holidays. If Santa Claus visits them, his merry “Ho Ho Ho” might end with arrows pursuing his reindeer sleigh.

What will life on Earth be during a Christmas season 55,000 years from now, in the year 57,018? Will the Sentinelese lifestyle be as it is now, more or less as it was in 53,000 BC?

Great empires have arisen and passed them by, like the ocean waves fleetingly touching their fiercely protected island of isolation.

The missing civilization

Anthropologists say the Sentinelese look healthy and strong, while we breathe toxic air in the irony of polluted progress. While the Sentinelese live hale and hearty in India’s far-flung Andaman isles, the capital New Delhi chokes with lung-disease-inducing smog. A recent study attributes one in eight deaths in India to pollution.

So, who is uncivilized: primitive tribals living in harmony with nature, or those poisoning the planet, waging wars, killing animals for sport, indulging in all manner of perversions against laws of nature?

Why not simply enjoy a technology-enriched civilization without self-destruction and harming others?

Survival International, a movement to protect ancient tribes, explains how “primitive” people are vulnerable to diseases of civilization: “When the Brazilian-Indian agency FUNAI were conducting ‘first contact’ expeditions in the 1970s and 1980s, they had specialist doctors with them. Even they could not prevent widespread death from disease (to isolated tribes), and the expeditions were abandoned.”

“When you talk about fruits of human progress, what makes you think the Sentinelese and other tribes are backward?” asked Dr Madhumala Chattopadhyay, an anthropologist whose team on January 4, 1991, had the last non-hostile contact with the Sentinelese.

“They may not have the luxuries and technology, but they are not uncivilized,” she told The Times of India on December 4. “They understand nature better than us.”

The Sentinelese anticipated the tsunami of 2004, and moved to higher ground.

Having no hidden gold, oilfields, or continental land too helped them escape invading hordes of “civilization”, and the fate of the Incas and more than 500 North American “Indian” tribes like the Sioux, Navajo, Cheyenne and Cherokee.

I don’t envy the Sentinelese, but they don’t envy our lives, either.

In the year 2018, the Sentinelese have no matchboxes to start a fire, but they live as lords of their jungle. But unlike King Louie in the unforgettable 1967 classic Jungle Book, they do not “want to be like you, walk like you,” not even hankering for the secret of fire. Their survival with bare necessities asks a question across time: Have we over-complicated our lives?

We cannot reset civilization from 55,000 years ago, but it is never too late to use the present – the precious now – to correct mistakes of the past for a better future.

I can’t change the world, but I can work hard to change myself to be a more civilized being. Reinventing life needs introspective solitude, meditative penance, and taking periodic timeouts far from the madding crowd.

Raja Murthy

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who has contributed to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, and others. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.

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