TCS Daily

Islands in the Universe

By Kenneth Silber - January 5, 2005 12:00 AM

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands of the Indian Ocean are among the most isolated places on Earth, and their inhabitants include several aboriginal tribes that have varying degrees of interaction with the outside world. In the aftermath of the tsunami, which swept across and even reshaped the islands, there was pressing concern about the fate of these tribes.

It was an odd bit of good news, therefore, when an Indian coast guard helicopter that was delivering aid in the islands recently came under attack. The attackers were of the Sentinelese tribe, the most isolated of the aboriginal groups, who used bows and arrows to ward off the helicopter. The reason this is good news is that it showed that the Sentinelese, who number only in the dozens, had survived. Moreover, they evidently were well enough to maintain their usual practice of rejecting approaches by outsiders.

In general, the primitive tribes of the islands seem to have weathered the tsunami better than expected. There are reports that they moved to higher ground before the wave hit. This has even led to some speculation that the tribes possess a paranormal "remote viewing" capability, such that they could see the wave approaching beyond human eyesight. A more prosaic, but still intriguing, explanation is that they followed the movements of birds and wildlife that fled in response to tremors or other environmental cues.

The Sentinelese are a hunter-gatherer people who wear no clothing, do not plant crops, and have minimal use of fire. Other tribes in the Andaman and Nicobar islands that have, or are in transition from, pre-modern modes of existence include the Jarawas, Onges, and Shom Pens. The populations and territories of the tribes have long been under pressure; the British brought new diseases in the 19th century, Japan invaded in World War II, and India (which governs the islands) has sent numerous settlers and refugees in recent decades.

I am not one to romanticize a primitive existence, and would not trade my life as a Manhattan apartment-dweller for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in 10,000 years. Nonetheless, there is a great deal that will be lost if and when the last of Earth's primitive tribes merge into the broader society around them (or, more darkly, just cease to exist). Their intimate local knowledge of their environments (which seems to have been crucial in surviving the tsunami) is a valuable but perishable good. Their languages (such as the Sentinelese language, known to no outsider) might offer insights into the evolution of language.

It might seem that the tribal islanders are merely an anachronism, a vestige of millennia past. However, in some ways, they might also be representative of the future, especially if one takes a long view. It is often argued that globalization is bringing about cultural homogeneity; indeed, that is what many of its critics hate about it. But technology and market economics, the drivers of globalization, often have consequences in the opposite direction, opening up niches that did not exist before. For better and sometimes worse, they give people opportunities to live differently from others.

In the longer run, people might engage in physical migrations in some ways reminiscent of those that reached far-flung ocean islands millennia ago. Space colonization, much like the early movements of humanity, will involve traveling over vast distances, often without plans to return. It will also involve splitting off to different destinations and then going it alone for long periods of time. Our descendants may feel they have a considerable amount in common with the tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.


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