I was at my brother’s house, standing in his newly put-together office, trying hard not to covet the enormous, gorgeous new map of the world covering the wall over his desk (also trying hard not to covet the fact that he HAS an office with an honest-to-God door that closes – also, wondering if the wall map would fit in the baby’s diaper bag when I left, and if my brother would miss it), and I learned something extraordinary.
We were gazing at the new map when my brother casually pointed to a little spot in the ocean near Indonesia, and said, “That’s the North Sentinel Islands.” Then he stepped back and said, “The people who live there have never been touched by civilization.”
Oh, how he knows what gets me going.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
My brother, who teaches high school English, assumed his classroom voice and held both of his hands up to make air brackets. He is extremely tall, so when he takes this stance, it’s very dramatic. “There is an indigenous tribe of people living there who have never been contacted by anyone from the outside world,” he said. “Every time outsiders have approached the island by boat, they are driven off. Helicopters have tried to circle overhead, and they are met with a hail of arrows.”
“WHAT?” I squawked. (I tend to squawk when presented with brand-new and intriguing information.)
He leaned over and tapped on his computer, pulling up the Wikipedia page for “North Sentinel Island.” Sure enough, this small island remains a mystery, in the year 2010. It is unknown exactly how many people live there, or what language they speak. They have never interacted with fellow natives on the islands surrounding them. The Indian government made repeated attempts to engage them, before officially giving up in the 1990’s. They are considered to be the most isolated people in the world.
Perhaps I should not admit it, but this information positively floored me. It had never occurred to me that there are pre-historic people still living on this planet.
My brother pulled up a couple of poorly-shot Youtube videos made by researchers who have tried to reach North Sentinel. The first video looks almost fake, with its blurry white beach and dark, stick-figurish natives prancing on the shore, legs akimbo, bows held high. In the second video, the researchers actually crept onto shore and left some gifts, then retreated to their boats and watched as the natives retrieved the offerings. That is as close as anyone has ever come to the North Sentinelese. In 2006 the natives killed a couple of fisherman who got too close to the island and since then, the world has left them alone.
A few days after I learned all of this, I sat on my back patio, reading a memoir called Disturbing the Universe, which was written by a physicist who did work on government nuclear projects in the 1950’s. The more I tried to read about the splitting of the atom and the possibility of interstellar travel, the more my mind kept returning to that little island in the Indian Ocean. I finally leaned back in my chair and listened to the sounds of civilization around me – the drone of a lawn mower, the buzz of a prop plane passing overhead, my air conditioner switching on with a thump – and I thought about the Sentinelese. The same sun warmed their skin and mine, yet our lives might as well be centuries apart. They never hear anything but the dull roar of the ocean, and each other’s voices. They know almost nothing.
As early as 340 B.C., Aristotle hypothesized that the earth was finite, and round; but for all the Sentinelese know, the ocean stretches on forever. They don’t know what an atom is, or a horse, or a paper clip. They don’t know about the Dark Ages, or the Middle Ages, or any of the Ages. They don’t know that World Wars have taken place. They’ve never heard about a man named Christ. The North Sentinelese have missed every single event that has happened outside of their tiny island. Even as I write this, I find it difficult to fathom.
I know that there are millions of people in third-world countries who do not have access to education or technology or medicine, people who don’t know much about history or science. But those individuals have still become a part of the whole – they are still connected to the rest of us, however tenuously. They have still, perhaps, seen a drinking glass or a piece of paper. They are somewhat accessible. The North Sentinelese are not.
Of course, if you really want to tumble down a rabbit-hole, you could pose the question: Are we better off than the Sentinelese? It’s an interesting thought. They have food, and water, and companionship. The “advances” that we take advantage of are not needed for survival. Of course, all of our technologies do make life easier – um, until they don’t.
Ultimately, I would choose my life over theirs, simply because I am a knowledge junkie. I have a curious streak as long as our galaxy. The more I learn, the more I want to learn. If, at its core, civilization is nothing more than knowledge, then I will stay on the side of civilization.
Every now and again, though, I still think about those North Sentinelese, and I wish I could drop them a line. They wouldn’t believe what we’ve been up to…