Tuesday, April 06, 2010

We Don't Even Have to Kill Our Children

Photo: unusualimage, Flickr Creative Commons

I spent a bit of my free time last week reading about the Sentinelese, a largely uncontacted group on North Sentinel Island in the Andaman archipelago in the Bay of Bengal. The Island is technically a part of India, but because it is so remote and fairly small, it wasn't overrun by the British and mainland Indians. More specifically, it hasn't been settled by outsiders at all. The Sentinelese guarded their territory violently and by the time Indian researchers got close enough to give the locals coconuts without being stuck full of arrows, the rest of the world basically decided it would be best to just leave them alone. They didn't really want anything from us but our coconuts and red plastic buckets anyway.

Seriously, don't even think about giving them something green. They throw that shit back in the ocean. No one knows why they seem to love red and hate green, or why they're significantly taller than the other groups that were native to the Andamans, or even what type of language they speak. I just know that it fascinates me that there are stone age societies like this out there at the same time we send people into space and land robots on other planets.

Now, I'm not going to be such a cultural relativist here to suggest that these groups are better off than Westerners like me. I'm not even going to suggest that they're just as well off. I don't have to worry that the weather will lead to my or my child's starvation. I wouldn't have had to consider infanticide had my wife become pregnant before Little Gandhi was old enough to make another child a healthy option.

I do know that groups like the Sentinelese are better off as they are than they would be considering their alternatives. Hunter-gatherers tend to be fairly well fed compared to their counterparts on the bottom rungs of the poorer agricultural and industrial cultures living in the same regions, and it's not like if the Sentinelese suddenly joined mainstream Indian society that they'd instantly jump into the middle class. No, they'd probably spend generations where the majority of them were the beggars and whores and marginally employed like the rest of the Andaman Islanders became after assimilation. The adults in these cultures have the skills to thrive as hunter-gatherers but not in societies like ours. Their children would learn, but one's future is largely tied to that of one's parents even in places like the US where it's so much more affordable to become educated and highly skilled.

Of course, as interesting as this topic may be, it may be more interesting that I spent three days trying to write something on this topic in a way that I wasn't just indulging myself. I'm not an expert. I'm an armchair anthropologist. No one will (or should) use this post as a reliable resource on the Sentinelese and yet so much of it is just facts. Even if I did have a grand point to this post, it wouldn't mean much considering my status and piddling readership. I've offered no themes practical to anyone with the reading level and internet access to reach them.

If you can't tell, I eventually decided to just run with my own fascination when I couldn't figure out a way to make this post worth reading to anyone who wasn't interested in this topic for the sake of the topic. At least it's is a lot shorter and less dry than the first three incarnations.


Julie said...

It would have been funier if you had thrown out random ideas as to why they only like red. I think it's because they have cataracts that make non-red items appear like fire and they're afraid of being burned.

Jacob said...

The men actually waggle their penises at others in a friendly greeting. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that redness in the area of one's genitals often means sexy time while green in those areas are often bad news bears.

Courtney said...

I was going to agree that everyone should stop deciding how other people would be "better off" and let them be, but then I read your comment on green genitals and now I'm grossed out.

Chris said...

As you said, it's almost unbelievable that groups like this still exist.

Shame their friendly waggle has never had the chance to catch on as a greeting in mainstream culture.

A Free Man said...

I love this sort of stuff, an armchair anthropologist as well. It's kind of a moot debate as to who's better off. If we all of a sudden became hunter gatherers we'd be in as much trouble as if they were suddenly integrated into modern Indian society. Just too much of a gap.

Reading one of the descriptions of contact reminds me of Margaret Atwood's last couple of books. If you've not read them (Oryx and Crake' and 'The Year of the Flood') they're really very good. But she's imagined a post-apocalyptic race whose behavior reminds me of the Sentinelese.

Jacob said...

AFM, although there's no real pressure to turn the majority of us into hunter-gatherers. There are a lot of people who would try to modernize the Sentinelese in the name of charity and/or religion. In fact, there's at least one evangelical church that lists the Sentinelese (along with Jews and the Gays of San Francisco) as unreached populations.

If we did suddenly start a mass return to hunter-gatherer societies, at least 90 percent of us would be dead by the end of the year. There's no way that nature supports our population without our agriculture.

The books sound interesting. I may have to check those out. I've never heard of the author or the books.

Eli Symonette said...

The sentinelese could be guarding something. Perhaps they are so hostile because they are guardians