The field of anthropology has a long held fascination with so called ‘stone age’ modern people and most especially with uncontacted hunter-gatherers. It is believed that hunter-gatherers provide us with a window into our own distant pasts, showing us who we were before the advent of agriculture or use of metals. I’m an archaeologist who is currently studying early human evolution and hunter-gatherer research at Masters level, and as you can imagine it is very much the moral and ethical minefield. In my own opinion, modern day hunter-gatherers have modern day adaptations: their culture and their technology are as modern as our own, just designed for a different economy. Their economy is the only true analogy: a full dependence of wild resources and this is now becoming rarer to find as hunter-gatherer groups become increasingly impacted by industrialised people. For example, the use of knapped stone tools is now almost unheard of as hunter-gatherers trade their resources with local agriculturalists for metal.
We now have a situation of there being left on our planet only the smallest number of uncontacted hunter-gatherer people, who largely exist under complete shielding from the outside world. These legal shields are put in place by industrialised people for a number of reasons: protection from disease (uncontacted peoples will have scant immunity to modern day diseases), science (to avoid genetic contamination from the outside world) and heritage (to preserve their unique cultures and technologies). The concerns about infection are common sense and important but the scientific and human heritage reasons are less easy to justify, because estrangement from the outside world is also an estrangement from modern healthcare, rights and education.
I will now take you to the Andaman Islands: a very important region for uncontacted people. This is an archipelago of islands in the Bay of Bengal, of the Indian Ocean, long known for its reclusive and aggressive hunter-gatherers. The western region of Andoman Island is the home of the Jarawa forest people who have lived here for thousands of years. They have existed uncontacted and have been known to be aggressive until recently, when due to loss of forest they began to emerge in need of food. This encroachment was mainly due to the construction of the Great Andaman trunk road. An outpost is now in place where they can access food and medicine, and they also have begun to exchange goods at local markets. However, at the same time, legal restrictions are in place to protect their remaining territory but in terms of immunity they are still very vulnerable. Of around 4 tribes, the Jarawa are now the only surviving indigenous culture on Andoman island and the Indian government’s approach has been described as an excellent model in indigenous rights. I would agree that here a good balance has been met: the encroachment on their land was investigated and all further encroachment stopped. Any decision about contact must be from the Jarawa.
Off the west coast of the Andoman island lies Sentinel Island, upon which live one of the planet’s most uncontacted people, possibly uncontacted for as long as 50,000 years and therefore potentially representing the first wave of modern Homo sapiens to leave Africa, destined eventually for Australia. Reports from antiquity describe the aggressive and uncontactable nature of these people, supporting ideas of prolonged isolation.
They met the public eye after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which swept over the island, causing unknown harm to this community. Anthropologists flew over the island in a helicopter to assess their safety and needs and were attacked to the extent that any aid attempts had to be abandoned. Images of the Sentinelese firing arrows at the helicopter met the world press creating a striking image of an aggressive people who did not wish to be disturbed. It is not known why the Sentinelese are so aggressive but they appear to have been so throughout their known history. In 2006 they killed 2 fishing poachers who strayed too close to the island, burying their bodies in shallow graves on the beach. This has created a difficult problem: the relatives demanded the Indian government return the bodies to them, with the Indian government being unwilling to encroach on the people of the island. Survival International, a major charity that defends indigenous rights, has campaigned in the defence of the Sentinelese in this matter, asking that they remain undisturbed. Attempts to photograph the beach graves from air resulted in aggressive attack from Sentinelese arrows, though the helicopter was able to descend low enough to blow sand from the graves to reveal the remains of the dead fishermen. However, at that point, the evidence mission needed to be abandoned for safety reasons and no more approaches have been made.
It can be said that the Sentinelese have expressed their wish to be left alone, and ethnographically, we can see that, around the world, almost all hunter-gatherers who’s space has been invaded by industrialised people, have suffered terribly. This comes from not only disease, but also human rights abuses including violent attacks. Hunger becomes a problem also as their territories reduce (a small group of hunter-gatherers require an extensive territory in order to access enough calories). However, the greatest harm appears to come from the loss of a lifeway: of their heritage, culture and adaptations. In situations where hunter-gatherers lose their land, they often then rely on government donations and integration programs. In peoples subjected to such extreme changes, alcohol dependency, poverty and mental health problems reach high levels. Therefore there can be good arguments for protecting uncontacted people such as the Sentinelese from the outside world, and allowing them to continue their unique lifeways undisturbed.
However, we must also consider that fears and aversion based on occult beliefs and superstitions do not necessarily constitute informed consent with regards to the Sentinelese self-enforced isolation. Also, by being isolated, certain articles of the UN convention of human rights are contravened for the people in their community. These are:
Article 25: the right to modern healthcare
Article 13: the right to freedom of movement
Article 16 (2): the right to consent in marriage (females are often coerced into marriage in hunter-gatherer groups, as in many other societies. For example, in the otherwise extremely peaceful Mbuti people of the Ituri forest, Africa, girls on menarge may be beaten by relatives into a marriage.)
Article 5: torture. The use of torture in rites of passage are well documented, from circumcision of girls to ceremonies for boys. In the Lese people of Congo, boys aged from 8-11 are circumcised without healthcare by a masked shaman, and then confined and tortured for a number of weeks.
We therefore have to remember that uncontacted tribes may not be existing in a romantic idyll. Their opportunities in life will likely be highly restricted and policed by their immediate communities and females may be at particular risk of exploitation and abuse.
So what should we do?
I don’t think science and heritage should ever provide justification for isolating communities and I don’t believe that a hunter-gatherer group is a window onto ourselves 40,000 years ago (the time modern human behaviour appears archaeologically). I think they have the right to know about us and our world in an informed way. I believe their lands should be legally protected, but with medical outposts in place, if they wish it. I believe that quarantined anthropologists, if welcomed into their communities, can enhance their lives and ours if their research is ethical. Such recording of their lifeways provides them with heritage for their future while introducing them gently to the outside world. These peoples should not be made to suffer without science-based healthcare, or distressed or oppressed members left without a means to escape. In this way, their lifeways and lands are preserved along with their human rights.
In the 1990s, peaceful contact was made by boat with the Sentinelese. Coconuts were floated out across the water to a group on the beach and they called for more from the boat. The coconuts were gratefully received and no altercation occurred. Transmission of pathogens was minimised.
Survival International is correct that these rare cultures need protection, but we have no excuses for estranging them completely in the name of science or heritage. They are not living fossils, but modern people with unique needs and the right at least to know the world beyond their boundaries. They have the right to know about us, and our antibiotics, insulin, anti-malarial drugs and pain relief. My opinion is that more peaceful contact be made with the Sentinelese, leading to introduction of a quarantined medically trained anthropologist to enlighten all involved, while their lands and culture remain protected.