I have a story to tell, a story about freedom, and a wild society we call the Sentineli. In an age of big craziness, they inspire pleasant daydreams. It’s almost impossible for me to imagine how perfectly free they are, or to comprehend just how far modern society has drifted from the freedom enjoyed by my wild ancestors.
The Andaman archipelago lies in the Bay of Bengal. These tropical islands are part of India. North Sentinel Island is inhabited by the Sentineli, a society of negrito pygmies who have short stature, dark skin tone, and peppercorn hair. Outsiders can sometimes view them from offshore boats, or from helicopters, but the Sentineli want nothing to do with outsiders. Intruders who get too close are showered with arrows, rocks, and rude comments.
North Sentinel Island is 14,700 acres (5,949 ha), a bit smaller than Manhattan. The interior is forest, surrounded by sandy beaches, surrounded by reefs. [Aerial photo] Treacherous currents make landing on the island impossible for ten months of the year, and extremely dangerous for the other two. The island has neither valuable timber nor minerals. For these reasons, the Sentineli are still free people in the twenty-first century. Unlike the societies on nearby islands that have been ravaged by the diseases of civilization, the Sentineli are “clearly extremely alert, healthy, and thriving.”
Flyovers have noted the existence of several villages with clusters of small huts. No evidence of agriculture has been observed. There may be 50 Sentineli, or 500, nobody knows. They survive by foraging, fishing, and gathering shellfish. They may also hunt for turtles, birds, and yummy invertebrates. Their small canoes are used in the lagoons, but not for open-sea travel. They fish with spears and nets.
Long ago, two expeditions were able to land on North Sentinel. They brought along folks from a nearby island to serve as translators. In the brief and hostile meetings, the Sentineli spoke a language that the translators did not understand. Obviously, they have been living in isolation for a long time. They may very well be descendants of the folks who first settled in the Andaman Islands 60,000 years ago. North Sentinel Island is a time capsule, the Sentineli still live like humans during the warm interglacial before the last ice age.
In 1974, National Geographic sent an expedition to film the Sentineli. The director was promptly hit in the leg with an arrow, and immediately lost interest in the project. In 2004, when a ferocious tsunami rocked the lives of tens of millions in the region, the Sentineli made it to high ground and survived. Some believe that they have a sixth sense, because of their elevated sensitivity to the winds and waves. In 2006, rogue fishermen got too close, and two were killed. A helicopter sent to fetch their bodies was driven away.
Between 1967 and 1996, a number of contact expeditions were attempted, for the purpose of anthropological research. Anthropologists are highly educated scientists. They were certainly aware that successfully making contact would have exposed the natives to deadly diseases for which they had no immunity. Like modern missionaries in the Amazon, they didn’t care if making contact would result in numerous deaths. On the bright side, anthropologists actually had sufficient intelligence to understand the strong message being sent via volleys of arrows and rocks.
In 1996, the Indian government banned further contact expeditions, for any reason, in order to protect the natives from disease. The natives were clearly not begging to join civilization and enjoy the pleasures of shopping, taxpaying, cell phone addiction, and wage slavery. So, the Sentineli enjoy complete separation from the modern world. In an amazing demonstration of respect, wise leaders decided to leave these people alone, and allow them to live in wildness and freedom (unlike the other 1.3 billion Indians).
Imagine what it would be like to live in a society that was not at war with the planet and the future — a genuinely sustainable way of life, a tropical culture with a year round supply of food, where your wardrobe consisted of a g-string, headband, and a couple leaves. Imagine a life without money, clocks, calendars, automobiles, airplanes, sirens, internet, locks, fences, bosses, salesman, presidents, police, classrooms, guns, dogs, nuclear weapons, taxes, racism, billionaires, and intolerant proselytizing religions. Imagine a paradise where the diseases of civilization were unknown.
Contemplate the enormous load of information stored in your brain, accumulated during a lifetime of existing in a highly complex society, and your constant struggle to keep pace with competitors in the endless race for status, wealth, and power. Imagine being blissfully unaware of absolutely everything happening in the outside world — and the entire outside world knowing almost nothing about your society. Imagine having a healthy, simple, sane life — living in a manner very much like your ancestors did 15,000 years ago.
Imagine living on an island where there were no strangers, where the soundtrack was waves, birds, breezes, and the voices of your friends and family. We weren’t meant to live like consumers. There are better paths.
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