Why Can’t We Leave the Sentinelese Alone?

There are very few unexplored places left on this planet, unless you count the bottom of the Marianas Trench, which is about 36,000 feet under the sea. But even in that unwelcoming environment, scientists keep trying to make inroads to find out what’s down there. We just can’t seem to stay way.

I get that desire to discover, to learn, to broaden one’s horizons against all odds, to answer those unanswered questions. I really do. And in most instances, I say go for it. Curiosity is one of my favorite human qualities. However, I make one exception: I genuinely believe that uncontacted people should be left alone, unless, of course, they make the first move.

The people from North Sentinel Island, way out in the Indian Ocean, have been left to their own devices for at least 60,000 years. They have not developed past the stone age, and have rebuffed all attempts to contact them. They shoot arrows at approaching boats and planes. They turn their backs. They shout aggressively. More than once, they have killed those who have deigned to trespass. As far as I’m concerned, that’s pretty much all we need to know. These people want to be left alone. So let’s leave them alone.

Fortunately, the government of India currently agrees with this philosophy. It is illegal to get within 3 miles of this island. This has not always been the case, but it is now. Why isn’t that good enough? Why can’t we just let these people be?

Most recently, just last month, an American missionary, John Allen Chau, decided that these people need to be converted to Christianity. The arrogance. The nerve. How dare any of us think that we know what’s best for an entire group of people who have never asked for our opinion? How dare we launch what amounts to a religious missile into their midst, knowing full well it would change their entire culture forever?

Not only is it foolhardy to approach an isolated group that has no immunity to our diseases, but it’s criminal to barge uninvited into a land that they’ve occupied for thousands upon thousands of years. Have we learned absolutely nothing from history?

Chau was promptly killed by the Sentinelese, as he stood there spewing his scripture at them in a language they did not understand and do not care to know. His body will never be recovered. Its mere presence there, with its unknown disease vectors, may cause the death of the last uncontacted people on earth.

In the past 130 years, this island has been invaded by the outside world at least a half dozen times. One time, by a group from the National Geographic. Whether their intentions were good or not, these contacts have never ended well. Not once.

We know virtually nothing about these people. We’re not even sure if they number 15 or 500. No one knows their language. There’s even strong debate as to whether they are capable of making fire. But one thing is clear: They want no part of us. So let’s leave them in peace. Our curiosity does not trump their right to live their lives as they see fit.

Sentinelese

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