When ferocity is a feature, not a bug

The sad story of John Allen Chau, the young self-styled missionary who was killed on North Sentinel Island, has some really strange elements that are coming to the surface. The New York Times has published a piece which reports on extracts of a letter he wrote to his parents describing his motivations and observations when it came to proselytizing among the Sentinelese.

The people Mr. Chau chose for his mission are among the most impenetrable communities in the world, known for their intense hostility to outsiders. They have killed or tried to kill many outsiders who attempted to step on their rugged island 700 miles off India’s mainland, where they are one of the last undiluted hunter and gatherer societies.

The man yelled, and Mr. Chau tried to respond, singing some worship songs and yelling back something in Xhosa, a language he apparently knew a few words of from when he coached soccer in South Africa a few years ago.

In one passage, he asked God if North Sentinel was “Satan’s last stronghold.” In another: “What makes them become this defensive and hostile?”

The article mentions that “Anthropologists say the islanders’ ancestors possibly migrated from Africa more than a thousand years ago.” This really doesn’t make any sense, but it jumped out at me because of the weird fact that Chau tried to speak to them in Xhosa, a Bantu language with influences from Khoesan dialects. Perhaps the reason he did this inexplicable thing is he’s read too much the pap that the people of North Sentinel are some pristine population descended from early Africans?

A more interesting aspect of the article is the questioning of why these last isolated island hunter-gatherers are so hostile. The fact is if they weren’t so hostile, they would almost certainly be extinct by now. The record of hunter-gatherer populations interacting with agriculturalists is one of absorption, assimilation, extermination or subordination.

The hostility of the peoples of the Andaman Islanders to outsiders has long been attested:

Situated in the bay of Bengal, the Andaman islands have been known to outsiders since ancient times. Andaman islanders respond with intense hostility at any attempt of outside contact, hurling arrows and stones at any unlucky visitor approaching their shores.

Early Arab and Persian documents report that Andaman islands were inhabited by cannibals – an exaggeration probably originating from the ferocity of attacks with which these travelers were greeted. Later Indian and European explorers steered clear off these islands to avoid the hostile inhabitants.

And this is why the Andaman Islanders remained relatively distinct ethnographically down to the early modern period. The Negrito people of Malaysia and the Philippines no longer speak their ancestral languages, while the Andamanese did until recently.

This incident reminds me of a dark passage from Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee. Contrary to the optimism of Carl Sagan, Diamond asserted that if there were aliens out there, we should work very hard not to have them know we exist. His reasoning was that less culturally advanced peoples never had a good interaction more culturally advanced people.

25 thoughts on “When ferocity is a feature, not a bug

  1. About the guy speaking in Xhosa with the Andaman Islanders, perhaps he was just crazy? Of course there have always been religious oddballs (like the pro-lifers in Florida in the mid-1980s who bombed an abortion clinic in December as a Christmas present for Jesus), but this guy takes the cake.

  2. He was taking too many risks.


    “””have worked in numerous places around the world, including townships in South Africa, a refugee camp in Northern Iraq (Kurdistan), and in Tulsa with Burmese refugees and at-risk youth.”””

    But more importantly.


    “””It was “a foolish adventure,” said PC Joshi, an anthropology professor at Delhi University who has studied the islands. “He invited that aggression.”

    Joshi noted that the visit not only risked Chau’s life, but also the lives of islanders who have little resistance to many diseases. “They are not immune to anything. A simple thing like flu can kill them,” he said.“””

  3. I agree with Diamond there. We probably should not go out of our way to let any potential civilizations out there know that we exist, certainly not by sending out a big radio blast (as some SETI folks have called for). I doubt we really have anything to fear – the silence out there suggests that other alien civilizations either don’t exist in our galaxy or are relatively complacent and stable – but no point going out of our way to risk it.

  4. The flip side is, there probably were for every Sentinalese, many equally hostile peoples whose hostility led empires to come aground and kill them all.

    So maybe of how much this is a feature needs some weight on the anthropic principle?

    Re; using Xhosa, he may well have just figured that it stood no worse a chance than using English.

  5. On Diamond, I tend to think maybe he has a bit of a bias to New World tech gaps, which are pretty confounded by the disease gap.

    There are examples across the historical record of Eurasia where people we’d say are as less advanced have probably benefited from contact with more advanced cultures. Judging by measures of advance that aren’t tautological with survival and expansion.

    It seems like that’s a pretty huge part of the story of the Indo-Europeans, right down from the likely interaction of the earliest steppe cultures with wagon using SE Europeans, Caucasian cultures and the pure horse pastoralists of Central Asia, all the way to their continued later interactions with non-IE speaking civilizations. You can even make the argument for the 19th century European empires – even if they did no good directly and their rule was in the rule worse than what they replaced (debatable but say we accept that position for argument’s sake), they may have dispersed awareness of ideas and technologies at the world cutting edge far beyond what would’ve happened without them.

    And beyond that, where aliens really would be an “Outside Context Problem” to us, I’m not really sure we can do much about them one way or the other, any more than the Sentinelese can really hold us in check by their martial valour or hostility.

  6. Andaman Nicobar tribes were not always hostile to others. It is a defensive mechanism they developed to defend themselves against pirates and slave traders.

  7. “Less culturally advanced people never had a good interaction with more culturally advanced people.”

    To which one might add that aliens would not be ‘people’ and would be even less inclined to see us in a favorable light. Maybe the best thing for us to do with alien contact is to copy the Adamanese and pitch a few hydrogen bombs their way as a ‘stay off my lawn’ message.

  8. The story of this man, the young missionary is truly surprising!!! Specially these days that more people are fleeing religious institutions and almost all religions are having a hard time keeping their followers and struggling with corruption, fraud and their attempts to cover up various scandals. With all these increasing challenges in political, economical, ethical arena and in every perceivable domain of human affairs, our future as whole humanity is at stake and how could any thousand years old manuals and scriptures provide anyone with any help specially the most backward members of our human family.

    Regarding Jared Diamond’s view I have to say that once I heard somebody saying that “the truth is relative and not absolute….relative to our state of social evolution on this planet.” This statement makes me think that although we (humans) have made all these technological and material advancements and progress so far, people worldwide are still in state of despair and becoming more uncivilized as time goes on. It feels like as we (humans) are in this stage of adolescents and extreme rebellious, that I should only imagine must be frightening if
    possibly more ancient and civilized beings from those planets
    knowing what state of turmoil we are living in and I think that’s why we are not going to receive any visitors of that kind any time soon!!!

  9. “yelling back something in Xhosa”
    Dubious, since he was the only one on the island, & pretty improbable, anyway, that some local fishermen would be able to recognize Xhosa.
    What’s more, he traveled to the region before & he was even on the island itself before (when a boy tried to hit him with an arrow, he left) & described the language he had heard in his diary.

    “aliens would not be ‘people’ and would be even less inclined to see us in a favorable light”
    Since they are not people, I suppose, no one really knows what they would be inclined to.

  10. @Bossel. “Since (aliens) are not people no one really knows what they would be inclined to.”

    No, but evolution likely operated the same on them as on us so it is unlikely they would arrive with hugs…unless that is their way of eating.

  11. The only thing outrageous I find in this whole sorry episode of this moron missionary is that there is not enough outrage over his actions. This guy knew that he was embarking on a criminal enterprise. He obviously bribed local fishermen to take him to the forbidden island illegally. He crows in his journal how he successfully dodged navy and coast guards, supposedly with the help of his Abrahamic god. And now that he lies buried six feet under, Indian government is trying to retrieve his body, at the risk of destroying the fragile ecosystem of this endangered tribe! To what end?

    There must be an immediate stop to any attempts to retrieve his body. I am pretty sure the tribe has their own religious beliefs about not disturbing the bodies of strange spirits that arise out of ocean, white skinned and clothed in fabrics, which they have safely interned to earth. Indian govt has no business favoring the beliefs of one religious system over other.

  12. @Snakecharmr. Don’t paint everyone as a pet and victim. They probably enjoyed killing the missionary. I imagine they built up a lot of frustration shooting at helicopters with no result. Having a victory and a token body to drag around must have been a treat.

  13. My understanding, via the linked Atlantic story below, is that the view that we should work very hard to conceal our presence from any extra-terrestrial life is known as “dark-forest theory” after the works of Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin. “No civilization should ever announce its presence to the cosmos, he says. Any other civilization that learns of its existence will perceive it as a threat to expand — as all civilizations do, eliminating their competitors until they encounter one with superior technology and are themselves eliminated. This grim cosmic outlook is called “dark-forest theory,” because it conceives of every civilization in the universe as a hunter hiding in a moonless woodland, listening for the first rustlings of a rival. ”


  14. Purifying selection in action.

    If you dig back far enough into the history of outside interactions with the Sentinelese, you find that they have good grounds to be suspicious of and hostile to outsiders – nothing to do with strange spirits arising from the ocean and everything to do with the egregious actions of one obviously deviant English guy. To them, three generations of oral history is nothing; it was like yesterday.

    The ethical course of action is to leave Chau’s remains there to rot. He got the martyrdom he seemed to decide on, so fine.

  15. Any other civilization that learns of its existence will perceive it as a threat to expand — as all civilizations do

    But expanding beyond the gravity well of a planet is very, very, very different than expanding by walking to the next valley or sailing to the next island. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to escape earth’s gravity, which will always be very, very, very expensive. And the nearest star is realistically hundreds of years away, 4.367 if we could magically accelerate a space ship instantaneously to the speed of light.

    Star Wars, Star Trek and all of those things are fantasies. Even less realistic than the magic guns which never miss when shot by the good guys and always miss when shot by the bad guys.

  16. “And the nearest star is realistically hundreds of years away, 4.367 if we could magically accelerate a space ship instantaneously to the speed of light.”

    It will take 4.367 years for someone watching from earth. For those aboard the spaceship travelling at the speed of light, the journey will be over in the blink of an eye.

    In fact, theoretically all stars in the visible universe can be reached within the human lifespan of a traveler aboard the spaceship. Only for those watching the ship from the earth it takes a few billion years. Just check with Einstein.

  17. Wow, what a great parallel…if us humans are essentially the same as Sentinelese people, isolated on this planet then our hydrogen bombs and technology must be perhaps equivalent to the stick and stones of this isolated tribe!!! if greater civilizations who are supposedly much more intelligent and technologically advanced than us, they would just steer away from us, the very same way that most countries now days allow for these isolated tribes to be left alone!!!

  18. It will take 4.367 years for someone watching from earth. For those aboard the spaceship travelling at the speed of light, the journey will be over in the blink of an eye.

    I just checked with Einstein. He said it would take all the energy in the universe to accelerate a space ship to the speed of light, and less–though still impossibly large–to get even close. Time dilation is not going to make anyone a spacefaring civilization.

  19. British commentator Brendan O’Neill made these observations on the affair. They may be of interest to readers of this blog.

    “John Allen Chau behaved immorally and recklessly when he approached North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal last week. A Christian from Washington in the US, Chau apparently wanted to convert the Sentinelese people to Christianity. The Sentinelese are a neolithic tribe that has had virtually no engagement with modernity. They’re notoriously hostile to outsiders. So when they saw Chau approaching in a kayak, they took fright and fired arrows at him. Chau died in a ‘hail of arrows’.

    He must have known the risks. India, which oversees North Sentinel and surrounding islands, has outlawed contact with the Sentenilese people. As a result of having been secluded for thousands of years, the Sentinelese people probably lack genetic immunity to common ailments like flu and measles. Contact with people from the modern would could prove lethal for them. Chau wanted to save them for Jesus, but he could have ended up harming them terribly. His approach to the island was illegal and a grave moral error.

    And yet, there is more humanity in his error, in his clumsy Christian zeal, in his desire to reach out to these people, than there is in the warped response to what he did. People are laughing at Chau. They’re denouncing him as a typical arrogant American. It would be better, eco-leftists and other luvvies insist, if we just left the Sentinelese people as they are. They’re probably happy. What, living brutish, backward lives? I think it is crueller to abandon the Sentinelese people to the fate written for them by the terrible quirks of geography and history than it is to try to contact and civilise them.

    Yes, civilise them. ‘Civilise’ is seen as a terribly judgemental word these days. It conjures up images of Victorian colonialists venturing into the ‘heart of darkness’ in Africa and elsewhere and subjugating unwilling peoples to Biblical writ and British rule. But the civilisation instinct needn’t be a forced one. We could find ways to try to encourage the Sentinelese people, and the world’s other lost tribes, to exchange their unforgiving way of life for the more comfortable, knowledgable existences the rest of us enjoy. This may take a very long time, more than a generation perhaps, because it would need to be done patiently, carefully, and with an eye for informing the Sentinelese people of the world beyond their shores, rather than pressuring them or humiliating them in any way. But it is worth trying, surely?

    Those laughing at Chau for his missionary folly seem content to leave a very small section of humanity — between 40 and 500 people, according to estimates — living in Stone Age conditions. It is unquestionable that the Sentinelese people live Stone Age lives. They are the world’s most remote tribe. They have remained largely unchanged for millennia. Throughout the Egyptian and Greek empires, the rise and fall of Rome, the emergence of the great religions, and the birth of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and industrialised modernity, they have carried on hunting with spears and living in huts. Through no fault of their own, they, and the rest of the world’s estimated 100 uncontacted tribes, are humankind’s losers. They deserve a chance to turn that around.

    But backward-looking bourgeois people in the West, the green-leaning, modernity-loathing types who make up eco-aware circles, want to deprive tribes of that chance. They demand that we ‘leave tribes alone’, which really means abandoning them to a fate conjured up for them by the tectonic shifts or whims of forestation that led to their being cut off from the rest of us. Survival International, for example, a painfully PC campaign group that agitates for the preservation of tribal life, says the Sentinelese people ‘appear well’, and it insists that they, like other uncontacted tribes, should be left free of the ‘disastrous’ impact of progress.

    ‘Progress can kill’, Survival International says. Progress apparently means ‘HIV/AIDS… starvation… obesity… suicide… addiction’. Starvation and obesity? The message is clear: progress is bad, the tribal way of life is good; modernity rots the soul while living in huts and eking out a meagre existence from the sea and the forest keeps one in good spirits. Which makes you wonder why none of the West’s well-connected, self-elected defenders of tribespeople don’t up sticks and head out to a place like North Sentinel themselves.

    There is an ugly streak of the ‘noble savage’ idea in all this. Feeling bored or exhausted with modern life, some eco-Westerners seem intent on bigging up the lifestyles of hidden, obscure tribes as a more authentic form of existence. It is their prejudices — against modernity, against Western civilisation itself — that drives their weird and paternalistic celebration of tribal life. In truth, there is nothing to celebrate in the exclusion of the Sentinelese people and other tribespeople from the gains of modernity, from the human family. Our common humanity demands that we make contact with these peoples and patiently try to convince them to become civilised.”


  20. @Chris – If you want to know how the Sentinelese would get on if introduced to outside contacts and modernity, you don’t have to look far. Read up on what has happened to other Andaman islanders.

  21. People are still citing the genetic immunity defense but the islanders were seen dragging the body across the beach. Do they even know what immunity is? It seems like they just don’t want to be conquered like how the British dealt with them. One guy said he went to that island years ago and they threatened him but let him go.

  22. @Robert, if you do your homework, you’ll see that it is not lack of immunity that is motivating them to be untrusting and hostile to outsiders. They don’t want their people to be captured, held in captivity, die in captivity, experimented on and generally fucked around with, especially their kids, and especially by some deviant. There was some history of this involving them 3 generations back, and it seems abundantly evident that they haven’t forgotten it.

    I see the Indian government has now given up on any attempt to recover the remains of the Darwin Award recipient, and has informed the US government accordingly, which is a very sensible decision.


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