The Sad Saga of John Chau and the North Sentinelese

What drives some people to do what he did?

Posted Nov 28, 2018

I’ve been following—with a mix of fascination and repulsion—the story of a young American, John Allen Chau, who was recently killed when he persistently attempted to make personal contact with the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island, part of the Andaman chain off the coast of India. This particular island is occupied by some of the most isolated people on Earth, perhaps the most isolated and essentially uncontacted (at least of those whose existence is known). Other than their existence, essentially nothing is known of the North Sentinelese, not even how many there are. Estimates are as low as a few dozen and as high as 500, although most credible guesses are between 50 and 100.

It is believed that they hunt pigs and turtles, and it’s known that they use bows and arrows and strongly don’t welcome outsiders. In fact, they have killed shipwrecked Indian fishers who were washed onto their island, and greeted would-be observers with a hail of arrows. The Indian government has made the forward-looking decision to respect their obvious preference and allow the North Sentinelese to live their lives as little touched by the 21st century as possible, not only for the safety of those who might attempt to contact them, but even more so, for the safety of these people themselves. Since they have evidently occupied a relatively small island (about the size of Manhattan) for thousands of years, they almost certainly lack immunity to the range of human diseases that decimated isolated populations in the past after they were encountered by traders, missionaries, would-be conquerors, do-gooders, and so forth.

This brings us, albeit briefly, to Chau, who violated Indian law in his self-defined mission to spread his particular brand of Christian evangelism. “You guys might think I’m crazy in all this,” he wrote in his last letter to his parents. “But I think it’s worth it to declare Jesus to these people.” After paying some Indian fishers to bring him within paddling distance (but beyond bow and arrow range), he made several attempts to land, carrying some trinkets and a waterproof Bible. He succeeded in getting ashore, apparently sang some “worship songs” to the inhabitants, and shortly thereafter was riddled with arrows, his body buried on the sandy beach. Despite some calls for a murder inquiry, the Indian government wisely decided that it would be highly inappropriate to pursue traditional legal sanctions, or even to attempt to retrieve Chau’s body.

This tragic episode raises some interesting issues. From my own perspective as a militant atheist, John Chau appears to have been a zealously misguided missionary and I can’t help wondering what leads someone not obviously psychotic to run such risks, not only violating the law of a foreign country but seriously endangering the lives of those people whose souls he yearned to save. Indeed, the brief contact that he achieved might already have doomed many, if not all, of them. On the other hand, I don’t doubt that to some believers—including, it appears, his family—he is considered to have been a brave, admirable martyr.

There are also some evolutionary questions. It appears that the North Sentinelese are quite short in stature, with the men at about 5’5.” This is consistent with the phenomenon known as island dwarfism, whereby inhabitants of isolated islands tend to evolve diminished size, probably because such individuals are more energy efficient, an advantage when food resources are limited, and also when potential prey species are themselves relatively small. Interestingly, fossil dwarf elephants—about one meter tall—evolved on a number of comparable islands, such as in the Mediterranean and off the British Isles. In addition, skeletal remains of Homo floresiensis, also known as “hobbit people,” were discovered in 2010 on the small Indonesian island of Flores; they too stood about one meter tall. (Is there something more than metrically convenient about 100 centimeters?)

For anthropologists, it would be tempting to fill the blanks in our knowledge of the North Sentinelese, given that so few uncontacted people remain on Earth, and we know nothing whatsoever about their particular culture, traditions, beliefs, language, technology, biomedical details and so forth. It is also important to acknowledge that the North Sentinelese are not representative of prehistoric human ancestors. However they live, they are merely a single data point, such that even if they were to be studied (something that, as a scientist but also a humanist, I hope will not happen), they wouldn’t reveal much of anything about human evolution as such. There has been altogether too much generalizing from small, isolated, current “primitive” human groups to Homo sapiens as a whole, including such whoppers as concluding, for example, that because the Yanomamo of the Venezuelan-Brazilian border are a “fierce people,” the rest of us are accordingly biologically prone to war, or that because the Inuit were not, then we are not.

As an evolutionary biologist, I'd be fascinated to learn about the genomics of the North Sentinelese, because they're a small, extremely isolated population, and presumably highly inbred as a result. Given what is almost certainly a pallet of very limited genetic variation, their survival is something of an evolutionary mystery. But - and its a big but indeed - I argue that it's far more ethical to let them keep their isolated integrity.

I am not normally an advocate of maintaining our ignorance, but in the case of the North Sentinelese, and other groups that are comparably isolated and vulnerable, I applaud the Indian government’s determination to leave them alone. And I wish that Chau had done the same.

David P. Barash's most recent book, relevant to this post, is Through a Glass Brightly: using science to see our species as we really are (2018, Oxford University Press).