During my recent trip to the stunning Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, I found myself fascinated by what must be one of the most extraordinary places on Earth in the 21st century: North Sentinel Island, that was only just over the horizon to the west. The Andaman islands has a fascinating indigenous population, that on the main islands has largely suffered the same tragic fate of guns and germs as many native peoples worldwide, with the notable exception of the Jarawa who maintain a large tribal reserve on Middle Andaman. Despite over a century of colonization and settlement, the islands still hold vast stretches of lush tropical forest. The Andamanese population appears to genetically unique (e.g. as shown in this paper in Science), possibly isolated since the first modern human migration out of Africa along the southern coast of Asia to Australasia, around 40,000 years ago.
About 40 km west of the main group of islands, however, sits North Sentinel Island, a place which has experienced only the most limited and brief landings by visitors from the outside work. It is inhabited and fiercely defended by a native population of around 300 (though no-one knows for sure has no outsider has been onshore long enough to study). These are possibly the most isolated people on the planet, even more than the uncontacted groups of western Amazonia, which have contact and intermixing with neighbours.
The Sentinelese apparently survived the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and its after-effects, including the tsunami and the uplifting of the island, which significantly extend the island and uplofted coral reefs, disrupting this fishing grounds. Three days after the event, an Indian government helicopter observed several of them, who shot arrows and threw stones at the hovering aircraft with the apparent intent of repelling it. Although the fishing grounds of the Sentinelese were disturbed, they appear to have adapted to the island's current conditions.
Here is a video of the first (and one of very few) friendly contacts. Nowadays official policy is to leave the Sentinelese alone, although unofficial contacts do occur. In 2006 two fisherman who ventured near the island were killed.
In this world of global connection and the heat of the Anthropocene, it is thought-provoking to think of this island and these people still at the edge of the unpredictable currents of history
Yadvinder Malhi is an ecosytem ecologist and Professor of Ecosystem Science at Oxford University