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If you have been closely following the affairs of the Andaman Islands, you will know that the North Sentinelese are back in the news of the world.  On November 17th, an American Christian missionary named John Allen Chau bribed corrupt fisherman to take him to the forbidden island in the Bay of Bengal.  As previously set forth in one of our most popular posts, the island is inhabited by the mysterious North Sentinelese, a stone age hunter-gatherer tribe of unknown language and customs which has spurned all contact with the rest of humankind.  The North Sentinelese are bellicose and territorial and they want nothing to do with our networked world of technology, trade, and toil.

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The natives, likewise, had no desire to hear John Allen Chau’s proselytizing, and they swiftly dispatched him with arrows and buried his body as quickly as possible (as is their known custom).   North Sentinel island is part of India, although the islanders do not seem to recognize (or even know about) their citizenship, and the Indian authorities have been trying to recover Chau’s body.  This strikes me as a grave error, since the islanders have demonstrated time and again that they do not desire visitors of any sort.  Jesus can worry about his missionary’s final arrangements, thus saving the Indian police from savage battle and saving the islanders from measles, flu, smallpox, or goodness-only-knows what outside disease or influence which they are woefully unprepared for.

Despite ample incontrovertible evidence that the North Sentinelese do not want to integrate into the modern world, there are always arguments about whether the Indian government is operating a “human zoo” (undoubtedly the Sentinelese have some choice descriptions of the interconnected pan-global hive organism that the rest of us are part of, insomuch as they can conceive of it). It strikes me that they have made their choices plain.  The worldwide fame/infamy which the North Sentinelese have gained in the last fortnight will quickly fade away, and we can go back to thinking of them as a peculiar alternate sect of humankind—when we think of them at all…

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Like bee hives, ant colonies have all sorts of specialized ants. Soldier ants with mighty mandibles guard the hive. The queen ant becomes a gargantuan reproductive machine and pumps out an endless swarm of underlings. Drone ants develop wings to fly high into the air to mate with fledgling queens. Yet the strangest of all ant jobs (to my mind at least) is held by honeypot ants.

Honeypot ant repletes (Camponotus inflatus) hanging from the roof a hive tunnel

Honeypot ant repletes (Camponotus inflatus) hanging from the roof a hive tunnel

Honeypot ants are found in six or seven genera of seasonal ants located in Africa, Australia, Melanesia, and North America. The ants function as living granaries/reservoirs. They find an underground location deep in the hive and use their own bodies as storehouses to protect the hive from drought and famine. As soon as they develop from larvae, the specialized honeypot ants transform into grapelike spheroids capable of ballooning to many time the size of normal ants. During the rainy season, when food is plentiful, worker ants stuff the honeypot ants to the edge of bursting with prey and provender. These living warehouses can store liquids, body fat, and water for long periods in their grotesquely distended abdomens. When the dry season hits and resources become scarce, worker ants stroke the antennae of the honeypot ants and the latter to disgorge their precious stores of liquids and nutrients.

image credit: lonelyplanetimages.com

image credit: lonelyplanetimages.com

Living deep underground, honeypot ants are seldom seen by people. They were first documented in 1881 by Henry Christopher McCook (a civil war chaplain, polymath, and entomological pioneer). Yet hunter gatherers have known of them since time immemorial. The strange grapelike ants are regarded as a unique delicacy to Australia’s indigenous people who have worked the strange bulbous ants into stories of the dreamtime—the ancient magical creation of the world. Of course the world is not finished and the dreamtime is still ongoing and honeypot ants are out there, engorged in the darkness, doing their part. We just never see them.

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When I went to Washington every summer as a child, I always visited the National Museum of Natural History, an organization which I still wholeheartedly love.  Every year I was fascinated by the tableau above, a (real) human skeleton struggling with a recalcitrant skeletal goat.  This curious sculpture commemorates the domestication of the first farm animals. According to the best available archaeological and genetic evidence the first creature to fall under human agricultural sway was indeed Capra aegagrus hircus, the goat.*

Wild Goats, Capra aegagrus

To quote K. Kris Hirst, “Archaeological data suggest two distinct places of domestication: the Euphrates river valley at Nevali Çori, Turkey (11,000 bp), and the Zagros Mountains of Iran at Ganj Dareh (10,000).”  Genetic evidence has confirmed that modern domestic goats descend from the Anatolian bezoar ibex, Capra aegagrus.  The bezoar ibex, or wild goat, lives in flocks of 50 or so individuals (although flocks can become much larger and range up to 500 if conditions are right).  It ranges in size from 150 to 300 pounds and can live up to 25 years on just about any sort of vegetation.  It goes without saying that wild goats are clever, strong, and nimble (and have long sharp horns jutting from their thick skulls).

Capra aegagrus range

Mesolithic hunter/gatherers were nomads who followed wild game and gathered seasonally available berries, seeds, and nuts.  It seems likely that the first herders already lived in tandem with goats before becoming herders.  I wonder how the hunter gatherers came to realize that they could take over the flocks and make the animals go where they wanted.  Whatever provoked the epiphany, these original animal farmers must have had plenty of hard-headed stubbornness in order to subordinate the unruly wild bezoar goats!

Um, just run over and grab him, I guess… I’m sure he won’t mind.

By domesticating the goat, they acquired most of the benefits of domesticated animals all at one go.  Goat’s milk is delightfully potable and can be made into cheese and yogurt.  Goat meat is delicious (and is still the meat most often consumed by a majority the world’s human population).  The renewable hair of goats can be woven or spun into textiles, while its hide makes soft and durable leather.  The horns and bones of goats are admirable for tool making and decorative arts while its hooves can be made into gelatin or glue.  Even dried goat dung can be burned as fuel.  The goat also can be trained for draft work and made to pull a sledge, cart, or plough (although this probably wasn’t terribly obvious in a world which lacked grain farming and the wheel).

Domesticated goat, Capra hircus

Although they were the first animals to fall under human agricultural sway, goats have not fallen so deeply under our thrall as most other farm animals.  Goat herding remains goat herding—the animals do much better when they have pastures to graze in. To quote Wikipedia, “stall-fed goat rearing involves extensive upkeep and is seldom commercially viable”. So goats are not raised in factory farms like cows, sheep, and poultry.   Additionally domestic goats, like their wild forbears, are clever animals with a natural gift for climbing, jumping, and escaping.  Feral goats revert quickly to type and can thrive in most environments. There are wild goat populations dotted around the world in places such as Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean Islands, Hawaii, Ireland, Great Britain, California, Indonesia, and the Galapagos (among others).

*I’m not counting dogs: wolves joined up with us many millennia before we domesticated anything else.  Our best friends have been with us since the remote depths of the ice age when we were nobodies.  They’ll be with us when we blast off for the stars or fall down dead in the toxic dust.

North Sentinel Island

North Sentinel Island is a small island in the Bay of Bengal.  It consists of 72 km2 of dense tropical forest surrounded on all sides by a coral reef.  It is part of the Andaman Island chain—a group of islands held by India.  North Sentinel Island’s legal status is complicated but general consensus holds that it is a sovereign entity under Indian protection.  Although North Sentinel Island is inhabited by humans, we only know a handful of things about the Sentinelese because their contact with the modern world has been extremely minimal. The indigenous people do not like outsiders and they have never talked or otherwise communicated with anyone from the modern world.  So far the only way they have interacted with visitors is by shooting arrows at them (and once by copulating en masse in front a shocked ethnographic expedition which had become stranded on the reef flats).

Here they are pointing their weapons at a helicopter.

Agriculture is completely unknown on North Sentinel Island. The Sentinelese are hunter-gatherers, subsisting on fruits, seeds, tubers, fish, shellfish, honey, feral pigs, and the eggs of turtles and seabirds. The inhabitants go naked except during hunting expeditions when they wear belts/loincloths.  The language, religion, and customs of the Sentinelese are unknown (although they are presumed to speak a language in the Andamanese family).

The tips of their weapons are steel and iron which have been scavenged and shaped through cold-smithing (in the late 1980s two international container ships ran aground on the island’s external coral reefs).  The islanders manufacture baskets, pounding stones, nets, and adzes.  They also build canoes–however they have not been known to venture beyond the reefs of their island.

For a time the outside world attempted to initiate contact with the Sentinelese by presenting gifts such as coconuts, buckets, dolls, pigs and metal pots before (quickly!) retreating to a distance out of arrowshot.  The pigs and dolls were shot and buried.  The pots and coconuts were eagerly accepted.  The Sentinelese took the red buckets but left the green ones behind.  Despite these overtures, the Sentinelese maintained their skepticism towards visitors (“skepticism” in this context means “aggressively shooting arrows at”), and such attempts to communicate have since been curtailed.  In 2006 the islanders killed two trespassers who were poaching fish from the island reef and these bodies have not been recovered.  That incident marks the last time anyone had any dealings with the islanders.  The modern world seems content to leave the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island alone and that seems to be exactly what they want.

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