Are We “Sentinelese” on Island Earth in the Ocean of Interstellar Space?

Avi Loeb
4 min readFeb 1, 2024

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Image of North Sentinel Island from the Advanced Land Imager on NASA’s Earth Observing-1 satellite on November 20, 2009.

The South-African art photographer, Alon Skuy, took photos of me standing in the white Boston snow while asking about my scientific search for extraterrestrials. As we headed indoors, he noted that the reluctance of people to find extraterrestrials resembles the solitude of the indigenous Sentinelese inhabiting the North Sentinel Island, within an Indian chain of islands in the Bay of Bengal. The islanders constitute one of the few remaining hunter-gatherer tribes on Earth, having no contact with more advanced civilizations.

Image credit: Alon Skuy (January 31, 2024)

India forbids visits to the island and the Sentinelese resist attempts for contact by outsiders. In 2004, the major Aceh-Andaman Earthquake generated a devastating tsunami that uplifted the island. The Indian Coast Guard flew a reconnaissance mission to the island and the Sentinelese emerged from the forest and shot arrows at the incoming helicopter.

The Sentinelese shoot arrows at all approaching ships, irrespective of whether they visit the island on purpose or not. In 2006, Sentinelese killed two fishermen whose boat had drifted ashore, and in 2018 a 26-year-old American named John Chau, was killed while attempting three times to establish contact with the islanders as a Christian missionary.

The response of shooting arrows at foreign visitors is reminiscent of the F-22 Raptor fighter jet shooting an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile at the Chinese spy balloon in 2023. More generally, Unidentified Anomalous Phenomenon (UAP) are regarded as potentially hostile targets in reports from the Director of National Intelligence to the US Congress.

During a recent podcast, my interviewer mentioned that a pre-interview poll indicated that a majority of his listeners worried about any encounter with extraterrestrials as an existential threat. Just like the Sentinelese they would recommend shooting our technological “arrows” at them. In the same vein, Stephen Hawking warned that intelligent aliens would try to destroy humanity. Are we just like the Sentinelese, fearing of any interstellar visitors to our island, the Earth?

From a distant vantage point, like the NASA satellite that imaged the North Sentinel Island, the attitude of the Sentinelese appears overly aggressive and unwise, especially when dealing with outsiders that attempt to help them after an existential threat from a tsunami. Could climate change or nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists represent the `tsunami’ analog for humans on island `Earth’ in the ocean of interstellar space?

A future tsunami could extinguish the Sentinelese unless they were to leave their territory in advance. Advanced satellite data could save them in time, if they would only allow helicopters to land on their island. Similarly, insisting that Earth is our only home might bring the doomsday of humanity whereas an interstellar perspective from a more advanced neighbor might save us. It would be prudent to welcome advice from those who developed technologies for more than a century.

If cosmic neighbors do reach our doorstep before we reach their doorstep, they are likely to be far more advanced than we are, offering an opportunity for us to learn from a smarter student in our class of intelligent civilizations. Here’s hoping that we will be wise enough to learn from extraterrestrials rather than attack them with our `arrows’. Our generosity of mind will enable their far greater generosity of mind.

From a sociological standpoint, it is interesting to study whether kids on the North Sentinel Island are open minded towards visitors. This would give me hope that the future of humanity might be better than its past. Let us maintain a beginner’s mind and learn from rather than dismiss our cosmic neighbors.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Image credit: Chris Michel (October 2023)

Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, was published in August 2023.

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Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb is the Baird Professor of Science and Institute director at Harvard University and the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial” and "Interstellar".