The Stone Age meets the Modern Age

The Stone Age meets the Modern Age Some of the inhabitants of the North Sentinel island where American citizen John Allen Chau was killed
There must be a right to share the Good News in a peaceful way, writes David Quinn


Let’s suppose for the sake of the argument that somewhere in deepest, darkest Ireland explorers stumbled across an undiscovered tribe of Irish people still living in the Stone Age. The question would immediately arise, what should we do? Should we leave them alone, or share with them the advances (and otherwise) of modern civilisation?

There are, in fact, still Stone Age peoples on the planet today and these same sorts of questions arise. Most of them are deep in the Amazon jungle. Others are to be found in the remoter parts of Papua New Guinea and a few are on islands in the Indian Ocean and the nearby Bay of Bengal.

Last week, one of those islands came to public attention when an American would-be missionary, John Allen Chau, was killed after landing ashore on North Sentinel island, which is inhabited by the Sentinelese islanders who live there as they have for tens of thousands of years, their way of life seemingly unchanged in all that time.

The island is supposed to be off-limits to all outsiders, partly to preserve the way of life of the Sentinelese and partly to save them from contracting illnesses against which they have no defence, such as the flu.

Chau (27) was an American Evangelical Christian, educated in Canada, who decided that God had called him to bring the Gospel to the people of North Sentinel island and he paid some fishermen to illegally drop him off on the island. He was shot and killed by an arrow.


For the most part, commentators have said he had no business being there in the first place.

As Janet Street-Porter wrote in the London Independent, “why would [the Sentinelese] culture not include a deity, a belief in the afterlife or some sense of fulfilling spirituality? Why would his evangelical creed be superior or necessary?”

Well, we can’t know the answer to that question for sure, because we can’t be certain what the Sentinelese in fact believe. But we do know that Stone Age religions tended to believe that nature is full of spirits to be placated and called on in various ways. They have sometimes included cannibalism, and animal and even human sacrifice.

Janet Street-Porter may well think that the teaching and example of Jesus add little or nothing to human existence, but I presume she does not believe that we have experienced no advances at all since the Stone Age, either materially or morally?

Perhaps she, and others like her, believe in the idea of the ‘noble savage’? The ‘noble savage’ was popularised by the French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau in the 18th Century. It is based on the notion that we are born good and are corrupted by civilisation. Man, in his primitive state, is supposedly superior to us because he is unspoiled, like Adam and Eve before the Fall. Therefore, we romanticise ancient peoples. We imagine that they are peaceful, happy and live in harmony with nature.

In fact, Stone Age peoples tend to be very violent. Ancient historians such as Prof. Ian Morris of Stanford University in California estimate that in Stone Age societies you had a 10-20% chance of dying violently. They are often terrified of nature, rather than living in harmony with it, which is why they attempt to placate its spirits.

The history of encounters between different civilisations and cultures has often been a deeply unhappy one which is mostly a reflection on human nature, rather than on any given society. One civilisation tries to conquer another and impose its ways on their ways, and that includes religion.

Catholics are now sometimes deeply conflicted about the arrival of Christianity in the Americas, for example. Christianity came to Central and South America with Spanish and Portuguese conquerors who had anything but the welfare of the native peoples at heart.

But on the other hand, the religion of the likes of the Aztecs was extremely brutal involving huge amounts of human sacrifice in an attempt to placate their Sun god, another spirit of nature, in effect. Should Europeans have allowed industrial levels of human sacrifice to continue?

What would happen today if say, the UN came across a similar religion? Would it stand back and let the killing continue unabated?

Or suppose there was no human sacrifice, but it was clear that the civilisation had an extremely undeveloped notion of human rights and as a result of this, the society was far more unjust than it need be? Should the UN stand back and do nothing at all in this situation?

In fact, as we know, the UN is keen to bring its Gospel of Human Rights to almost every part of the world. Africa, for example, must change its way in order to come into line with international human rights standards, especially in terms of the treatment of women, and aid is sometimes withheld when a given country will not comply.

Is the UN wrong to do this? Well, if we are supposed to leave societies untouched and allow them to develop at their own pace, then the answer has to be that the UN is wrong.

On the other hand, if we wish to increase the amount of justice and prosperity on the planet, then the UN must do what it is doing, even if we can argue about what kind of justice it has in mind, or about the environmental effects of prosperity.

And if the UN has a right to export its vision, its ‘gospel’, to every part of the world, then why can’t Christians?


It is true that we – that is almost all societies – have often done this brutally and clumsily, but that is only an argument for doing it better.

It can also be argued that the situation of the remaining Stone Age peoples on the planet are a special case, to be handled with extreme care, but it cannot be declared that we have no right to share with others what we believe to be Good News that can change their lives for the better, for this would almost obliterate any idea of progress at all.