There are about 100 uncontacted native groups around the world, but none of them are more isolated than the Sentinelese tribe. Located in the northern Andaman Islands of India, these indigenous people conscientiously separate themselves from the outside world. In fact, their isolation has likely saved lives, as nearby tribes have suffered losses at the hands of outsiders who carry diseases or create hostility. Explorers commonly exploit native people and kill the animals they hunt for food.
The Sentinelese have not met the same fate, but as civilization continues to encroach, their days may be numbered. The Indian government encourages outsiders to avoid the natives, though. Their hostility is detrimental to all parties involved.
A Christian Missionary Trespassing On The Island Was Killed In 2018
On November 17, 2018, Christian missionary John Allen Chau made his way to the Sentinelese island – even though outsiders are explicitly banned from the area. When Chau approached the island in an attempt to convert the endangered tribe, it is believed that they killed him with bows and arrows. Six fishermen around the island claimed they saw the Sentinelese drag a body and bury it on the beach.
Authorities do not believe they will be able to retrieve Chau’s body without risking their lives or the lives of the Sentinelese; the tribal people do not have immunity to modern day illness, and something as simple as a cold virus could wipe out the 50 – 150 remaining Sentinelese.
“Mr. Chau’s body should be left alone, as should the Sentinelese,” said Stephen Corry, director of Survival International.
19th-Century British Explorers Kidnapped Sentinelese People
In January 1880, British explorers landed on North Sentinel Island to conduct a survey of the area and kidnap natives. However, they only found abandoned villages. After searching for days, the expedition party, led by 20-year-old Maurice Vidal Portman, finally encountered six Sentinelese people. They abducted all of them and sailed for Port Blair. Two elderly natives died in British custody; the four captive children survived. Eventually, the young adventurer returned the youths to the island with gifts. Portman decided exploration of the island was ill-advisable. He admitted:
In many ways [the Sentinelese people] closely resemble the average lower-class English country schoolboy… [but] their association with outsiders has brought them nothing but harm, and it is a matter of great regret to me that such a pleasant race [is] so rapidly becoming extinct. We could better spare many another.
The Sentinelese People Briefly Trusted One Anthropologist
The Sentinelese people do not attack all visitors. When anthropologist T. N. Pandit and his team approached the natives in the early 1990s, tribe members dropped their weapons. Pandit had tried to make contact without success on previous occasions, but this time, the Sentinelese were welcoming.
The anthropologist brought coconuts and other offerings. He noted:
They must have come to a decision that the time had come. It could not have happened on the spur of the moment. There was this feeling of sadness also – I did feel it. And there was the feeling that at a larger scale of human history, these people who were holding back, holding on, ultimately had to yield. It’s like an era in history gone. The islands have gone. Until the other day, the Sentinelese were holding the flag, unknown to themselves. They were being heroes. But they have also given up.
After that visit, though, the natives never welcomed another outsider.
It’s Illegal To Visit Their Island
A handful of explorers have tried to contact the Sentinelese people. However, most attempts have ended in disaster and suffering. In the 1980s, for example, many Sentinelese died during small battles with shipwrecked trespassers.
To quell the danger, India banned all visits to the island in 1997. The government enforces a 3-mile, no-trespassing radius around North Sentinel Island at all times. Interlopers that do venture to the forbidden place usually face a barrage of stones and arrows.
They Were Hostile Toward Emergency Rescue Missions After The 2004 Tsunami
When the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami hit the region, some worried the Sentinelese got wiped out. The earthquake raised the whole island almost 7 feet out of the water, exposing coral reefs and destroying local forests. It seemed unlikely the tribe would survive the natural disaster.
A helicopter flew over the area to assess the damage, but a Sentinelese tribesman fired arrows at the flying object. Apparently, the islanders survived.
The Sentinelese People Have Been Around A Long Time
The Sentinelese inhabit one of the most remote places on Earth. Their home, North Sentinel Island, is part of an Indian archipelago in the Bay of Bengal. Many of these islands are beautifully idyllic, but indigenous people call them home. Anthropologists believe the Sentinelese people have lived on the island for more than 60,000 years with virtually no contact from the outside world.
Reportedly, their lives haven’t changed much in all that time.
Their Language Is Shrouded In Mystery
Unlike other Andaman Islanders, the Sentinelese people keep their language private. Even natives from the nearby islands are unfamiliar with the isolated tribe’s tongue. One Andaman police chief, Dharmendra Kumar, noted that it would be impossible to communicate with his neighbors. He says, “There are the language barriers; nobody speaks the Sentinelese language.”
Other Andaman Tribes Haven’t Faired As Well As The Sentinelese People
Other Andaman indigenous peoples haven’t fared nearly as well as the Sentinelese. By welcoming outsiders, many other tribes have been wrecked by development, disease, violence, and sexual abuse. The Sentinelese natives are steadfast in their desire for solitude, however. They don’t want gifts or support from strangers.
The Indian government tries to maintain that solitude, but poachers and tourists are still threats.
Tribe Members Attacked Imposing Fishermen In 2006
The Indian government forbids people from venturing close to North Sentinel Island, but poachers and fishers still explore the area. In 2006, two fishermen got drunk while piloting their boat near the island. The vessel drifted ashore, and the men were killed for trespassing. Allegedly, tribe members buried the bodies in shallow graves.
A helicopter came to retrieve the men, but locals greeted it with a hail of handmade weapons. Unsurprisingly, the fishermen’s remains were left behind.
The Islanders Probably Have Very Weak Immune Systems
Sentinelese natives wouldn’t last long if they interacted with outsiders. They never built up defenses against minor germs, so something typically non-threatening may well cause extinction on the Bengali island. A touch, sneeze, or handshake could be deadly.
Analyst Sophie Grig notes, “With the isolation comes extreme vulnerability. The Sentinelese are likely to have no immunity to diseases like the common cold or flu.”
The Sentinelese Way Of Life Hasn’t Changed Much
While not much is known about the Sentinelese people, experts do know they hunt and gather. Reportedly, the natives eat raw meat and fish – they have yet to learn how to make fire. Instead, the tribe waits for lightning to strike, keeping the flame alight for as long as possible.
The people know nothing of agriculture, nor do they write. Reports claim the Sentinelese can count items of two or less, but they describe anything above that as “many.” There are only a few kinds of shelter on the island – large huts for several families and temporary beach dwellings that hold one nuclear family.
While this tribe lives as it did several thousand years ago, there have been some advancements. They use metal that has washed up on shore to sharpen and accompany their weaponry.
Poachers Prove The Reserve Is Easily Trespassed, Which Could Prove Dangerous To The Sentinelese
In 2017, two poachers were caught hunting sea turtles on the illegal-to-outsiders tribal reserve. Reportedly, one had been intercepted nine times engaging in similar illegal activities, but was released on bail. Poaching on the reserve is unlawful and punishable by mandatory fines and jail time; however, human rights group Survival International points to repeated instances of trespassing as evidence that Andaman authorities are not doing enough to protect the highly susceptible people.
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