The Sentinelese are an isolated tribe living in the island of North Sentinel, part of the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal in India. This group of people inhabiting the island have been contacted very rarely by other people due to the combativeness of its members who attack anyone who tries to approach them and get inside their territory. In recent times, specifically in November 2018, John Allen Chau, a 27 years old missionary from the US paid a fisherman to be taken not too far from the island in order to convert the Sentinelese population to the Christian faith. The guy has been killed as soon as he arrived to the beach.

The organisation of the tiny society of hunter/gatherers survive thanks to hunting, fishing and gathering of wild plants. The knowledge about technology is extremely underdeveloped and comparable to the Paleolithic age: this makes it the only case of its kind in the current world. There is no proof that agriculture is practiced or them being able to light a fire. Their language, renamed Sentinelese, is entirely unknown and impossible to link to the Jarawa language of their most proximate neighbours, another population of hunter-gatherers.

In 2006 the Sentinelese killed 2 fishermen who reached a way too close position to their coasts

The total number of Sentinelese is unknown, but it is estimated to be a value included between 15 and 400 people. The island was colonised supposedly around 60,000 years ago before the first African migrations and from then the indigenous community was autonomous and with no contact with the outer world. In 2001 the first census by the Indian officials registered 39 individuals, 21 males and 18 females, however the difficulty of conducting an investigation from great distance made the counting of its inhabitants lacking of scientific accuracy. North Sentinel is 72 square km wide (28 square miles), and a  census following the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 from the 2011 counted just 15 individuals in total.

Below: picture by Christian Caron – licence Creative Commons A-NC-SA

The Sentinelese are described as “Negritos” which means short stature, dark skin, frizzy hair. Although they have never been studied thoroughly, the indigenous are described by Heinrich Harrer as approximately 160 cm tall (5’3″) and apparently left-handed. Their residence are huts with no side walls, with a flooring made out of palm trees and leaves, a total width of around 12 m (40 ft) and which would host 3 or 4 families at most. The raw materials in the island are limited and therefore the metalworking is unknown. Despite this, after the sinking of 2 container ships at the end of the 80’s, the Sentinelese crafted a number of tools out of the iron taken from the wreckage.

The weapons with which they hunt game and shoo their visitors are javelins and extremely precise bows. The arrows utilised are of at least 3 types i.e. one for fishing, one for hunting and the last one for threatening their enemies. Other weapons employed are axes and hammers, with which they build wooden baskets. The fire was kept on all along inside their houses through resin torches and braziers.

The expedition of the 1880 of Maurice Vidal Portman, administrator of the British Indian colonies ended up in tragedy

When in 1880 the English ships arrived closer to the island, the Sentinelese went hiding inside the jungle as soon as they noticed them. After  an extensive research, the English found four children and two old people whom were kidnapped and taken to Port Blair. The old couple fell ill and died, probably after contracting common diseases such as chickenpox and measles to which they were not able to resist. As for the four children they were left back in the island some time later, covered with gifts. The children disappeared in the jungle and from then on no one knew what happened to them.

At that point many attempted contacts from the Indian government and the National Geographic had been tried. In 1967 the government sent an expedition guided by the anthropologist TN Pandit but the Sentinelese went back to the Jungle without possibility to contact them. Pandit tried once again on the 29th of March 1970. An eyewitness declared:

“Some left the weapons and let us understand they would have left the fish. The women stepped out of the jungle to look at our awkwardness, while some men went to take some fish. Even though they seemed grateful, their hostile attitude did not seem alleviated. They started screaming in an incomprehensible language, so we stepped back with a friendly gesture. Then a strange thing started to happen.
A woman hugged a warrior and the couple laid down on the sand in a passionate hug. The act was repeated by the other women, who chose one warrior each. The ritual went on for a while up until that love dance ceased and the couples came back within the shadows of the jungle. Only a few warriors remained on the beach overlooking the area while slicing up more fish”.

“Man in search of man” by the National Geographic

In Spring 1974 a troupe of the National Geographic went to the island to film a documentary named “Man in search of man”. The team was accompanied by police agents armed and armored, who were immediately attacked once the ships passed the coral reef surrounding the island. The ship docked in a spot out of reach of arrows and the crew left a series of gifts on the beach, waiting to spot a reaction from the Sentinelese.

Their answer was a cloud of arrows one of which hit the director’s leg, making the warrior who had struck the arrow blast out of joy. The islanders buried the doll and pig given as a gift and took only the coconuts and the aluminum pots.

In the 90’s the expeditions were welcomed by headless arrows

From the early 90’s the Sentinelese started to tolerate the ships getting closer to the beaches, sometimes even by greeting the visitors without using any weapon. After a few peaceful minutes though, the tribe would start attacking but still with headless arrows, suggesting more of an intimidating strategy than an actual attempt to kill.

In 1996 the Indian government banned completely the access to the island as well as to get closer also for the many registered cases of death by the population of Southern Jarawa; these dead had occurred due to transmitted diseases that the visitors from the dryland had carried in.

In 2004 an Indian helicopter was sent over to verify the conditions of the tribe after the Tsunami which had hit the area. The aircraft unloaded the food on the beach but was threatened by a warrior with bow and arrows.

In 2006 some Sentinelese archers killed two fishermen who were fishing crabs inside the perimeter of the island, illegally. The ship lost the hold of its anchor and so the steam pushed it towards North Sentinel, where the two men met their death. The Sentinelese buried the men in not too deep tombs but when the helicopter of the Indian Coast Guard came over asking for the bodies to be returned, a rain of arrows followed, as customs would expect.

To this day, the Sentinelese are the most isolated population in the world, considering they had only occasional contacts and cultural exchanges with the civilised world. But their island is constantly threatened by the curiosity of people who wants to know more about this ancient population and the Survival International believes that these visits are getting increasingly more because of the attractiveness that this splendid tribe has on them.

The island is relatively close to the main Andaman island and it seems surreal how this population had no contact whatsoever with the other ones.

Below: the map of the island on Google Maps:

Below: video of the contacts occurred during the National Geographic expedition

Below: video of a contact with a Sentinelese inhabitant in which the visitors leave some coconuts to the tribe

Matteo Rubboli

I am a publisher specialised in the digital distribution of culture and founder of the portal Vanilla Magazine. I don't wear a tie or branded clothes, I keep my hair short so I don't have to comb it. That's not my fault but just the way I've been drawn as...

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