When we think about nomadic tribes we often imagine people who are unclothed, detached from the material world, don’t speak and communicate in a systematic language, consume whatever they can hunt and live in temporary huts made of branches and straws. Well, that definition would be very much apt for the Sentinelese tribe who are habituated on the North Sentinel Island, in the lands of Andaman located in the Bay of Bengal and are administered by the Indian government. The Sentinelese are also known as Sentinel, along with the Great Andamanese, Jarawas, Onge, Shompen and the Nicobarese, the Sentinelese are designated as a vulnerable tribal group and are often considered reclusive people.
According to anthropology reports, sentinels are approximately 1.60-1.65 meters tall and have dark shining pigment to their skin with well-aligned teeth, they also have very lean and muscular body structures. Sentinelese are also rapidly decreasing in number according to circumnavigation research their population in the year 1981 was around 100 which dropped to less than 50 by the year 2011, due to their limited understanding they primarily engage in hunting for sustaining themselves.
They also use rudimentary methods to catch local seafood such as crabs, molluscan shells, and fish, they also use bow and arrows to hunt terrestrial wildlife. Some of their practices have not evolved since the stone age, as they do not engage in agricultural practice and have very limited knowledge of making fire. As far as their means of communication, the Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) in their 2016 handbook referred to the entire tribe as mutually unintelligible, meaning they don’t have a proper system of communication.
Instances of people who tried visiting the ‘sentinel island’
The government of India in 1956 declared North Sentinel Island a tribal land reserve and prohibited travel within 5 km of it, without proper authorization even photography is prohibited. There is always a constant patrol by coast guards to prevent intrusions by outsiders. Despite the prohibition since the 1960s effort has been made for peaceful contact with the Sentinelese with success on very few occasions, the tribe has made sure that they are not willing to welcome people and want to be left alone and not to be bothered. In some instances, people who have visited the island have met with hostility and repulse from the tribe. Some of those instances are-
- In 1974, the National Geography channel set up a team of anthropologists, armed policemen and a film crew to shoot a documentary called, Man in Search of Man, and wanted to establish friendly contact with the Sentinelese. Upon arrival, the team was met with fury from the Sentinelese tribe as they unleashed a volley of arrows on the crew, one of which even struck the documentary director in his thigh.
- Two fishermen Sundar Raj and Pandit Tiwari who drifted unknowingly towards the island as their boat anchor failed, while trying to harvest crabs, in 2006 were attacked and killed by a group of Sentinelese, who got up in the boat and used the axe as a weapon on the fishermen. According to one report, the dead bodies were hanged in bamboo stakes facing towards the sea as scarecrows in order to give a message, attempts made by the Indian coast guard to retrieve the dead bodies also failed as the Sentinelese chased them away with spears and arrows upon arrival, later the mission was abandoned.
- One of the latest incidents took place in 2018 when an American missionary named John Allen Chau, tried to make peaceful contact with the tribe in order to live among them and convert them into Christianity. Chau was part of the Christian missionary organization called All Nations, when he was travelling to the north sentinel island he did not seek all the necessary permits required to visit the island, he illegally bribed few local fishermen to take him there. Chau made few attempts to visit the tribe and would sing worship songs to them which would be reciprocated by laughs and high pitched sounds by the tribe people. On 17 November in his last visit, the fishermen saw Chau’s body being dragged by the islanders and the next day the body was left near the shore.
Will the Sentinelese be able to sustain themselves?
T.N. Pandit, a retired Indian Anthropologist who worked for the Anthropological Survey of India, has been one of the leading experts regarding the Sentinelese tribe. Pandit believes that we should let the Sentinelese be on their own as they don’t want any help and are doing just fine.
Lots of leading anthropologists believe that the Sentinelese tribe should be left alone for their safety since they are limited to North Sentinel Island, by visiting them we might expose them to various bacteria and germs which their bodies cannot deal with. Although few attempts of contacting them, one of the prominent beings in 1991 when a group of Indian anthropologists managed to give them coconuts and have peaceful contact, have resulted in success Sentinelese haven’t shown much promise of further engagement.
Apart from being hostile to foreign contact Sentinelese face challenges from the rise of sea water level due to tsunamis which might reduce the landmass of their island, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which resulted in the rise of the seafloor by 4 ft 11inches is one such instance. It will be right to assume that Sentinelese is a constant reminder of a relic from the past, their existence is a proof that evolution didn’t take place proportionally and only the strongest and fittest thrived and evolved.
As of now, there are no concrete plans of contacting the Sentinelese again and according to the Indian Government, they are to be left alone.