This indigenous tribe in the midst of the Indian Ocean is the last uncontacted people.

One phrase that comes to the mind of most individuals when they think about the world today is global village. A term that is used to describe how the world is linked together through the use of technology. But it may surprise people to know that certain places have refused to have contact with other parts of the world. They are known as “uncontacted” people or tribes.

An example of such people is the Sentinelese. They are a group of uncontacted people who have strongly refused to have contact with the outside world, even to the extent of killing foreigners who venture unto their lands.

Related media: North Sentinel Island | Most Isolated People In The World

Meet The Sentinelese People

The Sentinelese are indigenous people who inhabit the North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal in the Northeastern ocean. They are surrounded by ocean water and the island is mostly made of tropical evergreen forests. In 1956, the government of India declared the North Sentinel Island a tribal reserve and prohibited travel within 5.6 kilometers (3.5 miles) of it.

Sightings Of The Natives

Due to their hostile behavior, there have only been a few documentation of Sentinelese people. In 2014, after a circumnavigation of the island, researchers put their height between 160 meters (5 feet 3 inches) and 165 centimeters (5 feet 5 inches) and described their complexion as “dark, shiny black” with well-aligned teeth. And non of the inhabitants noticed had any sign of obesity but rather had very prominent muscles.

Both males and females have been spotted wearing strings made out of the bark of trees with the men having daggers tucked into their waist-belts. They also wear some ornaments such as necklaces and headbands but are essentially naked. Some researchers have also reported that they seem to wear the jawbones of deceased relatives.

In 1971, a census of the islanders from a distance estimating the population at around 82. In 1981, the census stood at 100 and in 1986 it recorded 98 indigenes. In 2016, a handbook released by the Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI) on vulnerable tribe groups estimates the population between 100 and 150.

Some Sentinelese people

The Ways Of The Tribe

The Sentinelese have been described as hunter-gatherers. They are likely to use bows and arrows to hunt wildlife and use more rudimentary methods to catch local seafood such as mud crabs. They are not known to engage in agriculture. They are believed to reside in small temporary huts erected on four poles with slanted leaf-covered roofs. They also use canoes suitable for lagoon fishing but use long poles rather than paddles or oars to move them.

Hostile Approach To Strangers

There have been a good number of records of the Sentinelese being violent and even killing visitors on their island. In 1896, a convict escaped from the penal colony on Great Andaman Island on a makeshift raft and drifted across to the North Sentinel beach. His body was discovered by a search party some days later with several arrow piercings and a cutthroat.

In a much more recent happening, John Allen Chau, a 26-year-old American, trained and sent by the US-based Christian missionary organization All Nations, traveled to North Sentinel Island to contact and live among the Sentinelese in the hope of converting them to Christianity in November 2018. Chau traveled illegally to the island by bribing local fishermen since he would have been prevented from doing it legally.

He expressed a clear desire to convert the tribe and awareness of the risk of death he faced of the illegality of his visits writing in a letter:

“Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name? The eternal lives of this tribe are at hand and I think it’s worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people. Please do not be angry at them or God if I get killed… Don’t retrieve my body.”

Chau’s Encounter With The Sentinelese

On 15 November, Chau attempted his first visit in a fishing boat. The fishermen warned Chau not to go further, but he moved toward shore with a waterproof Bible. As he approached, he attempted to communicate with the islanders and offer gifts, but after facing hostile responses, he retreated.

On his second visit, Chau recorded that the islanders reacted to him with a mixture of amusement and hostility. He attempted to sing worship songs to them, and spoke to them in Xhosa (a South Africa language), after which they often fell silent.

Eventually, according to Chau’s last letter, when he tried to hand over fish and gifts, a boy shot a metal-headed arrow that pierced the Bible he was holding in front of his chest, after which he retreated again. On his final visit, on 17 November, Chau told the fishermen to leave without him. The fishermen later saw the islanders dragging Chau’s body, and the next day they saw his body on the shore.

Police subsequently arrested seven fishermen for assisting Chau to get close to the restricted island. Local authorities opened a murder case naming “unknown individuals,” but there was no suggestion that the Sentinelese would be charged. Indian officials made several attempts to recover Chau’s body but eventually abandoned those efforts. Chau’s body remains on the island today.

Image: Instagrammed by Missionary John Chau

A Reason For Their Hostility?

In 1880, to establish contact with the Sentinelese, Royal Navy officer Maurice Vidal Portman, who was serving as a colonial administrator to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, led an armed group of Europeans along with some Andamanese people (an uncontacted group who are less hostile) to North Sentinel Island.

On their arrival, the islanders fled into the forest. After several days of futile search, during which they found abandoned villages and paths, Portman’s men captured six individuals, an elderly man and woman, and four children. The man and woman died of illness shortly after their arrival in Port Blair and the children began to fall ill as well.

Portman hurriedly sent the children back to the North Sentinel Island with a large number of gifts to establish friendly relations and noted their hostility. This experience might be a reason the Sentinelese are hostile towards outsiders.

Any Amicable Meetings?

Although they have a history of being hostile, there have been times when they have been less violent. Two encounters in the early 1990s by AnSI proved that these people had less violent ways. As recounted by anthropologist Madhumala Chattopadhyay, she stated that she and her group approached the Island on a small boat and were met by four Sentinelese men with bows and arrows.

Madhumala Chattopadhyay with a Sentinelese woman and children.

“We started floating coconuts over to them,” Chattopadhyay said. “To our surprise, some of the Sentinelese came into the water to collect the coconuts.”

In a couple of hours that followed, Sentinelese men came into the water to collect the coconut, which did not grow on the Island. Some men and women stood at a distance looking. But they still met some hostilities.

“A young man aged about 19 or 20 stood along with a woman on the beach. He suddenly raised his bow. I called out to them to come and collect the coconuts using tribal words I had picked up while working with the other tribes in the region. The woman gave the boy a nudge and his arrow fell to the water. At the woman’s urging, he too came into the water and started picking coconuts,” she says.  

“Later some of the tribesmen came and touched the boat. The gesture, we felt, indicated that they were not scared of us now.”

Someone Made Contact. Finally!

The AnSI team climbed to the shore but the tribe did not take them to their settlement. Chattopadhyay returned with a larger team a month later with a bigger team because the administration wanted to make the tribe familiar with the researchers. This time the tribe came out to meet them but without weapons. The researchers floated coconuts on the water again but this time, the Sentinelese decided to climb the teams’ boat and take the entire bag of coconuts.

Madhumala Chattopadhyay with a Sentinelese woman and children.

“They even tried to take the rifle belonging to the police, mistaking it to be a piece of metal,” Chattopadhyay adds.

However, one of the team members then tried to take an ornament made out of leaves worn by a Sentinelese man.

“The man got angry and whipped out his knife. He gestured to us to leave immediately and we left,” she says.

Although a third trip was planned, bad weather spoiled it, “There was no one on the beach, and we returned without seeing anyone,” she recalls.

After that, the administration decided to reduce the frequency of visits to North Sentinel Island to protect the residents from exposure to diseases. After all these years and many efforts, the Sentinelese prefer to be left alone. As to if they will ever change their minds, that is up to time to tell.

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Written by: Abigail Adeyemi, Wed, Jan 05, 2022.


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