In the 20th century where technology is developing at an unprecedented rate and people are mulling about the possibility of a nuclear war, it is hard to believe that there exists a place where people live in paleolithic-age lifestyle, completely oblivious to the changes occurring outside. This is the truth of Sentinelese Tribe, a tribe living in the North Sentinel Island located in the Bay of Bengal. They have refrained from all outside contact and fiercely protect their island from anyone approaching it. The thick canopy of the forest prevents the world from gathering any information about the Sentinelese people, and we don’t even know how many people actually inhabit the island. Keep reading this article to find ten such lesser-known facts about North Sentinel Island.
1. The North Sentinel Island is merely 59.6 km2, roughly the same area as New York’s Manhattan Island. In 2004, a tsunami changed the island’s geography by lifting the island by one to two meters, extending its boundaries on the west and south sides by about one kilometer and uniting an islet with the main island.
North Sentinel Island is located in the Bay of Bengal. It is one of the islands comprising the Andaman Island Archipelago. It is merely 142 km away from Sumatra and 1,200 km from mainland India. The topography of this island changed on 26 December 2004 after an earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean.
The earthquake tilted the plate tectonics under the island and lifted it by one to two meters. As the land lifted, surrounding corals were exposed. The exposed corals have now become dry land or shallow lagoons. This has also extended the boundaries of the Island on the west and south side by as much as one km. Before the 2004 earthquake and tsunami, there was a forested islet called “Constance Islet” located about 600 meters away from the island’s coastline. The earthquake united the Constance Islet with North Sentinel Island. (1, 2)
2. Inhabitants of North Sentinel Island are one of the few uncontacted tribes left in the world completely untouched by modern civilization and are believed to have been there for around 60,000 years. The Indian Navy enforces a three-mile buffer around the island.
The inhabitants of the North Sentinel Island and other islands comprising the Andaman Islands are Negrito, a dark-skinned ethnic group. According to Survival International, a rights group for indigenous and uncontacted peoples, the Negrito tribe has its origin in Africa. They migrated to India through Indonesia more than 60,000 years ago. Since the 1800s, multiple attempts have been made to contact the Sentinelese people, but they have all been met with hostilities which sometimes resulted in casualties.
The uncontacted Sentinelese tribe is completely untouched by modern civilization. So, they may have absolutely no resistance to modern illness. Any contact with the outside world might eventually result in the death of the whole tribe. That’s why the Indian government has decided to pursue no further contact with this tribe. Also, the Indian government has enforced a three-mile buffer around North Sentinel Island. The area is patrolled by the Indian Navy to ensure that no contact is made with the Sentinelese tribe without permission from the Indian government. (1, 2, 3)
3. “Sentinelese” is the presumed language of North Sentinel Island. Nothing is known of their original language due to lack of interaction between the Sentinelese people and the rest of the world.
The first time the modern world heard the Sentinelese language was in 1980. During this time, some researchers were trying to communicate with the islanders. Even though the researchers failed to interact with the islanders due to the language barrier, they heard some words that the islanders were using to communicate among themselves.
Since there is almost negligible interaction of Sentinelese people with any outsider, almost nothing is known about their language. When the researchers heard the words spoken by islanders, they could only deduce that the language is unrelated to the ones spoken by tribes in nearby islands. That’s why the Sentinelese language remains an unclassified language even today. (source)
4. The Sentinelese people have refused any contact with the outside world and attempt to kill anyone who lands on the island. It is estimated that there are 50 to 200 people dwelling on the island.
Due to the hostile behavior of Sentinelese and lack of contact, the actual number of the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island is not known. In 2011, the census of India officially recorded 12 males and three females. One of the leading newspapers of the country, the Times of India, described it as a “wild guess.” It is estimated that there might be anywhere from 15 to 500 individuals living on this island. (source)
5. Sentinelese are still believed to be living in the “Stone Age.” The arts of metalworking and agriculture are unknown to them, but they have switched from all-wooden arrows to metal-tipped arrows by using metals scavenged from a ship that ran aground in 1981.
The lifestyle of the Sentinelese people is “ancient nomadic” and is similar to the one led by people in the Paleolithic era. They use bows and arrows to catch seafood and hunt. They live in community huts made from straw and leaves. The use and origin of fire among the Sentinelese people is a topic of debate. While some believe they don’t know how to create fire, others believe they create fire by rubbing stones or by preserving the fire that they obtained from a lightning struck.
One of the most interesting changes reported in Sentinelese people is the use of metal-tipped arrow while earlier they used all-wooden arrows. Since these people don’t know the art of metallurgy, it is believed that they have scavenged metal from a ship that ran aground near the island in 1981. Also, they accepted aluminium cookware left on the island by the National Geographic Society in 1974. (1, 2)
6. The Sentinelese survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami with few or no casualties while it killed more than 230,000 people in surrounding countries. It seems the Sentinelese sensed the oncoming tsunami and escaped to higher ground beforehand.
On 26 December 2004, a dreadful Tsunami hit the Sumatra, Andaman, and Nicobar islands, Thailand, mainland India, and Sri Lanka. The devastating tsunami and earthquake resulted in the loss of thousands of life. Worried about the inhabitants of the North Sentinel island, the Indian govt sent a helicopter to survey the island. It was observed that the Sentinelese appeared to have adapted quite well. Even though the coastline changed beyond recognition, the tribe and the wildlife adapted with unbelievable flexibility.
According to government officials and anthropologists, the Sentinelese people might have been saved by some ancient knowledge about the environment. They might have became alert to the oncoming danger by studying the movement of wind, sea, and birds. According to Ashish Roy, a local environmentalist and lawyer, the Sentinelese people have a “sixth sense” that we don’t possess. He had also mentioned that these people can smell the winds and gauge the depth of the sea with the sound of their oars. (1, 2, 3)
7. The first expedition to the North Sentinel Island was made in the late 1800s by British colonists. They kidnapped an elderly couple and four children. The couple died and the children were returned back to the island with gifts.
In 1880, Maurice Vidal Portman, a British naval officer and colonial administrator to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, led an expedition to North Sentinel Island. He was accompanied by an armed group of Europeans. Upon arrival, the islanders got scared and fled for safety. Portman and his team landed and spent several days ashore. During this time, they searched for the inhabitants but found abandoned villages and paths.
After some days, they found six individuals, an elderly couple, and four children. Fascinated, Portman captured them and took them to Port Blair, the capital of Andaman and Nicobar. But shortly before arrival, the couple died, likely from a disease. In an attempt to befriend the Sentinelese, Portman sent the children back with gifts. After that, he ended the experiment calling it a failure. In his 1899 book, Portman wrote: “We cannot be said to have done anything more than increase their general terror of, and hostility to, all comers.”(1, 2, 3)
8. In 1974, a National Geographic documentary team went to the island. but they were turned away by arrows. The film’s director took an eight-foot-long arrow in the thigh.
In order to shoot a documentary about the lives of people living in the Andaman Islands, a National Geographic film crew visited North Sentinel Island in 1974. They were accompanied by some anthropologists and a few policemen. As the crew approached the shore, the Sentinelese emerged from the jungle and shot arrows at the boat.
The crew landed at a safe point and left some gifts including coconuts, aluminium cookware, a live pig, and a doll. But the Sentinelese launched another round of arrows. One of the arrow struck in the thigh of the director. The man whose arrow wounded the director withdrew in the jungle and laughed proudly. Others rushed out and buried the doll and the pig. Then they retreated back in the jungle taking the coconuts and cookware with them. (1, 2)
9. Since 1967, the Indian government made several attempts to establish “friendship” with the Sentinelese. In 1991, the first peaceful contact was made where islanders waded out to a dinghy to take coconuts directly from the visitors.
Starting in the late 1960s, the Indian government conducted dozens of surveys of North Sentinel Island. The expedition was led by Indian anthropologist T.N. Pandit. For over nearly four decades, he made multiple visits to the island with a dozen or more team members.
His first visit was in 1967. After reaching the island, Pandit and his team found footprints leading into the forest. Following the footprints, they reached a place where 18 community huts were situated. The huts showed signs of recent occupation by about 40 to 50 people. The team then returned without making any contact with the islanders. In his later visits, Pandit dropped off gifts while accompanied by local police. During an interview, he said that the islanders were not happy to see them. They were watching them carefully and picked up their bows and arrows.
After multiple tries, the first peaceful contact was made in 1991. During this expedition, some anthropologists stood waist-deep in the water near the shore with gifts. The islanders emerged from the forest and took coconuts from them but did not allow Pandit and his team to come ashore on the island. (1,2)
10. Almost all other intentional or unintentional attempts to visit the island have met with hostility including the deaths of two fishermen in 2006 when their boat drifted towards the island as its makeshift anchor failed.
The North Sentinel island is a bushy, hilly area, and anyone who ever dared to visit it was greeted by flying arrows. One of the most notable incidents occurred in August 1981 when a cargo ship, the Primrose, ran aground near North Sentinel Island. The crew of the ship were stranded and awaiting help. Some days later, about 50 islanders emerged armed with arrows and spears. Nearly a week later, the crew of 28 sailors were rescued by helicopter. As the crew left, the Sentinelese scavenged the ship and used metals from the ship to make tools. The wreck of the Primrose can be seen even today in Google Maps.
The next time the Sentinelese displayed their hostile behavior towards outsiders was in 2006. On 27 January 2006, two Indian sailors were killed by the islanders. The fishermen, Sunder Raj and Pandit Tiwari, were illegally harvesting crabs near North Sentinel Island. On that fateful night, the makeshift anchor of their boat failed and the boat drifted into the shallows near the island. There, a group of Sentinelese warriors attacked the boat and killed the fishermen. Three days later, the buried bodies were discovered by the Indian Coast Guard and rescue helicopters. They were able to recover only one body before the helicopter was attacked by about 50 tribesmen. The second body was never retrieved.
The most recent incident which brought North Sentinel Island into the world’s attention is the death of John Allen Chau in November 2018. Allen Chau was a 26-year-old American missionary. Hoping to introduce Christianity to the islanders, Chau travelled illegally to North Sentinel Island. He started his travel on 15 November after paying some local fishermen to take him to the island in their fishing boat. He started his journey after nightfall to avoid detection.
The fishermen took him to within around 500-700 meters from the shore in their boat. Then, they warned Chau not to go further. But Chau continued his journey alone in a canoe. Later that day, he came back to the boat with arrow injuries. He went to the island again on the 16th. The Sentinelese people broke his canoe, and Chau had to swim back to the fishing boat. He went to the island again on 17th. Later, the fishermen reported seeing the Sentinelese people dragging Chau’s body around.
The police have arrested the seven fishermen who assisted Chau in reaching the island. The human rights group Survival International had expressed concern about the contact between Allen Chau and the tribesmen. They said, “It’s not impossible that the Sentinelese have just been infected by deadly pathogens to which they have no immunity with the potential to wipe out the entire tribe.” (1, 2, 3, 4)