The death of an American missionary, John Allen Chau, who illegally visited North Sentinel Island, brought global attention to the reclusive inhabitants of this small island, who are among the few remaining "uncontacted" groups in the world. The island's isolation is due in part to its geography, with no natural harbors and surrounded by a shallow reef, and in part to protective laws enforced by the Indian government, as well as the fierce defense of their home and privacy by the islanders themselves. However, despite their uncontacted status, outsiders have visited the island multiple times over the last 200 years, and these encounters have often ended poorly for both sides.
Who Are The Sentinelese?
Land of the lost tribe: North Sentinel Island is home to a group of mostly "uncontacted" people who have remained isolated partly due to geography and protective laws enforced by the Indian government, and partly due to their own fierce defense of their home and privacy. However, outsiders have visited the island several times over the last 200 years, with often disastrous consequences. The Sentinelese people, who are related to other indigenous groups in the Andaman Islands, are estimated to number somewhere between 80 and 150 people. They live in lean-to-huts with slanted roofs and use small outrigger canoes to fish and harvest crabs in the shallow, calm waters inside the reef. They are hunter-gatherers who carry bows and arrows, as well as spears and knives, and weave mesh baskets and use wooden adzes tipped with iron. Despite one visit to a Sentinelese village in 1967, outsiders know very little about their language, culture, and way of life. It is clear, however, that they prefer to remain isolated and have made it known that they do not welcome visitors.
Why Don't The Sentinelese Like Visitors?
In 1771, a passing East India Company ship saw lights on Sentinel Island's shore, but did not stop. It wasn't until almost a century later, when an Indian ship called the Nineveh ran aground on the island's reef, that the Sentinelese were disturbed again. The shipwreck survivors spent three days on the beach before the Sentinelese attacked with bows and arrows. The British declared Sentinel Island part of their colonial holdings in 1880, and a young naval officer named Maurice Vidal Portman led a party to explore the island. They found only abandoned villages and six people, an elderly couple and four children, whom they captured and brought to the colonial capital. The couple died, and the children were returned to the island, possibly spreading illness to their people. In 1896, an escaped convict washed ashore on North Sentinel Island and was killed by the Sentinelese. The British wisely decided to leave the island alone for the next hundred years or so.
Is It Possible To Make Friends?
Anthropologist Trinok Nath Pandit and his team, working under the Indian government, visited North Sentinel Island a century after the Nineveh wreck. Similar to Portman's experience, they found deserted huts and abandoned fires. Pandit's team left gifts for the islanders, but naval officers and Indian police accompanying them stole from the Sentinelese despite the anthropologists' objections. Since India claimed the island in 1970, Pandit and his colleagues made sporadic attempts to contact the islanders, leaving coconuts and other gifts. Although they didn't like live pigs or plastic toys, the Sentinelese enjoyed metal pots and pans and coconuts. However, they remained cautious, and the visitors always left with bows and arrows aimed at them.
After 25 years of sporadic contact, a group of islanders came to the beach in 1991 without weapons, and later that day, two dozen Sentinelese people stood on the beach, displaying their weapons, before burying them in the sand. However, the Sentinelese made it clear that they had limits on their hospitality, and one man used a cutting gesture to indicate that the visitors should leave.
The relationship between the anthropologists and the islanders never progressed beyond coconut handouts, and the Indian government suspended the visits in 1996. In 2004, after the tsunami, Indian Coast Guard helicopters flew over the island, and the Sentinelese attacked them with bows and arrows. In 2006, the Sentinelese killed two fishermen whose boat drifted ashore.
Pandit has voiced his support for non-interference with the Sentinelese's way of life. As per the retired anthropologist, the Sentinelese have conveyed their disinterest in contact and have been thriving autonomously. Nonetheless, Indian authorities conduct periodic surveys on the island.
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