Far across the sea of the Bay of Bengal lies the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an Indian Archipelago. North Sentinel Island is one among the family of Andaman islands, which is regarded as one of the world’s forbidden islands. It is covered by dense vegetation and a beach that surrounds the island.
It is home to an indigenous group of people known as the Sentinelese, who for thousands of years have sought to remain isolated from the outside world and are known to vigorously reject any contact with the outsiders.
Any attempt to establish contact with them has been retorted with flying arrows. Except for a few expeditions, all encounters were met with hostility. Therefore very little is known about this inscrutable tribe of people who wholeheartedly defend their resolve to stay isolated.
Much of the Sentinelese people’s knowledge was concluded from information gathered remotely from a distance and hence remains ambiguous. Moreover, the dense forest covering the island also poses difficulty in making observations through helicopters or airplanes.
Despite these obstacles, several attempts were made with an effort to establish relations with the Sentinelese. The only knowledge about this particular tribe of people was gained during such encounters. Here are some of the fascinating facts about North Sentinel Island and the mysterious tribe of people who call it their home.
Facts About North Sentinel Island
1. The Sentinelese are one among the few tribes in the entire world that have been truly isolated.
The Sentinelese tribe is one among the few tribes in the entire world that have been truly isolated and untouched by modern civilization. They show hostility towards any visitors and voluntarily choose to remain as an isolated tribe.
The reason for their hostility is unknown, though some have speculated that it could be due to some unfortunate incidents from the past that threatened the people. It may be a pledge passed down from their ancestors for generations, or it may simply be an attempt to protect their people from disappearing due to contact with outsiders.
However, it is also due to this hostility that this tribe has thrived for thousands of years, unlike many tribes that disappeared over the centuries due to their contact with modern civilization.
2. The Sentinelese tribe survived the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake.
North Sentinel Island survived the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and the tsunami following that, which killed more than 230,000 people across dozens of countries near the Indian Ocean. After the earthquake, the Indian coast guard helicopter went to survey the land to check for survivors and found that they were hardly affected.
It is believed that the people of North Sentinel Island may have been observant about the changes in the movement of the winds and the environment around them. This led them to take the necessary course of action and move towards the higher ground to protect themselves from the impending danger posed by the earthquake.
As a result of this earthquake, the island’s topography was also changed. It tilted the tectonic plate under the island and uplifted the entire island by one to two meters.
This caused the surrounding coral reefs to be exposed, which ultimately dried up and became dry land, extending the island’s terrain to as much as one kilometer towards the west and south directions.
3. Visiting the North Sentinel Island is prohibited by the Indian government.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Act of 1956 declared the entire island and the waters surrounding the island up to 3 nautical miles as a tribal reserve and exclusion zone, prohibiting visitors from visiting the island or making any attempt to interact with the people there without permission by the Indian authorities.
This law was established to protect the people in North Sentinel Island from coming in contact with modern diseases to which they have not developed immunity as several neighboring tribes have suffered destructive impacts due to such incidences in the past.
The entire area is under patrol by the Indian Navy to ensure that no visit or contact is made with the people on the island without permission from the concerned authorities.
4. There is no data regarding the actual population of the island.
The 2001 census of India recorded about 39 individuals, and the 2011 census recorded only 15 individuals on North Sentinel Island. However, the population of Sentinelese people is estimated to be about 50 to 200, but these are just estimates made by anthropologists based on the number of people the island could support.
Hence the actual census is not available due to the inability to survey the land, preventing the collection of any data or information about the island and its inhabitants. So the population could be as large as 500 individuals or as small as 15.
5. The Sentinelese are the descendants of the first human populations in Africa.
The people of North Sentinel Island have been living on this island for about 60,000 years. They are thought to be the descendants of the first human populations in Africa and also among the first to migrate out of the continent.
The actual story as to how they landed in North Sentinel Island is unknown. However, scholars and researchers speculate that in those ages, the sea levels were a great deal lower than today, so it may have been possible for them to make their voyage on foot across vast lands to where the present-day islands are located.
6. The Sentinelese language is not known by anyone outside of their community.
Their language, which is designated as “Sentinelese language,” is not understood by other Negritos of the Andaman region, although it has been considered as one of the languages of the Great Andamanese tribes.
This may be attributed to the fact that the Sentinelese tribe has isolated themselves for so long that no one outside of their community can understand or speak their language.
An attempt was made by Anthropologist Triloknath Pandit, where he brought over Onge speakers, who are also a tribe in Andaman, but it ended in failure, and on one occasion, it seemed to have offended the Sentinelese.
Other instances where Jarawa speakers were brought over, also resulted in similar outcomes. Therefore, it was concluded that they had no similarity in languages with the neighboring tribes in the area.
7. The Sentinelese people are healthy and vibrant but at the same time vulnerable to modern illnesses.
The people of North Sentinel Island are healthy, unlike the other tribes in Andaman. Since close contacts are not possible, all observations have been made remotely, and from what has been observed from a distance, the Sentinelese appear to be healthy, vigorous, and strong.
However, they are highly likely vulnerable to modern diseases, even common diseases like flu and measles, as they have not built any immunity due to the absence of contact with the rest of the world. Hence expeditions under official permissions were made only after a thorough screening for any communicable diseases or the like.
Several pregnant women were also seen at the shore along with children. Hence, they seem to be a group of thriving people, so they have continued to survive for thousands of years without any external help.
8. Hunting and gathering are their primary means of livelihood.
They are hunter-gatherers and depend on these means for their livelihood. No signs of agricultural practices have been found in the community. They hunt wild animals and gather honey, fruits, and any edible food that grows on the island.
Seafood such as crabs and fish has been their main source of food. They were found fishing using narrow outrigger canoes, which were known to barely fit two feet in and can only be taken into shallow waters.
9. Weapons and tools used by the Sentinelese are mostly made of stone and animal bones.
The Sentinelese use bows and arrows as weapons, and their tools are mostly made of stone and animal bones, much like the people during the stone age. However, they were found using metal-tipped arrows instead of wooden arrows in recent times.
It is speculated that they might have scavenged the metals that were washed ashore from the ship Primrose which was stranded in 1981 near the island.
10. The Sentinelese use fire kindled by lightning.
The Sentinelese rely on lightning that strikes their island to kindle fire. It is said that they guard the fire to prevent the embers from burning out. They do not seem to have the technology or the means to create fire on their own.
11. Fiber strings, necklaces, and headbands made of vines are popular attires among them.
The Sentinelese do not wear any clothing. The women wear fiber strings around their waist, neck, and head. Men were also seen wearing necklaces and headbands made of vines, which seem to be popular among them, and their waist belts were thicker. They were also seen wearing leaf ornaments.
They’ve learned to make use of red dye, which is displayed in their brightly colored, red fiber string ornaments. Men also carried weapons like spears, arrows, and bows.
12. The Sentinelese are fond of coconuts though they do not grow on their island.
Coconut is a national gift. They seem to have grown quite fond of coconuts though coconuts do not grow on their island. Bags of coconuts were offered on several expeditions that were made by anthropologists under the authority of the Indian government in an attempt to pacify them and build a good rapport.
They do not seem to prefer live pigs as gifts, as in one incident, a live pig offered as a gift was speared to the ground and buried immediately. The same treatment was given to plastic toys as well, but they seem to have a liking towards metal pots and pans as they accepted them heartily.
13. In 1867, 106 passengers and crewmen in an Indian merchant ship called Nineveh survived the encounter with the Sentinelese.
In the year 1867, an Indian merchant ship called Nineveh was shipwrecked near North Sentinel Island. It was reported that 106 passengers and crewmen landed safely on the island’s shores, but on the third day, the Sentinelese attacked them.
The captain of the ship recalled that the islanders were completely naked and had short hair with their noses painted red, and the tip of the arrows was made of iron. The survivors managed to drive them away using sticks and stones. Fortunately, a rescue ship was sent to rescue the survivors.
14. A British naval officer by the name of Maurice Vidal Portman made the first expedition to North Sentinel Island.
The first expedition to North Sentinel Island island was made by Maurice Vidal Portman, who was a British naval officer, in 1880. During his expedition, the Sentinelese initially fled into hiding at the sight of the expedition team.
The island, therefore, seemed deserted, but they finally came across an elderly couple with four children whom they captured and took with them to Port Blair.
He intended to make friendly relationships with the people of North Sentinel Island, but unfortunately, the adults died shortly after arriving at Port Blair due to some illnesses. He then sent back the children to the island with some gifts. The children, on reaching, hurried inside the forest without ever looking back.
This incident, however, seemed to have done less to make friendly rapport and more to increase their hostility towards outsiders. As some have put it forward that the illness carried by those children into the community on their return could be a reason why the Sentinelese became more hostile towards outsiders.
15. Triloknath Pandit was the first Anthropologist to visit North Sentinel Island.
The first Anthropologist to land on North Sentinel Island was Triloknath Pandit in 1967. He is said to be one of the few people who has much knowledge about the Sentinelese. He made his first expedition as a part of an expedition group.
They went about offering gifts such as coconuts, iron tools, pots, pans, and so on. However, the Sentinelese fled from the shore and hid. Hence no contact was made at that time.
After more than 20 years of unsuccessful attempts, finally, in 1991, the first contact expedition was established. It was stated that the Sentinelese voluntarily came forward towards them and accepted the gifts that were offered to them.
They made attempts to communicate with them but were unsuccessful as the islanders were engrossed in the gifts. They talked among themselves, but the expedition team was unable to understand them.
16. In 2006, two Indian fishermen were killed by the Sentinelese near the island.
An unfortunate event that took place on North Sentinel Island was the 2006 incident where two Indian fishermen were killed by the Sentinelese while they were harvesting crabs near the island. Unbeknownst to the two fishermen, their boat drifted off to the island. The Indian Coast Guard managed to retrieve one body though the islanders shot arrows at them.
17. In 2018, an American by the name of John Allen Chau was killed by the Sentinelese on the island.
On the 26th of November 2018, a 26-year-old American by the name of John Allen Chau had visited North Sentinel Island illegally and was killed by the Sentinelese.
It was said that Chau had paid the local fishermen to take him to the island in an effort to bring Christianity to the people there. The fishermen reported that they saw Chau being struck by arrows and his body being taken into the forest.
Seven people were arrested for illegally helping Chau reach the island. Although attempts were made to retrieve his body, the police ultimately had to abandon the search as it was deemed dangerous for both parties.
Much about the people of North Sentinel Island is still shrouded in mystery. They’ve been known for their hostility due to the several unfortunate encounters that led to them killing the outsiders prying into their territory.
Nevertheless, anthropologist Mr. Pandit asserts that that is a wrong perspective of them as we are the ones trying to invade their territory.
Despite many instances of tense situations prevailing even at the expedition, Mr. Pandit refuses to label the Sentinelese as hostile and expresses that their willingness to be left alone should be respected.
He recalls them as peace-loving people who never sought to harm people or cause trouble outside of their territory, and the only way to prevent them from being completely annihilated is to ensure that North Sentinel Island is guarded against outsiders.
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