In the Bay of Bengal, which stretches from the east coast of India to the west coasts of Burma and Thailand, a tiny island is home to some of the last uncontacted peoples in the world. This island is known as North Sentinel Island, but we have no idea what its inhabitants, the Sentinelese, refer to it as. Why? Because hardly anyone has been able to get close enough to speak to them. No one even knows the exact number of people currently living on the island. Researchers must rely on photos taken from aircrafts flying above and historical anecdotes for any information on the people living there.
Early British explorer Maurice Portman landed on the island in the 18th century, and captured a few Sentinelese people, but they were eventually returned to the island after a couple of them sickened and died. Throughout the 1990’s, several Indian expeditions attempted to make contact with the Sentinelese, and a peaceful meeting was made by anthropologist T.N Pandit in 1991. This visit was recounted by an eyewitness, who said:
‘Quite a few discarded their weapons and gestured to us to throw the fish. The women came out of the shade to watch our antics… A few men came and picked up the fish. They appeared to be gratified, but there did not seem to be much softening to their hostile attitude… They all began shouting some incomprehensible words. We shouted back and gestured to indicate that we wanted to be friends. The tension did not ease. At this moment, a strange thing happened — a woman paired off with a warrior and sat on the sand in a passionate embrace. This act was being repeated by other women, each claiming a warrior for herself, a sort of community mating, as it were. Thus did the militant group diminish. This continued for quite some time and when the tempo of this frenzied dance of desire abated, the couples retired into the shade of the jungle. However, some warriors were still on guard. We got close to the shore and threw some more fish which were immediately retrieved by a few youngsters. It was well past noon and we headed back to the ship.’
However, Indian visits ceased in 1997, and the Sentinelese have remained uncontactable ever since. They choose to reject any interactions with the outside world, and attack anyone who gets too close. Helicopters flying overhead have been met with hails of arrows, and in 2006, some unlucky fishermen were killed by the Sentinelese after their fishing boat drifted too close to their waters.
So, what do we know about them? Photographic evidence shows no sign of agriculture or use of fire, so it appears that the Sentinelese exist entirely as hunter-gatherers. The aforementioned Indian expeditions found that there were probably between 2-6 groups living on the island, with each group consisting of 20-40 people. It was hard for the expeditions to tell exactly how many groups were there, as many hid from them. Physically, they are quite small and closely resemble other indigenous peoples of the Andaman Islands, which are very close by. They have been known to salvage metal parts from ships that run aground on nearby reefs, and incorporate this metal into certain items, including weaponry.
Although North Sentinel Island is technically considered to be part of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the Sentinelese have autonomy from the government, whose only involvement seems to be attempting to take census figures, monitoring the island, and discouraging people from going there. It is incredible to think that in these modern globalized times, ‘stone age’ tribal groups can still exist with almost no contact with the outside world, but the Sentinelese have proven that this is possible. They have made it clear that they wish to be left alone, and the rest of the world has obliged.
For more information on this topic, see http://www.andaman.org/BOOK/reprints/goodheart/rep-goodheart.htm