President & Group Managing Director: Dr.Shelly Ahmed | Editor in Chief & Group CEO: M H Ahssan

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Lost Tribe: The 'Sentinelese' Of Indian Ocean Islands

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INNLIVE EXCLUSIVE STORY
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By M H AHSSAN | INNLIVE

From the sky it appears to be an idyllic island with amazing beaches and a dense forest, but tourists or fishermen don’t dare to step foot on this outcrop in the Indian Ocean due to its inhabitants’ fearsome reputation.

Visitors who venture onto or too close to North Sentinel Island risk being attacked by members of a mysterious tribe who have rejected modern civilisation and prefer to have zero contact with the outside world.

When they do interact with outsiders, it usually involves violence – the indigenous Sentinelese tribe killed two men who were fishing illegally in 2006 and have been known to fire arrows and fling rocks at low-flying planes or helicopters on reconnaissance missions.

Located in the Bay of Bengal, North Sentinel Island belongs to India and remains an enigma, despite being populated for an estimated 60,000 years.


Untouched by modern civilisation, very little is known about the Sentinelese people, their language, their rituals and the island they call home.

It is too dangerous to approach them due to their hostility to outsiders, meaning they are rarely photographed up close and almost never seen on video. Most of the photos and video clips that do exist are of poor quality.

There are also conflicting reports on the tribe’s population, with most estimates putting it in the range of a few dozen to a few hundred.

It’s still unclear what impact the 2004 tsunami had on the population and the island, which is part of India’s chain of Andaman Islands, although the uncontacted tribe managed to avoid being wiped out. After the tsunami one member was photographed attempting to fire an arrow at an Indian Coast Guard helicopter.

Often referred to as a ‘Stone Age tribe’ – a title that advocates take offence to, as its members have adapted over time – the Sentinelese may be the most isolated tribe in the world, with the Indian government choosing not to meddle in their affairs.


The government made several failed attempts to establish contact, but has abandoned all attempts and allows the tribe to live how it chooses on an island that is about the size of Manhattan.

Indian authorities have gone as far as making it a crime to try to make contact with the Sentinelese. It is illegal to go within three miles of the island.

While privileged people are eating £15 burgers and splashing £100 on new trainers, the near-naked Sentinelese are surviving off the land and hunting for sea creatures.

But the waters surrounding the island appear to be under threat by even more illegal fishermen.

Survival International reported late last year that it had received reports that fishermen are targeting the area, with seven men being apprehended by the Indian Coast Guard.

One of the fishermen reportedly stepped foot on the island in close proximity to the tribe’s members, and he managed to leave unscathed.

Survival International, which advocates for tribal peoples’ rights, describes the Sentinelese as ‘the most vulnerable society on the planet’ as they are likely to have no immunity to common diseases such as flu and measles.

Due to their complete isolation, the chances of them being wiped out by an epidemic are very high, according to the organisation.

In a statement, Survival International’s director, Stephen Corry, said: ‘The Great Andamanese tribes of India’s Andaman Islands were decimated by disease when the British colonised the islands in the 1800s.

‘The most recent to be pushed into extinction was the Bo tribe, whose last member died only four years ago. The only way the Andamanese authorities can prevent the annihilation of another tribe is to ensure North Sentinel Island is protected from outsiders.’

The organisation said the islanders are ‘extremely healthy, alert and thriving’, despite threats from the outside world and their 'old world' way of life.

Their hostility towards outsiders can at least be partially attributed to past conflicts. Survival International said 'the outside world has brought them little but violence and contempt'.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s several tribespeople were killed in battles with armed salvagers who visited the island to recover iron and other goods from a shipwreck.


The Sentinelese
The Sentinelese attracted international attention in the wake of the 2004 Asian tsunami, when a member of the tribe was photographed on a beach, firing arrows at a helicopter which was checking on their welfare.

The Sentinelese live on their own small forested island called North Sentinel, which is approximately the size of Manhattan. They continue to resist all contact with outsiders, attacking anyone who comes near. In 2006, two Indian fishermen, who had moored their boat near North Sentinel to sleep after poaching in the waters around the island, were killed when their boat broke loose and drifted onto the shore. Poachers are known to fish illegally in the waters around the island, catching turtles and diving for lobsters and sea cucumbers.

Most of what is known about the Sentinelese has been gathered by viewing them from boats moored more than an arrows distance from the shore and a few brief periods where the Sentinelese allowed the authorities to get close enough to hand over some coconuts. Even what they call themselves is unknown.

The Sentinelese hunt and gather in the forest, and fish in the coastal waters. Unlike the neighbouring Jarawa tribe, they make boats – these are very narrow outrigger canoes, described as ‘too narrow to fit two feet in’. These can only be used in shallow waters as they are steered and propelled with a pole like a punt.


It is thought that the Sentinelese live in three small bands. They have two different types of houses; large communal huts with several hearths for a number of families, and more temporary shelters, with no sides, which can sometimes be seen on the beach, with space for one nuclear family.

The women wear fibre strings tied around their waists, necks and heads. The men also wear necklaces and headbands, but with a thicker waist belt. The men carry spears, bows and arrows.

Although commonly described in the media as ‘Stone Age’ this is clearly not true. There is no reason to believe the Sentinelese have been living in the same way for the tens of thousands of years they are likely to have been in the Andamans. Their ways of life will have changed and adapted many times, like all peoples. For instance, they now use metal which has been washed up or which they have recovered from shipwrecks on the island reefs. The iron is sharpened and used to tip their arrows.

From what can be seen from a distance, the Sentinelese islanders are clearly extremely healthy, alert and thriving, in marked contrast to the Onge and the Great Andamanese tribes to whom the British attempted to bring ‘civilization’. The people who are seen on the shores of North Sentinel look proud, strong and healthy and at any one time observers have noted many children and pregnant women.

In the late 1800s M.V. Portman, the British ‘Officer in Charge of the Andamanese’ landed, with a large team, on North Sentinel Island in the hope of contacting the Sentinelese. The party included trackers, from Andamanese tribes who had already made contact with the British, officers and convicts.

They found recently abandoned villages and paths but the Sentinelese were nowhere to be seen. After a few days they came across an elderly couple and some children who, ‘in the interest of science’ were taken to Port Blair, the island’s capital. Predictably they soon fell ill and the adults died. The children were taken back to their island with a number of gifts.

It is not known how many Sentinelese became ill as a result of this ‘science’ but it’s likely that the children would have passed on their diseases and the results would have been devastating. It is mere conjecture, but might this experience account for the Sentinelese’s continued hostility and rejection of outsiders?

During the 1970s the Indian authorities made occasional trips to North Sentinel in an attempt to befriend the tribe. These were often at the behest of dignitaries who wanted an adventure. On one of these trips two pigs and a doll were left on the beach. The Sentinelese speared the pigs and buried them, along with the doll. Such visits became more regular in the 1980s; the teams would try to land, at a place out of the reach of arrows, and leave gifts such as coconuts, bananas and bits of iron. Sometimes the Sentinelese appeared to make friendly gestures; at others they would take the gifts into the forest and then fire arrows at the contact party.

In 1991 there appeared to be a breakthrough. When the officials arrived in North Sentinel the tribe gestured for them to bring gifts and then, for the first time, approached without their weapons. They even waded into the sea towards the boat to collect more coconuts. However, this friendly contact was not to last, although gift dropping trips continued for some years, encounters were not always friendly. At times the Sentinelese aimed their arrows at the contact team, and once they attacked a wooden boat with their adzes (a stone axe for cutting wood). No one knows why the Sentinelese first dropped, and then resumed their hostility to the contact missions, nor if any died as a result of diseases caught during these visits.

In 1996 the regular gift dropping missions stopped. Many officials were beginning to question the wisdom of attempting to contact a people who were healthy and content and who had thrived on their own for up to 55,000 years. Friendly contact had had only a devastating impact on the Great Andamanese tribes. Sustained contact with the Sentinelese would almost certainly have tragic consequences.

In the following years only occasional visits were made, again with a mixed response. After the Tsunami in 2004, officials made two visits to check, from a distance, that the tribe seemed healthy and were not suffering in any way. They then declared that no further attempts would be made to contact the Sentinelese.

Their extreme isolation makes them very vulnerable to diseases to which they have no immunity, meaning contact would almost certainly have tragic consequences for them.

Following a campaign by Survival and local organisations, the Indian government abandoned plans to contact the Sentinelese, and their current position is still that no further attempts to contact the tribe will be made.

Periodic checks, from boats anchored at a safe distance from shore, are made to ensure that the Sentinelese appear well and have not chosen to seek contact.
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