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The Sentinelese tribe living on an island in the Indian Ocean have rejected outsider contact for centuries and still greet visitors with arrow attack

Magda Origjanska
Photo Author: Agência de Notícias do Acre: Gleilson Miranda / Governo do Acre CC BY 2.0

While most of us as members of today’s ultra-connected society find it hard to stay in one place for a long time, or spend a day, if not an hour, without communicating with all of our Facebook friends, we live alongside an isolated tribe that lives on a tiny island in the Indian Ocean and they want nothing to do with contemporary society.

These people are called the Sentinelese and they live on North Sentinel Island, having almost no contact with the outside world. They are also known as the “uncontacted tribe,” so, understandably, very few photo records of the tribe exist, excluding those that have been taken from afar. However, the Sentinelese are different from other isolated tribes in that people have known about them for centuries.

In the past, many have tried to make contact with the tribe members, including colonial European explorers and even the Indian coast guard, as well as other people from other nations, but the tribe has almost always rejected any kind of communication, expressing this attitude through arrow attacks on visitors. The Sentinelese never accepted agriculture as a possible source of food—they are still active hunter-gatherers who carry their custom-made tools and weapons made of metal, many of them fashioned from wrecked ships on the reefs.

 

The Sentinelese are believed to have originated in Africa and may have lived on the North Sentinel Island for 60,000 years. This island belongs to a chain of islands that constitutes the Great Andaman archipelago, settled in the middle of the Indian Ocean between India and the Malay Peninsula. The North Sentinel Island is a remote place, though not so isolated as some corners of the Amazon, for example. Yet its settlers have completely rejected any contact with the outside world. The fact that they have had such little contact with other people for so many years is also illustrated in their language, which is very different from that of the other islanders of Andaman.

Which begs the question: But how did the members of this tribe manage to stay genuinely isolated from society for so long?

Historical records take us to the 19th century, when a British expedition kidnapped six natives of the island and later returned those who weren’t ravaged by illness.  The Sentinelese were described as hostile, “savage” and “backward.” Their later hostility was regarded as a defense mechanism from the previous encounters with the outside world that had brought them violence and disregard. In 1897, an elderly couple and a few children were taken by force and brought to Port Blair. The written records of the Sentinelese monitoring and examination revealed a rapid decline of the couple’s health that resulted in death. The returned children settlers brought gifts given by the kidnappers, which was a common practice for establishing peace. Nevertheless, no other visitors tried again until the mid 20th century.

The Indian government made a futile attempt to establish contact with the tribe in the 1960s. The explorers were welcomed by Sentinelese arrows. Two decades later, a Panamanian freighter called the Primrose was stranded on the island’s reefs and waited an entire week before being rescued as arrows continually rained down on them. The only distinct, almost social, contact with the inhabitants occurred in 1991 when the Indian anthropologist Madhumala Chattopadhyay traveled to the island several times. Despite the success of these attempts, the Indian government stopped the trips in order to provide protection from diseases.

Soon after, the Sentinelese abolished any of their sociable tendencies and continued with their arrow attacks as recently as 2004, when an Indian Ocean tsunami threatened and a helicopter was attacked. Interestingly, it seemed almost as if the tribe had special forecast powers in regard to the tsunami as they had found higher ground before the major hit.

Some believe that the islanders have been extremely wise to have chosen to protect their lifestyle in this way. The Sentinelese are vital, seemingly healthy and alert, unlike the other two Andaman tribes, the Onge and the Great Andamanese, whose numbers have declined. Some say that due to Western influence, they are now pretty dependent on Western civilization’s handouts.

Here is another story from us: Shaka Zulu, the man who forged a feared empire out of a tiny tribe in southern Africa

Many would agree that any human being alive should decide how he or she wants to live. Guided by this premise, some organizations persuaded the Indian government to alter its policy towards the Sentinelese and afford them the right to decide for themselves about where and how they wish to live their lives.