Concerns have been growing around on some of the last indigenous tribes out there, such as the Sentinelese people who live on the North Sentinel Island off the coast of India. Can these tribesmen, who do not comprise a population greater than 100 men and women, survive in a world that is ever more interlinked and globalized? Is outsiders trespassing their ancestral lands justifiable?
Messages sent by the Sentinelese in the past have been loud and clear. They do not wish for communication with the outside world. Past expeditions have proven times and time again that the people from this tribe are not so excited about connecting with strangers. Their usual response to anyone trying to leave footsteps on their small island in the eastern Indian Ocean has been bows and arrows.
However, in a rare instance during the 1990s, the Sentinelese have responded well to “gift-dropping.” That is a method used by anthropologists to pacify aboriginal tribes and has notably worked well with ancient inhabitants of the Amazon before.
The somewhat successful missions were led by the Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI), in which the Sentinelese accepted coconut gifts and even appeared in front of their uninvited guests without weapons.
There was also a woman anthropologist on board these missions, in fact, the first woman to ever have an opportunity to see and communicate with the Sentinelese.
It was January 1991 when Madhumala Chattopadhyay joined the expedition team to North Sentinel. At the time she was doing her Ph.D. with AnSI.
To enter the expedition, Chattopadhyay had to provide officials with written consent that she or her family would “not claim compensation from the government for any injury or loss of life,” she told the National Geographic in December 2018.
Chattopadhyay, who today works in the Indian government, came on board those 1990s missions after several years of extensively studying the tribes that inhabit the Andaman and Nicobar islands, among which the Sentinelese have remained most resilient to outside contact. She also knew some words of their language.
She and her team had been anxious before going to the island. A previous expedition in 1990 did not go so well, as anthropologists were met with the usual dosage of Sentinelese hostility.
However, her group was willing to give it another try. After approaching the island with a small vessel, and after being noticed by the Sentinelese, the team began presenting them with coconuts which they sent floating on the waves. The men guarding the shores were well armed, but also curious.
“To our surprise some of the Sentinelese came into the water to collect the coconuts,” said Chattopadhyay who was asked by the National Geographic to recall the mission almost three decades later. Amid a resurgence of interest in the Sentinelese following the death of U.S. missionary John Allen Chau, whose attempt to establish contact with them in November 2018 ended fatally, Chattopadhyay has accepted the invitation to speak about her own experience.
She said that when the Sentinelese men saw the coconuts in the water, a type of good not available on their lands, they began wading out to reach for them. Women and youngsters stood on the side and watched the scene. But even in those peaceful instances, danger was present.
“A young man aged about 19 or 20 stood along with a woman on the beach. He suddenly raised his bow. I called out to them, to come and collect the coconuts using tribal words I had picked up while working with the other tribes in the region,” Chattopadhyay told National Geographic.
“The woman gave the boy a nudge and his arrow fell to the water. At the woman’s urging, he too came into the water and started picking coconuts,” she described the scene.
“Later some of the tribesmen came and touched the boat. The gesture, we felt, indicated that they were not scared of us now,” she said.
This would be as far as things will go. The Sentinelese would not give gifts in return to the visitors nor invite them to show where and how they live. The January 1991 mission concludes here.
A few weeks later, Chattopadhyay and her colleagues would return to Sentinel Island once again. Now the group was even bigger and as they were getting nearer to the shore, the Sentinelese showed up, strangely enough, without carrying any weapons.
According to Chattopadhyay, on this follow-up visit, the tribesmen climbed in their boat and took a full pack of coconuts. “They even tried to take the rifle belonging to the police, mistaking it to be a piece of metal,” she said.
But things quickly took a downturn when one of Chattopadhyay’s colleagues attempted to obtain an ornament of leaves from one of the Sentinelese men. The gesture only invoked hostility. The anthropologists were made to leave instantaneously.
Chattopadhyay returned to the island once again after that, but this third round was not helped by the weather and no aboriginal people showed up on the shores. After this trip, decisions at a higher level were brought that expeditions to North Sentinel Island should come at a halt.
One of the major fears remains that any contact with the Sentinelese risks passing on pathogens carried by outsiders to which they do not have any immunity.
During the 19th century, neighboring tribes inhabiting the archipelago faced a dramatic decline in populations following contact and outbreak of diseases such as measles. In this context, the hostility that the Sentinelese express when meeting someone foreign to them is nothing but a strategy to survive.
It is best that they are “left alone” advises Chattopadhyay in her conclusion for the National Geographic interview.
Others have also expressed a worry that the Sentinelese are currently undergoing a trauma, and that any further contact with them at this point, such as going to their island to find and collect the remains of missionary John Chau, may only worsen the situation and threaten their very existence.
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