THE Sentinelese people are found in the Sentinelese Island, one of the Andaman Islands strewn along the Indian Ocean. They are isolated from the outside world largely because they vigorously reject all contacts with outsiders.
They live on their own in small forested island approximately the size of Manhattan into which they have resisted strongly any and all outside contacts and are known to have attacked those that came near even as both local and international interests on the tribe have been on the rise over the years.
Anthropological records estimate the Sentinelese population to be between 80 and 150 people particularly the near North Sentinel Island. Though the number is debatable as some claimed it could be as many as 500 or as low as 15, the tribe is related to other indigenous
Andaman Island tribes all of which are a chain of islands along the India’s Bay of Bengal. Importantly however, the Sentinelese people successfully isolated themselves from others for so long that even other nearby Andaman groups, including the Onge and the Jarawa, can neither speak nor understand their language.
As indicated earlier, the Sentinelese people live inside forest where they hunt and gather whatever they need for subsistence lifestyle. They are actually said to live in three small bands in two distinct home types, described as “lean-to huts with slanted roofs”, built to face one another. The most prominent and more permanent is the large communal huts with several hearths for members of a number of families. The other is the temporary nuclear family hut, often viewed from the beach and has no sides.
The Sentinelese mode of dressing is simple but unique. Whereas the women wear fibre strings tied around their waists, necks and heads, the men wear necklaces and headbands with a thicker waist belt. However, the men, as the fenders for the families, carry spears, bows and arrows for hunting, the people’s main preoccupation. In any case, they are reported to enjoy excellent health unlike the Andamans.
Although the Sentineles are often referred to as a ‘Stone Age’ tribe, there are reasons to believe that they have evolved in their ways over the years. For instance, they are reported to be using metal and iron materials, alien to their culture. The materials are ostensibly washed up to shore or arguably recovered from shipwrecks on the island reefs to be sharpened and turned into arrow tips for hunting.
They are hunter-gatherers who, along the lifestyle of other related Andamanese peoples, most probably live on fruits and tubers that grow wild on the island, eggs from seagulls or turtles, and small game like wild pigs or birds. Their weapons of choice include bows, arrows, wooden adzes, spears and knives which they handle with dexterity and carry as a matter of course, skills unwelcome visitors have learned to respect. The weapons are tipped with poisoned iron probably scavenged from shipwrecks.
Besides their dexterity in weaving mesh baskets, they are known to build small, narrow outrigger canoes, which they maneuver with long poles over shallow, calm waters inside the reef. The boats are mainly for fishing.
Members of the Sentinelese tribe were photographed firing arrows at a helicopter in the wake of the 2004 Tsunami and in one of the most extreme example of their hostility to the outside world, they killed two Indian fishermen who had moored their boats for a quick rest after poaching in the waters around the island. The two Indians met their horrible deaths when their boat broke loose and drifted onto the shore.
Poachers illegally fishing around the Island, including those catching turtles and diving for lobsters and sea cucumbers have also been reportedly killed by the Sentinelese. However, the most recently reported murder by the tribe is the November 2018 killing of one American, John Allen Chau, who ventured into the location.
Their aversion is not entirely without reason, grotesque as it appears. It is on record that indeed, some of their neighbouring tribes were decimated after their Island had the British colonial experience arising largely from the tribesmen’s low immunity to common diseases like measles, flu, etc.
At the moment, there are efforts by Survival International lobby groups to protect and preserve the Sentinelese tribes. In the main, they have mounted pressure against outside interferences, employing public pressure to ensure that the outside world respects tribe’s right to remain in isolation.
Thus far, most of what is known about the Sentinelese people is glossed from viewing either from boats conveniently moored in distances unreachable by their arrows. Some observations were equally made when the people, for whatever reason, allowed observers to get close enough to handover coconuts to them.
The real breakthrough recorded so far in the attempt to reach the Sentinelese was recorded in the 1880s when M.V. Portman, a British ‘Officer in Charge of the Andamanese’ landed on the north side of the Island with a large team, with the mission of hopefully of contacting the tribe, supported by trackers from the Andamans neighours who had already made contact with the British.
Sadly however, they only found recently abandoned villages and paths without any Sentinelese anywhere to be seen. But then they came across an elderly couple and some children who, ‘in the interest of science’ were taken to Port Blair, the island’s capital. They were said to have fallen ill soon enough with the adults succumbing to mortality while the children were hurriedly taken back to the island alongside a number of gift items.
Whatever happened thereafter, either to the children themselves or whether they likely passed the disease to others is not known. No one can tell if this resulted in their further aversion to foreign contacts.
Despite the misadventure by the b\British group, Indian authorities made occasional trips to the locations during the 70s. The trips, described as attempts to befriend the tribe, were more at the behest of dignitaries who were mostly desirous of satiating their adventure spirits.
Notably however, they left two pigs and a doll on the beach in one of the trips. The Sentinelese reported speared and buried the pigs, along with the doll. Despite this reaction, the visits became more frequent 80s marked by attempts to land in dry lands out of the reach of spears and arrows, leaving gifts that include coconuts, bananas and bits of iron. Records from such trips indicate that the Sentinelese would appear to make friendly gestures, take the gifts into the forest from where they would ironically fire arrows at the contact group.
But then, a breakthrough of some sort came in 1991 when Indian officials reached the north side of the settlement and found tribesmen, who came out without weapons for the first time, gesturing for the visitors to bring gifts. As if the gestures were not enough, the tribesmen waded into the sea towards the boat to collect the gifts-coconuts. However, even though the visit continued, it did not last, inevitably as the visitors were sometimes attacked, with a situation in which Sentinelese once attacked a wooden boat with their wood-cutting stone axe without any known reason.
Not long afterwards, there was another visit in which a group of Sentinelese came to the beach to, as ususal, collect their gifts. This time, they came with woven baskets and the adzes for cutting open coconuts. They came closer to the outsiders than ever before.
Interestingly, when one of the men in the group raised his bow and aimed at the visitors, a woman pushed the bow down and the man responded by not only dropping the bow and arrow on the ground going all the way to bury same in the sand. The significance of the action is too clear but what is known is that as soon as the weapons were disposed of, the people rushed out to the visitors’ boats to collect their coconuts.
Apparently, the action described above does not mean that the tribe’s hospitality is limitless as was tested a few weeks later. On one of such later visit, a Sentinelese man signaled to the visit that it was time to leave by drawing his knife and making a cutting gesture.