Jan 24, 2020
 in 
Lifestyle

The World’s Most Isolated Tribe

 BY 
Genevieve Montague
T

he North Sentinelese tribe is one of the world’s most isolated tribes left. Several factors have guaranteed their privacy — including geography, protective laws by the Indian government, and the apparent fact that they are not interested in being contacted.

Moreover, the small island remains mostly unexplored because it is off shipping routes and is surrounded mainly by shallow reefs. It doesn’t even have natural harbors. Therefore, most of the contact they’ve had with the world was with victims of unfortunate incidents like crashed ships.

Recently, the death of an American tourist — who trespassed onto their territory — sparked debates as to whether the reclusive people on the North Sentinel Island should be left alone or not.

John Chau was killed when he recently visited the island

If any explorations take place, it will have to be deliberate. Some people, like retired anthropologist Pandit, argue that they should be left alone and to remain as the most isolated tribe. Some say that protecting the rights and wishes of the group is like safeguarding, one of the rare pieces of lost world art.

Naturally, the other side sees things differently. They argue that the people of this group aren’t the only ones that need to be protected. Several unsuspecting visitors have met their untimely end at the hands of the North Sentinelese tribe. This side wants the Indian government to take extra care to keep people from dying at the hands of the most isolated tribe. Besides, they might need to be protected from themselves.

Indeed, it is a heated argument with differing opinions – valid ones too. But before you decide what side you are on, here are a few facts you didn’t know about the most isolated tribe.

Not entirely uncontacted

Calling the North Sentinelese people “uncontacted” might be a stretch, especially if you consider the multiple times they have been stumbled upon over the last 200 years. Several outsiders have visited the island, both by design and mistake. Never the less the Sentinelese people remain the most isolated tribe in the world.

A view of the Sentinel island from above

In the 18th century — 1771 to be precise — an East India Company vessel was sailing past the island and saw lights on the shore, but they had no reason to stop. Although the sailors reported the sighting, it wasn’t important enough. So the Sentinelese people were undisturbed for another 100 years. Then another ship came close to the reef, but this time it ran aground. Nineveh was an Indian merchant ship, survived by 20 crew, and 86 passengers who swam ashore.

For three days, they huddled together, and the Sentinelese let them be. Until without any apparent provocation, they suddenly began to shoot at them with iron-tipped arrows from their bows. The British eventually rescued them before the Sentinelese killed them all.

In 1880, after young Maurice Vidal Portman — a Royal Navy officer — took charge of the Andaman and Nicobar colony, he landed on the island with a group of colonial naval officers. He fancied himself an anthropologist and wanted to explore the uncontacted group. What he and his men met were hastily abandoned villages, totally human-free asides an elderly couple and four children. Portman captured and took them to Port Blair, but they soon fell terribly ill, with the elderly couple eventually dying. Then, Portman decided to drop off the four children on the island with a pile of gifts. Of course, no one knows what happened to the children, but we can be reasonably certain the whole incident didn’t please the Sentinelese one bit.

When an escapee tried to flee the Great Andaman Island Penal Colony on a makeshift raft in 1896, he was found full of arrows with his throat sliced open by a colonial search party days later. Afterward, the British left the Sentinelese alone, and the peace lasted for a whole century.

Several other encounters, asides these, show that the North Sentinelese tribe is not a completely uncontacted group. Even so, there are no historical archives that can explain their culture. Since we do not know how they view the world and their role in it —theoretically, they remain uncontacted.

Lifestyle, numbers, and history.

What makes a culture unique is the collective experiences and interpretation of its people. Being the most isolated tribe means the group that inhabits the North Sentinel Islands have not been able to share theirs with the world yet. We can’t even tell how many of them there are. A census carried out in 2011 estimated that the island can contain about 80 to 150 people. But for all we know, they might be as many as 500 or as few as two dozen people.

There are only a few known facts about the Sentinelese people. What we know has been gleaned from the sparse and mostly unpleasant encounters with them. For instance, we know that they build lean-to huts for habitation. They live in a group of adjacent huts, each with a carefully tended fire in front of it.

Also, we can glean from the lives of the related Andamanese peoples that they are likely to be hunter-gatherers. If so, they’d live on tubers and fruits that grow wild on their island, eggs from turtles or seagulls, hunted birds, wild pigs, or other small game animals available to them. They’d harvest crabs and fish from the shallow waters surrounding their island — which they access by sailing out on the narrow outrigger canoes they build.

For self-defense, they certainly carry bows, arrows, spears, and knives, which they are exceedingly skilled with. The Sentinelese tip their weapons and wooden adzes with iron. They use the wooden adzes for their woven mesh baskets — and cutting coconuts open.

That’s about everything we know for sure. Some of the essential information that makes each tribe distinct is still missing. For instance, we would love to understand what separated the Sentinelese from the other Andamanese people. It only follows that there is a reason they went into isolation for so long. There is a connecting history that can be provided solely by someone from their world. Sadly, it appears that we are a long way from finding out these sacred stories.

No one understands their language.

Everyone has a name, so the Sentinelese people of the North Sentinel Island would too. Unfortunately, the language barrier between them and the outside world keeps us from knowing what this name is. They are particularly fascinating for this reason – they have been isolated long enough, other Andamanese tribes don’t understand their language. Therefore, there is no way to communicate with them.

Historically, the Sentinelese people originate from the indigenous groups of people that make their homes in India’s Bay of Bengal. The people that live in these Andaman Islands are called the Andamanese people. But while the tribes have similar cultures, they have major differentiating features. For instance, there is the Jarawa and the Onge. And as you can probably tell already, the language barrier only further emphasizes the isolation of the Sentinelese people.

A member of the Adamanese tribe

They do not like visitors.

While this is a fairly obvious point, it is still worthy of note. The most isolated tribe in the world are incredibly protective of their homeland. Almost every encounter either ends up with them fleeing inland to an unidentified secure location or attacking and killing intruders.

When the Nineveh first made contact with the most isolated tribe, there was a prize to pay. A century passed, but nothing changed. A team of anthropologists, on the auspices of the Indian government, had taken to visiting the isolated folk. In 1974, a National Geographic film crew went along with them. The Sentinelese shot the director of the film crew in his thigh for his efforts. And when the exiled king of Belgium – King Leopold III – passed close to their island, they quickly and vehemently warned him off with arrows.

After the 2004 tsunami, the Indian Coast Guard flew a helicopter over the island to check if they were safe. Although the Sentinelese were in excellent form, they were not excited at the thought of visitors. They expressed their total disinterest in hospitality by attacking the helicopter with bows and arrows. In 2006, two fishermen drifted ashore on an Indian crab harvesting boat. Their remains were later found buried by the Sentinelese after they had killed them.

And of course, there’s the most recent attack by the most isolated tribe on the American tourist — John Allen Chau — who stood on their beach and sang hymns. John paid two fishermen to take him close to the island, even though it was illegal to go there. Evidence shows that the islanders chased him away a couple of times before it seemed that they killed him. The body was never recovered from the island.

The above are only a few instances of the most isolated tribe harming anyone that threatened their safety or privacy. It is unknown if COVID-19 has or will ever make it’s way to the Sentinelese people but chances are being the world’s most isolated tribe will advantageously dodge that bullet.

Limited hospitality

That’s right. From all you’ve read, it’d be hard to imagine the Sentinelese people as accommodating, but they have displayed such behaviors in the past — even though it was limited.

“SENTINELESE ARE A PEACE LOVING PEOPLE. THEY DON’T SEEK TO ATTACK PEOPLE. THEY DON’T VISIT NEARBY AREAS AND CAUSE TROUBLE”.Triloknath Pandit, Indian Anthropologist

The shipwreck that began the discovery of the Sentinelese people came up on its 100th anniversary when Triloknath Pandit and his team of anthropologists landed on the island. They were working for the Indian government to explore the North Sentinel Island and its inhabitants. When they came up to the settlement, they found huts that were recently and hastily abandoned. They left some gifts – plastic buckets, some candy and clothing. However, they were unable to stop the Indian officials who followed them from taking some of the items in the abandoned homes.

Over the years, Pandit and his team kept leaving gift items on the beach for the Sentinelese people, then beating a hasty retreat. Through sheer observation skills, Pandit’s team learned what the people liked and what they didn’t care for. Live pigs and plastic toys were treated much like the humans they had maimed. But they seemed to fancy metal pans and pots while appreciating the coconuts the most. Of course, there is no way to know what interpretations they ascribed to each of these items.

Soon Pandit and his team began to deliver coconuts by the bagful, but it wasn’t without the intensity the Sentinelese people are already known for. Typically, the islanders trained bows and arrows on the anthropologists while they made their dropoffs. The team of anthropologists did this for 25 years with no direct contact. Pandit visited with his team sporadically until 1981, when they started making the visits to the island every month or two. Pandit always resisted labelling them as hostile.

“WE ARE THE AGGRESSORS HERE. WE ARE THE ONES TRYING TO ENTER THEIR TERRITORY”.Triloknath Pandit, Indian Anthropologist

Pandit retired in 1992, but not before he witnessed an impressive response, never before seen from the Sentinelese people. One day in early 1991, the anthropologists went for their usual drop off. As they arrived, a group of islanders met them at the beach to collect their gifts without any weapons, only open baskets and adzes for cutting the coconuts open.

Later that same day, Pandit and his team returned. A strange thing happened — two dozen Sentinelese people were waiting for them on the beach. Then the unexpected sequence of events unfolded.

A man from the most isolated tribe lifted his bow and aimed at the anthropologists; a woman pushed the bow down, then the man dropped the bow and arrow and buried it in the sand. Immediately, the people rushed out to collect their coconuts. While it was a fascinating experience, it’s still not clear if that was a ritual to show their acceptance, or it was just a negotiation process.

Even with the seeming display of hospitality, they still had their boundaries.  If the Sentinelese people deemed the anthropologists to have exceeded their welcome, they turned their backs and haunched as if to defecate, or shot arrows at them if they persisted with their socialization. Pandit recalls one particular dangerous altercation:

“ONE YOUNG SENTINEL BOY MADE A FUNNY FACE, TOOK HIS KNIFE AND SIGNALED TO ME THAT HE WOULD CUT OFF MY HEAD. I IMMEDIATELY CALLED FOR THE BOAT AND MADE A QUICK RETREAT. THE GESTURE OF THE BOY IS SIGNIFICANT. HE MADE IT CLEAR I WAS NOT WELCOME”.Triloknath Pandit, Indian Anthropologist

Generally, establishing a relationship without communication is extremely difficult. Despite the number of times the anthropologists saw the most isolated tribe in the world, they were never able to communicate directly with them.

One of the few times there was no hostility -nationalgeographic.com

There were times when the most isolated tribe greeted the visitors and other times when they were welcomed without weapons. Therefore, it was difficult to say whether they made any progress. In 1996, the Indian government stopped the visits for good.

Evidently, there is still a lot to learn about the North Sentinel Islanders. But the question remains — do we find out?


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