Who are the North Sentinelese?

In November 2018, the eyes of the world turned with fascination to a small island in the Bay of Bengal after an American missionary named John Allen Chau met his death there at the hands of the native people. This article will explore the history of North Sentinel Island and its mysterious inhabitants, examining the deep roots of the Sentinelese people’s desire to be left alone, and why it is so important that this desire be respected.

The North Sentinelese have been referred to as ‘the last uncontacted people on earth‘ and, for as long as 60,000 years, have lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle largely undisturbed by events in the rest of the world. This isolation is not the result of the island being unknown to outsiders: a description of North Sentinel Island and its inhabitants can be found in the writings of Marco Polo, though there is some dispute over whether Polo himself explored the island. Several attempts were made in the 18th and 19th centuries to make contact with the North Sentinelese, but in each attempt the natives either hid from or attacked the unwelcome arrivals.

This fear and hostility towards outsiders is likely the result of bitter experience: historically, the Andaman Islands, of which North Sentinel Island is a part, were frequently victims of Malaysian, Burmese, and Chinese slaving expeditions. It is not known whether the North Sentinelese are an oral culture or whether they have a written language, but either way it seems likely that stories of strangers coming to their home and kidnapping friends and family members would be passed from generation to generation, with the fear and hostility being inherited alongside the stories.

In 1880, an armed British expedition led by the British naval officer Maurice Vidal Portman landed on the island in what is believed by some to be the first attempt to fully explore North Sentinel Island by outsiders. For several days all he found were abandoned villages – the North Sentinelese had clearly adopted a strategy of non-confrontation – but eventually came upon a party of six natives: an elderly man and woman, and four children. Portman kidnapped all six, hoping to ‘study’ them. The North Sentinelese, obviously not accustomed to the germs and microbes that the British expedition unknowingly carried on them, soon fell ill, and the two adults died shortly thereafter. Portman returned the four children to North Sentinel Island with gifts in the desperate hope that it would lessen their disdain for outsiders.

It will probably never be known what those children told the other islanders of their kidnappers, but it has by no means made the Sentinelese any friendlier to outsiders than they were before Portman arrived. The children too fell ill on Portman’s ship, and likely carried germs back to the island with them. It is entirely possible that the children died because of Portman’s attempts to ‘study’ them, and may in turn have infected those who met them upon their return. The possible ripple effects of contact with outsiders is a likely root for the continued hostility North Sentinelese show towards those who attempt to visit their island. However, even without speculating about the wider impact of Portman’s exploration, we can safely assume that his kidnapping of natives did not lend itself to creating a positive impression of outsiders, and the North Sentinelese have almost exclusively attempted to hide from or repel outsiders ever since.

From 1967 onwards, a series of expeditions by a team led by the anthropologist T. N. Pandit attempted to peacefully contact the North Sentinelese, but no direct contact was achieved and the Sentinelese made it clear they did not wish to meet these visitors. By the time a National Geographic film crew arrived in 1974, the islanders had become overtly hostile again, violently repelling the new arrivals. The expeditions of Pandit and the National Geographic crew were among the last non-governmental expeditions to North Sentinel Island. In the 1990s, the Indian government – under whose jurisdiction the island falls – banned non-natives from travelling to the island and making contact with the natives, in large part because they feared unintentional infection could wipe out the indigenous islanders. Indeed, concerns now abound as to whether John Allen Chau’s ill-fated expedition has caused disease to spread across the island.

A photo taken at a distance of the Northern Sentinelese on the shore of their island.

The North Sentinelese have fiercely resisted intrusion for generations. Source: Christian Caron, Survival International

Owing to their intense isolation, very little is known about the North Sentinelese people and how they live. Some have estimated that somewhere between 50 and 400 natives remain alive on the island today; others have placed the number as low as 15. Any estimate however, is really just a ‘wild guess‘ since the isolation of the islanders precludes any detailed demographic study. The Sentinelese retain a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, using the bows and arrows with which they repel outsiders to catch indigenous wildlife, and other methods to fish along the coast in their boats. Their language, Sentinelese, is a language isolate, spoken exclusively by natives to the island. Very little is known about it, so it remains an unclassified language. The only thing that is known with certainty is that it is radically different even from languages native to nearby islands, indicating that the North Sentinelese have likely refused outside contact for millennia.

For generations beyond counting, the North Sentinelese have fled from and repelled contact from outsiders, maintaining a fierce independence that likely has its roots in memories of fellow natives dying at the hands of intruders. Unless this desire for isolation is respected, these people face utter catastrophe. All visitors, including John Allen Chau, pose an existential threat to this highly vulnerable community, owing to the Sentinelese people’s inability to cope with foreign germs. Outsiders also pose a threat to the cultural heritage of the North Sentinelese, as can be seen from the negative effects of integration of the neighbouring Jarawa. The United Nations has pointed out that the protection of cultural heritage and the protection of human rights go hand in hand. This is especially clear in the case of the North Sentinelese, where threats to their culture and their lives are one in the same. Given these facts, the best thing that the rest of the world can do for the North Sentinelese people is precisely what they want: leave them alone.

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