North Sentinel Island
The North Sentinelese are an isolated and violent tribe of approximately 50-500 people that has rejected any contact with the outside world. North Sentinel Island, located in the Bay of Bengal, is home to the last Pre-Neolithic tribe on Earth (GizmoGeek). Even though the tribe lives 40 miles from modern civilization, it has not progressed beyond the Stone Age. The tribe has responded with violence to the outside world’s attempt to contact it or expose it to modern civilization (Infographics Show). There is an ongoing debate about whether or not the North Sentinelese should be left alone or to intrude on their way of life.
Little is known about the North Sentinelese. The majority of scholars believe that the tribe traveled from Africa to North Sentinel Island during the Ice Age. The first expedition to the island, led by Maurice Vidal Portman, was in January, 1880. Portman recorded that the North Sentinelese had erected networks of pathways and several small villages. Portman made several more visits to North Sentinel Island between 1885 and 1887 (aenlogistics). In 1967, a team of anthropologists visited the island and discovered that the tribe lived in lean-to huts with slanted roofs. The huts were built facing one another, each with a carefully tended fire outside each hut (Forbes). Scholars believe that the Sentinelese do not know how to make fire, but carefully tend fires created by lightning strikes. They are also hunter-gatherers. For food, the Sentinelese eat fruit that grows on the island, small animals, and bird eggs. They have no knowledge of agriculture, and do not grow their own food. The tribe speaks a unique language that is not understood by outsiders. Although the early anthropologists studied the tribe’s living environment, they did not actually interact with tribe members. There is still much more to discover about the North Sentinelese, and we are just starting to uncover their secrets.
The Indian Government has funded multiple trips to North Sentinel Island to find out more about the mysterious islanders. From the 1970s to 1996, the Indian government conducted a series of friendly expeditions to the island. On one of these trips, the Indian fleet left two pigs and a doll as gifts for the tribesmen. The islanders speared and buried the pigs, and did the same to the doll. These expeditions continued into the 1980s, where Indian teams would go to a protected spot on the island and leave food and iron for the tribe. Several times, the North Sentinelese made friendly gestures, but sometimes they would take the gifts and then attack the Indian envoys. In 1991, an expedition of scholars from India traveled to the island. The “1991 Expedition” to the island was the only encounter where visitors actually interacted with the islanders. The anthropologists on the expedition floated coconuts to the islanders, and the tribe came up to their boat and took the coconuts from them (Infographics Show). The Indian government commissioned a few further expeditions following the 1991 Expedition, however the tribe began attacking the Indian envoys. In 1996, the Indian government halted expeditions to the island and also made it illegal to go within three miles of the island. Although attempts have been made to interact with islanders, these efforts have been met with resistance.
The North Sentinelese are known for their violent attitude towards outsiders, and have been responsible for multiple deaths throughout history. In 1896, an unlucky Indian convict survived a dangerous prison break only to be killed by the Sentinelese after escaping and swimming to their island. According to one newspaper, a British search party recovered his body and found that it was pierced in many spots and his throat had been slit. A team of anthropologists trying to film a documentary, a National Geographic photographer, and several police officers were greeted with arrows when their boat sailed too close to the island’s shore in 1974. In 1981, the cargo ship “Primrose” ran aground on a coastal reef near North Sentinel Island. Shortly thereafter, several small canoes manned by the islanders started shooting arrows at the Primrose. The Primrose’s crew members fought the Sentinelese with flare guns, axes, and pipes until they were rescued. In 2006, two fishermen were illegally fishing and fell asleep in their boat. They were killed by the Sentinelese when they drifted too close to the island’s shore. Rescuers were unable to retrieve their bodies as the Sentinelese put the men’s bodies on poles in order to scare off visitors. (Infographics Show). The most recent death at the hands of the North Sentinelese was that of American missionary John Allen Chau in 2018. Chau traveled illegally to North Sentinel Island twice, planning to convert the tribe to Christianity. On Chau’s first trip, one of the islander’s arrows pierced his Bible, and he took this as a sign that he was meant to convert them. On his second trip, Chau was attacked by the North Sentinelese when he stepped onto the island and started chanting, “Jesus loves you and I love you!”. The fishermen that had illegally brought Chau to the island reported that they saw the tribe dragging Chau’s body in the sand and burying him in a shallow grave. The Indian government has tried to locate Chau’s body, but has not been able to because of the dangers posed by the tribe. These deaths show us that the North Sentinelese do not want to be disturbed, and they will do anything to prevent outsiders from intruding on their way of life.
There has been an ongoing debate regarding whether outsiders should interfere with the North Sentinelese way of life. Many believe that outsiders should not intrude because it could disturb the tribe’s way of life and could expose the islanders to disease for which they have no immunity. Others believe the island should be opened to the outside world because it would help preserve their culture and prevent the extinction of their civilization. Because the Sentinelese do not know how to produce their own food or source of fire, have no electricity, plumbing, modern medicine or other modern conveniences, their population is dwindling. Those who want to open the island to the outside world believe that exposing the Sentinelese to civilization could actually prolong their unique culture.
The North Sentinelese face extinction because they have not been exposed to the benefits of civilization, such as modern farming and medicine. Although outsiders have attempted to understand their culture and interact with them, the tribe has typically responded with violence. As the population is dwindling, a debate has arisen regarding how to deal with the potential extinction of this tribe. The majority of anthropologists and commentators believe that the North Sentinelese should be left alone to pursue their life in the way they have been doing for the last 60,000 years.
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