Sentinelese Tribe – The Voluntarily Isolated People


There lives a group of people that has long been touted as violent by those from what they themselves would categorize as “the outside world”.  The Sentinelese or Senteneli, otherwise known as North Sentinel Islanders, are an indigenous group occupying North Sentinel Island. Located in the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean, this tribe belongs to a class of Andamanese peoples.  The Andaman plays home to five tribes apart from the Sentinelese: the Great Andamanese, the Jarawas, the Onge, the Shompen, and the Nicobarese.  The tribe which opts for voluntary isolation is well known to be uninviting of people outside of their tribe and exhibit hostility towards folks who approached their island or make it onto their island. Due to the little that is known about the Sentinelese and the equal little that’s been revealed on how they carry themselves, their tribe is looked upon with wonder and sheer curiosity. However, they have let it be known that they’re uninterested in contact and on their own, they’re doing just fine. 


Designated as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group, the Sentinelese, like tribal communities, are identified by specific signs, their distinctive cultural traits, geographical isolation – which is their shyness to make contact with the nearby community or any community – and their ‘backwardness’.  However, what makes them a PVTG is their way of life, such as the way they source their food i.e dependency on hunting and gathering, their knowledge of agriculture which doesn’t flatter technology, their extremely low level of literacy and their population which has a serious bout of stunted growth. One possible description of this knit of people was described by Heinrich Harrer, who saw a man as 1.6 meters (5 ft 3 in) tall, possibly because of insular dwarfism (the so-called “Island Effect”), nutrition, or simply genetic heritage.  In 2014, during a circumnavigation of the island, it was said that researchers estimated their height between 1.60 and 1.65 m (5 ft 3 in and 5 ft 5 in) and recorded their skin color as “dark, shining black” and the island’s natives also had well-aligned teeth and showed no signs of obesity and that they had very prominent muscles. The language they spoke cannot be identified as due to their isolation it couldn’t be studied. However, just like the Jarawa language, the Sentinelese tongue is extremely difficult to understand, though speculation has been made that there might be an overlap in the Onge language.  In fact, The Anthropological Survey of India’s 2016 handbook on Vulnerable Tribe Groups considers them mutually unintelligible. 


Although in 1956 India’s government signed the declaration that North Sentinel Island was a tribal reserve and prevented people from venturing within three nautical miles, humans will be humans where curiosity is concerned.  It’s expected that with the island being constantly patrolled and photos not being allowed, tourists would take the very elaborate and in-your-face hint. According to one report, on January 27 2006, Indian fishermen Sunder Raj and Pandit Tiwari, who had been attempting to illegally harvest crabs off North Sentinel Island, drifted towards the island after their boat’s makeshift anchor failed during the night. They did not respond to warning calls from passing fishermen, and their boat drifted into the shallows near the island, where a group of Sentinelese tribals attacked it and killed the fishermen with axes. Although the bodies which were sent out to sea on bamboo stakes propped up like scarecrows were attempted to be recovered, the Sentinelese attacked the helicopter tasked with the extraction with their weapons, arrows and spears causing the retrieval to be abandoned.  Then, came John Allen-Chau in 2014. With the intention of converting the Senteli to Christianity, he ventured toward the tribe. The 26-year-old American with the hope of contacting them and living among them set out to the North Sentinel island.  However, this he did without seeking the necessary permits for visiting the endangered tribe.  It was reported that Chau bribed six local fishermen with a payment of 25, 000 rupees which are equivalent to US $354 or £275, to take him to the island. He then instructed fishermen to take him to a point of 500–700 meters or 1,600–2,300 feet from the island’s shore, then he continued the rest of the journey to the island in a canoe. As Chau approached, he attempted to communicate with the islanders and offer gifts but retreated after facing hostile responses. On another visit, Chau recorded that the islanders reacted to him with a mixture of amusement, bewilderment and hostility. He attempted to sing Catholic worship songs to them, and spoke to them in Xhosa which is one of the official languages of South Africa and Zimbabwe, after which they often fell silent. Other attempts to communicate often ended with the Senteli bursting into laughter. Chau said the Sentinelese communicated with “lots of high pitched sounds” and gestures. Eventually, according to Chau’s last letter, when he tried to hand over fish and other gifts, a boy shot a metal-headed arrow that pierced the Bible he was holding in front of his chest, after which he retreated again. On his final visit, on 17 November, Chau instructed the fishermen to leave without him. The fishermen later saw the islanders dragging Chau’s body, and the next day they saw his body laying lifelessly on the shore.  


The isolation and lack of knowledge about the tribe allow for the Sentinelese people to be the object of natural curiosity. Believed to have lived on the island for 60,000 years, the group contributes to Tribal or Indigenous Tourism, which has seen significant growth in the last fifteen years. In this type of cultural tourism, tribes allow tourists to visit their villages in order to be exposed to cultures that greatly differ from their own. This leg of tourism is fueled by the fact that the Jarawas and the North Sentinelese haven’t integrated with the mainstream population yet, which makes them a source of intrigue for many of the 500,000 tourists who visit the islands every year. Though according to Anthropologist Madhumala Chattopadhyay, “The tribes have been living on the islands for centuries without any problem. Their troubles started after they came into contact with outsiders,” It is her belief that “The tribes of the islands do not need outsiders to protect them, what they need is to be left alone.”


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