The Isolated Tribe of North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean
The Mysterious North Sentinel Island
Deep in the Bay of Bengal lies one of the most isolated places on Earth - North Sentinel Island. Home to the Sentinelese, an indigenous tribe who have lived in complete isolation for over 60,000 years, North Sentinel Island remains largely a mystery to the outside world.
The Remote Island
Located around 900 miles off India's eastern coast, North Sentinel Island is part of the Andaman Island archipelago. Covering only around 59 square kilometers, the small tropical island is completely surrounded by coral reefs, making it difficult to access from the sea.
The Sentinelese are believed to have inhabited the island for thousands of years, with very limited contact with outsiders. They are thought to have migrated from Africa over 100,000 years ago and have remained genetically isolated ever since.
Protecting Their Isolation
The Sentinelese are known to be hostile to outsiders and over the years have made it clear they wish to remain undisturbed. Following several instances of the Sentinelese attacking or killing those who encroached on their island, the Indian government has prohibited any contact with the tribe.
The waters around North Sentinel Island are patrolled by the Indian Coast Guard and a 3 mile exclusion zone has been established around the island. Approaching or photographing the island is illegal under Indian law.
While contact has been extremely limited, over the years there have been some glimpses into life on the island. In the late 1800s, British colonial expeditions described encounters with the hostile tribe, who fired arrows at their boats.
Anthropologists were able to conduct limited studies in the 1960s and late 1980s, but could not safely go ashore. They observed men, women and children on the beach, wearing simple clothing made from plant fibers. Fires burned along the beach and in the forest.
In 2006, two Indian fishermen who accidentally drifted ashore were killed by the Sentinelese. A U.S. missionary, John Allen Chau, met a similar fate in 2018 when he illegally traveled to the island in hopes of converting the tribe.
After Chau's death, scholars reiterated that the wishes of the Sentinelese to remain isolated should be respected. The island represents one of the last outposts of humans living in an uncontacted state.
The Sentinelese Tribe
Little is known for certain about the people who call North Sentinel Island home. Researchers estimate the population to be between 50 and 500 individuals, living in small bands or units.
The Sentinelese live as hunter-gatherers, surviving off the land and sea. They fish in shallow waters and hunt wild pigs, catching them with bows and arrows. Food such as tubers, fruits and honey is collected from the forest.
They construct simple small huts from branches, leaves and palm fronds, and frequently move between camp sites. Fires are kept burning for warmth and cooking.
Tools and Weapons
The only tools and weapons observed being used by the Sentinelese are simple ones made from stone, coral, wood, and other natural materials. These include spears, bows and arrows for hunting and knives made from sharpened metal scavenged from shipwrecks.
In rare footage released by National Geographic, a Sentinelese man can be seen carrying a wooden bow, arrows, and a knife fastened to his waist.
Language and Customs
The language and customs of the Sentinelese remain unknown. While attempts have been made to communicate, the language barrier has never been overcome. The Sentinelese make loud hooting sounds and gestures to warn outsiders away.
It is assumed they have cultural rituals and traditions unique to their society, passed down over generations with little outside influence.
Efforts to Protect the Sentinelese
In light of rare contacts resulting in harm or death, efforts have been made by the government of India to protect the Sentinelese from outside disturbance.
In 1956, the Andaman and Nicobar Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation prohibited any contact with the Sentinelese and other Andaman tribes. Photographing or approaching the island is now punishable with imprisonment.
Drones and helicopters are not permitted to fly over the island. A 3 mile exclusion zone has been established around North Sentinel to deter boats from landing.
Monitoring the Zone
The Indian Navy and Coast Guard regularly monitor the exclusion zone, ensuring no one attempts to approach or make contact with the islanders. Patrols intercept vessels that stray too close.
However, a few instances of illegal contact have occurred over the years when outsiders have disregarded the protected status of the island and landed or drifted ashore.
Respecting Their Wishes
Anthropologists largely agree that the desires of the Sentinelese to remain isolated should be respected, rather than attempting contact for research. They argue the tribe should be left to determine their own destiny.
Continued protection and non-interference will allow one of the last pre-Neolithic tribes to maintain its independence and culture unchanged.
Where is North Sentinel Island located?North Sentinel Island is located in the Bay of Bengal, around 900 miles off the eastern coast of India. It is part of the Andaman Islands archipelago.
Who are the Sentinelese?The Sentinelese are an indigenous tribe who live on North Sentinel Island. They are believed to have inhabited the island for up to 60,000 years. They have remained isolated from the outside world with very little contact.
Why can't we visit North Sentinel Island?The Indian government has prohibited visiting North Sentinel Island in order to protect the Sentinelese tribe. A 3 mile exclusion zone exists around the island that boats cannot enter. Approaching the island is illegal.
How do the Sentinelese live?The Sentinelese are hunter-gatherers who survive off the land and sea. They live in small huts and frequently move camp locations. They use simple tools and weapons made from natural materials available on the island.
Why do they reject contact with outsiders?The Sentinelese have repeatedly demonstrated they wish to be left alone and not interact with the outside world. They have lived in isolation for thousands of years and aim to protect their independence and culture.
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