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A Mysterious Island and a Deadly Lost Tribe

We live in a world that is in a sense getting smaller and smaller. We have instantaneous communication and access to knowledge, we can travel quickly and efficiently, and our unquenchable thirst for exploration and relentless drive to tame our planet has slowly diminished the uncharted, wild places of our planet. There are few places that have gone untouched or unscathed by human hands, few unexplored realms left to be conquered. Yet even in the midst of this inexorable spread of technology and civilization there are still, amazingly, places that have somehow managed to remain not only hidden, but seemingly completely detached from the rest of the world, with none of the conveniences we take for granted and indeed inhabitants with no awareness that anything exists beyond their world at all. One such place is a small island near India, which has for tens of thousands of years harbored a mysterious, misunderstood tribe of uncontacted people, who fiercely seem to want no part of the wider world. This is the real Skull Island, of King Kong fame, and represents one of the last totally unexplored places and least understood, most aggressive people on the planet.

North Sentinel Island

Lying within the Andaman Islands archipelago, in the Bay of Bengal between India and Myanmar, is a small, picturesque tree shrouded speck of land just 23 sq. miles in area called North Sentinel Island. From a distance, its pristine swaths of lush, green forest, inviting coral reefs, and azure waters may make you inclined to see this charming little island as some sort of idyllic island paradise. Upon approaching you might even see figures gathered on the beach, as if waiting to welcome you to this serene, untouched place. You may be encouraged to go closer, curious to see what the inhabitants of this island are like, and to enjoy their hospitality, perhaps while sipping a drink on the unspoiled beach. And then the arrows come flying through the air, followed by the frantic screams and panic, mixed with furious shouting from the beach in some alien language no one knows. That is when you turn the boat around, leaving the whizzing arrows and guttural howls and unintelligible ranting behind you in a mad dash out of there. You have just been introduced to the Sentinelese of North Sentinel Island, and this is certainly no welcome party.

The Sentinelese are estimated to be the descendants of some of the first early humans out of Africa, and are thought to have been here in North Sentinel Island for approximately the past 60,000 years. Subsisting on a stone-age, hunter-gatherer lifestyle, with no known evidence of any sort of agriculture, these primitive people comprise perhaps the least understood, most enigmatic, and most isolated uncontacted tribes on the planet, with almost nothing known about their lifestyle, their environment, or even how many of them there are or what kind of language they speak. We know more about the surface of Mars than we know about what lies beneath those thick trees of the island, more people have walked on the moon than outsiders have been through that tree line, and the little that we do know has been largely strictly observed on the visible beach from a distance.

The natives of North Sentinel Island

Among the very few things known about these baffling people is that they use nets to fish their waters from shore and are also able to fashion crude outrigger canoes, as well as simple tools, often from metal that they have found washed up on shore or managed to salvage from the occasional ship that has cast itself upon the treacherous rocky reefs ringing the island. They don’t seem to have any noticeable agriculture, and have not even really displayed the ability to make fire as far as we know. They seem to be healthy and strong, but what they eat other than fish is not known. What is certainly known is that they are very good at fashioning weapons such as spears and bows and arrows, and that they are not at all afraid to use them.

Besides being perhaps the most mysterious and isolated tribes in the world, the Sentinelese are also probably the most vicious and resistant to the presence of outsiders, with a long history of violently lashing out at all who would dare approach their remote island home. Although the island was first spotted in 1771 by surveyor John Ritchie, passing by aboard the British East India Company vessel the Diligent, the first real contact with the island’s aggressive inhabitants by foreigners came over 100 years later, when in the summer of 1867 an Indian merchant vessel called the Nineveh found itself smashed and floundering upon one of the island’s many surrounding reefs, after which a reported 106 passengers and crew managed to make it to land. At first the island seemed to them to be uninhabited, and even though they were well acquainted with ominous stories from the people of the other Andaman islands that the natives of Sentinel Island were ferocious and to be avoided, nothing happened until the third day. On this day, the ragtag group of survivors was targeted by an onslaught of Sentinelese, who charged out from the dark jungle with bows and arrows blazing. The captain of the vessel would say of the frightening sight:

The savages were perfectly naked, with short hair and red painted noses, and were opening their mouths and making sounds like pa on ough; their arrows appeared to be tipped with iron.

The survivors were just barely able to fend off the ferocious attacking natives with stones and any weapons they could get their hands on until they were rescued by a Royal Navy ship. This incident generated quite a bit of interest at the time, with the idea of this mysterious and deadly exotic island and its inscrutable inhabitants capturing the public imagination, and in 1880 a British expedition was launched to try and make contact with the enigmatic tribe. The expedition was led by a Maurice Vidal Portman, and included well-armed men and an entourage of Andamanese guides, all of whom were extremely nervous about going anywhere near the island, armed or not.

Sentinelese on shore

Upon reaching North Sentinel Island and making landfall without resistance, the expedition boldly pushed forward into the uncharted jungle and found not a soul in sight. Although there were discovered well-worn pathways and evidence of habitation in the form of crude huts and pits for preparing food, the village seemed to be completely abandoned, like the ruins of some lost prehistoric time. The baffled party scoured the island for nearly a week without finding a single native, but on the 6th day they finally found what they were looking for in a family of two elderly parents and four children cowering in the forest. The expedition promptly did what European explorers were wont to do at the time and took them captive, after which they were taken to Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where the two parents soon died of sicknesses they had no natural immunity to. The terrified children were then released back onto North Sentinel Island with gifts, with which they melted away into the forest. Portman would make several more excursions to the island, and would manage to somehow avoid any aggression from the Sentinelese.

He was a rarity. A group of escaped Indian convicts who washed up onshore on the island in 1896 were not so lucky. When their raft crashed into the reef, two of the convicts died and the third was later found by a passing British ship lying on the beach with a slit throat and multitude of arrows protruding from his corpse. After this, North Sentinel Island was largely left alone until the 1960s, when several unsuccessful attempts were made to contact the strange tribe. Then, in March of 1970, Indian anthropologist Triloknath Pandit, who had made a few attempts to make peaceful contact with the Sentinelese, came face to face with the tribe, although it was perhaps not the way he had imagined it would go down.

After Pandit’s vessel became caught up on the reef, several native men ran out onto the beach waving about spears and bows in a threatening manner, with some of them actually running out into the waves up to their waists while aiming their arrows. The frightened crew of the vessel tried throwing fish that they had caught in an effort to appease them, but this did little to calm down the quite clearly hostile, menacing warriors, who began shouting and raising their weapons as if  threatening to shoot. This was when something quite weird indeed happened, which has puzzled anthropologists ever since. One witness describes what happened thus:

A few men came and picked up the fish. They appeared to be gratified, but there did not seem to be much softening to their hostile attitude. Again we approached the group. They all began shouting some incomprehensible words. We shouted back and gestured to indicate that we wanted to be friends. The tension did not ease. At this moment, a strange thing happened – a woman paired off with a warrior and sat on the sand in a passionate embrace. This act was being repeated by other women, each claiming a warrior for herself, a sort of community mating, as it were. Thus did the militant group diminish. This continued for quite some time and when the tempo of this frenzied dance of desire abated, the couples retired into the shade of the jungle. However, some warriors were still on guard. We got close to the shore and threw some more fish which were immediately retrieved by a few youngsters. It was well past noon and we headed back to the ship.

Sentinelese people

This account is interesting because it gives us a murky glimpse, however fleeting, into some aspect of their culture and values. What was going on here? Were the women trying to calm the men down? Did all of the threat of violence get them hot and bothered? Are spontaneous beach orgies something they commonly engage in or was this a rare, spur-of-the-moment thing? Was this normal behavior, or did it have some special significance? Were they trying to tell the outsiders something? No one has the slightest clue. It is just another thing we don’t know on a very long list of things we don’t know about these mysterious islanders.

Another harrowing encounter with the Sentinelese happened in the spring of 1974, when a group of anthropologists and photographers visited the island in order to shoot a documentary called Man in Search of Man, along with heavily armed police escorts. The Sentinelese were obviously not keen on being filmed for a documentary or even being approached at all, as they immediately bombarded the boat with arrows as it drew closer, allegedly hitting one of the group in the thigh. Undeterred, the group moved out of range further down the beach and unloaded a selection of gifts they had brought for the natives, including a doll, a toy car, some cookware, coconuts, and a whole, live pig, before quickly retreating back out of arrow range. The Sentinelese would then converge upon the gifts and go on to bury the doll and toy car, but keep the coconuts and cookware. The pig they killed and then buried that too, perhaps not even realizing that its meat was edible, as alien a creature as it would have seemed to them. It is also worth noting that they buried the pig, whereas people they have killed have usually been left where they lie on the beach. All other attempts to get close to shore were met with a hail of arrows, and the crew eventually gave up.

In 1981, the cargo ship MV Primrose ran aground on North Sentinel Island’s reef, and the frightened crew reported seeing menacing tribesman patrolling the beach with spears and bows and sizing up the crippled ship, as others seemed to be engaged in building makeshift rafts, possibly for the purpose of getting close to the ship for an attack. As more of the clearly hostile natives amassed on the beach with what obviously seemed to be with malicious intent, the captain of the unarmed vessel sent out a desperate call for help, with the distress message saying:

Wild men, estimate more than 50, carrying various homemade weapons are making two or three wooden boats… Worrying that they will board us at sunset. All crew members’ lives are not guaranteed.

Sentinelese warriors

The message urgently requested a drop-off of weapons with which to fight back against the imminent attack, but a storm that came through the area prevented anyone from getting to them. The crew was forced to fend off the approaching Sentinelese with lengths of pipe, flare guns, and other assorted improvised weapons until they were rescued the following day by a helicopter from the Indian Oil And Natural Gas Commission. Although no one was injured in the attack, the Captain of the vessel would chalk this up to the ineffectual arrows the Sentinelese used, which lacked feathers to guide them and thus had limited range. The Primrose itself remained beached where it was, and was set upon by the Sentinelese, who salvaged its metal to make tools and weapons. Indeed there were several other violent conflicts between the tribesmen and illegal fishermen in the 1980s, which reportedly left a few of the Sentinelese dead.

It was not until 1991 that the anthropologist Triloknath Pandit, who had already spent decades trying to establish peaceful contact with the Sentinelese, was able to finally achieve his dream. On January 4, 1991, Pandit launched yet another expedition to this island, and was to make history by managing to make what has been called the “last first friendly encounter in history.” To the utter shock of everyone involved, who doubtlessly expected the natives to either hide or come out with arrows flying, as had been the case with every single other outsider who had ever approached, on this occasion the Sentinelese emerged from the forest without weapons and in a seemingly benevolent mood. Pandit would say of the baffling, bittersweet experience:

That they voluntarily came forward to meet us – it was unbelievable. They must have come to a decision that the time had come. It could not have happened on the spur of the moment. There was this feeling of sadness also – I did feel it. And there was the feeling that at a larger scale of human history, these people who were holding back, holding on, ultimately had to yield. It’s like an era in history gone. The islands have gone. Until the other day, the Sentinelese were holding the flag, unknown to themselves. They were being heroes. But they have also given up.

Sentinels people peacefully accepting coconuts offered to them

Or had they? Later that very same year a salvage crew approached the island to try and salvage the remains of the MV Primrose and some other vessels that had become caught on the reefs and raided by the Sentinelese over the years, and they were quickly turned away by barrages of arrows, prompting the crew’s police entourage to fire warning shots into the air to scare them off. The crew was then able to get what they had come for, their eyes constantly and warily scanning the tree line for signs of any further hostile native activity. It seemed that the tenuous, seemingly peaceful contact that Pandit had made earlier in the year had been a fluke, and Dr. Sita Venkateswar, a lecturer in social anthropology at Massey University, New Zealand, has said of Pandit’s success:

That was very transient. It marked an event that garnered lots of photography and lots of press but it very quickly shifted. It didn’t mean that anything had changed. It didn’t mean that Indians could now safely go over there. The next time anyone attempted to go, there they were lined up along the shore with their arrows and weapons pointed – and that still continues.

In September of 1991, the Indian government took measures to further isolate the island by extending an exclusion zone for 3 miles around it, which was extended even more in 1996, following the decision to largely halt all further attempts to contact the tribe. Part of the Andaman and Nicobar Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation, the exclusion zone prohibits the approach of any vessel under the penalty of law, and is not to protect unwary outsiders so much as it is put in place to protect the Sentinelese from us. Considering that their numbers have been estimated as being anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred at most, and that they will not have developed any immunity to our diseases, making them vulnerable to an epidemic, as well as the fact that the island’s rich fishing grounds have become attractive to illegal fishing operations by possibly violent poachers, and additionally the inevitable curious tourists, the Sentinelese are seen as precariously balancing on the edge of extinction. Stephen Corry, director of the humanitarian group Survival International, has said of this:

The most recent to be pushed into extinction was the Bo tribe, whose last member died only four years ago. The only way the Andamanese authorities can prevent the annihilation of another tribe is to ensure North Sentinel Island is protected from outsiders.

Aggressive Sentinelese viewed from an aircraft

The already fragile state of the Sentinelese was faced with a potentially devastating, apocalyptic event when the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami tore through the region, with North Sentinel Island directly in the path of the onslaught. The quake and tsunami dealt terrible damage to the island, with the tectonic plate below raising the entire landmass a full 3 to 7 feet completely out of the water, exposing coral reefs, changing the landscape, and extending the island’s shoreline. Vast swaths of forest were also obliterated by the rampaging wall of water, and it was thought that there was no way the mysterious Sentinelese could have possibly survived this final death blow. Yet when an Indian Coast Guard helicopter flew over to survey the island, a lone Sentinelese tribesman came rushing out, looking very healthy and spry, to defiantly fire an arrow at it. It seemed that not only had the natives of the island survived, but that they were up to their old ways and did not need help from anyone.

Since then, there have been other violent encounters with the Sentinelese, who have shown to be still maintaining their numbers and looking quite healthy, thriving even, all things considered. In 2006, two illegal mud crab fishermen fishing along the island’s reefs drifted too close to shore and were savagely attacked and killed by the Sentinelese. In the wake of this shocking, well-publicized attack, the bodies remained unceremoniously sprawled out on the beach and there was quite a bit of debate as to whether to go in and retrieved them or to just leave them where they lie. In the end, a helicopter was sent to bring the bodies back, but was chased off by aggressive natives relentlessly firing arrows at them. Andaman Islands police chief, Dharmendra Kumar, said at the time:

The tribesmen are out in large numbers. We shall let things cool down and once these tribals move to the island’s other end we will sneak in and bring back the bodies.

A lone Sentinelese tribesman taking aim at a helicopter in the wake of the 2004 tsunami

The Indian government has gotten the hint, and with increasing pressure from environmentalists they have put into effect even stricter lockdowns on the island and a complete no-interference policy, abandoning any future plans to try to help or make any contact with the island’s inhabitants at all, and to rather leave them to their own inscrutable devices. Nevertheless, there have been others who have proposed that the only way to truly save the Sentinelese from inevitable extinction in the face of the ever-encroaching civilization of the world around it is to reach out and teach and give them what they need to survive, such as dropping off medicines or other crucial supplies and showing them about agriculture, initiating them to and integrating them with the modern world in a sense. However, anthropologists have warned that this is a bad idea, with Dr. Venkateswar predicting a rather ominous future through that route, saying:

What are these so-called fruits of civilization? And what place do tribal groups have in the scheme of things? They are always at the bottom of the pecking order. They are always at the losing end of the interaction. They are not integrated in any enlightened way; it’s always a very stratified, unequal relationship. The terms of the discourse are never on an equal footing. It’s always one giving way to the other. What happens as a result of contact is there’s a crack in the existing structure that supported them. As it opens, that crack starts to channel all kinds of things and you can’t control what comes through. What happens immediately with contact is the use of tobacco, the use of betel nuts, abuse of alcohol and sex. The fruits of civilization never reach them. There will be several generations of suffering before they are able to get a foothold in the fruits of civilization and set the terms of it for themselves.

It is truly fascinating that these people have managed to survive for so long confined to this small patch of land in the middle of the ocean that time has forgotten, likely living very much as they did many thousands of years ago and totally cut off from civilization and the world at large. For them this island is their world, their universe; the only reality they have ever known. In this sense it is easy to imagine why they might be have such a harsh, volatile resistance to outsiders. After all, for them it is perhaps a similar scenario to aliens suddenly coming down from the skies to make contact with us. How do you think we would realistically react? With open, welcoming arms, or fear and aggression? Additionally, what have we ever done for them other than give some useless “gifts,” and shoot at and kidnap their people? Perhaps they are smart to keep us away. For now it seems that the Sentinelese are safe, healthy, and just as resistant to any attempts to approach them as they always have been. There have been no more attempts to approach them and they have been left in peace to live in their remote seclusion as they always have, remaining an impenetrable mystery. How much longer that will last, however, remains unclear.