On the 25th of April, world leaders gathered at the New York Headquarters of the United Nations to reaffirm their individual efforts in the global duty of building sustainable peace. It is events like this that highlight the level of discourse that countries – and their citizens – can engage each other with on the world’s stage. Not that we need much of a reminder; today we are so accustomed to effortless, daily communication on an international scale that we take it almost totally for granted. No matter where you are reading this magazine, there are thousands of others who will do likewise, spread across numerous zones of both geography and time. I’ll bet that, for most of us living in the First World, a group of people being entirely uncontactable would seem virtually impossible. Nevertheless, there does indeed exist a tribe of people who, despite over 100 years of trying, remain almost completely unknown to us: the Sentinelese tribe.
The indigenous inhabitants of North Sentinel Island – part of the Andamese Islands of India – have vociferously resisted any lasting contact with the world beyond their roughly 60km2 borders. Having spurned all proffered gifts of modernity, the Sentinelese are among the last groups of human society that remain totally unabsorbed into the 21st Century lifestyle.
Estimated to be approximately 500 in number, the way of life for the tribe is obscure and difficult to ascertain. Apparently surviving within a hunter-gatherer society, with no evidence of agricultural capabilities or even ability to make fire, they subsist on the flora and fauna native to their island (pigs, sea turtles, wild honey, fruits & nuts, etc.). Their language is unclassified – the only linguistic observation gleaned is that it bears no resemblance to their island neighbours, the Jawaras. Tools remain crude due to a lack of metal-working expertise, coupled with a lack of minerals and ores in their environment. Their family dwellings are rudimental huts featuring no partitions or flooring, although communal buildings are more elaborately designed. Weaponry for the tribe consists of the traditional hunter-gatherer staples, such as spears and bows & arrows. It is this aspect of the tribe’s culture with which outsiders are most intimately familiar.
One of the first recorded attempts to survey the island and interact with the Sentinelese took place in 1880, led by British colonialists. Utilizing the unnecessarily aggressive ambassadorial strategy of kidnapping members of the tribe, the colonialists proceeded to shower them with gifts to illustrate their ‘goodwill’, and then released them back to their home. The British were surprised when their misguided overtures of peace were met with indignation and obvious resentment. Thankfully, they did not attempt to endear themselves to any of the other Sentinelese and promptly discontinued their diplomatic efforts. Various attempts were also carried out by the Indian government in the late 1960’s/70’s, but all were met with tacit avoidance, tangible disinterest, or displays of raining arrows.
The Sentinelese tribe’s desire for privacy sometimes manifested itself in destructive and nearly spiteful ways. One such incident involved a National Geographic film crew who were looking to make a documentary on the tribe. Leaving gifts – a toy car, a few coconuts, a pig, a doll, and some aluminium cooking utensils – in the sand by the shore, the crew took their boat back out to sea, in order to observe the tribe’s reaction from afar. Seemingly still very mistrustful of anything offered by outsiders (perhaps rightfully so), the Sentinelese sent a volley of arrows towards the crew, whilst others brutally speared the gifts to pieces and buried them in the sand.
This has continued to be the reception for visitors who come to North Sentinel Island, either on purpose or by accident. When the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami ravaged so much of Indonesia, Indian authorities were rightfully concerned about the welfare of the Sentinelese. Three days after the incident, an Indian naval helicopter was dispatched to dispense emergency supplies or assistance if required. As they prepared to drop food rations onto the island, the helicopter was suddenly met by the same barrage of arrows, and a Sentinelese warrior brandishing a javelin. Apparently able to find refuge from the flood, it transpired that remarkably, the tribe had been almost completely unscathed by the natural disaster.
Although legally a territory of India, the Sentinelese tribe exercises complete sovereignty over their land in practice. The potential for future contact will always exist, and we can only hope that one day they choose to teach us more about their fascinating culture. However, until that day comes, it appears that they won’t be requiring any help from the outside world any time soon.