The Sentinelese tribe have remained on their North Sentinel Island, almost completely uncontacted for nearly 60,000 years. Anyone who has tried to contact them has been met with violence.
Just off the northwest tip of Indonesia, a small chain of islands trails through the deep blue waters of the Bay of Bengal. Part of the Indian archipelago, most of the 572 islands are open to tourists and have been trekked through by human beings for centuries.
But among the snorkeling and sunbathing tourist traps, there is one island, known as North Sentinel Island, that has remained almost entirely cut off from the world. For 60,000 years, its inhabitants have lived in complete and utter solitude.
The native Andaman Islanders avoid the waters of North Sentinel Island, knowing full well that the Sentinelese tribe reject contact violently. Even if they wanted to, they wouldn’t be able to communicate with them, as the Sentinelese’s self-imposed solitude has resulted in their language being virtually dead beyond their shores.
Indian fishermen Sunder Raj and Pandit Tiwari had heard the rumors of the Sentinelese tribe, and the violence that took place on North Sentinel Island, but they had also heard the waters off the coast of North Sentinel Island were perfect for mud crabbing. Though they knew that Indian law prohibited visiting the island, the two men were willing to take a risk – one they’d soon regret.
In the night, their makeshift anchor had failed their little fishing boat, and the current had pushed them closer to the forbidden shores. The Sentinelese tribe attacked in an instant, murdering the two men in their boats. They wouldn’t even let the Indian coast guard land to retrieve their bodies, instead shooting an endless stream of arrows at their helicopter.
Eventually, the recovery attempts were abandoned, as the Sentinelese tribe were left alone once more. For the past 12 years, the tribe has remained uncontacted.
As is to be expected from a tribe that has spent roughly 60,000 years avoiding outsiders, not much is known about the Sentinelese tribe. Even determining a rough estimate of their population size has been near impossible, leaving experts with totals ranging from 15 to 500.
As if the earth knew that the Sentinelese tribe wanted to be left alone, North Sentinel Island seems to have been designed with seclusion in mind. The island contains no natural harbors, is surrounded by sharp coral reefs, and is covered almost entirely in a dense forest, making any journey to the island a difficult one, regardless of the inhabitants.
Experts aren’t even sure how the Sentinelese tribe survived all of those years alone, especially the ones after the 2004 tsunami that devastated the coastline of the entire Bay of Bengal. Their huts, from what observers have been able to see from afar, consist of shelter-type huts made of palm leaves, and larger communal dwellings with partitioned family quarters.
Though they seem to have no materials of their own, as their society is largely hunter-gatherer based, researchers have seen them making use of metal objects that have washed up on their shores from shipwrecks or passing carriers. The arrows they use, collected from unlucky helicopters that attempted to land on their shores, show that they have different shapes for different uses, such as hunting, fishing, and defense.
A tribe such as the Sentinelese tribe have naturally drawn interest over the years. Even before the age of the internet, when it seems the entire world is at one’s fingertips, explorers were trying to unlock the secrets of the Sentinelese. In 1880, in accordance with British policy for uncontacted tribes, 20-year-old Maurice Portman kidnapped an elderly couple and four children from North Sentinel Island.
He intended to bring them back and treat them well, before showering them with gifts and returning them home. However, upon arrival to Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman Islands, the elderly couple fell ill, as their immune systems were weak from lack of exposure. Fearing that the children would die as well, Portman and his men returned them to the island.
For almost one hundred years, the solitude continued, until 1967, when the Indian government attempted to contact the Sentinelese tribe. The people apparently were unwilling to cooperate and retreated into the jungle every time the Indian anthropologists attempted to make contact. Eventually, they settled for leaving gifts on the shore and backing off.
Contact attempts in 1974, 1981, 1990, 2004, and 2006 by National Geographic, a Naval sailing ship, and the Indian government respectively, were all met with a relentless curtain of arrows. Since 2006, after the attempts to retrieve the unfortunate mud crabbers were warded off, no further contact has been attempted.
Legally, North Sentinel Island is considered part of the Indian Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. However, in practice, North Sentinel Island might as well be its own planet.
The Sentinelese tribe have remained solitary for centuries, effectively eschewing all contact with the outside world. Whether they fear the modern age, or simply wish to be left to their own devices, their solitude seems likely to continue, perhaps for another 60,000 years.