The Sentinelese are an uncontacted tribe living on North Sentinel Island, one of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean. They vigorously reject all contact with outsiders.
Survival International lobbies, protests and uses public pressure to ensure their wish to remain uncontacted is respected.
If not, the entire tribe could be wiped out by diseases to which they have no immunity.
Most isolated tribe
The Sentinelese are the most isolated tribe in the world. They live on their own small forested island called North Sentinel, which is approximately the size of Manhattan, and which is part of an island chain that is also home to another uncontacted tribe, the Shompen. They continue to resist all contact with outsiders, attacking anyone who comes near.
In November 2018, John Allen Chau, an American missionary, was killed by members of the Sentinelese tribe while trying to convert them to Christianity. His illegal attempt at contact could have wiped out the entire tribe through introducing new diseases such as flu to which the Sentinelese have no immunity.
In 2006, two Indian fishermen, Sunder Raj and Pandit Tiwari, who had moored their boat near North Sentinel to sleep after poaching in the waters around the island, were killed when their boat broke loose and drifted onto the shore. Poachers are known to fish illegally in the waters around the island, catching turtles and diving for lobsters and sea cucumbers.
The Sentinelese have made it clear that they do not want contact. It is a wise choice. Neighboring tribes were wiped out after the British colonized their islands, and they lack immunity to common diseases like flu or measles, which would decimate their population.
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How the Sentinelese live
Most of what is known about the Sentinelese has been gathered by viewing them from boats moored more than an arrows distance from the shore and a few brief periods in the past where the Sentinelese allowed the authorities to get close enough to hand over some coconuts. Even what they call themselves or their island is unknown, though the neighbouring Onge tribe call North Sentinel 'Chia daaKwokweyeh'.
The Sentinelese hunt and gather in the forest, and fish in the coastal waters. Unlike the neighboring Jarawa tribe, they make boats and these are in the form of narrow outrigger canoes. These can only be used in shallow waters as they are steered and propelled with a pole like a punt.
They are a nomadic, hunter gatherer tribe and it is thought that the Sentinelese live in three small bands. They have two different types of houses; large communal huts with several hearths for a number of families, and more temporary shelters, with no sides, which can sometimes be seen on the beach, with space for one family unit. The women wear fibre strings tied around their waists, necks and heads. The men also wear necklaces and headbands, but with a thicker waist belt. The men carry spears, bows and arrows.
Although commonly described in the media as ‘Stone Age’, this is clearly not true. There is no reason to believe the Sentinelese have been living in the same way for the tens of thousands of years they are likely to have been in the Andaman Islands. Their ways of life will have changed and adapted many times, like all peoples. For instance, they now use metal which has been washed up or which they have recovered from shipwrecks on the island reefs. The iron is sharpened and used to tip their arrows.
From what can be seen from a distance, the Sentinelese islanders are clearly extremely healthy and thriving, in marked contrast to the Great Andamanese tribes to whom British colonial officials attempted to bring ‘civilization’. The people who are seen on the shores of North Sentinel look proud, strong and healthy and at any one time observers have noted many children and pregnant women.
They attracted international attention in the wake of the 2004 Asian tsunami, when a member of the tribe was photographed on a beach, firing arrows at a helicopter which was checking on their welfare.
In the late 1800s M.V. Portman, the British ‘Officer in Charge of the Andamanese’ landed, with a large team, on North Sentinel Island in the hope of contacting the Sentinelese. The party included trackers from Andamanese tribes who had already made contact with the British, officers and convicts.
They saw recently abandoned camps and paths but the Sentinelese were nowhere to be seen. After a few days they came across an elderly couple and some children who, ‘in the interest of science’ were taken to Port Blair, the regional capital. Predictably they soon fell ill and the adults died. The children were taken back to their island with a number of gifts.
It is not known how many Sentinelese became ill as a result of this ‘science’ but it’s likely that the children would have passed on their diseases and the results would have been devastating. Intergenerational trauma from this experience may account for the Sentinelese’s continued hostility and rejection of outsiders.
During the 1970s the Indian authorities made occasional trips to North Sentinel in an attempt to befriend the Sentinelese. These were often at the behest of dignitaries who wanted an adventure. On one of these trips, two pigs and a doll were left on the beach. The Sentinelese speared the pigs and buried them, along with the doll. Such visits became more regular in the 1980s; the teams would try to land, at a place out of the reach of arrows, and leave gifts such as coconuts, bananas and bits of iron. Sometimes the Sentinelese appeared to make friendly gestures; at others they would take the gifts into the forest and then fire arrows at the contact party.
In 1991 there appeared to be a change. When the officials arrived at North Sentinel, the Sentinelese gestured for them to bring gifts and then, for the first time, approached without their weapons. They even waded into the sea towards the boat to collect more coconuts. However, this friendly contact was not to last, although gift dropping trips continued for some years, encounters were not always friendly. At times the Sentinelese aimed their arrows at the contact team, and once they attacked a wooden boat with their adzes (a stone axe for cutting wood). No one knows why the Sentinelese first dropped, and then resumed their hostility to the contact missions, nor if any died as a result of diseases caught during these visits.
In 1996, the regular gift dropping missions stopped. Many officials were beginning to question the wisdom of attempting to contact a people who were healthy and content and who had thrived on their own for up to 55,000 years. Contact had had only a devastating impact on the Great Andamanese tribes. Sustained contact with the Sentinelese would certainly have tragic consequences.
In the following years only occasional visits were made, again with a mixed response. After the tsunami in 2004, officials made two visits to check, from a distance, that the Sentinelese seemed healthy and were not suffering in any way.
Contact Mission Sentinelese
Footage from one of many government attempts to establish contact with the Sentinelese by fosteri...
Following a campaign by Survival and local organisations, the Indian government finally abandoned plans to contact the Sentinelese, and their current position is still that no further attempts to contact the tribe will be made.
All visits to North Sentinel are now strictly illegal and the Indian coast guard patrols around a buffer zone near the coast to prevent outsiders from coming too close.
They make periodic checks, from boats anchored at a safe distance from shore, to ensure that the Sentinelese appear well and have not chosen to seek contact.
A “corporate John Allen Chau project” on Great Nicobar?
The Sentinelese are the most isolated tribe on Earth but their distant neighbors, the Shompen, are perhaps the second most isolated. Living on the island of Great Nicobar in the southernmost part of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, most Shompen also reject all contact with outsiders.
While the Indian government rightly bans all outsiders from visiting North Sentinel Island, their plans for Great Nicobar Island could not be more different, as they plan to turn the island into the “Hong Kong of India.”
Almost a million trees are to be felled for this “mega-development” project, to be replaced by a mega-port; a new city; an international airport; a power station; a defence base; an industrial park; and 650,000 settlers – a population increase of nearly 8,000%.
The dangers this project poses to the Shompen are enormous. In forcing contact and risking the genocide of an uncontacted tribal people, this project is effectively a ‘corporate John Allen Chau’ on a massive scale. The government would never dare to build such a mega-project on the territory of the Sentinelese as they know there would be a public outcry.
Survival is calling on people around the world to ensure that this highly destructive project is stopped.
Act now to help the Sentinelese
Survival’s work for the Sentinelese focuses on pressuring India to stop illegal poaching in their waters, and ensuring officials maintain their policy of no contact. Your support is vital for the survival of this uncontacted tribe. There are lots of ways you can help.
- Sign the global declaration for uncontacted tribes
- Donate to Survival International We refuse government money, depending on you to fund our urgent work
- If you want to get more involved, contact Survival
Join the mailing list
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News from the Sentinelese
Missionary claims that John Chau did not pose a threat to the Sentinelese - Survival responds
John Allen Chau's mission could have wiped out the Sentinelese people
Survival International urges “no recovery” of body in Sentinelese case
Survival urges that no attempt be made to recover John Allen Chau's body from N Sentinel Island
Survival International statement on killing of American man John Allen Chau by Sentinelese tribe, Andaman Islands
An American has been killed by the Sentinelese tribe in the Andaman Islands, India. Survival International Director Stephen Corry responds.
Serial poacher’s arrest exposes failure to protect world’s most isolated tribe
Poaching threat raises concerns over failure to protect land of Sentinelese and other isolated Andaman tribes
Illegal fishermen encroach on world's most isolated tribe
Burmese fishermen were apprehended by the Indian Coast Guard near North Sentinel Island earlier this month
Worlds most isolated tribe kills invaders
The Sentinelese of the Andaman Islands, have killed two fishermen who had illegally approached their island.