how do you solve an enigma like the sentinelese?

The world’s most remote and least contacted tribe wants to be left alone, and they’ll use lethal force to make sure of it. But what happens if that contact is accidental?

north sentinel tribesman
Sentinelese tribesman shoots at an Indian Coast Guard helicopter. Photo by the Indian Coast Guard, 2004

The Sentinelese, the world’s most remote and least sociable tribe, are making global headlines after killing a 26 year old American religious zealot on a mission to convert them to Christianity despite travel to their island being banned due to the danger they pose to outsiders. The grim story reignited a long-standing fascination with the isolated population whose hostility to visitors has become the stuff of legend, and prompted the question of what to do about the remains of their latest victim. Trying to retrieve the body would provoke more confrontations, as it has in the past, but leaving it where it is could well deprive his family of closure.

To be fair, the American in question, John Allen Chau, was warned many times not to attempt contact with the Sentinelese over the years he talked about doing just that, and made multiple trips at night to avoid detection by the authorities enforcing the travel ban to the island. He was also given numerous warnings by officials and shown far more leeway than most outsiders by the tribesmen as he dodged patrols and trespassed multiple times before meeting his fate. According to his diary, he was scared to die, but convinced the tribe “needed Jesus” and ignored rapidly escalating threats until the Sentinelese used lethal force.

This hostility to outsiders is a trademark of these people, recorded as far back as Marco Polo’s expeditions, although historians think this may well have been hearsay. There are popular claims that British naval officer Maurice Vidal Portman, who was less Attenborough and more Buffalo Bill in training in his approach to dealing with indigenous tribes, traumatized the Sentinelese by kidnapping several elders and kids in 1880. His victims quickly sickened and died, likely because they had no chance to develop an immunity to influenza and cold viruses after living in isolation for tens of thousands of years. (Which is, incidentally, the number one reason why travel to the island is banned.)

However, we can’t exactly us Portman’s actions as a smoking gun, especially since there were previous incidents rife with hostility years before his visits to the island, and there’s doubt as to whether he actually kidnapped Sentinelese or the nearby Jarawa tribesmen by those parsing his notes in great detail. Consider that in 1867, or 13 years prior to this, a merchant vessel called Ninevah washed up on shore of North Sentinel Island and were attacked as soon as the natives discovered their camp. It took the help of the Royal Navy for any of the survivors to escape, which is one of the reasons why Portman was tasked with trying to establish contact with the Sentinelese.

More sensitive explorers have also failed to make peaceful contact with the tribe for longer than a few minutes. Indian anthropologist T. N. Pandit was able to explore the island just long enough to find a village estimated to be home to 40 or 50 individuals. He was even able to come back to it one more time before being confronted by tribespeople blocking his way to shore, their backs turned. On subsequent occasions, they took some gifts like coconuts but would not allow Pandit and his team on the island, speaking in a language he could not understand and brandishing bows and arrows to drive their point home. Interestingly enough, in 1991, Pandit tried to bridge the gap between himself and the Sentinelese with Onge tribesmen, indigenous people from the same island chain, but their presence infuriated the Sentinelese, necessitating a swift retreat.

This would indicate that the tribe has a very long history of little tolerance for outsiders and the mixed efforts by Indian officials to make contact hint that they’re curious about those who come to their shores, but only for a couple of moments. And sure, modern humans may seem alien and scary to a people frozen in time for tens of thousands of years, but that alone doesn’t explain why they show hostility to neighboring tribes as well. The best course of action seems to be to respect their wishes and leave them alone. But sometimes, contact is inevitable and that’s when serious problems start.

In 1981, a cargo ship called Primrose was damaged and ended up on the shores of North Sentinel Island. The locals swiftly attacked, requiring the crew to be rescued and all salvage operations done quickly and under near constant threat. (As an interesting sidenote, the Sentinelese were able to cold forge the metal scrap they retrieved from the ship to make their weapons even deadlier.) Similarly, in 2006, a pair of crab fishermen whose anchor failed as they slept, letting their boat drift to the island, were quickly killed and mounted on stakes as a warning, then buried. The tribesmen then did everything they could to prevent their authorities from retrieving both bodies.

And this puts the Indian government in the strange predicament of warning the world that there’s an island ostensibly under their control populated by a Stone Age mini-civilization, but if you go there, you’ll be murdered and there’s nothing they can do about it. At the same time, there may be very little choice for them in the matter. It’s glaringly obvious that the Sentinelese had a big problem with outsiders for a very long time, maybe even thousands of years if we consider how upset they are to see any member of a neighboring tribe. And not only do these tribespeople want to be left alone, that self-imposed isolation is pretty much the only thing saving them from certain death.

The Sentinelese may have been isolated on that island for 30,000 to 60,000 years and would have absolutely no immunity to germs and viruses common for us today, so prolonged contact with outsiders would likely wipe them out completely. And there may not be many of them to wipe out in the first place. The island’s population has been estimated to be between 500 and 50 individuals, with the lower end of the estimate seeming far more likely since the island is only 23 square miles and the Sentinelese would rely heavily on fishing for their protein. Their hostility in chasing off strangers and refusing to accept food animals as gifts are a very effective form of maintaining a quarantine.

Still, it may be possible to keep an eye on them, study more about them, and prevent more visitors to their shores with modern technology. Deploying automated patrols designed to catch even the smallest vessels making their way to the island and either immediately notifying patrols or deploying automated tugs to intercept them could help avoid more ships coming to their shores. This would be especially useful if damaged craft adrift on the currents could be stopped by autonomous ships, sparing the crews a potentially deadly encounter. Similarly, spy drones and cameras could be deployed to the island. Ulike humans, they wouldn’t carry disease, and if they were well disguised and delivered stealthily, by remote control, it seems very possible that the Sentinelese would have no idea what they are and pay them no mind.

It might even be a good idea to ask NASA and SETI how they’d survey an alien life form without alerting it to the fact that we’re watching because to the Sentinelese, we might as well be a species from a different world. We could take advantage of this fact and use the tens of thousands of years of technological savvy we’ve accumulated to find ways to learn about the remote tribe without disturbing them. And while we may never know what turned them against outsiders, whether it was an event in their distant past used in a cautionary tale passed down from generation to generation, some religious edict from an elder or chief, we could at least understand how they live and how many of them there are.

Ultimately, we have to respect their wishes for isolation because the alternative will inevitably lead to violence and fatal disease. Modern societies have done enough damage to tribes just like theirs and as so many European nations are now obsessed with the idea of geographical sovereignty in the face of post-industrialization, it would be very hypocritical to exclude the Sentinelese from this philosophical umbrella. But that doesn’t mean we need to stay in the dark about this tribe since even unwanted, accidental encounters with them are deadly. Instead, we could leverage our best reconnaissance-gathering and remote control tools to better understand and protect them from both religious zealots and shipwrecked sailors who’ll find themselves staring down an arrow pointed at their hearts.

# science // anthropology / north sentinel island / sentinelse


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