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North Sentinel Island

North Sentinel Island is a small island in the Bay of Bengal.  It consists of 72 km2 of dense tropical forest surrounded on all sides by a coral reef.  It is part of the Andaman Island chain—a group of islands held by India.  North Sentinel Island’s legal status is complicated but general consensus holds that it is a sovereign entity under Indian protection.  Although North Sentinel Island is inhabited by humans, we only know a handful of things about the Sentinelese because their contact with the modern world has been extremely minimal. The indigenous people do not like outsiders and they have never talked or otherwise communicated with anyone from the modern world.  So far the only way they have interacted with visitors is by shooting arrows at them (and once by copulating en masse in front a shocked ethnographic expedition which had become stranded on the reef flats).

Here they are pointing their weapons at a helicopter.

Agriculture is completely unknown on North Sentinel Island. The Sentinelese are hunter-gatherers, subsisting on fruits, seeds, tubers, fish, shellfish, honey, feral pigs, and the eggs of turtles and seabirds. The inhabitants go naked except during hunting expeditions when they wear belts/loincloths.  The language, religion, and customs of the Sentinelese are unknown (although they are presumed to speak a language in the Andamanese family).

The tips of their weapons are steel and iron which have been scavenged and shaped through cold-smithing (in the late 1980s two international container ships ran aground on the island’s external coral reefs).  The islanders manufacture baskets, pounding stones, nets, and adzes.  They also build canoes–however they have not been known to venture beyond the reefs of their island.

For a time the outside world attempted to initiate contact with the Sentinelese by presenting gifts such as coconuts, buckets, dolls, pigs and metal pots before (quickly!) retreating to a distance out of arrowshot.  The pigs and dolls were shot and buried.  The pots and coconuts were eagerly accepted.  The Sentinelese took the red buckets but left the green ones behind.  Despite these overtures, the Sentinelese maintained their skepticism towards visitors (“skepticism” in this context means “aggressively shooting arrows at”), and such attempts to communicate have since been curtailed.  In 2006 the islanders killed two trespassers who were poaching fish from the island reef and these bodies have not been recovered.  That incident marks the last time anyone had any dealings with the islanders.  The modern world seems content to leave the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island alone and that seems to be exactly what they want.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

June 2010