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If you have been closely following the affairs of the Andaman Islands, you will know that the North Sentinelese are back in the news of the world.  On November 17th, an American Christian missionary named John Allen Chau bribed corrupt fisherman to take him to the forbidden island in the Bay of Bengal.  As previously set forth in one of our most popular posts, the island is inhabited by the mysterious North Sentinelese, a stone age hunter-gatherer tribe of unknown language and customs which has spurned all contact with the rest of humankind.  The North Sentinelese are bellicose and territorial and they want nothing to do with our networked world of technology, trade, and toil.


The natives, likewise, had no desire to hear John Allen Chau’s proselytizing, and they swiftly dispatched him with arrows and buried his body as quickly as possible (as is their known custom).   North Sentinel island is part of India, although the islanders do not seem to recognize (or even know about) their citizenship, and the Indian authorities have been trying to recover Chau’s body.  This strikes me as a grave error, since the islanders have demonstrated time and again that they do not desire visitors of any sort.  Jesus can worry about his missionary’s final arrangements, thus saving the Indian police from savage battle and saving the islanders from measles, flu, smallpox, or goodness-only-knows what outside disease or influence which they are woefully unprepared for.

Despite ample incontrovertible evidence that the North Sentinelese do not want to integrate into the modern world, there are always arguments about whether the Indian government is operating a “human zoo” (undoubtedly the Sentinelese have some choice descriptions of the interconnected pan-global hive organism that the rest of us are part of, insomuch as they can conceive of it). It strikes me that they have made their choices plain.  The worldwide fame/infamy which the North Sentinelese have gained in the last fortnight will quickly fade away, and we can go back to thinking of them as a peculiar alternate sect of humankind—when we think of them at all…



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

March 2023