Visiting North Sentinel - An Island Untouched For 60,000 Years
Known as the most dangerous island in the world, North Sentinel has been isolated for centuries. Let's explore one of the few uncontacted civilizations.Knowledge
It may not look like it, but North Sentinel island is known as “the most dangerous island in the world.” At first glance, it looks like one of many islands in the Andaman Islands, located in the Bay of Bengal. But what is that shape off its coast, and what secrets does this island hide?
Let's dive into the story of what is believed to be the last known pre-neolithic people on Earth, and one of the few “uncontacted” civilizations.
The Origins of the Sentinelese
Just how have these people remained free from outside interference for so long? After all, the rest of humanity has spread around the globe. Ironically, although they have not left North Sentinel Island in many millennia, the Sentinelese are believed to be descended from one of the first groups of humans to leave Africa.
Historically, European colonization of other parts of the world hasn't ended well for the indigenous people. Fortunately for the Sentinelese, they've managed to avoid being colonized and haven't really had much contact with the rest of the world at all.
There have been a few instances though. The Sentinelese are believed to have been among the first humans to leave Africa, settling on their island around 60,000 years ago.
They're known to the Onge, another group of indigenous people from the Andaman Islands. Based on what little is known of the Sentinelese, their culture also seems similar to the Onge.
However, when the British brought Onge members to meet the Sentinal Island group in the nineteenth century, they were unable to communicate as their languages were very different. It was clear there had been a long period of separation between the two groups.
John Ritchie and the Nineveh Shipwreck
In 1771, British surveyor John Ritchie noticed lights on North Sentinel Island while doing some work for the East India Company. You might remember their association with Christopher Columbus.
Unlike Columbus, Ritchie didn't stop at North Sentinel Island, but noted the “multitude of lights,” and moved on. The island disappears from recorded history until 1867, when an Indian merchant ship called the Ninevah was wrecked on its shores.
A little more than a hundred passengers survived, and after a few days on the shore, they were attacked by the Sentinelese, who didn't seem to want any company. The captain noted the Sentinelese carried iron-tipped arrows, shortly before he escaped in a small boat.
He was later picked up by a rescue party, along with everyone else who managed to survive by throwing sticks and stones at the Sentinelese.
Maurice Vidal Portman's Expedition
For the next thirteen years, the British colonists of the Andamanese Islands took the hint and left North Sentinel alone. But in 1880, the officer in charge of the colony, Maurice Vidal Portman, led an expedition to the island.
They took along some aboriginal people of the Andamanese islands who guided them into the island, where they found pathways and recently abandoned villages. The Sentinelese seemed to have vanished into the forest.
Portman might have been relieved they didn't stick around and defend their home by throwing arrows, but he decided to press his luck and keep looking. After several days, he found six of the island's people; an elderly couple and four children.
Then he decided the best way to introduce himself and his society would be to kidnap them. Admittedly, the logic here wasn't very well thought out. They were hauled onto his ship and taken to Port Blair.
Shortly after, the captives all became very sick, likely due to the fact that their isolated community had not been exposed to the rest of the world's germs in almost sixty thousand years. The elderly couple died, and the children were quickly returned to the island with a bunch of presents.
Portman apparently thought that gifts totally make up for kidnapping and wrongful death. Actually, he didn't express any remorse about what happened, and instead insulted the Sentinelese, saying they had what he thought of as an “idiotic expression of countenance and manner of behavior.”
Portman made several more visits to the island, which he was lucky to survive considering how he introduced himself plus the people's lack of fondness for strangers. He may have had second thoughts about his actions though because in later years he noted that the islanders' interactions with outsiders had done them nothing but harm.
After that, the island was mostly left alone, although an escaped convict from Port Blair made it onto the shore in 1896. Apparently, the Sentinelese had decided they were through with outsiders, maybe because of that whole kidnapping incident, and promptly killed him.
It wasn't until the 1960's that anthropologists decided to study the island and its people; or try to, anyway. Indian anthropologist Triloknath Pandit was the first to land on the island in 1967, and like Portman, he initially found it deserted.
He and his crew poked around the empty huts, leaving gifts of candy, cloth, and buckets—and pilfering a few items for their own study.
A few years later, a second group of anthropologists visited the island to shoot a documentary. They were accompanied by Indian police, apparently out of concern they'd be attacked.
Their fears were realized when a hail of arrows headed for their boat. They moved away from the attackers and landed further down the shore, but it wasn't long before arrows were flying again, even as they left gifts of coconuts, cookware, a doll, and a pig.
The director was shot in the thigh, and the tribe member who shot him had a good laugh while the others buried the pig and doll. Apparently, he wasn't quite ready for his closeup! The crew retreated and that was the end of their documentary-making on North Sentinel Island.
Then in 1981, a ship called the Primrose ran aground just off the island. The crew was at first relieved to see land, then their relief quickly turned to horror when they saw the Sentinelese people running toward them with weapons.
After sending out a distress call, they fought the natives off with axes and a flare gun. Eventually, they were rescued by the Indian Navy. The wreck of the Primrose is that mysterious shape you see off the coast of North Sentinal, portrayed below.
But despite the tribe's unfriendliness, Pandit continued visiting the island intermittently for more than twenty years. In 1991, he finally had a peaceful encounter with some Sentinelese men. They even climbed into his boat and looked it over.
He distributed coconuts, which don't grow on the island but the tribe members seem to like. After that, the Indian government decided to stop studying the island, fearing anthropologists or other visitors might bring modern germs to the Sentinelese.
The Indian government has said they have no desire to interfere with the island's residents or enforce the law there. Although North Sentinel is technically considered a protectorate of the Indian government, for all practical purposes it remains a sovereign entity.
Yet, the Indian government did send a helicopter to check on the island several days after the 2004 tsunami. They feared the people had not survived, but they were wrong. Apparently the inhabitants had moved to higher ground before the tsunami hit. Although the storm damaged their fishing grounds, they seem to have adapted.
Drunk Fishermen Gets Killed
Two years later, a couple of fishermen got drunk and fell asleep on their boat. Unbeknownst to them, their homemade anchor of a rock on a rope failed, and they drifted toward North Sentinel Island. Other boaters tried to warn them, but they didn't notice, probably because they were under the influence of large amounts of alcohol.
Sadly, there's a reason you shouldn't drink and drive a boat. They drifted into the shallows of the island, where the Sentinelese shot and killed them with arrows. The Indian coast guard attempted to retrieve their bodies in a helicopter, but they, too, were met with a hail of arrows.
Finally, they gave up, noting the bodies appeared to have been buried in shallow graves on the island. Since the incident, the Indian government has established a three-mile exclusion zone around the island, to protect both its inhabitants and anyone unlucky or inebriated enough to get too close.
However, that didn’t stop John Allen Chau, an American evangelical Christian missionary who went on an illegal mission to convert the Sentinelese to Christianity in 2018. Tragically, his body was later found on the shore.
Little Is Known About the Sentinelese
Because they are so secluded and eschew visitors, little is known about the Sentinelese. They're hunter-gatherers who migrated to the island prior to the development of agriculture. Their huts are constructed of palm leaves, and they have larger communal dwellings with partitions.
Their weapons consist of javelins and flat bows. Arrows collected from helicopters that buzzed the island suggest they use different arrow shapes for different tasks, like hunting, fishing, and defense.
The island is surrounded by coral reefs, with no natural harbors. Much of it is covered in forest, and it's impossible to know exactly how many people live there. Estimates range from 50 to 500.
Despite the three-mile exclusion zone around the island, the Sentinelese still have modern-day threats. In the Andaman Islands, tourism businesses often promise to show visitors “the oldest tribes found in these islands.” Some have ruthlessly exploited the Jarawa, another native tribe of the Andaman islands.
Concerns arose when one resort began construction on new buildings, very close to the Jarawa reserve. On the Andaman Trunk Road, hundreds of vehicles travel through every day, their guides treating the Jarawa like human safari attractions.
This has led Activists trying to protect the native people of the Andaman Islands to express concerns about North Sentinel Island. Local operators have even started to organize the “Ultimate Human Safari,” carrying people to the shores of North Sentinel Island in armored, protected boats.
Survival International, a group dedicated to tribal people's rights around the world, is working to end the “human safaris” in the Andaman Islands, and protect both the Jarawa and Sentinelese people.
On the issue, a spokesperson for the organization, Miriam Ross has said: “We continue to emphasize that there should be no further attempts to contact the Sentinelese, urging the administration of the Andaman Islands to adhere to this by putting a stop to poaching around the island which led to the deaths of two fishermen in 2006,”.
She adds it is vital to let the Sentinelese live in peace, pointing out that further contact with outsiders could be disastrous for both parties.
Debate Around Contacting the Sentinelese
While contact with the tribe is clearly unwise, people remain curious about the tribe. It's possible we could learn more about human history by studying such a long-secluded group of people.
Since visiting the island is out, much of what is known was gathered from the observations of helicopter pilots who flew over it. This is disruptive to the native people, however, and results in arrows being lobbed at the choppers.
With the advent of modern technology, some experts have considered sending in small drones to study the Sentinelese. This would avoid many of the problems of further human contact with the people, but would still present ethical problems, as it might constitute a violation of the tribe's privacy.
Some people wonder if the Sentinelese could benefit from modern advancements like medicine and agriculture. But anthropologist Sita Venkateswar says these kinds of seemingly benevolent contacts with primitive tribes often do more harm than good. She notes that the Jarawa, who first made contact with outsiders in 1997, suffered many problems as a result.
“What it did was open up a world that they didn't comprehend,” she says, adding the tribal members were not yet in a position to control their own destiny. Some started using alcohol and tobacco products, and they ended up having a very stratified, uneven relationship with people of the modern world.
Despite the level of interest this uncontacted tribe holds, it may be in everyone's best interest to leave the Sentinelese people alone on the most dangerous island in the world. Thanks for reading!