The Sentinelese, world’s lonely tribe

S Balakrishnan

The Sentinelese tribal people came into focus in 2018 when a stupid Yankee landed on their island, of all things, to convert them!  That was Himalayan stupidity because no one knows their language, not even this clever Yankee, and they are hostile to anyone landing on their soil. So you can very well guess what could have happened to this missionary; even his body could not be retrieved. They live exclusively in an island, cutoff from the rest of the world, for 55,000 years!
As one sails from Chennai to Port Blair, the capital of Andaman & Nicobar Union Territory, the first landmass one comes across is North Sentinel Island. After three days of voyage with nothing but the blue sea and the blue sky to watch, this green landmass ought to be a welcome sign. But, on the contrary, it sparks fear and mystery because it is where the Sentinelese live. On my first voyage to Port Blair in 1978, I curiously watched this island till it faded out of sight as the ship chugged further East towards Port Blair. This is my only connection with the Sentinelese or, rather, their island. They do not welcome anyone on their exclusive island. So far so good, because the other three Andamanese tribes – the Onges, the Jarawas and the Great Andamanese – were decimated to just a few hundred from a thriving population of many thousands. So much so that at one stage the population of the Great Andamanese had gone down to an alarming 26. This was because of the so-called civilization attempts by the colonial British when they setup the penal settlement in the Andaman Islands. Contacts with the settlers gave the tribe unknown diseases and evil habits like drinking, drugs, etc, that they died like fireflies.
The Sentinelese are lucky in that their North Sentinel island is far away (64 kms) from Port Blair and civilization; they are also wise in consistently opposing any attempts to socialize with them. “Keep off from our island”, seems to be their policy. In the 1970s and 1980s there were attempts – some successful and some unsuccessful – to befriend them with gifts, but later the Sentinelese opposed any such attempt. The Central Government also felt it was wise to leave them alone because they seem to be a hale & healthy people, living happily & peacefully in their own island. So, the present policy is “Hands-off, Eyes-on”, i.e., no contacts but keep a watch from a distance. Accordingly, the Coast Guard vessels regularly keep a vigil to ensure they are okay and also to prevent poachers, etc. Survival International organization is also against contacting them.
North Sentinel Island has an area of 59.67 km2. Its seashore is about 45 m (50 yd) wide lined by a littoral forest that leads to a dense tropical evergreen forest. The island is surrounded by coral reefs and has a tropical climate. Due to their complete isolation we do not know how the Sentinelese call themselves or their island, but the Onge tribe call North Sentinel ‘Chia daa Kwokweyeh’.  They are called Sentinelese because they guard (sentinel) their own island so well.  In 1956, the Government of India declared North Sentinel Island along with 5 km coastal sea from high water mark as tribal reserve so that marine resources like fish, turtle, etc., are available exclusively for this Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG).  It was only in 1970 that India formally claimed this isolated little island, and a survey party placed a stone tablet on the beach to say so. The 2014 tsunami lifted the tectonic plate under this Island by 1-2 meters. Shallow lagoons vanished, and coral reefs were exposed permanently turning them into dry land. They were not physically affected, it seemed from an aerial survey.
The island’s first recorded mention was in 1771, when an East India Company hydrographic survey vessel, the Diligent, observed “a multitude of lights ... upon the shore” of North Sentinel Island. The crew did not investigate.  So it is clear that the Sentinelese knew the use of fire earlier to that period itself. There is a supposition that they do not know how to make fire but have been preserving it out of forest fire or lightning, etc.
The Sentinelese, like the other three Andamense tribal groups, are indigenous people, and they all belong to Negrito race (not Negro or Negroid). The Sentinelese are still in isolation practicing primordial hunting and gathering way of life. As per 2011 census they could number 50 (estimated); a 2016 estimate by Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) provides a figure of 100 to 150. They could be an off-shoot of the Onge-Jarawa tribes, but due to isolation the Sentinelese might have acquired a different identity of their own and then lost contact with the other three main tribes. They do not sail much further into the sea excepting for coastal/reef fishing; the Sentinelese never venture out of their Island.  
Lifestyle – The Sentinelese have similarities and dissimilarities in their habits and tools with the other Andamanese groups. Their homes are very simple; temporary huts are erected on four poles with slanting roofs paved with leaf/palm fronds. Community huts and fireplaces have also been noticed. The Sentinelese are hunter-gatherers; they hunt terrestrial wildlife which is mainly pig and do fishing, but no farming. Honey, wild pig, coconut, fruits, fish, turtle, eggs are their staple food items. The boats they use for lagoon-fishing are narrow outrigger canoes propelled with long poles. They do not venture deep into the sea.  They make and use cane & bamboo baskets, wooden items, fishing nets, etc. They do know the value of metal that is scavenged from vessels having met with accidents; though they create tools and weapons they do not have knowledge of metallurgy except cold foraging to make arrow heads, etc.  Simple geometric designs and shade contrasts have been seen on their weapons. Both male and female wear bark strings, some ornaments (necklaces) and headbands; the men have a waist belt into which the dagger is tucked. Bow & arrow is their main weapon. They do indulge in dancing and music by beating their thighs with hands.
The Sentinelese are perhaps the only Paleolithic (old stone age) people on this planet. Let us allow them to live peacefully and happily on their Island with Mother Nature taking care of them as in the past 55,000 years! Bravo, Sentinelese! Never let your guard down.
The writer can be reached at [email protected] / 9840917608 Whatsapp