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Monday 2 October 2023 Dublin: 14°C
AP/PA Images The inhabitants of North Sentinel Island have been there for millenia.
# Unexplored island
Who are the North Sentinelese? The story behind the remote island at the centre of an American's death
The remote Indian island has a fascinating history.

A TINY ISLAND in the middle of the Indian Ocean was thrust into the international spotlight this week. An American man, who had apparently travelled to the island to preach Christianity to its inhabitants, was instead shot with arrows and his body left on the beach.

It is unlikely, however, that the islanders are aware of the international attention. For over 30,000 years, the inhabitants have remained insulated from the outside world and untouched by modern civilisation.

A territory of India in name only, the inhabitants have a way of life that has remained largely untouched for millenia.

The island’s level of isolation is remarkable even by the standards of India’s remote Andaman islands, which sit in the Bay of Bengal. For centuries, these islands have attracted the interest of sailors, anthropologists and empire-builders.

Yet it is the North Sentinelese who remain the greatest curiosity, simply because of how little we know about them.

This curiosity goes back centuries. In 1296, Marco Polo described the islanders as  ”a most brutish and savage race, having heads, eyes, and teeth like those of dogs. They are very cruel, and kill and eat every foreigner whom they can lay their hands upon”. Cannibalism has also long been associated with the North Sentinelese, although it’s never been proven. 

This isn’t the first death to attract attention to the islands. In 2006, two fishermen were murdered by the Sentinelese tribe after their boat drifted onto the shore. Like the parents of the murdered American, John Allen Chau, the father of one of the victims demanded no retribution for his son’s murder.

“As far as I am concerned the Sentinelese are the victims in this, not my son. They live in constant terror of heavily armed poachers from Myanmar and Port Blair. They were only defending themselves with bows and arrows and rocks in the only way they know how,” he told The Observer in 2006.

This ambivalence extended to the authorities. Just as in this most recent case, the possibility of any kind of prosecution seemed remote. As an exasperated police chief said in 2006, regarding the possibility of a criminal trial: “We would have to arrest the entire tribe.”

Chau had gone to the island with the clear intention of telling the tribe about God, despite the well-known risks. Since Chau’s murder, attempts have been made to recover his body. A ship and a helicopter have been sent to identify the location of his body, but the authorities are worried it could be days until they’re able to land on the island to recover it. 

India American KilledJohn Allen Chau, right, in October 2018, only days before he left the US for India. Source: Sarah Prince/PA Images

A desire to be left alone

In both recent murders, it was not the threat of religious conversation or the danger of poaching that scared the North Sentinelese into retribution. This is their standard response to every stranger. And when everyone outside the island’s 50 or so inhabitants is a stranger, visiting is fraught with peril.

Following the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, an Indian coast guard helicopter flew over the island to check on the tribe. Miraculously, they’d survived. But there was no welcome for the helicopter. Instead, it was greeted with a volley of arrows.

This is the one of the reasons the islanders remain so isolated. Visitors today will receive the same aggressive welcome of metal-tipped arrows and spears that might have greeted sailors centuries ago. The metal-tipped spears are probably one of the few technological changes to be found on the island – the islanders craft them using metal washed up on the shore.

Since the 1990s, there has been a growing awareness of the need to protect the North Sentinelese and to let them maintain their way of life uninterrupted. Because of their isolation, the tribe has no immunity to a range of diseases, making every outside visit a risk. Sophie Grig, a senior researcher with Survival International, described them as “one of the most vulnerable tribes on the planet”. 

The last week has only amplified the debate about the little-known island and fostered a debate about the value of preserving the remoteness of the North Sentinelese.

‘Primitive man in its extreme state?’

 Anthropologists believe the North Sentinelese may be the first people to have left Africa for Asia 40,000 years ago. Historically seen as ‘pygmies’, their genetic isolation means experts can trace their roots back to pre-Neolithic ancestors.

Yet a robust investigation into their evolutionary history is unlikely to happen soon. No one has yet been able to fully decipher their language and customs and any attempt at communication with the islanders is fraught with danger.


north sentinel Indian Coastguard / Survival A photo taken of a member of the North Sentinelese tribe by the Indian coastguard following the 2004 tsunami. Indian Coastguard / Survival / Survival

There is, however, one leading expert on the North Sentinelese. Octogenarian T.N. Pandit led the first “friendly” expedition to the islands in 1991, using coconuts – highly prized by the islanders – to endear himself to them. Of course, the gift of coconuts was not enough by itself and it took two decades to properly win their trust. Describing his first encounter, Pandit said: “They were watching us carefully, and they must not have been happy, because they picked up their bows and arrows.

“This whole encounter was so amazing, because here is civilized man facing primitive man in its extreme state, living very simply.” As he told The New York Times in 2017, the reason for the tribe’s isolation was obvious – they were much less welcoming than other indigenous groups.

Sandit was lucky to even get to the island. The islands were once so closely guarded that the Indian government famously refused permission to the respected anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss to work there. And in 1975, the exiled King of Belgium Leopold III visited the island, but stayed far from the shore.

While today some of the historic restrictions on visitors to the Andaman Islands have been lifted, you can’t travel to North Sentinel Island without permission. The Indian Navy enforces a buffer zone to keep people away from the island.

The story of the North Sentinelese fits uneasily into the history of their surrounding islands. The curiosity of marauders has often proved dangerous over the centuries. In the late 18th century, six islanders were kidnapped and taken to Port Blair to study them. But away from the island, they quickly contracted diseases that killed two of them. The remaining four were quickly returned to the island.

The British had already done much to draw the Andaman Islands into the modern world when it set up a penal colony there in 1857 and even put some tribe members on display for visitors in Calcutta zoo. The early years of Indian independence brought little peace for the islanders too, who seemed an affront to the new government’s idea of a modern, outward-looking country. Settlers brought disease, deforestation and helped to decimate the indigenous population.

For the islanders who have survived empires, tsunamis and abortive expeditions, visitors are still their greatest threat at the moment. And as long as the mystery of the island remains, John Allen Chau is unlikely to be the last person to meet their end at the hands of the North Sentinelese.

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