Unlike every other culture on earth, the Sentinelese tribesmen have successfully resisted integration with the remainder of the world. Indeed, their culture has remained largely unchanged for perhaps 60,000 years, since the Andaman Islands, of which North Sentinel is part, were thought to have been inhabited by a migration from Africa.
However, even the assumption that the Sentinelese share a common history with other native cultures found in the Bay of Bengal is nothing but speculation. Their settlements are hidden from overhead view by a thick jungle canopy.
Violent response to any attempted contact has prevented authorities and anthropologists alike from gaining anything but the most rudimentary understanding of the last Pre-Neolithic society on earth.
For example, most recently, in 2006, two fishermen who were illegally fishing, fell asleep in their boat and drifted onto a North Sentinel reef. To the horror of other fishermen trying to affect a rescue, the fishermen were hunted and killed.
The Sentinelese were so protective of their island that an Indian military helicopter sent to retrieve the fishermen bodies was repelled by a hail of tribesmen arrows. Photographs shot from the helicopter show the near-naked tribesmen running toward the aircraft with bows drawn. Attempts to recover the bodies of the two men were suspended, and the bodies remained on the island to this day.
The hostile attitude of the Sentinelese towards outsiders has probably saved them from extinction. The current world policy of isolation tribes is meant to preserve the Sentinelese culture. Unfortunately, such policies have not always been in place. The Great Andamanese tribes, including the Ongee whose members numbered many thousands in the 1700s, were decimated by British colonialists. Currently less than 100 of these tribesmen survive in reserve camps on Little Andaman Island.
Densely forested, Manhattan-sized North Sentinel Island lies in the Indian Ocean between India and Thailand. The island is approximately 800 miles East from India and about 90 miles from Sumatra, and lies in the strict exclusion zone imposed by the Indian government.
One late August night in 1981, a cargo ship Primrose ran aground on a coastal reef near North Sentinel. As the ship wasn’t in an immediate danger of sinking, the Captain called in for assistance and left it at that.
It is unknown whether the following morning Captain suspected which island was in sight just a few hundred yards away, or whether the extremely choppy waters made any attempt to reach the sandy beaches through shallow jagged coral reef too dangerous. Whatever the case may be, he gave the order for the crew to remain on board.
Rescuing a freighter crew is normally not something that happens quickly, so the crew settled in. A few days came and went by without any incident. Then, one day, a crew member was overjoyed when a group of men emerged from the island’s thick forest – the rescue party was finally here.
As the group made their way towards the freighter, joy quickly turned to horror because it became evident this was anything but a rescue in progress. It was a group of buck-naked indigenous men, armed with wooden spears, bows and arrows, and they looked like they meant business.
In addition, there were lots of them – 50 by the accounts of the small, unarmed crew. Panic set in, and the captain radioed for help again – this time clearly in distress.
Lucky for the crew, the choppy waters that ran the ship aground made it near impossible for the islanders to make it on board the ship. Having never developed oars, the islanders propelled their rudimentary boats by pushing against the sea floor with long sticks. That made it difficult for them to remain steady in the depths which, for the time being, sheltered the Primrose crew.
The standoff went on for days until the weather permitted a helicopter to airlift the crew. The ship, with its cargo remained on the island to this day, and is still visible on Google Maps:
Living in the Stone Age
The few things that are known about Sentinelese technology today come from just a handful of successful expeditions ever made to the island – the word successful used very loosely.
Among the first ones was an expedition led by the British colonists in the late-1800’s. The strategy employed by the British at that time involved kidnapping a member of an unfriendly tribe, holding him for a few weeks until they “grew accustomed” to their captors, then taking him back to the island and releasing him, but not before they would shower him with gifts.
This would be repeated as many times as necessary to pacify the violent tribes.
But in case of North Sentinel island, this didn’t go smoothly. The moment the first group of Colonists disembarked in 1880, the inhabitants disappeared into the thick jungle and were not seen again for the remainder of the expedition. The group’s trek to the island’s interior revealed a few settlements which were clearly abandoned on a moment’s notice.
Based on the observations of the settlements made by the party, the tribe lived in a stone age. No metal tools were observed, and it is unclear if they even knew how to make fire. There was some evidence that fires were being maintained, rather that created at the settlement, and it was speculated that the abandoned smoldering pile of ashes may have been kept burning for decades, likely a result of a lightning strike long ago.
The group eventually stumbled across an aging couple accompanied with two small children. As they appeared too feeble to run away, the company promptly snatched them and took them off the island. After a few days, the elderly couple got sick and died, probably due to exposure to foreign pathogens. The surviving children were returned to the island, and were never seen or heard from again.
To date, the members of the 1880 expedition remain the only outsiders that made it into the forest, and came out alive. A few expeditions that followed either never made contact, or never disembarked as they were greeted with a hail of stone-tipped arrows and spears.
That is, stone-tipped until Primrose got marooned…
Iron Age Arrives to North Sentinel Island
In 1996 Indian government decided that attempts to make contact with the inhabitants of the island made little sense, and abandoned the project altogether.
But a few encounters with the Sentinelese, which took place after Primrose’s final voyage, showed a marked improvement in the inhabitants’ weapons-making. Instead of stone, the tips of spears and arrows were frequently made out of metal.
Of course, the most likely explanation for this is that the islanders eventually made their way to the ship and were able to scavenge steel for use in their tools and weapons.
The amount of tools collected is limited at best, but what the scientists who examined them were able to tell is that the steel was cold-forged into its final shape. Not exactly something that qualifies the Sentinelese as an Iron Age society, but a society with early usage of iron nonetheless.
However the future is uncertain for the anthropologist would-be explorers. In 2005, the Delhi government declared the entire Island and surrounding waters extending three miles from its shores to be an exclusion zone. The intention is to preserve the culture of the people and forestall pathogen infections that may precipitate their extinction.
For now, the Sentinelese people will be left to the isolation they have vigorously defended over many centuries, aided by newly forged steel-tipped weapons, and a thick forest that prevents any intelligence-gathering from the air. Rightly called the most remote corner of the Earth, even the language of the islanders will remain unknown to outsiders.