Away from the rest of the world and untouched by modern civilisation, North Sentinel Island is home to the world’s most isolated and dangerous tribe.
North Sentinel Island is one of the most isolated places on the planet. And the people who call it home wish to keep it that way. The island’s lush swathes of around 60 square km, tucked away west of Labyrinth Islands in southern Andamans, have been kept away from rest of the world for a reason.
It has been described as ‘the hardest place in the world to visit’, ‘the world’s most dangerous island’, and home to ‘the most isolated tribe in the world’. It is against the law for Indian citizens to visit North Sentinel or make any contacts with the Sentinelese, one of the remaining Stone-Age tribal communities living here. The Sentinelese, who have practiced isolation for centuries, violently attack anybody who even makes an attempt to pay the secluded island a visit!
Deep in the Indian Ocean, the island is fringed with beaches, thick forest covers, and crystal cobalt waters, and is home to 50 to 100 Sentinelese who, according to anthropologists, have been living in seclusion for over 60,000 years. The tribe is fiercely independent and ferociously dangerous.
These hunter-gatherer residents have resisted outside contact for most of their known history. In 1896, an escaped Indian convict who washed up on their shore was stabbed to death. In 1974, they attacked a film crew with a hail of arrows.
When an Indian Coast Guard helicopter was sent to check for signs of survival and drop food parcels after an earthquake in the region in 2004, it was attacked with arrows. In 2006, two fishermen who drifted into their waters were killed and the helicopter that was sent to retrieve the bodies, was greeted by the Sentinelese, weapons in hand.
The most recent incident (and probably also the one that made most sensational headlines) was when John Allen Chau, an American adventure blogger and evangelical missionary, was barbarically killed by the tribespeople in 2018 when he tried to illegally enter the island trying to teach them about Christianity. But it isn’t like there have never been any successful contacts in the past.
In the late 20th century, the Indian government attempted to meet the Sentinelese but a volley of projectiles were fired by them from the shoreline. While most attempts were unsuccessful, two encounters in the early 1990s were notable when the Sentinelese accepted coconuts from a team that included anthropologists from the Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI).
The group was headed by Triloknath Pandit (popular as T N Pandit), the then director of the Anthropological Survey of India, and included Madhumala Chattopadhyay, the first female anthropologist to make contact with the Sentinelese. However, the meet did not move forward to something fruitful and educational.
But the Sentinelese have their reasons to block all the attempts of contact. Maurice Vidal Portman, a British naval officer, in an attempt to ‘civilise’ them, kidnapped six islanders in 1880 and took them to Port Blair. Since they had no immunity to modern diseases, they immediately started getting sick, and two of them died, while the rest four (who were all children) were dropped back with presents to make amends and probably more unidentified diseases. Portman is certainly hugely responsible for the tribe’s hostility to outsiders.
In 1997, all outside contacts and visit to North Sentinel Island were officially banned. They are a very fragile community, and factors like modern diseases and tourism booms in the neighbouring Andamans and Nicobar Islands act as huge threats. The Sentinelese don’t want anything to do with the rest of the world. And probably that’s the best possible way to keep them safe.