It may not look like it, but this 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? Prepare to be amazed by the story of what is believed to be the last known pre-neolithic people on Earth, and one of the few “uncontacted” civilizations.
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 colonization…and contact with the rest of the world.
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.
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 Nineveh wrecked on its shores. A little more than a hundred passengers survived, and after a few days on the shore, the Sentinelese attacked them. Apparently, the island people didn’t seem to want any company. The captain noted the Sentinelese carried iron-tipped arrows, shortly before he escaped in a small boat.
A rescue party picked him later, along with everyone else who managed to survive by throwing sticks and stones at the Sentinelese.
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. Yeah, I know…. the logic here isn’t very well thought out.
He hauled them onto the ship and took to Port Blair. Shortly after, the captives caught illness, likely because of the isolated community’s lack of exposure to the rest of the world’s germs in almost sixty thousand years. The elderly couple died, and Portman quickly returned the children 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, nobody went to the island except for an escaped convict from Port Blair who 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.
Anthropologists decided to study the island and its people—or try to, anyway—in the 1960s. 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. Indian police escorted them, fearing an attack from the tribespeople. The fears were true as a hail of arrows headed for their boat. They moved away from the attackers and landed further down the shore. But the arrows followed and didn’t stop after offering gifts of coconuts, cookware, a doll, and a pig. The director had one in the thigh, and the tribe member who shot him had a good laugh while the others buried the pig and doll.
Guess he wasn’t quite ready for his closeup! The crew retreated and that was the end of their documentary-making on North Sentinel Island. Here’s the footage of that documentary titled “Man in Search of Man.”
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, the Indian Navy rescued them. The wreck of the Primrose is that mysterious shape you see off the coast of North Sentinal here.
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. Yes… more than a hundred years after Portman sickened his kidnapping victims, someone finally thought of that. The Indian government has said they have no desire to interfere with the island’s residents or enforce 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.
Two years later, a couple of drunk fishermen 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 could not due to 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 established a three-mile exclusion zone around the island, to protect both its inhabitants and anyone unlucky or inebriated enough to get too close.
Because they love the isolation and eschew visitors, the outside world knows little about the Sentinelese. These hunter-gatherers migrated to the island prior to the development of agriculture. They build their huts with 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.
No natural harbors but coral reefs surround the island. Forest areas cover most of the lands, 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.
While contact with the tribe is clearly unwise, people remain curious about the tribe. It’s possible we could learn more about human history from studying such a long-secluded group of people. Since visiting the island is not an option, much of the information came from the observations of helicopter pilots who flew over it. This is disruptive to the native people, however, and they shot arrows 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 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. 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.
Do you think we should be visiting them, or should we just leave them in peace? Let me know in the comment section down below!