Yesterday, the world was astonished to hear about the death of John Chau, the young American missionary whose misguided efforts resulted in him being killed by one of the world’s most isolated tribal groups, the Sentinelese.
In keeping with their wishes to be left alone, very few people have ever come into contact with these people and much of their culture remains a mystery. Nevertheless, thanks to the valiant work of indigenous human rights groups, such as Survival International, we have some insights into what this community is about.
The Sentinelese live on North Sentinel Island, a Manhattan-sized chunk of land found in the Bay of Bengal between India and Myanmar, not far from the Indian union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It’s illegal to go within five nautical miles of the island under Indian law, primarily to respect their traditional way of life and protect them from outsider diseases to which they have no immunity. In theory, a relatively harmless illness from the urbanized world could unleash a catastrophic epidemic on the whole island as their immune systems have never come into contact with the pathogen.
As people living in the industrialized world, we would call their culture a “hunter-gatherer lifestyle,” although that definition comes with some assumptions from Western culture. It's thought this community has lived here for around 55,000 to 60,000 years.
Their language is surprisingly different from other groups living on nearby islands, like the Andaman Islands, suggesting they have lived in isolation for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. A genetic study of the Andaman Islanders suggested that they are most likely direct descendants of the first people who settled in Southeast Asia during the early Palaeolithic.
The Census of India 2011 estimated that just 15 people live on the North Sentinel Island. However, that figure could be anywhere from 15 to 200 people. Using reports from people who have observed the island from afar in a boat, researchers think that the islanders live in three small bands. Their settlements are made up of two different types of houses: large communal huts and more temporary shelters with no walls.
Aside from the threat of disease and respect for their culture, there is another very good reason the Sentinelese shun any outers – the industrialized world has shown them nothing but grief so far.
Towards the end of the 19th century, colonialist naval officer Maurice Vidal Portman made contact with a handful of several Andamanese tribes in the Bay of Bengal. According to Survival International, his party kidnapped an elderly couple and some children from North Sentinel Island in the “interest of science.” He brought them back to Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where many of them promptly fell ill and died from infectious diseases. Some Sentinelese children were returned to the island, most likely themselves harboring infectious diseases they picked up from their brief stay in the outside world.
From the 1970s until 1996, Indian authorities made a number of trips to the island in a peaceful, if not naive, attempt to establish contact with the Sentinelese. After protests by indigenous rights groups and local supporters, these contact trips have officially stopped.
Following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, helicopters were sent to see if any remote island communities required any aid or assistance. While flying over North Sentinel, seemingly in the tsunami's direct path, aid workers witnessed a Sentinelese tribesman firing arrows at them to leave (you can see their photograph above). A few years later, in January 2006, two fishermen were killed by Sentinelese people after their boat accidentally drifted too close to North Sentinel Island.
The fate of other indigenous tribal groups in the nearby Andaman Islands also serves as a horrific example as to why the Sentinelese resist any contact with the outside world. Over the past decade, indigenous rights groups documented tour operators selling “human safaris” to the reserve of the recently-contacted Jarawa tribe. The roads of the island became packed full of cars and tour buses, meanwhile, inside the reserve, tourists were seen throwing food at the indigenous people and forcing girls to dance while filming on camcorders. This practice is illegal, but the laws were evidently not being enforced.