The pre-historic Sentinelese in the Andaman archipelago turn fierce and violent if they encounter any outsiders on their island; they continue to resist all friendly gestures towards them
By Prasanta Paul
Of the six aboriginal tribes that inhabit the Andaman archipelago, the Sentinelese are the lone pre-historic tribe that have so far resisted all attempts by the civil administration to get befriended; they are still very fierce and violent towards any external human interference on the island they inhabit. Living on the North Sentinel Island, 64 kms southwest of Port Blair, the Sentinelese lead a completely isolated yet apparently wonderful life, bereft of any touch with the modern world.
Before plunging into further details about this tribe, I would like to refer to two incidents –one that became world news and the other that is known only to a couple of Indian Navy pilots and a co-officer apart from myself.
John Allen Chau, an American citizen and preacher, catapulted into world news after he secretly landed on the North Sentinel Island in November 2018. Driven by an overwhelming zeal to preach the message of Jesus, Chau who was believed to have fooled the local administration, gotten in touch with local fishermen and managed to negotiate with the latter to illegally ferry him to the island.
According to the fishermen, who were arrested later, Chau had made previous visits to the island. This time he hired a dinghy and aided by the fishermen reached the vicinity of North Sentinel on 16 November 2018 before transferring himself to a canoe. Nothing is known about what happened after he landed on the island.
It was discovered later that he had been brutally killed by Sentinelese and his dream of preaching teachings of the Bible to these ferocious tribesmen had suffered a tragic end.
His head, truncated from the torso lay buried in the sand while the body was spotted floating by the same fishermen on their return a couple of days later. The police was unable to retrieve the head for some days.
The second incident involving the Sentinelese occurred when I was in the Andaman archipelago for news coverage of the Tsunami that battered the island on 25 December 2005. Notwithstanding the extensive loss to equipment, property and lives, the Indian naval personnel demonstrated unbelievable grit during the tragedy and came to the aid of the newsmen in a remarkable manner.
One of the Naval officers had offered me a sortie aboard a naval chopper for a recce of the affected islands one morning during my stay there. I could hardly conceal my excitement as the trip was being conducted to assess the damage caused by the Tsunami to the North Sentinel Island besides the Sentinelese themselves. Thus, I was loathe to waste the opportunity. Because the chopper would soon be flying over the island, the officer asked me to look out for what could be a rare sight.
As the chopper whirred close to the surface of the island, three male Sentinelese suddenly emerged out of the deep forest cover and began following our helicopter along the beach. Armed with spears besides bows and arrows, they ran with breakneck speed, following our chopper. The experienced pilot continued to maintain a low height and only after having completed his mission of a complete recce of the island, did he seek orders from the accompanying commanding officer to go up.
The officer in turn, asked the pilot to fly back to the area where the Sentinelese had chased the chopper. As the helicopter drew near the spot, we noticed armed tribals aiming their spears and arrows at the chopper.
The moment we were overhead a huge barrage of arrows and spears flew at us from below, but we ascended out of harm’s way.
Thus, our ‘encounter’ with these deadly tribals ended. The devastating Tsunami, the naval officer shared, had had little effect on this pre-historic tribe who are believed to have either rushed to higher ground or climbed coconut trees to avert mountains of waves triggered by the Tsunami.
Bracketed as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG), the Sentinelese, unlike their other counterparts like Onge, Jarawa and Shompen in Andamans, do not fit into the local social circle and they are known to be very hostile even towards fellow tribes. And their continued hostility has debarred any one from the outside world to glean more information about them.
A rough estimate puts their numbers anywhere between 50 to 70. They speak their own language which is not intelligible even to other Negritos of the archipelago. This was apparent when an adult Onge male was asked to communicate with a Sentinelese (who was rescued while floating on the sea by the civil administration). The Sentinelese could not understand the Onge dialect and vice versa. They are nomads and both men and women wear only leaf ornaments around their head, neck and arms.
The presence of small, temporary palm-thatched huts, erected on four wooden posts near the shore, suggests that the community moves in small groups to hunt and forage. Such a group may vary from three to as many as 18 families. Recently, a settlement has been found comprising around 15 huts, about a half a kilometer from the shore, inside the forest.
The males are of medium stature, having dark complexions and woolly hair and are slightly taller that other Negrito tribes in the Andamans. The women and elders take care of the young. Like other local aboriginal tribes, the Sentinelese also depend on sea surrounding the 47 kms island and the forest for their sustenance.
They seem to eat a lot of molluscs – surmised from the numerous shells of roasted molluscs found scattered around their settlement. They fish with bows and arrows and also with spears, from small outrigger canoes. Occasionally, they get new food items like coconuts and bananas from teams visiting the vicinity of the island in the hope of establishing friendly contact. However, all friendly gestures have been repulsed. All studies on them are hence being carried out from a safe distance so that their primitive habitat and social structures do not face extermination.
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The author has served no less than Al Jazeera and German TV, and India’s Parliamentarian magazine among others! To his credit goes a deep-rooted empathy for social issues and humans. He has wide experience in covering the northeast of India. His coverage on the 2020 Amphan cyclone in eastern India has easily been the best around the world