We live in a modern, globalised society. Regardless of the opinions on this subject, it is undeniable that in the era of globalization contact with different cultures is something constantly sought after by a large majority of the population, sharing ideas, points of view and advances of different kinds.

But this contact is not sought by everyone. There are many groups and tribes who reject contact with other human beings outside of themselves, protecting their way of life and customs. An example of this can be found in the northern Sentinelites, who live totally isolated from the rest of the world .

One of the most remote and unknown tribes

Located in the Indian Ocean, among the islands belonging to the Andaman Islands archipelago, there is an island of about 72 square kilometers called Sentinel del Norte . This area belonging to India is home to the Sentinel, one of the few primitive tribes that have so far avoided contact with the rest of humanity, preserving their customs and traditions without coming into contact with civilization.

The knowledge about this tribe is very scarce, limited mainly to the observations made by means of satellite images and aerial surveys and the few attempts at close-up that have been made throughout history.

The northern Sentinel is a tribe that has been characterized as an elusive people who actively avoid contact with both the outside world and other tribes. They are territorial and in the face of the attempt of contact by strangers they have reacted either by avoiding them or by violence . Neither the structure nor the meaning of their language is known and, in fact, it is not even known how they call themselves, the name that has been given to them being a toponym.

A way of life on the fringes of civilization

The Northern Sentinel is a tribe with pre-neolithic characteristics, believed to be directly descended from the first Asians who arrived on the island around sixty thousand years ago. Its technological level corresponds to that of primitive tribes possessing weapons made of wood and stone that they use in order to defend their territory and shoot down prey, although occasionally they also use the iron that comes to them from remains and waste that arrive by sea. They do not seem to know about fire, and the aerial images obtained from the island do not reflect the existence of cattle areas or farmland either.

This is a tribe of hunters and gatherers , and they have been seen hunting in the forests and fishing on the beaches of Sentinel del Norte. They build narrow canoes that they use to navigate in shallow waters.Despite these simple living conditions, their general health appears to be good and stable, with a good proportion of children and pregnant women being seen. They live in large communal houses that can be seen from the air, although they also have small huts at specific points, such as on the beach.

As for the number of people who are part of the Sentinel tribe, although it has only been possible to count them partially by remote observation, it is estimated that the Sentinel tribe is made up of between thirty and several hundred people, who cannot grow very much because of the difficulties they have to hunt and gather in order to survive.

Their small numbers make them capable of meeting their food needs. It is therefore a tribe of hunters and gatherers that survives in a relatively small territory due to its low demographic expansion .

Contacts with the Sentinel people throughout history

The first known contacts with the northern Sentinels seem to date back to the 13th century. Marco Polo already wrote about this tribe saying that upon the arrival of a foreigner the natives would kill him and later devour him. This is probably a product of exaggeration, since in the few subsequent attempts at contact no signs of cannibalistic behavior have been found among the inhabitants of this island, but it gives an idea that the reaction to the arrival of strangers was not positive.

In the nineteenth century, in the middle of the colonial period, a British officer named Portman landed on the island in an attempt to contact the native population . This approach did not seem to have any results, since the expedition did not meet the natives, who hid in the jungle.

There were other expeditions with the same results, although one of them found two old men and two children who were kidnapped and forcibly taken to civilization, the two old men dying of illness and the two children being returned to their village with numerous gifts. It is possible that this translated into the transmission of western diseases for which the immune system of the natives was not prepared, producing great casualties that in the long run could lead to the existence of restlessness towards foreigners.

Another well-known attempt at contact took place in 1978, when a team of anthropologists went to Sentinel del Norte to shoot the documentary Man in the search of man . The final result was that the natives attacked the film crew and they had to flee, injuring the director of the documentary with arrows.

Although on almost all occasions the reactions of the Sentinels to external contact have been aggressive, in some cases there have been more favourable results in which the inhabitants of the island have allowed a certain level of rapprochement and even accepted gifts. In 1991 a first contact was made in which the natives approached each other unarmed to accept gifts, but after a short period of time and for reasons that have not become known the Sentinel people ended up rejecting the contact again.

After several years of not achieving a successful approach and the Sentinels attacking those who approached their island, they ended up suspending the approach attempts . Also contributing to this was the fact that similar programs with other tribes of the archipelago ended up with devastating consequences for the natives, with the degradation of the habitat and the death of a large part of their populations due to disease.

Most recent contacts

In 2004 an earthquake and subsequent tsunami shook and devastated much of the island of Sentinel del Norte. The authorities decided to send helicopters to check if the tribe had survived, finding that at least some of them had indeed made it; some of the natives appeared pointing bows and arrows at the aircraft.

More recently, in 2006 two poachers disregarded the ban on docking on the island’s reefs . Search helicopters found the boat on the shore of the island and the bodies half buried in the sand, which could not be recovered due to the hostile attitude of the natives towards the approach of the aircraft.

The importance of their insulation: protective measures

Although the knowledge about the existence and culture of the Sentinel tribe of the North is very scarce and could help in the understanding of the evolution of human societies, the fact that they do not maintain contact with other human groups prevents them both from being assimilated by other cultures and from dying due to the contact itself . The fact is that we have to take into account that, being a tribe that has remained and survived separated from the rest of humanity, their immune systems could suffer from contact with other cultures because they have not acquired the necessary defenses to fight diseases that for us only represent a nuisance or that are easily curable.

It is for this reason and out of respect for both the existence and the desire of a community to remain isolated that contact with Sentinel Island is currently under protection, with the Indian government having established an exclusion zone (i.e. where access is prohibited) of five miles around the island and pledging not to interfere in the lives of the natives.

  • You may be interested in: “The Hunza: the Eastern Tribe of Eternal Youth”

Bibliographic references:

  • Goodheart, A. (2000). The Last Island of the Savages. The American Scholar 69 (4): 13-44.
  • Grig, S. (2013). The Sentinels: the most isolated tribe in the world? Survival International. Bulletin 194.