Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Braylon. Braylon Wonders, “What is North Sentinel Island?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Braylon!
Our world is more connected than ever before. Thanks to the Internet, people on opposite sides of the world can communicate. Groups on separate continents can carry out business. It may seem impossible for anyone today to live in complete isolation.
However, that’s not the case! Today, we’re learning about a whole group of people who do not communicate with the outside world. Instead, they live alone in their island home. And they have done so for over 55,000 years! Who are we talking about? The people who live on North Sentinel Island, of course!
Where is North Sentinel Island? It’s part of the string of Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. It’s one of the smaller islands. In all, North Sentinel Island is about 23 square miles (60 square kilometers) in size. It’s also circled by a shallow reef.
North Sentinel Island is quite remote. For that reason, it may surprise you to learn that an entire group of people call it home. Called the Sentinelese, this tribe is mostly a mystery to outsiders. In fact, we don’t even know what they call themselves!
The Sentinelese are an uncontacted tribe. That means they do not sustain contact with other people. Over the years, a few people have reached out to them. One group even found an empty Sentinelese village. However, the tribe has resisted contact with outsiders.
North Sentinel Island is part of India. Based on India’s census efforts, between 80 and 150 people live on the island. They communicate through a language that no one understands. They’ve been alone for so long that not even other nearby Indigenous groups recognize their language.
The Sentinelese are hunter-gatherers. They eat plants and animals found on their island and in nearby waters. Experts say this likely includes fish, fruits, eggs from seagulls and turtles, and small animals. The tribe also makes its own weapons using materials found on the island. These include bows and arrows, daggers, and spears.
The Sentinelese live in huts that may house several families at once. They carefully tend to their fires, as they have not found a way to make fire themselves. Instead, experts believe the Sentinelese wait for lightning to strike, which produces the fires they tend. They also build canoes and weave baskets.
In 1967, the Indian government tried to set up contact with the Sentinelese. It sent an anthropologist named Triloknath Pandit. He brought a group of police and naval officers with him. The group found the Sentinelese, who clearly showed that they were not interested in contact.
However, Pandit and his group returned several times. They left gifts to show the Sentinelese their good will. Over time, the tribe began to take the gifts. They were especially interested in the coconuts brought by Pandit and his group. By 1991, the Sentinelese had grown less hostile to the visitors, even coming to gather their gifts without weapons.
Still, the Sentinelese kept Pandit and the others at a safe distance. They never gave gifts in return or invited the group to their village. In 1996, the Indian government ended the visits. However, that’s not the only contact outside people have had with the Sentinelese.
Over the centuries, several shipwrecks have washed up on the shores of North Sentinel Island. In most cases, the tribe met the passengers with hostility. After the 2004 tsunami, the Indian government sent helicopters to fly over the island and check on the people’s safety. The tribe was healthy and well—and shot arrows at the helicopter.
For many years, the Indian government has had laws against visiting North Sentinel Island. These are in place to protect both the Sentinelese and outsiders. In 2018, an American named John Allen Chau visited North Sentinel Island illegally. He planned to greet the Sentinelese as an evangelical Christian missionary. However, he too was met with hostility. The tribe killed Chau, who was 26.
No further attempts to contact the Sentinelese have been made. However, they’re not alone in rejecting contact with the outside world. Experts estimate that up to 100 uncontacted tribes exist around the world. In many cases, these tribes and their lands are protected by law.
Why are uncontacted tribes protected? There are several reasons. Contact with outsiders could be very dangerous for isolated tribes, who may not have immunity to illnesses like the common cold or flu. Outsiders could bring diseases into a tribe’s territory and even completely wipe out its population.
Additionally, uncontacted tribes tend to live in harmony with nature. Many see them as protectors of the natural world. Safeguarding their territory also protects natural resources, such as forests and bodies of water. This also protects the tribes’ unique cultures and customs, which add rich diversity to global human life.
Standards: CCRA.R.4, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.L.1, CCRA.W.3, CCRA.SL.3, CCRA.W.2, CCCRA.L.2, NCAS.A.1, NCAS.A.2, NCAS.A.3