Deep in the Bay of Bengal of the Indian Ocean, an estimated 40 to 500 Sentinelese tribal members thrive on an isolated island, reported the Indian Express. Likely descendants of the first Africans, historians believe the Jarawa and Sentinelese tribes migrated to the now remote archipelago some 55,000 years ago.
The Sentinelese of North Sentinel Island, roughly the size of Manhattan, are often described as “hostile” due to their resistance to outside contact. They are known to fire bow and arrows and aggressively gesture at boats invading their surrounding waters. The tribe made headlines in 2006 for murdering two fishermen, 48 and 52, who reportedly dropped anchor in the Indian Ocean to sleep overnight, but were swept by wind too close to North Sentinel shores. The incident prompted the Indian government to impose a three-mile buffer zone around the island. Yet poachers are still believed to invade North Sentinel’s nearby waters to fish and catch turtles, lobsters and sea cucumbers, according to Survival International, a human rights organization formed in 1969 that campaigns for the rights of indigenous tribes and uncontacted peoples.
A collection of video footage of the Sentinelese people appears in a 2016-released Youtube mini-documentary that this month inspired a wave of media coverage about North Sentinel island by outlets including the Daily Mail and The New York Times, which interviewed anthropologist T. N. Pandit, 82, who made the first, and perhaps only, peaceful contact with the Sentinelese in 1991. Today the Youtube compilation video counts nearly 4 million views.
Survival International additionally features footage from one of the Indian government’s multiple attempts to establish contact with the isolated Sentinelese “by fostering a dependence on outside gifts such as coconuts.” Such contact trips, which “put both parties at grave risk,” ceased in 1994 at the protest of Survival and local advocates for tribal rights.
The Sentinelese consistently greet outsiders armed with bows and arrows — including during emergency rescue missions after the tsunami in 2004. They aimed their weapons at helicopters and appeared to show no interest in the gifts, food and clothing dropped on their shores.
Pandit recounts the years he spent interacting with the Andaman Islands’s isolated tribes, including the Jarawa, the most populous tribe on the islands, to The New York Times in an article titled “A Season of Regret for an Aging Tribal Expert in India,” published on May 5, 2017. New York TImes reporter Ellen Barry describes the expression on Pandit’s face from aged 1970s and '80s photographs, taken on the now banned Indian islands, as one of “pure joy.” Film footage in 1974 reveals Pandit, “a reserved Brahmin — dancing exuberantly with a bare-breasted Jarawa woman.”
It took two decades for Pandit to gain the Sentinele people’s trust. “Sometimes they would turn their backs and sit on their haunches as to defecate. This was meant to insult us as we were not welcomed. It doesn’t matter if you are a friend or an enemy or you arrive at the island’s shores by purpose or by accident, the locals would greet you the same way with spears and arrows,” Pandit said. The anthropologist first made contact with the Sentinelese in January 1991. He would return to visit every few months, and the inhabitants would strip him naked and steal his glasses, reported the Independent in 1993.
Still, as the New York Times aptly conveys, it is with deep regret that Pandit sees many of the world’s isolated tribes growing more and more accustomed to outsider contact. “The negative impact of close contact is inescapable, but it is sad,” he told the Times. “What an amazing community, but it has been diluted in its outlook, its self-confidence, its sense of purpose, its sense of survival. Now they take it easy. They beg for things,” he added, referring to the Jarawa.
Outside contact, in the name of “progress” and “development,” disrupts traditional lifeways, while exposing tribal people to a host of diseases, like the flu and measles, to which they have no immunity.
Survival International reports that, from a distance today, the Sentinelese appear “proud, strong and healthy, and at any one time observers have noted many children and pregnant women.”
Yet the Jarawa are victim to disruptive “human safaris” along the Great Andaman Trunk Road, which runs the length of the three main islands, reported Business Insider.
If it weren’t for the Sentinelese aggressive reactions to outsider invasion, they would likely be subject to the same exploitation. Forbes writer Jim Dobson described the distant appearance of the “outcast paradise” of North Sentinel Island as “circled by spectacular clear sapphire water, a secure ring of submerged coral reefs and completely covered by a thick mangrove jungle that ends at the powdery white beaches.”
More than 100 isolated tribes exist around the world, primarily in the Amazon, although also in the aforementioned Andaman Islands, the Paraguayan Chaco, and West Papua. Peoples like the Zo’é, a small, isolated tribe living deep in the Amazon rainforests of northern Brazil, were nearly decimated by disease after coming into contact with evangelical missionaries in 1982. Fortunately, their numbers are beginning to grow again. Survival International additionally reports that the Kawahiva of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, “fleeing the constant invasions of their forest home by loggers, miners and ranchers,” face danger of extinction unless their land is protected by Brazilian authorities. Meanwhile, the Akuntsu, a tiny Amazonian tribe, number just four individuals — the last known survivors, living in Rondônia state, western Brazil. Their small patch of forest has been demarcated by the Brazilian government, but is surrounded by huge cattle ranches and soya plantations, Survival International states.
“Only through a global outcry and sustained pressure on governments, multinationals, and international bodies like the UN will the most vulnerable peoples on the planet stand any chance of surviving,” Sir Mark Rylance, actor, director, activist and ambassador for Survival International, wrote in a Huffington Post article in defense of no intervention.
“In the course of time, these communities will disappear,” Pandi told The New York Times. “Their cultures will be lost.”