Contacting the Uncontacted: The Sentinelese

Informative Article


Ever heard of the "most isolated tribe in the world"? Why are these people not integrated into modern society, and should they?


by Avani Pammidimukkala

Ever heard of the Sentinelese tribe? According to Survival International, they are known as the “most isolated tribe in the world” today. The Sentinelese people live on the “small forested island” of North Sentinel, which is located in a cluster of islands called the Andaman Islands (intersection of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea).


Now, you might wonder why the Sentinelese people are considered to be “isolated”? Why are these people not integrated into modern society? Have people previously tried to form contact with the Sentinelese? The answer is yes. A large number of people from around the world have already attempted to integrate the Sentinelese into modern society, some with a religious-conversion incentive and others for research. However, these attempts failed miserably because the tribe has always shown hostility towards others and violently refuse any form of contact.


And this is where the Trilemma lies. Should people from around the world continue to contact the Sentinelese people so we can learn more about them and integrate them into our society? Or should we respect the tribe’s wishes and leave them alone? Or is there a neutral perspective? Let’s find out.


We should leave the tribe alone


We already know that past attempts to make contact with the Sentinelese people failed due to the tribe’s dislike of contact with outsiders. Even more, it is also illegal for people to travel to the North Sentinel Island as India’s government passed the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Act of 1956. According to this Act, people are prohibited from traveling closer than five nautical miles to the island because contact can agitate the tribe and spread diseases to them due to their weak immune systems.


In 2018, an American-Christian Missionary named John Allen Chau set out to the Andaman islands on a missionary trip to convert the native tribes to Christianity, however, he was killed before he could set foot on North Sentinel Island. According to the Spectator, Chau “immorally and recklessly” approached the North Sentinel Island in his kayak, which most likely frightened the tribe. This resulted in the tribe firing arrows at Chau, killing him.


Additionally, years before this missionary trip, in the late 1800s, British Officer M.V. Portman attempted to make contact with the Sentinelese. Survival International describes how Portman and his team scoured the island and came across “an elderly couple and some children”. For research purposes, the team took the people back to their base, however, they immediately became ill, and “the adults died”. It was hypothesized that the Sentinelese had an extremely weak immune system because they do not possess the immunity we have against ages-old diseases, so “the children were taken back to their island with a number of gifts” as an apology.


Over the years, other forms of contact were attempted such as sending coconuts, bits of iron, bananas, pigs, and dolls. The Sentinelese people had mixed reactions to this contact, sometimes firing arrows at them, and other times accepting the gits and fleeing into the island.


After a tsunami struck the island in 2004, people went to check on the Sentinelese tribe’s condition, and they seemed to be doing perfectly well on their own. What this shows us is that the Sntinalese people are perfectly capable of living on their own. All we need to do is not contact them and respect their privacy so we don’t spread diseases to the tribe that wants to be left alone.


We should continue to contact them


Although several methods to contact the Sentinelese have failed in the past, we can still find new ways to peacefully communicate with the Sentinelese people. To do this, we would have to carefully plan out how to gain their trust, befriend them, and share ideas with each other.


Not ALL attempts to form contact with the Sentinelese have failed. Although the tribe acted hostile at times, other times showed them accepting gifts of coconuts, bananas, and iron.


Additionally, we should not contact the tribe with the mindset of converting them to another religion “civilizing” them as Chau did. If we think about how this turned out for colonizers in the past, all this led to a large number of casualties and horrible mindsets about race. All this mindset would do is frighten the Sentinelese people, making them hostile towards any contact.


And, since the Sentinelese have weak immunity, we can form contact with drones and satellites. This method has worked a few times if the drones weren’t shot down by arrows. However, successful contact using drones has given us footage of how life for the Srntinalese is like.


Additionally, around 50 years ago, successful research studies about the Sentinelese people in groups with armed policemen have been conducted. According to Down to Earth, veteran anthropologist, T N Pandit was part of the expedition. He noticed that the tribe's people did not approach them, but watched and hid behind the trees as they were exploring their villages. They were able to estimate the population of the tribe (~50-400 people estimated in 2012) and study their way of life without any face-to-face contact.


This shows that contact can be made without any major repercussions.


Neutral Perspective


It is already illegal to make any form of contact with the Sentinelese people due to their hostility and vulnerability towards outsiders. However, people from around the world still yearn to contact and learn more about these “isolated” people.


The tribe should be left alone due to their weak immunity and desire to stay alone, however, research can be conducted through the use of drones and satellites. This wouldn’t spread diseases and would also give us information about the tribe.


This way, both sides can be satisfied.