October 11, 2023 | Allison Robertson

Forbidden: North Sentinel Island

North Sentinel Island & the mysterious Sentinelese Tribe

Island and tribe split image

The Sentinelese tribe is one of the last uncontacted, and most isolated tribes in the world. Their isolation and resistance to outsiders have intrigued anthropologists and the general public alike, leaving many aspects of their lives shrouded in mystery. 

Here's what we've managed to piece together about this elusive group.

Where are they?

North Sentinel Island on mapThe Sun

The Sentinelese inhabit North Sentinel Island, one of the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. This remote island covers approximately 23 square miles, and it's a part of India's union territory.

How big is the tribe?
The exact population of the Sentinelese tribe is not known, given their isolation and the lack of detailed studies about them.

However, estimates based on distant observations and limited encounters over the years suggest that there could be anywhere between 50 to 150 individuals. Some estimates place the number closer to 80.

Due to the Indian government's non-interference policy regarding the Sentinelese, precise demographic data is lacking. It's important to note that these figures are approximations, and the actual number could be different.

Given their small population and isolation, concerns about genetic diversity might arise. In many isolated tribes, limited genetic diversity can be a challenge, potentially leading to genetic disorders. However, without comprehensive studies, it's difficult to determine the health implications for the Sentinelese.

How long have they been there?

Sentinelese Tribe People on beachSurvival International

The Sentinelese are believed to have lived on North Sentinel Island for up to 60,000 years, making them direct descendants of the first human populations to emerge from Africa. They have managed to maintain a hunter-gatherer lifestyle for ages, resisting attempts at contact or colonization.

Why can’t we contact them?

Sentinelese tribeOutlook India

The Sentinelese tribe, like other isolated tribes, has been secluded from the rest of the world for centuries. This isolation means they haven't been exposed to many of the diseases that people in the outside world have encountered and developed immunity to over generations. As a result, the Sentinelese are highly susceptible to infections that outsiders might introduce, even ones that are relatively mild to most people.

Also, several attempts to establish contact with the Sentinelese have been met with hostility. The tribe is known to react with aggression to outsiders, often resorting to throwing stones or firing arrows.

Past efforts by the Indian government to establish relations ended in the 1990s after multiple negative encounters. 


What happens if we get too close?

Sentinelese Person with arrowSurvival International

While many encounters with the Sentinelese ended without major incidents, there have been exceptions.

In 2006, two fishermen who accidentally drifted too close to the island lost their lives.

In 2018, an American missionary named John Allen Chau ventured to the island in an attempt to evangelize the tribe but lost his life in the process.

Have there been any successful attempts?

Indian Helpers offering coconutsSurvival International

Over the years, officials and anthropologists have made several attempts to establish contact with the Sentinelese, especially in the late 20th century. Some of these efforts involved gift drop-offs, with the hope that positive interactions might build trust between the Sentinelese and the outside world.

Items such as coconuts, metal tools, brightly colored buckets, and cloth pieces have been offered to the Sentinelese during these excursions. Coconuts, which don't naturally grow on North Sentinel Island, were particularly well-received by the tribe.

How do they feel about us?

Sentinelese TribeMy Best Place

The response from the Sentinelese has been mixed. In some cases, the tribe retrieved the gifts, especially coconuts, once the outsiders retreated. However, other items, like a live pig and a doll left by an Indian expedition, were met with violence; the pig was buried, and the doll was buried as well.

On some occasions, the Sentinelese have displayed curiosity, even approaching boats without displaying immediate hostility, but such moments were fleeting.

What language do they speak?

Sentinelese Tribe rowing canoeAnthropological Survey of India, Forbes Associated Press

The Sentinelese language remains largely unknown, as it's unrelated to any other language spoken in the Andaman Islands.

Due to the tribe's isolation, their culture, rituals, and traditions remain a mystery. What little we know has been observed from a distance or inferred from other Andamanese tribes.

What do they eat?

Tribal fishing in canoeWikipedia

The Sentinelese are primarily hunter-gatherers. They rely on hunting, fishing, and collecting wild plants. Fish is a significant part of their diet, and they are known to fish in the shallow waters around their island. The dense forests of the island provide them with fruits, honey, and other resources.

What do they wear?

Sentinelese Person wearing headbandSurvival International

The limited observations of the Sentinelese from the infrequent interactions over the years suggest that their attire is minimal. From the accounts of those who have observed them from a distance, it appears that the Sentinelese wear simple adornments and occasionally use leaves, fiber strings, or other natural materials as basic coverings or belts. They have been seen with headbands made from vines, and some individuals have been spotted wearing necklaces or simple ornaments.

The tropical climate of the Andaman Islands, combined with their traditional way of life, means there's likely no cultural emphasis on clothing for protection against the elements. Instead, any adornments or coverings they wear are likely to be of cultural or ceremonial significance, though the exact details and meanings are speculative.


How do they live?

Sentinelese TribeMy Best Place

The Sentinelese live in small, temporary huts constructed from local materials. Their tools are primarily made from bones and stones.

Not much is known about their social structure, but it's believed that they operate in small family groups.

What about natural disasters?

Almost loose a lifeWikimedia.Commons

In December 2004, a devastating tsunami struck the Indian Ocean, affecting multiple countries around its shores, including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands where the Sentinelese live. The Sentinelese inhabit North Sentinel Island, which is part of the Andaman archipelago.

After the tsunami, there were concerns about the survival of the Sentinelese given the proximity of North Sentinel Island to the earthquake's epicenter. The Indian government sent reconnaissance missions to check on their well-being.

Remarkably, the Sentinelese appeared to have managed the disaster quite efficiently. When a helicopter flew low over the island to check on them, it was met with the usual hostile reception: the tribespeople fired arrows at the helicopter, signaling that they were not only alive but also continuing their long-held desire for isolation.

The Sentinelese's survival was not entirely surprising to some experts. Indigenous populations with deep knowledge of their environment often have traditional systems in place to cope with natural disasters. They might have noticed changes in the behavior of marine life or other early warning signs and moved to higher ground before the tsunami hit. 

However, the exact details of how they survived, given their isolation and the absence of detailed studies, remain speculative.

Current Approach

Kids from the Sentinelese tribeMy Best Place

Recognizing the wishes of the Sentinelese to remain isolated, along with the dangers of introducing modern diseases to the tribe and vice versa, the Indian government has largely backed off from direct contact missions in recent years. It's also illegal to approach North Sentinel Island closer than three nautical miles to protect the tribe and potential visitors.

The Sentinelese Tribe represents one of the last vestiges of ancient human societies untouched by modern civilization. Their fierce protection of their way of life and the respect and distance given to them by the Indian government have preserved their way of life for now.

While curiosity about the Sentinelese remains, it's essential to respect their wish for isolation, recognizing the importance of preserving such a unique human heritage.