The Sentinelese, also known as the Sentineli and the North Sentinel Islanders, are an indigenous people who inhabit North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal in India. Designated a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group and a Scheduled Tribe, they belong to the broader class of Andamanese people.
Along with the Great Andamanese, the Jarawas, the Onge, the Shompen, and the Nicobarese, the Sentinelese are one of the six native and often reclusive peoples of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Unlike the others, the Sentinelese appear to have consistently refused any interaction with the outside world. They are hostile to outsiders and have killed people who approached or landed on the island.
In 1956, the Government of India declared North Sentinel Island a tribal reserve and prohibited travel within 3 miles (4.8 km) of it. It further maintains a constant armed patrol to prevent intrusions by outsiders. Photography is prohibited.
There is significant uncertainty as to the group’s size, with estimates ranging between 15 and 500 individuals, but mostly between 50 and 200.
One report by Heinrich Harrer described a man as 1.6 metres (5 ft 3 in) tall, possibly because of insular dwarfism (the so-called “Island Effect”), nutrition, or simply genetic heritage.
During a 2014 circumnavigation of their island, researchers put their height between 5 ft 3 in (1.60 m) and 5 ft 5 in (1.65 m) and recorded their skin colour as “dark, shining black” with well-aligned teeth. They showed no signs of obesity and had very prominent muscles.
The Sentinelese are hunter-gatherers. They likely use bows and arrows to hunt terrestrial wildlife and more rudimentary methods to catch local seafood, such as mud crabs and molluscan shells. They are believed to eat a lot of molluscs, given the abundance of roasted shells found in their settlements.
Some of their practices have not evolved beyond those of the Stone Age; they are not known to engage in agriculture. It is unclear whether they have any knowledge of making fire though investigations have shown they use fire.
Similarities, as well as dissimilarities, have been spotted with the Onge people. They prepare their food similarly. They share common traits in body decoration and material culture. There are also similarities in the design of their canoes.
(Of all the Andamanese tribes, only the Sentinelese and Onge make canoes.) The Onge call them “Chanku-ate”. Similarities with the Jarawas have been also noted. Their bows have similar patterns; no such marks are found on Onge bows. Finally, both tribes sleep on the ground, while the Onge sleep on raised platforms. The metal arrowheads and adze blades are quite large and heavier than those of other Andamanese tribes.
The Sentinelese reside in small temporary huts erected on four poles with slanted leaf-covered roofs. They recognize the value of the metal, having scavenged it to create tools and weapons and accepted aluminum cookware left by the National Geographic Society in 1974.
They have also developed canoes suitable for lagoon-fishing but use long poles rather than paddles or oars to propel them. They seldom use the canoes for cross-island navigation. Both s*xes wear bark strings; the men always tuck daggers into their waist-belts.
They also wear some ornaments such as necklaces and headbands but are essentially naked. The wearing of jawbones of deceased relatives has been reported. Artistic engravings of simple geometric designs and shade contrasts have been seen on their weapons. The women have been seen to dance by slapping both palms on the thighs whilst simultaneously tapping the feet rhythmically in a bent-knee stance.
In 1771, an East India Company hydrographic survey vessel, the Diligent, observed “a multitude of lights … upon the shore” of North Sentinel Island, which is the island’s first recorded mention. The crew did not investigate.
During the late summer monsoon of 1867, the Indian merchant-vessel Nineveh foundered on the reef off North Sentinel. All the passengers and crew reached the beach safely, but as they proceeded for their breakfast on the third day, they were subject to a sudden assault by a group of naked, short-haired, red-painted islanders with arrows that were probably iron-tipped.
The captain, who fled in the ship’s boat, was found days later by a brig and the Royal Navy sent a rescue party to the island. Upon arrival, the party discovered that the survivors had managed to repel the attackers with sticks and stones and that they had not reappeared.
Andamanese scholar Vishvajit Pandya notes that Onge narratives often recall voyages by their ancestors to North Sentinel to procure metal.
The series of contact expeditions continued until 1994, with some of them even attempting to plant coconut trees on the island. The programs were then abandoned for nearly nine years. The Indian government maintained a policy of no deliberate contact, intervening only in cases of natural calamities that might pose an existential threat or to thwart poachers.
A likely reason for the termination of these missions was that the Sentinelese did not let most of the post-Pandit contact teams get near them. The teams usually waited until the armed Sentinelese retreated, then left gifts on the beach or set them adrift toward shore.
The government was also quite concerned about the possibility of harm to the Sentinelese by an influx of outsiders—a result of them projecting a relatively friendly image. Photos of the 1991 expedition were removed from public display and use of them was restricted by the government.
The next expedition occurred in April 2003, when a canoe built by the Onges was gifted to the visitors. There were further expeditions (some aerial) in 2004 and 2005 to evaluate the effects of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which caused massive tectonic changes to the island: it was enlarged by a merger with nearby small islands, and the seafloor was raised by about 1.5 metres (4 ft 11 in), exposing the surrounding coral reefs to air and destroying the shallow lagoons, which were the Sentinelese’s fishing grounds.
The expeditions counted a total of 32 Sentinelese scattered over three places but did not find any bodies. The Sentinelese responded to these aerial expeditions with hostile gestures, which led many to conclude that the community was mostly unaffected and had survived the calamity. Pandya argues that Sentinelese hostility is a sign of the physical as well as the cultural resilience of the community.
The Sentinelese generally received the post-tsunami expeditions in a friendly manner. They approached the visiting parties, which carried no arms or shields as they had in earlier expeditions, unarmed.
In 2014, an aerial expedition followed by a circumnavigation investigated the effects of a forest fire. Important data was gathered and the expedition recorded that the fire did not seem to have affected the populace. They exhibited a balance of ages and s*xes, with a number of young children.
Friendly hand gestures were noted but the visitors did not go very close to the island. The 2014 expedition also recorded that the Sentinelese had adapted to the changes to their fishing grounds, and were using their canoes to travel up to half a kilometre (a third of a mile) from the shore.
In November 2018, John Allen Chau, a 26-year-old American, trained and sent by the US-based Christian missionary organization All Nations, travelled to North Sentinel Island with the aim of contacting and living among the Sentinelese in the hope of converting them to Christianity.
Chau did not seek the necessary permits required to visit the island and traveled illegally to the island by bribing local fishermen.
He expressed a clear desire to convert the tribe and awareness of the risk of death he faced and of the illegality of his visits, writing, “Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?”, “The eternal lives of this tribe is at hand”, and “I think it’s worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people. Please do not be angry at them or at God if I get killed…Don’t retrieve my body.”
On 15 November, Chau attempted his first visit in a fishing boat, which took him about 500–700 metres (1,600–2,300 ft) from shore. The fishermen warned Chau not to go farther, but he canoed toward shore with a waterproof Bible. As he approached, he attempted to communicate with the islanders and to offer gifts, but he retreated after facing hostile responses. On another visit, Chau recorded that the islanders reacted to him with a mixture of amusement, bewilderment, and hostility.
He attempted to sing worship songs to them, and spoke to them in Xhosa, after which they often fell silent. Other attempts to communicate ended with them bursting into laughter. They apparently communicated with “lots of high pitched sounds” and gestures.
Eventually, according to Chau’s last letter, when he tried to hand over fish and gifts, a boy shot a metal-headed arrow that pierced the Bible he was holding in front of his chest, after which he retreated again.
On his final visit, on 17 November, Chau instructed the fishermen to leave without him. The fishermen later saw the islanders dragging Chau’s body, and the next day they saw his body on the shore.
Police subsequently arrested seven fishermen for assisting Chau to get close to the restricted island. His death was treated as a murder, but there was no suggestion that the Sentinelese would be charged and the U.S. government confirmed that it did not ask the Indian government to press charges against the tribe.
Indian officials made several attempts to recover Chau’s body but eventually abandoned those efforts. An anthropologist involved in the case told reporters that the risk of a dangerous clash between investigators and the islanders was too great to justify any further attempts.