There is a special place in the Andaman Islands of India. It's the home of a protected civilization of people call home. North Sentinel Island is long shrouded in mystery. It is a unique island in the Bay of Bengal that has piqued the interest of travelers and explorers interested in learning more about the indigenous people who live there. If you have a sense of adventure, we warn you that this isn't an area to put on your list of places to visit. There are some good reasons why it is left unexplored and untouched by modern civilization. To satiate your curiosity, here is an explanation of North Sentinel Island and why you should stay away.
What is North Sentinel Island?
Wikipedia describes North Sentinel Island as a part of the Andaman Islands archipelago, consisting of several islands that include South Sentinel Island and North Sentinel Island. North Sentinel Island is one of 29 islands in the archipelago that the government of India placed on its list of areas with restricted travel. Although a part of the South Andaman administrative district, the authorities issued a protection order that bans travel within five miles of the Island. Curious adventurers cannot legally enter the waters surrounding the island, nor make contact with any of its inhabitants, the Sentinelese.
The Inhabitants of North Sentinal Island
The Sentinelese are an indigenous tribe that lives on North Sentinel Island. The group has voluntarily chosen to live in a state of isolation from the rest of the world. Their lack of contact with the outside world causes the people to have no immunity to disease. One visitor from the outside world could bring sickness with the potential to wipe out everyone living here. There is a good reason for them to be vigilant and to prevent newcomers from reaching their shores.
What happens if you go to North Sentinel Island anyway?
The Indian Navy patrols the waters surrounding the island regularly. The island is legally protected under the Aboriginal Tribe Act of 1956. It's illegal for anyone who is not a resident of the island to come within five nautical miles of the shores. If you violate the laws, and you manage to get past the Indian Navy patrols, you will face the wrath of its inhabitants. They will not hesitate to use force to keep you out. They are within their rights to kill anyone coming too close to the island, and the islanders are protected by Indian laws that make them exempt from prosecution for killing people who come to the island out of curiosity. Two fishermen and a US missionary are among the people killed for attempting to visit the island. The Indian government monitors Sentinel Island remotely, not making physical contact with the people. However, the home ministry did lift the prohibition in 2018, for anthropologists and researchers to gain pre-approved clearance to investigate aspects of the islands. Forbes reports that the many contacts attempted over the past 200 years have ended in unfortunate results for the visitors.
How many people inhabit the islands?
A report issued in 2012 vaguely identified 10 households with 15 residents, however, the population estimate range between 50 to 400 persons living in the exclusion zone. Some other estimates given by anthropologists allowed into the region estimate the population as low as 80 and as high as 500 people. Their language is different from other indigenous tribes in the Andaman Islands. They've maintained isolation for so long that there is a language barrier between the Sentinelese and other groups.
Why can't we get an accurate population accounting?
The few attempts of anthropologists to get an estimate of the population on North Sentinal Island have been unsuccessful. It's possible to confirm visually, the number of people encountered, however, this is a tribe that values its privacy and does not want to be seen by outsiders. Previous encounters with British vessels that landed on the island resulted in the death of two elderly inhabitants, and four children being taken, then brought back with illnesses. The British dropped them off on the beach and it is unknown if they spread disease to other members of the tribe. There was no way to follow up on the effects because the Sentinelese would not tolerate visitors, defending the shores with violence in a few separate incidents. Another obstacle for gathering census data is the Sentinelese's unwillingness to confirm their numbers. Anthropologists arrived to find that the huts built by the inhabitants had been abandoned quickly. The islanders run and hide so they won't be seen. Since there is a language barrier, there is no way to communicate with them.
Living conditions on the Sentinel Islands
The inhabitants of North Sentinel Island were living in grass huts in the late 1960s. One of the few visits to yield information about the tribe reported that they tend small tires, harvest crabs and fish from small narrow canoes, and live as hunter-gatherers. They also eat fruits and tubers that grow on the island, also killing wild pigs and birds. They hunt with bows and arrows, knives, and spears and are skilled in handling them.
Attempts at humanitarian aid
The Indian government allowed anthropologists to visit in the early 1990s. They brought gifts of live bugs for the Sentinelese, but they killed the animals and buried them. The only gifts they found useful were coconuts and metal pots and pans. The islanders kept their weapons pointed at the group until they dropped off the gifts then left. These were not friendly encounters. A year after the first anthropological visits, the tribesmen dropped the weapons and met the visitors on the beach to collect their gifts, but this was the extent of their hospitality.
The current situation with North Sentinel Island
As it stands, the Indian government suspended contact with the North Sentinel Island inhabitants. Officials made their last visit in 2011 to conduct a census. They decided that it's best to leave the Sentinelese alone and continue to warn others to stay away from the area. The area is restricted because of the danger to the islanders and to anyone who ventures onto its shores. It's best to avoid the five-mile protected space that surrounds North Sentinel Island.
Written by Dana Hanson
Read more posts by Dana Hanson