The Sentinelese: not so lost in time

Anthropologists made over two dozen visits to the island since the 1970s.

November 24, 2018 08:29 pm | Updated December 03, 2021 10:14 am IST - Kolkata

Still mysterious: After the tsunami, coral reefs lie exposed on North Sentinel Island.

Still mysterious: After the tsunami, coral reefs lie exposed on North Sentinel Island.

The Sentinelese in the Andamans have the reputation of hostility towards outsiders, but have been contacted by anthropologists through 26 expeditions since the 1970s.

The anthropologists are now trying to help the Andaman and Nicobar administration to find a way to retrieve the body of American tourist John Allen Chau, who was killed on North Sentinel island .

Some of them are from the Anthropological Survey of India (ANSI).

The DGP, Andaman and Nicobar, Dependra Pathak, on Friday spoke to C. Raghu, who heads the ANSI office in the islands and sought advice on establishing contact with the Sentinelese. Efforts to retrieve John Allen Chau’s body have failed so far.


The ANSI facilitated discussions with T.N. Pandit, a senior anthropologist who conducted the first official expedition to the North Sentinel island in the 1970s. Since then, anthropologists have undertaken 26 expeditions to the island and contacted the Sentinelese on 24 occasions. These contacts are recorded in an ANSI publication, Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups of India, Privileges and Predicament.

The author of the chapter on the Sentinelese, Anstice Justin, who was part of a dozen contact programmes since 1986, describes the tribe as the most isolated among the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG) in Andaman and Nicobar islands: Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa, Sentinelese, Nicobarese and Shompens.

No bond established

Mr. Justin said that in the first expeditions to North Sentinel in March 1970, Mr. Pandit accompanied three members of the Onge tribe, but they could not establish any bond with the Sentinelese. The ANSI publication lists 22 expeditions conducted before the tsunami and four thereafter; in at least seven, the researchers found the Sentinelese “unfriendly” — they shot arrows or threatened to do so. Gifts of coconuts, bananas and iron rods were given to them during these visits.

But with the passage of time, the attitude of the tribe changed. “They have been more approachable since 1990. Incidents of arrow shooting have become fewer..., the chapter on the tribe says.


Anthropologists who came into contact with the members during such programmes speak about smoke coming from the forest, individual Sentinelese emerging in bands on the beach and making gestures, anticipating gifts, either to be placed on the beach or in the shallow lagoons.

Mr. Justin, who hails from a Nicobarese tribe, says his last interaction with them was on March 9, 2005, near the northern coast of the island. The members “happily came towards the team in neck deep water to accept gifts.”

The administration was pursuing a “hands-off, eyes-on” approach to the tribe and not many expeditions were undertaken since 2005. In his view, the absence of civil authority on the island was the main reason for the tribe being exposed to the activities of poachers. The anthropologist said he recorded 11 cases of poachers being apprehended there in 2012 alone.

The Sentinelese have their own language. “They depend more on seas than the Jarawas or the Onges. The sea surrounding the 59.67 sq. km. island allows them to fish with bows, arrows and spears,” the ANSI says.

The members hunt wild boar, sea turtles, fish, and gather roots, tubers and honey. Mr. Justin and others think propelling a canoe with paddles and oars is unknown to the tribe. They know only poling, confined to high seas.

Mr. Pandit, the 84-year-old former Director-General of the ANSI, recalls that in 1970, when he had taken three Onges to the island, “We asked Onges to speak in their language before the Sentinelese, from the boat. The Sentinelese became so angry that the Onges hid themselves in the boat.”

The 84-year-old anthropologist told The Hindu that the team would quickly go and put the articles on ground and leave. “Once they realised that we were not staying there, they stopped shooting arrows,” he recalled, pointing that they could turn violent if they felt people were going to occupy their land. “We are fortunate that such a small group of people have survived, living in the stone age in almost isolation in one part of the country.”

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