The Uncontacted People

26 Nov

Nearly every contact with the Sentinelese has ended poorly. Violence is the usually response to outsiders and at least two people have been killed in the last ten years. They are some of the last truly ignorant humans on Earth, untouched by any aspect of modern civilization. And they’d prefer to stay that way.

North Sentinel island is one of the Adaman archipelago, a small chain of islands in the Bay of Bengal. North Sentinel itself is quite small, only about 70 square kilometers and surrounded by shallow waters and forbidding reefs. torchlight had been seen on its beaches and other, slightly less hostile groups told stories about its inhabitants, but even so, Europeans avoided it altogether until 1880.

The first set of expeditions was disappointing. A government administrator named Maurice Vidal Portman attempted contact, but found only a network of paths, quickly abandoned villages, and a bare handful of captives, who were later released. The twentieth century didn’t hold any greater hopes. Local governments would sometimes try to leave gifts or food for the natives, but usually had to scurry back to their boats under a rain of arrows and spears. Even the few non-hostile visits were enigmatic at best.

Quite a few discarded their weapons and gestured to us to throw the fish. The women came out of the shade to watch our antics… A few men came and picked up the fish. They appeared to be gratified, but there did not seem to be much softening to their hostile attitude… They all began shouting some incomprehensible words. We shouted back and gestured to indicate that we wanted to be friends. The tension did not ease. At this moment, a strange thing happened — a woman paired off with a warrior and sat on the sand in a passionate embrace. This act was being repeated by other women, each claiming a warrior for herself, a sort of community mating, as it were. Thus did the militant group diminish. This continued for quite some time and when the tempo of this frenzied dance of desire abated, the couples retired into the shade of the jungle. However, some warriors were still on guard. We got close to the shore and threw some more fish which were immediately retrieved by a few youngsters. It was well past noon and we headed back to the ship…

That’s one of the few successful encounters, recorded in 1970 by a group of Indian anthropologists. Other than a handful of other contacts, most of what we know about the Sentinelese has been made through remote observations. We know that there are 50-500 of them on the island. We know that they are of similar ethnic origin to the rest of the native islanders, a group that was probably one of the earliest to emigrate eastward from Africa. We know they work as a hunter-gatherer society, supplementing their meals with fish and other sea life. We can guess as to their tools and we have intimate knowledge of their weapons.

But other than that, we are pretty much empty-handed. We aren’t even sure of their language. More detail on the history of our contact and what we know can be found at

Today the local government has stopped these expeditions, content to let the Sentinelese be. And while North Sentinel is listed as an Indian protectorate, it has never conceded sovereignty, leaving it, and it’s inhabitants, in political limbo.

Sources:,, mentalfloss.comWikipedia

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Posted by on November 26, 2011 in Anthropology, History


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