The Utterly Fascinating, Stone Age Indian Ocean Island Where Once You Step Ashore, You’re Dead

by Owen James Burke

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Sentinelese primarily use their bows and arrows to hunt reef fish in the shallows, but they’re also important tools for defense. Photo: Radcliffe-Broewn, c. 1909.

On a tiny spit of land called North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal (known as Chiö-tá-kwö-kwéver, to its inhabitants) live a people known to the outside world as the ‘Sentinelese.’ The island and its people have been getting a fair amount of attention lately because of their ability to remain among the few cultures that have succeeded in evading the sociological and technological nightmares the rest of the world has created for itself.


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Image: NASA Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen, with data provided by the NASA EO-1 team.

Miraculously, they even survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which ravaged just about every coastline and settlement in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal and claimed an estimated 170,000 lives.

How have they done it, you might ask? The Sentinelese are relentlessly defensive – and they have to be. The tiny, isolated population (estimated somewhere between 40 and 100) would be decimated should one of our diseases make its way ashore. Over the centuries, any time anyone has ever approached they island, they’ve been met with stern faces, javelins, and bows and arrows. But, it is this fierce guardianship which has allowed the Sentinelese to live in isolation for as long as 60,000 years, historians say. What’s more, they appear to have done so without making fire, but laboriously maintaining fires set by the occasional lightning strike.

We’ve spent a fair amount of time scanning the Interwebs for more on this fascinating place and people. There’s not much definitive, but this story by Indra Sinha is, in our minds, the best place to start.

Subraj, my friend calls him, but the newspapers name him Sunder Raj. They say he was a fisherman, but my friend, who spent time drinking toddy and smoking ganja cheroots with him, says Subraj wasn’t quite familiar with boats. He made his living scamming bits of semi-precious sea life that other people stole from the ocean: nautilus shells, corals, bêche-de-mer  [sea cucumber] and turbo shells inlaid with swirls of mother-of-pearl. Subraj’s lack of seafaring experience, said my friend, was due to his having spent years in prison for battering to death his first wife and her lover (ironic, given the Andamans’ long history as a penal colony, that he’d done his time on the mainland). Upon returning to the islands he had married again. He was a charming, jolly man with a huge muttonchop moustache. Everyone liked him. It came as quite a shock to hear that he had been eaten by the North Sentinelese.

Read the rest of Sinha’s story here.

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In 2006, a pair of fishermen drifted too close, and weren’t so lucky. They were placed in shallow graves. The government attempted to recover their bodies, but aborted the mission under a hailstorm of arrows. Since, a three-mile exclusion zone has been instated to protect the Sentinelese and prevent further violence. Photo: rondreis.nl.

Things may now be changing, for good or ill. The video below may be record of the first “friendly contact” with the Sentinelese, at least in recent history:

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1bjf8y

Watch a documentary on the Sentinelese, who are believed to have been part of the first large migration east from Africa:

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