The reported death of John Allen Chau, an American visitor, on North Sentinel Island in an attack by the indigenous people has turned the international spotlight on this tiny 60 sq km piece of land in the Andamans. As one of the last remaining ‘uncontacted’ island dwelling groups, the Sentinelese have inspired awe and scientific curiosity as to how they continue to live as hunter-gatherers.
How many Sentinelese are there?
In July 2017, the Secretary, National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, who visited the Andaman and Nicobar islands — but not North Sentinel — reported that the estimated population of Sentinelese was 50 individuals. No accurate census has been made. North Sentinel Island lies west of Port Blair, part of the archipelago made up of about 200 islands. After the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, many feared for the population on the island, but an aerial survey showed that the islanders had survived.
When did they reach the islands?
Research scholars have, on the basis of genetic pointers, suggested that the earliest settlers in the Andamans came about 35,000 years ago, while others say it could have been much earlier. They are thus believed to be descendants of the earliest humans to migrate out of the African continent.
How did they arrive across seas?
Scholars theorise that during the ice ages, when sea levels were considerably lower, it should have been possible to walk across land bridges or cross shallow waters in crude canoes from the Sumatra, Malay and Burma coasts which are not far from the southern and northern extremes of the present day islands. According to some researchers, there were 13 linguistically defined groups among the original inhabitants, before the British set up a penal colony in Port Blair in 1858. Exposure to diseases and the social disruption that followed decimated the populations. Only the Jarawa, the Onge and the Sentinelese survived that phase, while the Great Andamanese were decimated in conflicts with the British. A small number of Andamanese survive in a reservation with government help.
Do Sentinelese exist in isolation?
The inhabitants of North Sentinel Island are considered fiercely hostile. They are unique survivors on a small forested land for thousands of years and have continued their existence without making attempts to reach out to the modern world. Yet, the Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI) conducted several ‘expeditions’ to make contact with the group beginning in the 1970s, some of them led by anthropologist T.N. Pandit. On some trips, members of the Onge tribe joined the visitors. The programme to gain the friendship of the Sentinelese went on, says anthropologist A. Justin, until April 2003. While there was initial hostility and a threat to shoot arrows, the Sentinelese often accepted gifts such as coconuts, red linen, ribbons, plastic buckets and even hogs. They showed “no sign of unfriendliness” by the time the contact attempts were abandoned. During one visit, the members took the gifts from “the visitors’ hands,” according to an AnSI report.
What threats do they face?
The continued existence of ancient people in North Sentinel Island with no real contact with modernity is enough evidence of their ability to persist without outside help. When other groups, such as the Andamanese, the Onge and later the Jarawa made contact with outsiders, there was a destructive impact on them. The Sentinelese have so far escaped the disease and disruption that overtook the others. Yet, they face the threat of poaching off North Sentinel. Intruders often fish in the waters around the island, and 11 of them were caught in 2012 alone. Two years after the 2004 tsunami, during which coral reefs around the island had become visible, two poachers from Port Blair drifted to the island and were killed. In August this year, the Centre relaxed the Restricted Area Permit system to boost tourism and enable foreigners to visit 29 islands in Andaman and Nicobar, including North Sentinel. The National Commission for Scheduled Tribes has called for a review of the decision.
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