There are few untouched places in the world today but the island of North Sentinel is one of them. It’s one of the last corners of the globe that hasn’t been touched by Western culture. Heading over to the archipelago of the Andaman Islands we visit the House of the Sentinelese.
North Sentinel, in the archipelago of the Andaman Islands, is a territory administered by India. “Administered,” is a term we use loosely because the island is in no way occupied or governed by India. It’s not even sure the locals know their island even has an administrator.
The native inhabitants have been occupying the island for around 60,000 years and seem to have arrived from the African continent. The population, not officially registered, is estimated to be between 50 and 400 individuals. Nothing is really known about their language; we don’t even known if they are aware of the existence of fire!
This is an island civilisation that has survived all this time without any influence from the outside world.
The island is located just south of Burma in the Bay of Bengal. It’s hard to imagine there still being an untouched island situated in one of the busiest trade routes in the world.
How has it stayed so isolate over the centuries?
There are a number of reasons, but here are just a few of the possibilities:
- Coral reef: a natural barrier for anyone wishing to arrive by sea. The wall, carefully constructed by Mother Nature, has kept out the British and the Portuguese on a number of occasions, forcing their armies to give up the idea of conquering the small island, a mere 75 square kilometres.
- Resistance: being fierce and ostentatious — when necessary — made it possible for the North Sentinelese to protect themselves against other tribes. Today they live by their own rules without any external influences.
- Rejection of the outside world: this is a natural consequence of reason above. The locals take to heart the concept much discussed in the “civilised world,” yet often neglected: privacy. They won’t take anyone spying on them!
Has anyone successfully visited the island and made it out alive to tell the story? Well… there was one recent account of a group of poachers who arrived and were subsequently killed by the island inhabitants after breaking the ban of approaching less than 5 miles from the island’s coast.
This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. If a foreigner approached the island the Sentinelese attack by shooting arrows. In the 1980s, during a shipwreck rescue mission, “invaders” reached the island an killed several tribesmen, further inflaming their animosity to say the least.
The biggest enemy: tsunamis
Outsiders are no real danger to the local tribe, they’ve been protecting themselves for thousands of years. But in 2004 the worst natural disaster of modern time hit and the news reports showed major parts of India, Indonesia and Thailand were destroyed. But what about North Sentinel? A few days after the tragedy, an Indian helicopter flew over the island to make sure there were survivors and possibly offer relief.
In response, the locals made it very clear that they had survived the big wave by shooting arrows into the sky at the strange flying iron bird. Thanks to this little mission, we now have some “bird’s eye” photographs of the island as well as a few photographs of the local tribe.
It’s pretty hard to prove that the inhabitants are indeed cannibals as they are often described and it’s no doubt a myth fuelled by their hostility when it comes to “welcoming” foreign visitors. Is North Sentinel a real-life Heart of Darkness?