BECKLEY, West Virginia — On North Sentinel Island off the coast of India, one of the last tribes untouched by modern civilization resides. The North Sentinelese Tribe, one of the last of the Andamanese tribes left extant, live entirely without technology, running water and many modern luxuries. Their language, culture and history is virtually unknown. While those who have attempted to contact the tribe ultimately failed, it can be assumed that the sept has still struggled in the face of COVID-19 and impoverished conditions may be commonplace.
Who Are the North Sentinelese?
The North Sentinelese were first discovered in 1771 by a trading company who saw North Sentinel Island. According to Survival International, North Sentinel Island is “about the size of Manhattan” and lush with forests and coastal waters. The tribe of around 150 people hunt, fish, gather and take shelter in hut-like structures amongst three different groups. They even move across the island as climate conditions change throughout the year. Many of the items they collect and use for their benefit come from shipwrecks on or near the island. However, every time the Indian government has contacted the tribe, they have been met with either arrows or spears. To say the least, the North Sentinelese Tribe does not take kindly to outside visitors.
Aggression Toward Visitors
Attacks by the North Sentinelese are not uncommon on either shipwrecked crews or forbidden tourists. In the 1800s, a vessel known as the Nineveh crashed near North Sentinel Island and the survivors swam to shore. However, after a few days, the locals began to attack the passengers and crew with iron tipped weapons and projectiles. A similar event happened again in 1981 after the marooning of the cargo ship Primrose. Around a dozen outsiders were killed by the tribe including prisoners and the famous missionary John Allen Chau. Chau said the island was “Satan’s last stronghold” in a diary entry before he was murdered. While the Indian government attempted to create peaceful relations with the people via “gift-dropping”, their kind gestures were not returned.
Within the past few decades, North Sentinel Island and its three-mile radius has been declared illegal to visit by the Indian government. Only periodic “checks” have been made on the civilization. In 2004, pilots flew over the isle to make sure the people were not in peril due to a recent tsunami. The tribe soon proved that they were fine and healthy by shooting arrows at the crafts above. Two years later, two fisherman who sailed too close to North Sentinel were killed which many say could have served as a warning to outsiders.
Tragedy Strikes After Contact
However, experts say that it is for the best that the North Sentinelese are not approached by the outside world — connecting to the tribe could expose them to diseases they do not have immunity for like the flu. An example of this is when the British kidnapped six members of the tribe over a century ago. The elderly members quickly succumbed to illnesses that other civilizations can defend against. It is also quite evident that the group simply does not want to be contacted. They are thriving without involvement from others. There is truly no need for the outside world to intervene. And, any further attempt might lead to violence from the tribe.
Do the North Sentinelese Live In Poverty?
It is hard to know exactly how the North Sentinelese live. But, there is no doubt that they live below the international poverty line. In fact, they do not even use currency in their day to day life. It is assumed that the tribe survives by hunting and collecting their food as humans did before the creation of civilization. By examining other Andamanese tribes, we can assume that they do not have a barter system and either collect or create their own resources. Many of these assets come from shipwrecks which are a nonrenewable resource for the island. This is particularly true as stricter protocols are put in place to keep tourists away from North Sentinel Island.
The people do not have the means nor the knowledge to make hardy shelters to withstand unprecedented natural disasters which are becoming more common with global warming. Climate change is also causing many fish around the island to become extinct, lessening their food pool. These new weather patterns have reportedly made many Andamanese tribe members leave their islands to integrate with Indian society which is causing the tribal population to dwindle. It is predicted that the North Sentinelese numbers will only continue to dwindle over the years.
How Have They Been Impacted by COVID-19?
Contrary to popular belief, the North Sentinelese are greatly threatened by COVID-19. In 2020, an NBC News report stated that 10 people from a neighboring tribe tested positive for the disease and more than 3,000 have tested positive in the islands in the Bay of Bengal alone. Author Linda Givetash worried that the numbers of the North Sentinelese Tribe may continue to dwindle as the pandemic roars on, making the connection between the civilization and the high mortality rates of Native Americans in the United States and Brazil.
Yet, Givetash also stated that many of the tribe members examined are asymptomatic except for the younger generation. While the death toll and infection rate may be hard to discern, researchers are hoping for the best. They will examine the island via helicopter as they did after the 2004 tsunami. Although finding the tribe and distributing vaccines may seem like a smart idea, contact would still be dangerous due to other sicknesses that could be spread to the people.
– Laken Kincaid