Who are the most isolated people on Earth? In a world where every piece of land has been discovered and photographed from above by airplane and satellite, the notion of uncontacted people living alone in the middle of a tropical forest or on an isolated island continues to fascinate. Just this February, a previously uncontacted tribe was discovered and photographed in Brazil. Of course, when such people are found, their isolation is immediately compromised. Diseases from the outside to which the tribe has no natural immunity toward often greatly deplete their numbers. There are clashes in the Brazilian rainforest between indigenous tribes and outsiders looking for land to log, mine or even settle.
Strong candidates for the title of ‘most isolated’ are the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island, a 72 km2 island in India’s Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal.Called Sentinelese by outsiders (no one knows what they call themselves, for the structure of their language is unknown), they are the most infamous of a group of isolated indigenous peoples in the Andamans, along with the Great Andamanese, Jarawa, and Onge. All are classified as Negritos, indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia who are mostly believed to have descended from a migration out of eastern Africa approximately 60 000 years ago (the same migration that possibly contained the ancestors of Papuans and Indigenous Australians and would indicate some ability to travel long distances by sea). The most recent Indian census places the population of North Sentinel Island at 39, but this number was taken at a distance (India has a policy of non-interference with the island; even taking pictures is an offense). The actual number of people living on the island could be anywhere between that number and 500, based upon evidence that the Sentinelese are composed of two to six groups of 20 to 60 people. While other indigenous groups in the islands have been contacted frequently within the past 50 years, the Sentinelese remain essentially autonomous. Most of the Great Andamanese have been assimilated, with the population having plummeted from 5 000 to just 41 due to disease and alcoholism; the last speaker of the Aka-Bo language on Great Andaman died in early 2010. The next most isolated people beside the Sentinelese, the Jarawa, had a trunk road built through their reservation and have since begun begging for food and gifts on the roadside and making occasional visits to villages.
Source: CJLL Wright, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Andamanese_comparative_distribution.png.Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.
The Sentinelese are Paleolithic hunter-gatherers; there is no agriculture and perhaps no ability to self-produce fire. While there is no knowledge of mining or smelting, metal tools are present thanks to years of salvaging from ships that wreck on the coast. The Sentinelese language is unknown. Occasional encounters with people from the outside have been mostly unfriendly bordering on violent.Sailors have long been advised to steer clear; a millennium ago, the islands were found by Chinese and Arab sailors who were greeted by a hail of arrows, as were Christian missionaries centuries later. A convict escaped from a penal colony on Great Andaman in 1896 on a makeshift raft only to end up on North Sentinel, where he was immediately killed by tribesmen. The crew of a freighter that ran aground on North Sentinel in August 1981 had to hold off attacking Sentinelese with makeshift weapons for a week before the Indian Navy arrived to evacuate them. There were a handful of clashes with armed salvage operators in the late 1980s and early 1990s, resulting in many Sentinelese deaths. Two of the six Sentinelese taken into captivity by an English expedition in 1879 died quickly.
Between the 1960s and 1990s, there was a limited attempt to contact the Sentinelese by dropping off gifts on the beach to lure them out of the forest such as coconuts (which do not grow on North Sentinel), but this was stopped after a similar program with the Jarawa resulted in hostile encounters and also introduced the concept of roadside begging (outsiders are also banned from contact with the Jarawa due to the introduction of alcoholism, disease and sexual abuse), resulting in the current policy of non-engagement. Below, a video splicing two pieces of gift-giving encounter footage together; one friendly (1991), one not so friendly (1974). The film’s director was actually shot in the thigh with an arrow during the latter encounter.
The Sentinelese came back into the news in the aftermath of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The earthquake that caused the tsunami had its epicentre just to the east of the Andaman Islands, and the islands themselves were devastated by the resulting tsunami with nearly 2 000 deaths. Those who wondered what the fates of the Sentinelese were didn’t have to wait long: an Indian coast guard helicopter that flew over North Sentinel Island two days after the tsunami was greeted by the sight of a Sentinelese man aiming his arrow at it (a moment captured in this famous photo). One local environmentalist attributed the Sentinelese’s survival to their ‘sixth sense’ of nature; an ecotourism operator credits their oral history traditions and hunter-gather lifestyles. Evidently they moved inland well before the wave hit. The lagoons of North Sentinel’s east shore were destroyed, however, and some of the coral reefs around the island became exposed due to tectonic uplift, raising the island as much as 5 metres.Members of the other Andamanese groups appeared to survive largely intact as well.
The uplifited coral reef surrounding North Sentinel Island can be seen here now exposed above sea level and covered with mud, sand, and/or algae. Source: NASA Earth Observatory, http://eoimages.gsfc.nasa.gov/images/imagerecords/42000/42136/nsentinelisland_ali_2009324_lrg.jpg.
Just in case it wasn’t driven home that outsiders weren’t welcome, in January 2006 two fishermen were fishing illegally for crabs and drifted into Sentinelese waters (a 5-km exclusion zone surrounds the island) when their anchor dislodged. Drunk on palm wine, they did not respond to fellow fishermen’s warnings of danger, and found themselves in the shallow waters around the island where they were attacked and killed by Sentinelese, who buried the fishermen in shallow graves (seemingly disproving the myth of cannibalism). Indian authorities who tried to recover the bodies were once again driven off by arrows. Naturally, there was no attempt at prosecution; even one of the victims’ relatives stated that the Sentinelese, not the poachers, were the victims. But just how long can the people of North Sentinel Island hold out?
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