The death of an American missionary on a remote Indian island has cast a rare spotlight on the Sentinelese, one of the world’s most reclusive hunter-gatherer tribes.
John Allen Chau, 27, was killed with arrows last week when he illegally set foot on North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean after paddling there in a kayak.
A statement attributed to his family posted on his purported Instagram account said that Chau “had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people. We forgive those reportedly responsible for his death.”
Chau had paddled his kayak towards the shore carrying fish and a football as gifts, according to a journal quoted by various news agencies.
Tribespeople reportedly fired arrows at him, one of which pierced his Bible, and he returned to a fishermen’s boat where he spent the night writing about his experience before going back to the island the next day.
“He invited that aggression,” PC Joshi, professor of social anthropology at Delhi University in India’s capital, told The Associated Press news agency.
The hunter-gatherer Sentinelese people, estimated to be a few dozens to a few hundred in number, are the most isolated among the native tribal groups that inhabit the Andaman Islands.
They are protected by Indian laws, which ban any contact with the indigenous people.
“They, I think, are the very, very precious citizens of our country. And we should respect their freedom, we should respect their rights, and we should respect their life also,” said Joshi.
“Because if I go there, I am a product of so many antibiotics, so I am carrying so many germs with me. If I even shake hands with them, I may pass hundreds of thousands of bacteria to them. And they can die with influenza also. A simple thing like flu may kill them because they are not immune to anything.”
The sole inhabitants of North Sentinel Island, around the size of Manhattan, Sentinelese guard their territory fiercely. They rely on forest produce and sea resources for survival.
Their number was estimated to be some 8,000 when the British first made attempts to colonise these islands in the late 18th century.
“We do not even know how many of them are there,” said Anvita Abbi, who has spent decades studying the tribal languages of India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands.
Most of what is known about the Sentinelese has been gathered by viewing them from boats moored at a safe distance from the shore.
They are near-naked, with the women wearing fibre strings tied around their waists, necks and heads, and the men also wearing necklaces and headbands. Some have their faces painted.
Rare photos show them carrying spears, bows and arrows.
“What language they speak, how old it is, it’s anybody’s guess,” Abbi said. “Nobody has access to these people.”
And, she said, that’s how it should be.
Scholars believe the Sentinelese migrated from Africa roughly 50,000 years ago, but most details of their lives remain completely unknown.
Brief visits have been paid to the island, but the Sentinelese remain untouched by modern civilisation.
Starting in the 1960s, anthropologists succeeded in exchanging gifts and conducting field visits but abandoned their efforts some 25 years ago in the face of renewed hostility.
Veteran anthropologist TN Pandit, who visited North Sentinel 50 years ago, believes there should be no rush to make contact with the Sentinelese.
“Of the four Andaman tribal communities, we have seen that those in close contact with the outside world have suffered the most. They have declined demographically and culturally,” he told Down To Earth magazine in a recent interview.
“The government’s responsibility should be to keep a watch over them in the sense (that) no unauthorised people reach them and exploit them. Otherwise, just leave them alone.”
An Indian Coast Guard helicopter that flew over the island after the 2004 Asian tsunami was attacked with arrows, AFP news agency said.
The authorities then declared that no further attempts would be made to contact the Sentinelese.
They do make periodic checks, albeit from a safe distance, to ensure the tribe’s well-being, following a strict “eyes on, hands off” policy.
“Just for our curiosity, why should we disturb a tribe that has sustained itself for tens of thousands of years?” Abbi asked.
“So much is lost: People are lost, language is lost, their peace is lost.”