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A Deadly Dose of Reality on North Sentinel Island

Christian Missionary John Chau attempted to spread the word of Christ to indigenous people on North Sentinel island, unsuccessfully. Who are the Sentinelese people and why do they shy away from foreigner so aggressively?

Missionary John Chau spent his last weeks bribing fisherman off of the coast of India to take him to North Sentinel Island. Explicitly forbidden under Indian law, the fishermen dropped off the curious traveler close to the shore and turned their boats away. In the distance, John Chau was shot dead by bows and arrows by the indigenous islanders. His death has sparked international debate regarding the status of indigenous populations all over the world.

Who are the Sentinelese?

The Sentinelese are an indigenous group that inhabit North Sentinel island, which is located off of the coast of India in the Bay of Bengal. They remain one of the last uncontacted peoples in the world. The entire island is the size of Manhattan, New York and their lives remain a mystery to most anthropologists. The people continues to resist contact with outsiders, attacking anyone who comes near their territory.

The tribe, estimated to be around 60,000 years old and of African descent, has occupied the island and are believed to be direct descendants of the first human populations in Africa. They are known as uncontacted for resisting communication with the outside world, despite several attempts.

The most recent attempt at contact came in 2006, when two fishermen washed up to the islands shores after become shipwrecked. They were reportedly killed by tribesmen, and the aircraft sent to recover their bodies was shot at with bows and arrows. Even when authorities came to check the status of the people after a tsunami in 2004, they were met with the same aggressive hostility.

The earliest mention of the Sentinelese occurred in travel journals dating back to the 1700s. Additional accounts of outsiders being attacked are also found in records dating back to the 1800s.

Where is the Love?

The hostility towards outsiders all but hardened since the 1800s. Here, British colonial office Maurice Vidal Portman ventured in and captured six tribespeople, including an elderly couple and children. While the group appeared to be healthy, they quickly became sick which resulted in the death of the elderly couple. The surviving were sent back to the island.

Since the people remained uncontacted for so many generations, their bodies have not developed the same immunities to common diseases such as the cold and flu like the rest of the global world. In short, the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island are susceptible to diseases at are far faster pace than any other human on the planet. Their aggressive nature could be an act of protecting their health, just as it is a protection of their territory from outsiders.

Today, the Andaman Islands are considered to be national preserves, directly banning contact from anyone unnecessary as well as protecting the Sentinelese people. By law, visitors to the island are banned from photographing, collecting and carrying any forest items including produce, flora and fauna. This occurs under the Protection of Aboriginal Tribes (Regulation) Act. In addition, the introduction of foreign substances including tobacco, alcohol and modern weaponry is strictly forbidden.

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