There are about 100 uncontacted native groups around the world, but none of them are more isolated than the Sentinelese tribe. Located in the northern Andaman Islands of India, these indigenous people conscientiously separate themselves from the outside world. In fact, their isolation has likely saved lives, as nearby tribes have suffered losses at the hands of outsiders who carry diseases or create hostility. Explorers commonly exploit native people and kill the animals they hunt for food.
The Sentinelese have not met the same fate, but as civilization continues to encroach, their days may be numbered. The Indian government encourages outsiders to avoid the natives, though. Their hostility is detrimental to all parties involved.
On November 17, 2018, Christian missionary John Allen Chau made his way to the Sentinelese island - even though outsiders are explicitly banned from the area. When Chau approached the island in an attempt to convert the endangered tribe, it is believed that they killed him with bows and arrows. Six fishermen around the island claimed they saw the Sentinelese drag a body and bury it on the beach.
Authorities do not believe they will be able to retrieve Chau's body without risking their lives or the lives of the Sentinelese; the tribal people do not have immunity to modern day illness, and something as simple as a cold virus could wipe out the 50 - 150 remaining Sentinelese.
"Mr. Chau's body should be left alone, as should the Sentinelese," said Stephen Corry, director of Survival International.
In January 1880, British explorers landed on North Sentinel Island to conduct a survey of the area and kidnap natives. However, they only found abandoned villages. After searching for days, the expedition party, led by 20-year-old Maurice Vidal Portman, finally encountered six Sentinelese people. They abducted all of them and sailed for Port Blair. Two elderly natives died in British custody; the four captive children survived. Eventually, the young adventurer returned the youths to the island with gifts. Portman decided exploration of the island was ill-advisable. He admitted:
In many ways [the Sentinelese people] closely resemble the average lower-class English country schoolboy... [but] their association with outsiders has brought them nothing but harm, and it is a matter of great regret to me that such a pleasant race [is] so rapidly becoming extinct. We could better spare many another.
The Sentinelese people do not attack all visitors. When anthropologist T. N. Pandit and his team approached the natives in the early 1990s, tribe members dropped their weapons. Pandit had tried to make contact without success on previous occasions, but this time, the Sentinelese were welcoming.
The anthropologist brought coconuts and other offerings. He noted:
They must have come to a decision that the time had come. It could not have happened on the spur of the moment. There was this feeling of sadness also - I did feel it. And there was the feeling that at a larger scale of human history, these people who were holding back, holding on, ultimately had to yield. It’s like an era in history gone. The islands have gone. Until the other day, the Sentinelese were holding the flag, unknown to themselves. They were being heroes. But they have also given up.
After that visit, though, the natives never welcomed another outsider.
A handful of explorers have tried to contact the Sentinelese people. However, most attempts have ended in disaster and suffering. In the 1980s, for example, many Sentinelese died during small battles with shipwrecked trespassers.
To quell the danger, India banned all visits to the island in 1997. The government enforces a 3-mile, no-trespassing radius around North Sentinel Island at all times. Interlopers that do venture to the forbidden place usually face a barrage of stones and arrows.