Sentinelese people

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Sentinelese (also Sentineli, Senteneli, Sentenelese, North Sentinel Islanders) are an indigenous people of the Andaman Islands, in the Bay of Bengal. They inhabit North Sentinel Island, which lies westward off the southern tip of the Great Andaman archipelago. They are noted for resisting attempts at contact by outsiders. The Sentinelese maintain an essentially hunter-gatherer society subsisting through hunting, fishing, and collecting wild plants. There is no evidence of either agricultural practices or methods of producing fire.[1] Their language remains unclassified.

The Sentinelese are designated as Scheduled Tribe.[2]


Comparative map showing the distribution of Andamanese tribes in the Andaman Islands - early 1800s versus present-day (2004). Notably:
(a) Rapid depopulation of the original southeastern Jarawa homeland in the 1789-1793 period
(b) Onge (in blue) and Great Andamanese shrinkage to isolated settlements
(c) Complete Jangil extinction by 1931
(d) Jarawa move to occupy depopulated former west coast homeland of the Great Andamanese
(e) Only the Sentinelese zone is somewhat intact

The precise population of the Sentinelese is not known. Estimates range from lower than 40, through a median of around 250, and up to a maximum of 500. In 2001, Census of India officials recorded 39 individuals[3] (21 males and 18 females); however, out of necessity this survey was conducted from a distance[4] and almost certainly does not represent an accurate figure for the population who range over the 72 km2 (17,800 acres) island. Any medium- or long-term impact on the Sentinelese population arising from the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and resulting tsunami is not known, other than the confirmation obtained that they had survived the immediate aftermath.[5]

On previous visits, groups of some 20–40 individuals were encountered regularly. Habitations of 40–60 individuals were found on two occasions.[citation needed] As some individuals are thought to be hiding, a more precise approximation of group size cannot be determined.[citation needed] This would suggest that some 2–6 groups occupy the island. The rule of thumb population density of 1.5 km2 (370 acres)/individuals [clarification needed] in comparable hunter-gatherer societies indicates that one such group could live off the land alone. A significant amount of food is derived from the sea. It seems that, at any one time, the groups that were encountered could only have come from a rather small part of the island, and that about half of the couples had dependent children or included pregnant women. There appeared to be slightly more males than females.


The Sentinelese and other indigenous Andamanese peoples are frequently described as negritos, a term which has been applied to various widely separated peoples in Southeast Asia, such as the Semang of the Malay Peninsula and the Aeta of the Philippines archipelago, as well as to other peoples in Australia including former populations of Tasmania.[citation needed] The defining characteristics of these "negrito" peoples (who are not a monophyletic group) include a comparatively short stature, dark skin and "peppercorn" hair, qualities also found commonly across the continent of Africa.[citation needed]

No close contacts have been established; however, the author Heinrich Harrer described one man as being 1.6 metres (5 ft 3 in) tall and apparently left handed.[6]


Most of what is known about Sentinelese material culture is based on observations during contact attempts in the late 20th century. The Sentinelese maintain an essentially hunter-gatherer society, obtaining their subsistence through hunting, fishing, and collecting wild plants; there is no evidence of any agricultural practices.[1]

Their dwellings are either shelter-type huts with no side walls and a floor sometimes laid out with palms and leaves, which provide enough space for a family of three or four and their belongings, or larger communal dwellings which may be some dozen square metres and are more elaborately constructed, with raised floors and partitioned family quarters.[citation needed]

Advanced metalwork is unknown, as raw materials on the island are extremely rare. It has been observed, however, that they have made adroit use of metal objects which have washed up or been left behind on their shores, having some ability at cold smithing and sharpening iron and incorporating it into weapons and other items. For example, in the late 1980s two international container ships ran aground on the island's external coral reefs; the Sentinelese retrieved several items of iron from the vessels.[7]

Their weaponry consists of javelins and a flatbow with high accuracy against human-sized targets up to nearly 10 metres.[citation needed] At least three varieties of arrows, apparently for fishing and hunting, and untipped ones for shooting warning shots, have been documented.[citation needed] Fishing arrows have a number of forward-pointing prongs; hunting arrows have ovoid arrowheads, with bodkin-type tips for both purposes, the latter two as well as their associated barbs below the tip made from iron. The arrows are over 1 m (3 ft) long. The harpoon- or javelin-type arrows are nearly half as long again, about the same length as the bows (over 3 m (10 ft)), and can also be thrown or used for stabbing, but the latter probably only rarely.[citation needed]

For catching large fish, a harpoon is used which is similar in design to the fishing arrows, but nearly 2.5 m (8 ft) long. Knives are also known, but it is unclear to what extent the Sentinelese fashion them themselves.[citation needed]

Known tools include adzes, pounding and smithing stones, and various finely or coarsely woven baskets for small-grained or larger goods, as well as bamboo and wooden containers. Fires are maintained as embers inside dwellings, possibly assisted by resin torches. There exist fishing nets and basic outrigger canoes used for fishing and collecting shellfish from the lagoon but not for open-sea excursions.[citation needed]

Food consists primarily of plantstuffs gathered in the forest, coconuts, which are frequently found on the beaches as flotsam, pigs, and, presumably, other wildlife (which apart from sea turtles is limited to some smaller birds and invertebrates). Wild honey is known to be collected and the Sentinelese use a kind of rake to pull down branches to gather fruit or nuts, such as sapodilla and pandanus.[citation needed]

A January 1880 British expedition to the island led by M. V. Portman reported that "their methods of cooking and preparing their food resemble those of the Ongés, not those of the aborigines of the Great Andaman."[8]

On 29 March 1970, a research party of Indian anthropologists, which included T. N. Pandit,[9] found themselves cornered on the reef flats between North Sentinel and Constance Island. An eyewitness recorded the following from his vantage point on a boat lying off the beach:

Quite a few discarded their weapons and gestured to us to throw the fish. The women came out of the shade to watch our antics... A few men came and picked up the fish. They appeared to be gratified, but there did not seem to be much softening to their hostile attitude... They all began shouting some incomprehensible words. We shouted back and gestured to indicate that we wanted to be friends. The tension did not ease. At this moment, a strange thing happened — a woman paired off with a warrior and sat on the sand in a passionate embrace. This act was being repeated by other women, each claiming a warrior for herself, a sort of community mating, as it were. Thus did the militant group diminish. This continued for quite some time and when the tempo of this frenzied dance of desire abated, the couples retired into the shade of the jungle. However, some warriors were still on guard. We got close to the shore and threw some more fish which were immediately retrieved by a few youngsters. It was well past noon and we headed back to the ship...[10]

Present situation[edit]

Their island is an integral part of and administered by the Indian Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In practice, however, the Sentinelese exercise complete autonomy over their affairs and the involvement of the Indian authorities is restricted to occasional monitoring, even more infrequent and brief visits, and generally discouraging any access or approaches to the island. It is therefore de facto autonomous.[original research?]

From 1967 onwards, the Indian authorities in Port Blair embarked on a limited programme of attempts at contacting the Sentinelese, under the management of the Director of Tribal Welfare and anthropologist T. N. Pandit. These "Contact Expeditions" consisted of a series of planned visits which would progressively leave "gifts", such as coconuts, on the shores, in an attempt to coax the Sentinelese from their hostile reception of outsiders. For a while, these seemed to have some limited success; however, the programme was discontinued in the late 1990s following a series of hostile encounters resulting in several deaths in a similar programme practised with the Jarawa people of South and Middle Andaman Islands and because of the danger of introducing diseases.[11]

In 2006, Sentinelese archers killed two fishermen who were fishing illegally within range of the island. The archers later drove off, with a volley of arrows, the helicopter that was sent to retrieve the bodies.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b B. K. Roy, ed. (1990). Cartography for development of outlying states and islands of India: short papers submitted at NATMO Seminar, Calcutta, December 3-6, 1990. National Atlas and Thematic Mapping Organisation, Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India. p. 203. OCLC 26542161. 
  2. ^ "List of notified Scheduled Tribes" (PDF). Census India. p. 27. Retrieved 15 December 2013. 
  3. ^ Indian Census
  4. ^ as noted in description text on 29 April 2005 image, North Sentinel Island, European Space Agency
  5. ^ "Did Island Tribes Use Ancient Lore to Evade Tsunami?". National Geographic Society. January 24, 2005. Retrieved December 1, 2014. 
  6. ^ Harrer, Heinrich (1977). Berlijn, Ullstein, ed. Die letzten Fünfhundert: Expedition zu den Zwergvölkern auf den Andamanen. ISBN 3-550-06574-4. 
  7. ^ Master Plan 1991-2021 for Welfare of Primitive Tribes of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Sec. II Ch. 21. Dept. of Tribal Welfare, Andaman and Nicobar Islands Administration; as reproduced in Andaman Book
  8. ^ A History of Our Relations with the Andamanese, Govt. of India, 1899
  9. ^ Noted researcher on the Andamanese and later to become Director of the Anthropological Survey of India
  10. ^ Quotation reproduced in Chapter 12, The Andamanese (Weber n.d.). The original attribution for the quote is not provided.
  11. ^ Goodheart, Adam (2000). "The Last Island of the Savages". The American Scholar 69 (4): 13–44. 
  12. ^ Peter Foster (8 February 2006). "Stone Age tribe kills fishermen who strayed on to island". The Telegraph. Retrieved 25 August 2013. 


  • Pandit, T. N. (1990). The Sentinelese. Kolkata: Seagull Books. ISBN 81-7046-081-6. 
  • Weber, George (n.d.). "The Andamanese". The Lonely Islands. The Andaman Association. Retrieved 2013-12-08. 

External links[edit]