Dialogue  July-September  2008, Volume 10  No. 1

Isolation: an Unblinking Foreign Policy of Sentinelese

  Dr. Kavita Arora*

  They are a most violent and cruel generation who seem to eat everybody they catch.’

                                                                                                                                  (Marco Polo,1290 A.D.)

‘The Sentinelese lives in constant terror of heavily armed poachers. They were only defending themselves with bows and arrows and rocks in the only way they know how.’

  (RK Tiwari, father of Pandit Tiwari who was killed by the Sentinelese on 26th January 2006.)

    The two men killed, Sunder Raj, 48, and Pandit Tiwari, 52, were fishing illegally for mud crabs off North Sentinel Island , a speck of land in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands an Indian archipelago. Fellow fishermen said they dropped anchor for the night on Jan 25 but fell into a deep sleep, probably helped by large amounts of alcohol. During the night their anchor, a rock tied to a rope, failed to hold their open-topped boat against the currents and they drifted towards the island. “As day broke, fellow fishermen say they tried to shout at the men and warn them they were in danger,” “However they did not respond - they were probably drunk - and the boat drifted into the shallows where they were attacked and killed.”

   After the fishermen’s families raised the alarm, the Indian coastguard tried to recover the bodies using a helicopter but was met by the customary hail of arrows.1 While nobody should celebrate what happened (one can only imagine how terrifying the fishermen’s last moments were), the father of one of the victims said it well: “My son


Pandit got his own justice. He was breaking the law, poaching and trespassing on land that wasn’t his own and he was murdered. What more is there to say? As far as I am concerned the Sentinelese are the victims in this, not my son. They live in constant terror of heavily armed poachers from Myanmar [ Burma ] and Port Blair. They were only defending themselves with bows and arrows and rocks in the only way they know how.

    This was not the first or the last time that they gave a signal to the world for millennia: that they want to be left alone.2 

     Two days after a tsunami (26th December 2004) thrashed the island where his ancestors have lived for tens of thousands of years, a lone tribesman stood naked on the beach and looked up at a hovering coast guard helicopter.

    He then took out his bow and shot an arrow toward the rescue chopper3 


A Sentinelese man aims his bow and arrow at an Indian Coast Guard helicopter as it flies over his island on Dec. 28, surveying for tsunami damage. 

   The local authorities have made various unsuccessful attempts to establish contact with the tribe. Although these ‘contact missions’ have officially stopped, there are concerns that pleasure trips by officials will still be made or that contact missions may be reinstated. It is vital that the wishes of the Sentinelese to remain isolated be respected. Contact with the outside world could very quickly wipe them out through


exploitation, violence, and diseases to which they have no immunity.

    This complete isolation is hard to believe in the 21st century, but every attempt to establish contact in the past has been met with fierce resistant thanks to the Sentinelese skill with the bow and arrow along with an overwhelming amount of courage and fearlessness. This unblinking foreign policy position has probably been maintained for thousands of years. May be even longer since the Sentinelese are part of the Negrito tribes that are believed to have arrived to the Great Andaman archipelago 30,000-60,000 years ago (Tim Roth).4

   The Sentinelese is a primitive Negrito tribe inhabiting the North Sentinal island situated on the west of the Port Blair town. The island is small and totally isolated and as such the Sentinelese is the probably the only tribe absolutely isolated in the world today. The Sentinelese are perhaps the only successful people on the earth to retain and defend their pristine life style and territory till date against the waves of other and modern civilizations. Their yet unfailing hostility towards the attempts of all outsiders is the reason for their total isolation. This hostility and self maintained isolation in the impenetrable rainforests of these islands had ensured that their community, culture and forest home remained intact and unharmed.

   DNA analysis of related Andaman tribesmen suggests that the Sentinelese are among the world’s oldest communities, with generations going back 70 000 years. They retain a Palaeolithic way of life. The first record of North Sentinel Island comes from 1771, when a British surveyor reported night lights on the Island suggesting habitation.5            Historically British officers initially identified this tribe as Jarwas. The Britishers had discovered the tribes of Rutland Island and North Sentinel Island to be of Jarwa community . In march 1867 , Homphray writes:                                                                                                                         “ I had occasion, in pursuit of runways , to visit the north Sentinel Island , a distance of about 25 miles to the Westward of Port Mout with some Great Andamanese accompanying me. We saw some ten men on the beach, naked , long haired and with bows and arrows shooting fish. My friends told me that they were Juarah wallahs (jarwa men) who were not friendly to them having some years past encountered some of the tribe on Rutland island in which their chief was wounded”.

    North Sentinel Island was left alone for centuries and for the first time in history Portman6 and Cadell landed on the island in 1880. In his second visit in the same year Portman was able to capture a woman and four small children and they were released soon.


      Portman, as obvious from his report in 1894, had felt that the Jarwas

on North Sentinel Island could be tamed for scientific and other reasons.

     Portman suggested a small policy as far as the Jarwas on Rutland island was concerned . But there is nothing on record to show whether or not the policy or the methods suggested by him were over put into effect. However,, the fact remains that the Jarwas of North sentinel island happen to be the unfriendly of them all.”(Iqbal Singh)7 

   Though the British administration tried to survey, explore and administer all the remote areas of the Andamans islands. North Island seems to have been left relatively alone, for whatever reasons, despite its geographical proximity to Port Blair, the capital town and administrative headquarters. For one thing, the island is a small one (about 60 sq. kms) and the forest or other natural wealth here was not sufficient to call for urgent exploitation. A few visits had been paid to the island by administrators during 1867 onwards but no close contact was made to study their life and culture.8 The recorded visits to this island during the British days and for many years later were few and far between. The administrators who visited the area were Homfray(1867) Portman (1886) Rogers (1902), Bonington (1926) and others. After the departure of the British in 1947 the approach remained the same for many years. In 1954 Cipriani (1966) paid a visit to the island but made no contact with the Sentinelese.9 The unbelievably long spell of unconcern for the islanders was broken in 1967 when a part of Andaman Administrators led by Mahabir Singh, the Chief Commissioner, paid a one day visit to the island during January 1967. This was followed up by another visit on 26 April, 1967 by a party of officers and men of the Andaman Administration led by M. B. Malhotra, the Deputy Commissioner; and those of the Indian Naval Establishment at Port Blair led by Commander Ghosh and anthropogist T. N Pandit. 10 They were transported to the island by the police patrol boat and the naval personnel came on I.N.S. Akhshay. They took with them for protection a contingent of armed men of the Andaman Police led by R.K. Ohri, the superintendent of Police, Port Blair. As their boats approached the shores of the island, they saw the clusters of dark –skinned adults on the shore with some children. As they approached the beach the Sentinelese disappeared into the forest.11

    About 1 km inside the forest the contact party saw a settlement consisting of 18 huts. They were almost alike and were built very close to each other in small clearings, under the trees. The huts were simply constructed in the shape of lean-to-shelters i. e. a roof resting on four vertical poles of which the two in front are longer and the two at the back shorter (ratio approximately 2:1). To these four poles are lashed, at the top, four other horizontal ones so as to make a rectangle. To this rectangular structure is lashed, slope wise, a series of parallel poles to serve as the base of the roof. The poles are then covered with layers of leaves to make them waterproof. The huts have no walls of any kind, nor anything like a platform, as the Onge have. Obviously the Sentinelese sit and sleep on the ground, where some leaves are spread. It is very interesting to note that each hut had four (sometimes five) fires burning at the corners of the hut and each fire was fenced off from inside by a row of vertical sticks. Besides other uses the fires might have been a protection against snakes and poisonous insects. The inner fencing would be to prevent any accident during sleep or otherwise. The approximate measurements of the hut are as follows:

Height (front)                        2.25m

Height (back)                        1.25 m

Length                                   2.25 m

Breadth                                  1.50 m12 

     The belonging of each household were kept inside the hut. Like the other Negrito communities of the Andamans, the Sentinelese are hunters and food gatherers. The contact party noticed pig skulls around the huts and at some distance from the settlements there was a heap of pig’s bones. This shows that they hunt the pigs which must be found wild on the island. Among other food materils they found some wild cheeku ( a fruit) and also pandanus , a fruit also used by the Onges. In one of the buckets they found some raw honey.13 


Material Culture


    During this expedition contact party also collected a few artifacts from the Sentinelese settlement in exchange for gifts placed in their huts. Like other tribes their material culture also shows that they are totally dependent on forest. The items were:

     Bow: Two specimens were found. One was plain and the other had small, straight lines etched vertically and horizontally to make pretty but simple geometrical designs. The stave is strong but wildly flexible, and plano-convex in cross section. The bowstring of twisted bark fibers is fixed to the two tapered ends of the stave, which are notched to receive it. When not in use, the string is left loose at one end.14 

     Multi-pronged wooden harpoon spear: This has a single flexible shaft 1860 mm long (similar to that of the arrow)with four very hard and pointed areca wood harpoon heads of slightly varying lengths. This could be used for harpooning larger fish.15 

     Grinding and Hammer Stones: Two stones (somewhat rounded heavy pebbles) were found. One had marking as a result of iron blades being sharpened on it. The other was more rounded, with a kind of grip: this could be a hammer stone used for hammering iron pieces into shape to make arrow and spear heads.16

     Plucking stick: This is a straight cane shaft with a small stick tied to one end. It could be used to bend branches of trees to pluck fruits, leaves, flowers etc.17

     Arrow cum spear: The Sentinelese arrow is the longest among the four Negrito tribes. It has a long wooden flexible cane shaft which has smoky rings around it, caused by putting it in a slow fire for strength. It has a diameter of 480 mm at the top end, 430 mm in the middle and 330mm at the bottom end. At the butt end it has a U-shaped notch to receive the bowstring, and is wrapped around with fibre strings for strength.

     The arrow / spear head is made of iron with rough workmanship. It is flattish and lancer shaped with two outward projecting barbs at the lower end. The hose at the lower end is for tying it firmly to the shaft.It is 1520 mm long and 480 mm wide in the middle; and somewhat converse in cross section.18

     Bamboo Pot: It is 100 mm high and 1260 mm in diameter and is used to store the clay used for painting bodies. The inter node serves as the bottom and there is no workmanship of any kind.19

    Nautilus Shell: This is a whole shell, used as a pot for drinking water and for bailing out water from the dug-out canoe.20

      Fishing Net:  This is knitted from bark fiber thread and is supported by a cane rim and handle at the top.21

    Cane basket: This finely woven basket,  is cone shaped , with a diameter of 12400 mm and a height of 5400 mm. It is woven around 17 vertical sticks held together at the base, and rounded off at the top to form a thick rim.22

     Waist band: This is 6900 mm. long and 900 mm wide, and consists of two bark sheets sewn together to serve as a waist band or belt .It is used by the men to keep arrows during hunting.23

   Bark Fiber: Long strips of bark fibre are kept ready for making bowstrings, or to use as rope, thongs, etc.24

     Resin: This is a plant product , black in colour and hard and dry in texture, and is collected from the forests. It is highly combustible and gives off a fragrance when burned.

    None of the Negrito tribes has any artificial means of making fire. They keep it alive all the time. The sentinelese must be using the resin for similar purposes.25

     Chess board: This is a wooden board, 5200 mm long, 3700 mm wide and 23 mm thick, made of soft porous wood. The top surface is engraved with 64 squares. Alternate squares are studded  with pieces of shell and stone.Thus it is very much like a chess board. But it is not clear if the Sentinelese have made it, or if it has been washed up by the sea.26

    Dug out canoe: Like the Onge and the original Great Andamanese tribes, the sentinelese do use a dug–out canoe. The Sentinelese canoe was seen carrying only one or two persons.27

      Their material culture gives a glimpse of their forest dependent life; it neither show any sign of their indigenous knowledge nor the forest management methods followed by them. But their hostility is the sign of their awareness about the possible vices of outside civilization and the protection of their pristine environment from them.

       Tsunami and Sentinelese Government officials and anthropologists believe that ancient knowledge of the movement of wind, sea and birds may have saved the five indigenous tribes on the Indian archipelago of Andaman and Nicobar Islands from the tsunami that hit the Asian coastline on Dec. 26. On the Sentinel Island , islanders would typically have been fishing when the tsunami struck. However post-tsunami surveys of North Sentinel Island suggest the tribe survived the disaster intact, perhaps retreating from the shore well before the waves hit. An interesting theory explaining their survival is that 60,000 years of experience may have taught them to move inland when they feel earthquakes. Also, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle leads to a deep understanding of the environment and animals. Since many animals show behavior changes before storms and earthquakes, this have tipped them off to the situation even before sophisticated tsunami warning systems would have.

     Since last 60,000-70,000 years they are standing with their bow and arrow to protect their environment. They never allowed the outsiders in their territory. In this way they are the true warriors. The sentinelese do not seem to be too eager to quietly surrender one of the last bastions of the ‘primitive man’ to the onslaught of ‘civilized man’. They have so far succeeded in defending  their little islands with their bows and arrows and with their refusal to succumb to soft persuasion and blandishments in the form of little gift of coconut, bananas, iron pieces and tools.28

      Though, their isolation always remains a controversial issue among the anthropologists, it is argued that the ‘primitive tribes’ should not be denied the benefit of civilization. The anthropologists – it is alleged — with their romantic conceptions and their love for exotic human societies advocate the preservation of human zoos. Yet another argument is that isolation and protection are concepts that prevent these people from joining the ‘national mainstream’. Also the ‘survival of the fittest’ they say, is an accepted fact in the doctrine of organic evolution. A little analysis will show the fallacy and the speciousness of these arguments. Firstly, the benefit of civilization should mean qualitative and wholesome improvement in their lifestyle. But if the process leads to disruption both physical and cultural and the opening up for outsiders for exploitative avenues, the basic purpose is defeated. Hence there is need for extreme caution and preventive measures. These are extremely small populations without any potential for harming the national fabric of great nation state. They have little voice and neither the proper awareness nor an understanding of their positions as citizens of a large country. Their continued survival as small minorities is very much the responsibility and duty of the dominant community.29

     At least for the time being, they will stay “frozen in time” because the Indian government has decided to simply leave them alone. In fact, the Indian Navy even runs patrols to make sure fisherman and curious tourists don’t venture into the 5 kilometer (3 miles) buffer zone around the island.




1. Peter Foster, Stone Age tribe kills fishermen who strayed on to island, 8-2-2006, telegraph.co.uk

2. Tim Roth, How hunter-gatherer tribes survived the 2004 tsunami, http://www.atomstozebras.com/category/tsunami, 13 February 2007.

3. The Associated Press , Staff Writer, Reading winds, waves help Indian islanders, January 4, 2005,Newsday.com                                                                          4. Tim Roth, How hunter-gatherer tribes survived the 2004 tsunami,  http:// www.atomstozebras.com/category/tsunami, 13 February 2007.

5. European Space Agency(ESA), 29 April 2005, Earth from Space: North Sentinel Island .                                                                                                                             6. M.V. Portman(1861-1935) From 1879 onwards, when he was first made “Officer in Charge of the Andamanese,” Maurice never ceased to labor on their behalf. For 20 years or more he was “everything and everybody” at Port Blair. Then, at the age of 45, incessant over-work and ill-health proved too much for his extraordinarily frail physique; he was invalided home, for the last time, and his active life came to an end. Portman wrote two books, both containing enormous amounts of information not elsewhere available, often based on documents long since lost or buried in the depths of inaccessible archives- History of Our Relations with the Andamanese and Notes of the Languages of the South Andaman Group of Languages published in 1898.

7. Sircar, P., Tribes of Andaman and nicobar islands, pg-22,23

8. Pandit, T., and Madhumala Chattopadhyay , Meeting the Sentinel Islanders: The Least known of the Andaman Hunter –GatheresASI, Port Blair.

9. Pandit, T. N., Chapter2-The Sentinelese: Settlement Pattern and Material Culture, The Sentinelese , Seagull Book, Calcutta , 1990, page 15.

10. Ibid, page 16

11. Ibid

12. Ibid, page 16-17

13. Ibid, page 17

14. Ibid, page 18

15. Ibid, page 19

16. Ibid

17. Ibid

18. Ibid

19. Ibid

20. Ibid

21. Ibid

22. Ibid

23. ibid

24. ibid, page 20

25. Ibid

26. ibid

27. Ibid

28. Pandit, T. N., The Sentinelese , Seagull Book, Calcutta , 1990, page 12.

29. Pandit, T. N., Chapter4-conclusion, The Sentinelese , Seagull Book, Calcutta , 1990, page 27.

Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati