The Wikipedia journey started at French Guiana, because French Guiana is one of the very few places in the Americas where no one has ever visited TedQuarters. It finished with one of the most fascinating Wikipedia pages I’ve ever stumbled upon.
From the Wikipedia: Sentinelese people
The Sentinelese are an isolated tribe of roughly a couple hundred people who love coconuts and hate everybody. They reside on North Sentinel Island, one of the most remote islands in the Andaman chain, separated from its nearest neighbor by some 20 miles’ worth of the Bay of Bengal.
The Sentinelese are believed to have arrived in the Andamans as part of the first migration of human beings out of Africa about 60,000 years ago, via a land bridge during a glacial period. Based on what little we know of them today, they appear to largely maintain the same lifestyle they did during the Paleolithic Era, spearfishing, gathering fruit, and hunting local pigs for food. Stone-age stuff.
The Sentinelese were one of a group of five tribes found on the Andamans by European explorers in the 18th century. The other four, all native to larger Andaman Islands, were largely wiped out or dispersed by colonial aggression and disease. The Sentinelese still control the same territory they did over 300 years ago. Officially, the Indian government claims North Sentinel Island as part of its Andaman and Nicobar Islands Union Territory, but since no treaty has ever been made with the Sentinelese people, the island is a de facto autonomous region. As of 2005, local Indian administrators stated that they have no intention to interfere with the Sentinelese and will make no further efforts to contact them.
Part of that is because the Sentinelese kill or try to kill nearly everyone that comes close. The photograph above is typical of several of those we have of the tribesmen, showing them raising bows toward a possible intruder. It is the product of an incident in 2006 during which the Sentinelese killed two fishermen who got drunk, passed out, and drifted into their waters. When a helicopter hovered over the island to try to recover the bodies, the Sentinelese showered it with arrows. They are considered expert marksman, and are known to have at least three different types of arrows — one for hunting, one for fishing, and one for firing warning shots at intruders.
Most outside interactions with the Sentinelese have started and ended with violence. In 1867, a merchant ship wrecked on the island and the 106 survivors had to fend off Sentinelese attacks until the Royal Navy could rescue them. In 1981, a ship wrecked on the coral reef near the island and its captain radioed for an urgent airdrop of firearms, reporting tribesmen with spears building boats on the beach until the ship’s crew was finally rescued by helicopter. In 2004, an Indian government helicopter sent to survey the island for damage after the Tsunami that ravaged most of the area determined that the Sentinelese were still apparently healthy enough to greet the aircraft with rocks and arrows.
You could read all that and conclude that the Sentinelese are total a-holes, but their instincts might actually be reasonable. The Jarawa people of a neighboring Andaman island have recently started making contact with outsiders, only to be riddled with diseases for which they have no natural immunity and, to boot, gawked at and exploited by tourists.
Almost everything we know about the Sentinelese comes from Indian anthropologist Trilokinath Pandit, the only outsider known to have made friendly contact with the Sentinelese — and only after some 25 years spent buttering them up.
Starting in 1967, Pandit began visiting the island every few years, often bearing gifts — coconuts, fish, toys, pots and pans, and pigs tethered on the beach. In 1974, Pandit brought a documentarian with him to attempt to film the Sentinelese, but the Sentinelese shot the filmmaker in the thigh with an arrow. Until 1991, Pandit continued attempting contact and being rebuffed — sometimes violently, sometimes insultingly. He reported: “Sometimes they would turn their backs to us and sit on their haunches as if to defecate. This was meant to insult us and to say we were not welcome.”
Finally, on Jan. 4, 1991, after years and years of free coconuts — and the Sentinelese love coconuts, which do not grow on their island but sometimes wash up on shore — Pandit arrived on the shore of North Sentinel Island to be met by a group of 28 unarmed Sentinelese.
Welcome on the island, Pandit began learning their habits and customs, but not before he got naked first. The Sentinelese preferred he and his team take off their clothes, watches and glasses before making contact. Once stripped, Pandit learned that the Sentinelese live without a chief or government in huts or large communal dwellings, can fashion weapons and tools from scrap metal they’ve found or pilfered from area shipwrecks, and are very protective of fire, which they can control from embers in lightning-struck trees but can not make on their own.
Also, the anthropologists learned to practice the traditional Sentinelese greeting, “which is to sit in a friend’s lap and slap your right buttock vigorously.” I very much hope that’s not the traditional greeting, and the Sentinelese were just messing with Pandit’s team. “Hey guys — let’s convince these idiots to smack their own asses. And DO NOT tell them about the KFC franchise we’re operating on the other side of the island.”
That’s about all I’ve learned about the Sentinelese over the past two days of vigorous Wikipedia research. You can try to go there and find out more, but they’ll probably kill you.
Also, in Googling Pandit I learned that our man Dan Lewis covered the Sentinelese in his Now I Know newsletter last year. I missed that one until now, but it’s worth checking out.