Recent reports from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands off the coast of India confirm that American Missionary John Allen Chau, 27, was killed during a trip on November 14th – 16th with arrows shot by the protected Sentinelese tribe. The Sentinelese are an uncontacted prehistoric tribe who have lived on the island for around 60,000 years.
The Sentinelese’s interactions with the outside world have rarely gone well for visitors. In this case it appears Chau was going to try to convert the tribe to Christianity, though others have also said it may have been a social media stunt. He had apparently previously visited the prohibited area.
Dependra Pathak, DGP, Andaman and Nicobar Police confirmed that Chau had enlisted the help of a local electronics engineer and a water sports service provider along with five fishermen to evade the patrolling teams of police, Coast Guard and Navy to secure undetected passage to the island.
According to Indian law no one is allowed to visit the island or contact the prehistoric tribe. Without proper immunity the results would be devastating to the Sentinelese. Access to North Sentinel Island and its buffer zone is strictly restricted under the Protection of Aboriginal Tribe (Regulation), 1956 and Regulations under Indian Forest Act, 1927. A recent update to the rules reaffirmed that there is to be no outside contact with the Sentinelese through to 2022, when presumably the prohibition on contact will once again be renewed.
The Sentinelese people are among the tribes that survived the tsunami of 2004 without any help from the outside world. For the 2011 Census, enumerators could locate only 15 Sentinelese people which included 12 men and three women. However, their numbers could be anything between 40 and 400, according to experts.
In 2006 two fisherman were killed by the tribe when their fishing boat drifting into the island after their anchor became detached while they slept.
Previous to that in 1981, a cargo ship named the Primrose ran aground on a coral reef surrounding North Sentinel. The crew radioed for assistance but were soon alarmed to see 50 men attempting to build makeshift boats to attack them. They were rescued in time but this incident helped to cement the prehistoric tribe’s fierce reputation.
In reality allowing the Sentinelese to remain uncontacted is the most ethical decision. Indian authorities know that allowing too much contact with the outside world would gut their way of life, destroy their community and expose the people to germs and diseases which they have absolutely no immunity to.
We think it’s special that in today’s globally interconnected, digitally-linked world that there are still prehistoric tribes which live apart from the modern era. They should be allowed to live in peace and not be threatened by a curious outside world which may seek to change, influence or destroy their way of life.