Are Sentinelese Cannibals?

iIn 2018 an American man wanted to introduce Christianity to a remote and isolated North Sentinel Island where its inhabitants live, virtually unchanged and untouched by the rest of the world, for millennia.  

Ever heard about the proverb “Let sleeping dogs lie”? 

One of the characteristics often attributed to the 21st-century human is hubris. As ''woke'' as we all pretend to be, we also have a hard time genuinely accepting those who are different. In fact, we have trouble acknowledging and respecting boundaries. This fact was made painfully obvious in 2018 when an American man wanted to introduce Christianity to a remote and isolated North Sentinel Island. The inhabitants of this island live, virtually unchanged and untouched by the rest of the world, for millennia.  

While most of us can understand the natural curiosity intrinsic to most human beings when it comes to uncharted territory and while those who are deeply religious also might understand the need to preach their faith to others, the level of hubris and fundamental lack of understanding and respect shown by John Allen Chau still left the world in shock. 

But, Who Are The Sentinelese? 

As a part of the Andamanese tribes living in the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, the Sentinelese have long been the focus of attention for the civilized world. There are some suspicions that Marco Polo was the first one to have come in contact with them in 1296. His description of the tribe is less than favorable, describing them as a savage race and comparing their physiology to that of a dog. He also claimed they kill and eat foreigners. However, no real evidence exists that he actually came into contact with the tribe, and historians believe he based the description on the tales he heard. 

Aerial view of North Sentinel Island, Andaman.
Aerial view of North Sentinel Island, Andaman.

Accordingly, there is also little or no evidence at all the tribe practices cannibalism. 

The tribe is most likely a hunter-gatherers, but it is not known if they are familiar with any form of agriculture. They have learned how to build canoes which they use for fishing in the lagoons around their island. Despite wearing some ornaments like bark strings, necklaces, and headbands, they are virtually naked. Their language is entirely unknown. 

Healthy Respect For Boundaries 

Sadly, the result was the American’s untimely and completely avoidable death.  

Because in his unmistakable religious fervor, he has chosen to reach out to a tribe that has a well-documented aversion and aggression toward the “outside world.” What's more, since they have lived apart from the world for centuries, their immune system is like a newborn baby’s, utterly unprepared for a range of diseases that can no longer hurt most of us but would be deadly for the Sentinelese and could wipe all of them out. 

After all, the world was a witness to this occurrence before, and each time a person from the outside world tried to make contact, the tribe responded by firing arrows and spears. 

Protect And Do Not Disturb 

Luckily, since the 1990s, it became evident that the tribe ought to be protected and left alone to live their life and preserve their unique way of living. They are thought to be the first people who moved from Africa to Asia some 40,000 years ago. Sadly, before this realization sunk in, there has been at least one successful attempt at kidnapping the members of the tribe in the late 18th century. Six of the Sentinelese were kidnapped, intended to be studied.

Taken away from their island, two of them soon died from exposure to diseases they could not fight, so the remaining four were promptly returned. The British naval officer, Maurice Vidal Portman, who took them away later, expressed his regret at doing so and called them a pleasant race who has experienced nothing but great harm from their contact with the outside world.

Today, the Indian Navy imposed a protection area, a buffer zone of the sort, to keep the unwanted visitors away though attempts such as the one made by Chau happen and are likely to occur in the future, too, despite them being designated as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group

About the Author

Antonia is a sociologist and an anglicist by education, but a writer and a behavior enthusiast by inclination. If she's not writing, editing or reading, you can usually find her snuggling with her huge dog or being obsessed with a new true-crime podcast. She also has a (questionably) healthy appreciation for avocados and Seinfeld.


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