The Sentinelese People: Cultures of the World

One of the last remaining isolated tribes in the world, the Sentinelese are a fascinating and enigmatic people to study.


An idyllic island in the Indian Ocean, North Sentinel Island, lying westward off of the Andaman archipelago’s southern tip, is well-known for the reputation of its indigenous inhabitants, the Sentinelese people. Very little is known about this tribe, which is believed to be one of the most isolated tribes remaining in the world. Even though precise population figures do not exist, in 2001 the officials conducting the Census of India roughly estimated the population to be around 39. This figure was drawn only on the basis of an aerial survey by a Government helicopter flying over the island. Even though conducting a DNA study of these people is nearly impossible under the current circumstances, an attempt to elucidate their origins based on studies conducted within other Andamanese tribes is indeed plausible. The physical characteristics of the Sentinelese suggest that they are the descendants of people who migrated out of Africa thousands of years ago, and became genetically isolated after settling the North Sentinel Island, wherein they developed their own distinct language and genetic traits.


The Sentinelese people are known to live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, with very little information available regarding the nature of their dwellings. Some scattered anecdotal reports suggest they either live in temporary shelters with open sides or build large huts for communal living. They are also believed to use narrow, canoe-like boats that can only be used in shallow waters. Even though the possibility for the use of advanced metalwork is considered to be remote, the Sentinelese are known to have retrieved metal items washed ashore on the island, resulting from shipwrecks in the adjoining oceans and from other external sources.They are also known to use weapons such as arrows, harpoons, and spears for the purposes of defense, hunting, and fishing.


Just like the other aspects associated with the Sentilenese people, very little is known about their dietary habits. Judging from the healthy, sturdy appearances of those observed and images captured by aerial footage and limited photography, it is believed they have a steady source of food. Likely, they primarily depend upon the sea for fishing, and on the forests for fruits and other plant parts, honey, and possibly the meat of certain native animal species.

Cultural Significance

The North Sentinel Island and its people are one of the last existing enigmatic cultures of the 21st century. Several attempts have been made to contact the people of the Sentinelese tribe but, with the exception of a few positive incidents, success has been elusive. The people of this island appear to be highly aggressive, and unwelcome to what they view as intruders. They continue to attack anyone who attempts to approach their land, including attacks even upon low-flying helicopters. In 2006, two fishermen fishing illegally for mud crabs off the coast of North Sentinel Island were killed by the Sentinelese people, after the boat of the fishermen accidentally drifted towards the island due to strong currents during the night. Likely intoxicated, the fishermen failed to discern the warnings by fellow fishermen, and thus ended up losing their lives. The cause of this behaviour is difficult to gauge. However, in spite of their isolation, and without the influence of modern civilizations, the Sentinelese appear to be healthy, thriving, and full of energy. Much is left to be discovered about the culture of these mysterious humans in the 21st Century.


After the 2004 Tsunami, when thousands of lives were lost in the regions near the North Sentinel Island, there were fears that the Sentinelese people might be in grave danger. However, a subsequent visit to the North Sentinel Island proved otherwise, when the Indian Coast Guard helicopter that attempted to survey the island was greeted with an arrow attack from a Sentinelese man. Still, with coastal water levels rising globally, the habitat of these people appears to be under threat. Even though the tsunami was unable to wipe out this tribe, no one can tell what plans the future holds for these people. In 1967, the Indian Government began contact expeditions to establish friendly relations with the Sentinelese. Several expeditions were also conducted by major organizations in the scientific and educational community, including National Geographic. Concerns over communicating deadly diseases unto them, to which these islanders are not likely to be immune from, surfaced during such times. However, the innate constancy of the island dwellers in maintaining their aggressive attitudes towards outsiders has made all contact attempts futile regardless. Presently, the Indian Government has stopped all contact attempts, and has made it illegal for anyone to approach anywhere within three miles of the island.

Who Are the Sentinelese People?

The Sentinelese people are found on the isolated North Sentinel Island. The physical characteristics of the Sentinelese suggest that they are the descendants of people who migrated out of Africa thousands of years ago, and became genetically isolated after settling the North Sentinel Island, wherein they developed their own distinct language and genetic traits.

About the Author

Oishimaya is an Indian native, currently residing in Kolkata. She has earned her Ph.D. degree and is presently engaged in full-time freelance writing and editing. She is an avid reader and travel enthusiast and is sensitively aware of her surroundings, both locally and globally. She loves mingling with people of eclectic cultures and also participates in activities concerning wildlife conservation.


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