The death of John Allen Chau is a tragic one, no doubt. The 26-year-old American evangelist wanted to introduce the Sentinelese – an indigenous stone-age people and one of the world’s most isolated tribes who inhabit North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal in India – to Jesus and the almighty! As John wanted to befriend them, he reportedly brought some gift items for the Sentinelese, too, symbolising love, luck and friendship! However, the residents of North Sentinel Island failed to understand John’s language. Immediately after the US national reached their island on November 17, the Sentinelese tribe – who have lived on the island for up to 60,000 years and have actively shunned all outside contact – welcomed John with arrows… and killed him. The Indian Police are yet to trace his body.
The Indian investigators have come to know that John collected various information about the Sentinelese people ahead of his venture. He had the information that the tribe continues to resist all contact with outsiders, attacking anyone who comes near. However, he decided to ignore the history. Perhaps, he wanted to change the history that remains unchanged for thousands of years! In the past, many others had tried to enlighten the uncivilised people with knowledge. John was right! It’s our duty to educate uncivilised people, like the Sentinelese, who don’t care about laws and welcome civilised guests with weapons.
John Allen Chau
Meanwhile, the investigators have found a note left by John in which the US national revealed some details of the indigenous people. A senior Indian police officer said that John might have visited the island a couple of times before his death. In his note, John mentioned that nearly 250 Sentinelese people live on the island. He also described the hierarchy of the Sentinelese society in the detailed note, titled Observations, as he wrote that when he had arrived on the island on November 15, he met a person who appeared to be the leader of the tribe. According to the adventurer, the man had a white crown made of flowers and he “took a leadership stance… climbed on a rock and yelled at me”.
John further noted that the Sentinelese “make high pitched sounds…. sounds such as the letters b, p, l and s”. Most probably, the tribesmen “exchanged a lot of insults”, he added. John tried to communicate with the Sentinelese through some words used by the Jarawas. However, the Sentinelese didn’t understand the language.
Sentinelese Island: The last tribe standing
John further mentioned in his note that some of the huts accommodated around 10 Sentinelese each, including children, while some could have had around 50. As the civilised invader didn’t see any elderly member of the tribe, he guessed that they might live separately on another part of the island. According to John, the Sentinelese women booed when they noticed him and a 10-year-old Sentinelese boy shot an arrow at John. Fortunately, the arrow hit his Bible! Later, John found that the arrow-tip was metal, although it was very thin and sharp. Experts are of the opinion that the Sentinelese salvaged ships wrecked near the island for metal and made arrows from these.
John also observed the gestures of the islanders. “Arms in the air meant unarmed and friendly. Pointing with hand/finger meant pointing a location. Arrows in bow meant ready to shoot you,” he wrote. John’s notes on the little known tribe are interesting, but the concerned authorities in India are treating his observations as that of an amateur’s because the 27-year-old was an adventurer, and not an anthropologist.
North Sentinel Island
In the late 1950s, the Indian government had tried to befriend the Sentinelese. However, the uncivilised people didn’t respond. The scenario changed in the 1960s when the Anthropological Survey of India undertook similar initiatives. Anthropologist Trilok Nath Pandit spent 10-15 minutes on North Sentinel Island on January 4, 1991, but the indigenous people didn’t attack him. In fact, the anthropologist claimed that not a single indigenous person attacked him during his short stay on the island. Later, they accepted iron rods, cooking accessories and coconuts as gifts.
In 1991, T N Pandit (far left) presented gifts of coconuts to the Sentinelese
The Sentinelese once again attacked visitors in the late 1990s, forcing them to leave the island. As a result, the outside world has no idea about their lifestyle, language, culture etc. The civilised world has tried to develop an idea about the Sentinelese on the basis of some isolated experiences and a lot of assumptions. The Government of India mentioned in a 2011 report that the Sentinelese population was estimated at 15 to 500 individuals, with most estimates between 50 and 200.
Interestingly, the survey was conducted from a distance and might not have been accurate, as the Indian authorities had introduced laws that prohibit any individual being closer than 4.8km to the island, for both the safety of outsiders, as the Sentinelese are known to be hostile, and the Sentinelese themselves. The Sentinelese people are widely considered to be Negrito with dark skin and shorter in stature than average humans. Members of this hunting-gathering community appear not to wear clothing. So far, the rest of the world has to be satisfied with this much of information about the unknown island. The Sentinelese, too, were in peace due to their isolation. The other three primitive tribes of the Andaman Islands – the Jarawa, Onge and Great Andamanese – were not so lucky.
The Great Andamanese and Onges – who have abandoned their identity, freedom and the language – have become heavily dependent on government support for their survival. They have been increasing contact with the outside world and all the contacts, especially with tourists, remain extremely dangerous to them due to the risk of diseases. The civilised people have also destroyed the evergreen forests which is essential for their survival. We may consider all these are the gifts of civilisation!
Comparatively, Jarawas are still free… as this hunting-gathering tribe has accepted the outside world. Although the Supreme Court of India had ordered the concerned authorities in 2002 to close the highway that goes through the Jarawa’s reserve, it still remains open and tourists use the highway for human safaris to the Jarawas. Earlier, the Indian media reported that the poachers entered the Jarawa’s forest and stole the animals the tribe rely on for their survival. The civilised people have also introduced alcohol and marijuana, and sexually abused the Jarawa women. The Jarawas suffered outbreaks of measles – a disease that has wiped out many tribes worldwide following contact with outsiders – in 1999 and again in 2006. However, the Indian government has taken no action against those who tried to meet the Jarawas.
Although the Sentinelese people are yet to accept the civilised world, it has become increasingly difficult for them to enjoy their isolation! John failed to befriend them, but his death has brought the North Sentinel Island into the spotlight once again! It will be difficult for the Sentinelese to resist the sophisticated technology with bows and arrows. May be, it’s the beginning of an end!
Our civilisation is dangerous! It offers friendship first and then, captures everything. The civilisation builds roads, mobile towers, tourist spots and shopping malls after snatching the forests from the tribal people. Then, what will happen to this primitive and barbarian people? The fearsome Tsunami failed to make them homeless in 2004, but the modern people will definitely do that in near future. The Sentinelese will certainly make an attempt to adapt the changing environment before securing their places in a museum and meeting our curiosity.
Anthropologists have urged the civilised world to allow the indigenous people of North Sentinel Island of Andaman to live their own life and not to disturb them. The world’s most isolated and uncontacted tribes are not violent… they only want to protect their wealth (or to defend their territory). They not only survived the Tsunami, but also survived for thousands of years. As a result, they are the first and rightful claimants of the land. We have to understand the fact that the tribal people of North Sentinel Island have been living there for the past 60,000 years and have kept the forests, natural resources and themselves intact. We have to realise that the community has no immunity to disease and exposure to a relatively minor virus – like the common cold – could wipe the Sentinelese out.
But, who will listen to the anthropologists? Civilisation is impervious, deaf…
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