North Sentinel Island

Thursday, 25th June 2009 by

We've tagged this sight as "India", but in truth North Sentinel Island is hardly even a part of the world as we know it.


Although it is barely 40km away from the well populated South Andaman Island, North Sentinel is home to what is probably the last "uncontacted" tribe on Earth. The islanders are fiercely independent and have shunned all attempts to contact them, although in 1991 a few intrepid tribesmen did go as far as accepting gifts of coconuts from Indian government officials who approached the island in a dinghy. They survive as hunter-gatherers, armed with bows and arrows tipped with metal scavenged from whatever flotsam and jetsam washes up on shore.

Nobody knows how many people live on the island - the official 2001 census figure, recorded from aerial surveys, was 39, but some estimates are as high as 400. What we do know is that the tsunami of December 2004 had a devastating impact on much of the Andaman region, and North Sentinel was no exception. For a dramatic illustration of its effects, compare these two images:

sentinelbefore sentinelafter

The first picture, taken from Google Earth, was captured before the tsunami (the exact date isn't recorded but it was circa 2000). The second image was taken in April 2005 by the European Space Agency's Proba satellite, and shows that the island's fringing reefs have been lifted considerably, exposing large areas of coral and destroying much of the shallow lagoon.

The Indian government, worried that the North Sentinelese1 had been wiped out by the disaster, dispatched a helicopter to investigate. They found that at least some of the islanders were still alive and kicking - and when the chopper got too close, it came under attack from a hail of rocks and arrows. How the islanders will cope with the damage to their ecosystem remains to be seen, but they will at least be left to do it in peace: India's official policy is now to make no further attempt to contact or "assimilate" the islanders, so although they remain notionally "Indian", they are still essentially untouched by the outside world.

Read more about the island and its people at Wikipedia, and at EVS-Islands, which also has an excellent map.

  1. They are also known as Sentineli, although of course nobody knows what they call themselves. ↩︎