What do anthropologists dream of? Late at night when they rest their weary heads, some surely drift to the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. These 325 islands were once inhabited by a complex array of hunter-gatherer tribes for thousands of years, until along came the Chola Dynasty. And then the Maratha Empire. And then the British. And then Imperial Japan. All the Andaman indigenous cultures have been either assimilated or eliminated with one notable exception: North Sentinel Island, home to the most isolated tribe on earth. The Sentinelese are hunter-gatherers living for all appearances like they’re in the Neolithic era. The secret to remaining uncontacted? A reputation for indiscriminately murdering anyone who tries to make contact.
North Sentinel is technically within Indian jurisdiction, but India’s policy of non-intervention means a total ban on visitation. So far this has seemed to prevent the Sentinelese from suffering the same fate as the neighbouring Jarawa tribe, whose influx of modernity has resulted in an ongoing carnival of epidemics, alcoholism, and sexual exploitation.
Thanks to this isolation, very little is known about the inner workings of Sentinelese society. It’s suspected they have no ability to self-produce fire, yet are equipped with metal tools thanks to shipwrecks on the island’s outlying coral reefs. The population is estimated anywhere between 20 and 300 people within the island’s 72 square kilometers, but the reality is anyone’s guess. Many assumed the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean had wiped the tribe off the map until a helicopter surveying the damage was greeted with the customary arrows bouncing off its windshield.
Illustration: Fanqiao Wang