The recent death of an American missionary on North Sentinel Island has put the remote island in the Bay of Bengal, officially off-limits to most outsiders for decades, back in the news and raised questions about the future of the Sentinelese, the island’s hunter-gatherer residents who have resisted outside contact for most of their known history.
In the later 20th century, the Indian government, which administers the Andaman and Nicobar islands archipelago to which North Sentinel belongs, attempted to make contact with the Sentinelese—attempts that usually ended with a volley of projectiles fired by the island’s residents from the shoreline. (In one event in the 1970s, the director of a National Geographic documentary about the Andamans was wounded by a spear while filming). While most attempts were unsuccessful, two encounters in the early 1990s were notable for the fact the Sentinelese accepted coconuts from a team that included anthropologists from the Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI).
Among the anthropologists was the team’s only woman, Madhumala Chattopadhyay. She had wanted to study the tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar islands since childhood, and as an adult anthropologist spent six years researching them, eventually publishing 20 research papers on the subject as well as the book Tribes of Car Nicobar.
As a Ph.D. fellow with the AnSI in January 1991, Chattopadhyay had her first chance to join a team going to North Sentinel. But there was a catch: women were not included in groups that went to establish contact with the “hostile” tribes the islands. “I had to give a written undertaking saying that I knew about the risks involved and would not claim compensation from the government for any injury or loss of life,” Chattopadhyay recalls. “My parents also had to give a similar written undertaking.”
Permissions granted, Chattopadhyay went on to become the first female anthropologist to make contact with the Sentinelese. Twenty-seven years later, she recalls her first-hand encounters in an interview with National Geographic.
“We were all a bit apprehensive [during the January 1991 expedition] because a few months earlier the team sent by the administration had encountered the usual hostility,” says Chattopadhyay. Her group approached the island in a small boat, steering the vessel along an empty beach toward a spire of smoke. A few Sentinelese men, four of them armed with bows and arrows, walked out to the shoreline. “We started floating coconuts over to them. To our surprise some of the Sentinelese came into the water to collect the coconuts.”
In the two to three hours that followed, Sentinelese men waded from the beach into the water repeatedly to collect the coconuts—a novel product that does not grow on their island—while women and children watched from a distance. Yet the threat of an attack on the anthropologist outsiders remained present, Chattopadhyay recalls. “A young man aged about 19 or 20 stood along with a woman on the beach. He suddenly raised his bow. I called out to them to come and collect the coconuts using tribal words I had picked up while working with the other tribes in the region. The woman gave the boy a nudge and his arrow fell to the water. At the woman’s urging, he too came into the water and started picking coconuts,” she says. “Later some of the tribesmen came and touched the boat. The gesture, we felt, indicated that they were not scared of us now.” The AnSI team climbed to the shore but the tribe did not take them to their settlement.
Chattopadhyay returned with a larger team a month later. “This time, our team was bigger because the administration wanted to make the Sentinelese familiar with all the team members,” she recalls. “They watched us approaching and came to meet us without their weapons.” Not satisfied with just collecting floating coconuts this time, the Sentinelese climbed into the team’s boat to take an entire bag of coconuts. “They even tried to take the rifle belonging to the police, mistaking it to be a piece of metal,” Chattopadhyay adds. One of the team members then tried to take an ornament made out of leaves worn by a Sentinelese man. “The man got angry and whipped out his knife. He gestured to us to leave immediately and we left,” she says.
Bad weather spoiled a third trip, undertaken a few months later, “There was no one on the beach, and we returned without seeing anyone,” she recalls. After that, the administration decided to reduce the frequency of visits to North Sentinel Island to protect the residents from exposure to diseases that they likely lacked defences to.
Chattopadhyay, who now works in India’s Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, has not returned to the Andaman and Nicobar islands in 19 years and has no interest in returning to North Sentinel. “The tribes have been living on the islands for centuries without any problem. Their troubles started after they came into contact with outsiders,” the anthropologist says. “The tribes of the islands do not need outsiders to protect them, what they need is to be left alone.”