The Sentinelese

Image result for sentinelese survival internationalThe Sentinelese are the 30 – 200 people living on North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Sea, between India and Southeast Asia. Descended from the first wave of migrants out of Africa 55,000 years ago, the Sentinelese lived in complete isolation from the outside world until the 19th century.  They resist contact with lethal force.


  • 53,000 BC – Stone Age hunter-gatherers settle North Sentinel island across a land bridge from the mainland.
  • 1867 – An Indian ship anchors on North Sentinel Island. The natives attack the crew with bow and arrow.
  • 1880 – British colonists explore the island.
  • 1948 – North Sentinel Island enters Indian administration.
  • 1960s-90s – Indian anthropologists visit the Sentinelese.
  • 2004 – Sentinelese survive the Asian tsunami.
  • 2006 – Sentinelese archers kill two Indian fishermen marooned on the island.
  • 2018 – Sentinelese archers kill American missionary John Allen Chau.

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The Sentinelese are one of four peoples inhabiting the Andaman Islands, alongside the Jarawa, Onge and Greater Andamanese. The islanders lived in isolation until the British colonised the islands in the 1700s. The measles, pneumonia, influenza and alcohol they brought wiped out the Jangil people and reduced the remaining native population from 7,000 to a few hundred. North Sentinel, owing to its small size and local hostility, was never colonised.

Like the other Andamanese, the people of North Sentinel Island have very dark skin, lithe, muscular bodies and tight curly hair. The men average 5 foot 4, similar to the other ‘Negritos’ of Southeast Asia. They live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, eat plants, turtles and fish from around the island, speak an unknown language and practice an unknown religion.

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Technology consists of small canoes, wooden houses, stone axes, spears, bows and arrows. Whether or not the Sentinelese use fire, which was foreign to the other Andamanese, is unknown. When the freighter Primrose marooned in 1971, the Sentinelese crafted iron arrowheads and knives from the wreckage.

In 1880 British colonial administrator Maurice Vidal Portman led an expedition to North Sentinel.   He kidnapped an old couple and four children and brought them back to his headquarters at Port Blair. After the man and woman ‘sickened rapidly’ and died, Portman returned the four children to their island. Future expeditions failed to establish any further contact.

Image result for sentinelese peopleThe encounter likely stayed in the Sentinelese collective memory and shaped their attitude to outsiders.  They have tried to kill every intruder since, starting with an escaped convict in 1896. The islanders do not discriminate: when a Sentinelese man raised by the Onge visited in the 1890s, he met the same reception. In the face of large search parties, the Sentinelese would flee into the forest. It is worth noting, however, their reaction of first contact in 1867 was consistent with their attitude after the 1880 incident.

From 1967 to 1991 the Indian government embarked on ‘friendship missions’ by leaving gifts of coconuts, bananas, iron and toys and trying to communicate with the Sentinelese in the Jarawa and Onge languages, which they did not understand. The islanders wearily accepted the gifts then made obscene gestures to leave and attacked the visitors with arrows. Only in the 1996 visit did they avoid hostility (see video).

The Indian government has since banned visitors to protect the Sentinelese from outside diseases that could destroy them. Being the most isolated people in the world, it is clear they simply wish to be left alone.

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How Violent are Hunter-Gatherers?

Image result for sentinelese tribeLeftist thought idealises our hunter-gatherer past as a lost Garden of Eden. Karl Marx described a ‘primitive communism’ without rich or poor. Socialists, anarchists and feminists laud the absence of class, government or gender inequality respectively.

Hierarchy, money, patriarchy and organised warfare are the products of the Agricultural Revolution. This turning point destroyed the old ways 13,000 years ago and left in its place a never-ending squabble for power, land and material wealth that is the source of the world’s woes. Hunter-gatherers, in contrast, live in peaceful utopia.

The murder of American missionary John Allan Chau by the uncontacted Sentinelese raises a question, however – how peaceful are hunter-gatherers really?

Hunter-gatherers live in ‘band’ societies – the oldest form of human organisation. Unlike modern societies, bands:

  • do not have specialised occupations – everyone is a hunter-gatherer
  • are illiterate
  • share resources
  • are egalitarian – there is no rich and poor and women are (usually) equal to men
  • are nomadic or semi-nomadic
  • live in groups of 5-80
  • subsist off game and wild plants

Human beings lived in band societies for 90% of our history –  making them our natural state of being. Only a few pockets in the world’s isolated regions maintain the old lifestyle today.

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San hunter-gatherers, Namibia

Unlike modern, industrial societies where we interact with strangers every day, our ancestors would meet no more than 100 people in their lifetime, but know them all very well. The average hunter-gatherer society supports one person per square mile. Fewer people meant there was more to go around. Why fight when everyone is equal?

In the absence of the laws, organised religion and power structures that govern ‘civilised’ society, only kinship, mutual trust and fear of retaliation stops hunter-gatherers from killing one another. When crimes do occur, the band mediates. Murder of a fellow kinsman could warrant acceptance, exile or revenge, depending on the circumstances.

If however, a hunter-gatherer should encounter an outsider – one who looks different, does not share their language and knows no one in common, fear takes over and the instinct is to kill or be killed. In-group out-group mentality is strong and no one cares about the murder of an outsider.

There are exceptions. The Jomon of Japan and the Moriori of New Zealand’s Chatham Islands were remarkably pacifistic. Some cultures, on the other hand, practiced cannibalism or headhunting. As with states, however, it is the more violent societies which tend to survive.

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According to anthropologists, 25% of modern hunter-gatherers die from homicide. Among the Jivaro of Peru the number is 60%.  The average homicide rate of 0.5% per year far exceeds that of modern states. Hunter-gatherer ‘warfare’ consists of raids against rival bands in competition for food or women.  The oldest example is a 10,000-year-old mass grave of 27 skeletons in Lake Turkana, Kenya. Shards of obsidian were still lodged in some victims’ skulls.

Hunter-gatherers kill at a higher rate. They only kill less because there are less of them. We, on the other hand, are conditioned by centuries of living under law and social norms essential for us to live harmoniously in less space. If the hunter-gatherer reflects our natural state then we are more chimps than bonobos.

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Sources: Jared Diamond – Guns, Germs and Steel, The Economist, Nature, Our World in Data 

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How Nanowrimo Went

nanowrimo stats.pngNanowrimo 2018 was a success! Over November I wrote a 50,000 word first draft of a YA novel, while working full time and maintaining a modest social life. The project consumed my spare time, and my blogging, but it was worthwhile. I wrote more in the past 30 days than I did in the past year.

My advice:

  1. Write every day. 1,700 words a day is not difficult but the more you skip the more you will have to catch up. Once you get into a steady rhythm, writing will seem effortless. Try and get as much as you can done on the weekend, if possible.
  2. Don’t look back. You have all the time in the world to revise your words after November. For now focus on getting words on the page – that’s what a first draft is all about. Remember no one has to read your original Nanowrimo submission. Save agonising over sentence flow or the the perfect verb for December.
  3. Plan in October. When I attempted Nanowrimo in 2016 I had a vague idea of my story at best. After only the first few chapters I hit a wall, with no clue how to keep the plot rolling. This time I familiarised myself with the three act structure prior to Nanowrimo, and wrote a page long plot outline and profiles on all my major characters. It was all subject to change, sure, but the rough notion of where my story was going kept me to the end.
  4. Set aside time. I cannot stress this enough. On good days I was writing 1000 words an hour, but this was rare. Know yourself and your habits. If you are prone to procrastination then allow three hours a day to reach your target word counts. Stop when you feel you have written enough.

I don’t plan to read my ‘novel’ until January. This will allow me to view it with an objective eye and better revise and recraft my 50,000 words into something I can show others. In the meantime, I will focus my creative energy on art and this blog. To my regular readers, thank you for your patience.

All in all, I am proud of what I accomplished. It’s not a masterpiece, or even a published book, sure, but it’s a start!  If you have ever wanted to pen a novel, but struggle with procrastination or writer’s block, I recommend giving Nanowrimo a try. Stick to it and it may surprise you what you can achieve.

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