Six disastrous encounters with the world’s most hostile uncontacted tribe

From questionable shipwrecks to outright attacks, they clearly don't want to be bothered.

Six disastrous encounters with the world’s most hostile uncontacted tribe
  • Many have tried to contact the Sentinelese, to write about them, or otherwise.
  • But the inhabitants of the 23 square mile island in the Bay of Bengal don't want anything to do with the outside world.
  • Their numbers are unknown, but either 40 or 500 remain.

Between waves of refugees, armed conflicts, and bickering over oil reserves, the world feels like it's become a rather small place. The world may be shrinking, but some people are still fighting to keep a little space for themselves. North Sentinel Island serves as a perfect example.

The island has an area of about 23 square miles and is surrounded by a natural barricade of coral reefs. It lies east of India in the Bay of Bengal, and it is home to one of the very last uncontacted tribes on the planet. There are between 40 and 500 members of the Sentinelese living on the island, although it's impossible to estimate their exact numbers.

The Sentinelese are perhaps the most aggressive uncontacted tribe that exists. Nearly every attempt at contact has ended in disaster and sometimes death. Below are six accounts of these attempts at contact.

1880: The British Empire’s famous hospitality

Photo taken by Maurice Vidal Portman of an Andamanese man in the 1890s. The Andaman Islands are the closest land masses to North Sentinel Island.

Maurice Vidal Portman/Creative Commons

During their imperialist period, the British had something of an unusual protocol when it came to unfriendly tribes. If a tribe refused to be contacted or were aggressive toward British colonists, they would kidnap a member of the tribe, supply the prisoner with gifts and treat them well, and free their captive shortly after. In theory, the captive would return to the tribe with reports of generous (if somewhat socially inept) outsiders.

This is the approach that Maurice Vidal Portman took during one of the first explorations of the island. At first, the Sentinelese fled into the jungle at the approach of Portman and his men. Eventually, they stumbled across an elderly couple and some children who couldn't flee fast enough.

As if this kidnapping protocol wasn't bad enough, Portman decided to abduct these elderly people and children. The elderly Sentinelese couple soon grew ill, likely because Portman and his men were carrying a variety of Western diseases that had never reached the island before. In a few days, the couple had died.

The British gave the children a variety of gifts for the tribe and released them back into the jungle minus two grandparents. It seems unlikely that the Sentinelese appreciated this. After this first point of contact, the tribe were more overtly hostile to outsiders.

1970: India explores its new lands

When India gained its independence from Britain, many islands in the area were handed over to India as well, including North Sentinel Island. A few decades later, India decided to make contact with the Sentinelese, using a more scientific and gentler approach than the British.

They made a series of attempts at contact, each headed by the anthropologist Triloknath Pandit. Armed police and naval officers joined Pandit for protection. For the most part, the group would observe the islanders from the safety of boats moored far from the shoreline.

In 1970, however, Pandit's ship strayed too close to the beaches of the island. Several men from the tribe began aiming their bows at the boat, shouting, and behaving aggressively. Pandit reported that several of them squatted on their haunches as though they were defecating. He read this as a kind of insult.

As if this wasn't unusual enough, women quickly emerged from the tree line and paired off with each man on the beach. Each couple embraced passionately in what appeared to be a mass mating display. Under these conditions, the hostile atmosphere evaporated, the tribe eventually returned to the forest, and Pandit's expedition returned to India.

1974: National Geographic attacked

By now, knowledge of the elusive tribe had spread far enough that National Geographic sent a crew there to film a documentary. As the National Geographic boat crossed through an opening in the island's reef barrier, they were greeted with a hail of arrows.

This barrage missed the boat, which pressed on toward the shore despite the assault. The police who accompanied the documentary crew landed on the shore and left a series of gifts for the Sentinelese in the hopes that future encounters would be on friendlier terms. The gifts were an unusual mix of the useful and potentially amusing: aluminum cookware; a toy car; coconuts; a doll; and a live, tied-up pig.

As the police deposited the crew's gifts on the shore, another volley of arrows issued from the tree line. This time, the documentary's director was struck in the thigh, and the crew rushed back to their boats. Crew members reported that the man who shot the arrow laughed proudly while his tribesmen continued the attack until the boats had retreated out of range.

The encounter didn't end here, however: the crew wanted to see how their gifts were received. The Sentinelese retrieved the cookware and coconuts. In a bizarre act, the man who had shot the documentary director took the pig and doll and buried them in the sand. You can watch some of this footage below:

1981: The plight of the Primrose

The wreckage of The Primrose, visible on Google Earth

Google Earth

In India, August is monsoon season. During one of these windy rainstorms, a freighter ship called the Primrose struck one of the coral reefs that surround North Sentinel Island and was stranded along with its 28 sailors. With little to do but wait, the sailors slept through the storm.

When they awoke the next morning, the captain immediately broadcasted an urgent message to Hong Kong: On the nearby shore of the island, dozens of Sentinelese were aiming their spears and arrows at the grounded ship. The captain asked for an airdrop of weapons to defend themselves. The next day, their situation had worsened. The Sentinelese were constructing boats to sail to the coral reef where the Primrose had run aground.

Because of the strong storms during this season, it was impossible to send an immediate airdrop of firearms. However, this meant that the Sentinelese were also unable to sail out to the Primrose. The crew was stranded off the coast of North Sentinel Island for nearly a week until the weather had cleared enough for a rescue helicopter to arrive and ferry the men off of the ship. As the helicopter made a series of trips to the boat, the Sentinelese fired arrows at it in an attempt to drive it off.

1991: Pandit makes progress

Triloknath Pandit continued to make attempts at contact after his 1970 visit. Finally, in 1991, he had some measure of success. Pandit and his crew landed on the beach and were met by an unarmed group of 28 Sentinelese, a mixture of men, women, and children.

Despite the progress, the Sentinelese made it clear that there were limits to what outsiders could and could not do. Some of Pandit's crew were resting in a dinghy that had begun to drift away from the island while he remained on shore. Seeing this, one Sentinelese man drew a knife and threatened Pandit with it. This drifting dinghy made it seem like Pandit intended to stay on the island while his companions sailed off, something that the Sentinelese would not tolerate. The dinghy was brought back to shore, and Pandit sailed off again.

Soon after this visit and despite the progress, it was decided that further contact with these people would not be advisable. With a group so obviously inhospitable to the outside world, to force that world upon them would serve neither the Sentinelese nor global community much good. What's more, continued contact put the Sentinelese at risk. They harbor few defenses against the larger world's illnesses, as demonstrated by the British's first attempt at contact in 1880. For the most part, the islanders were left to their own devices.

2006: Drunk poachers stray too close

Soon after Pandit's successful visit, the Indian government began enforcing an exclusion zone around the island, with heavy fines and jail time to act as deterrents. Despite this, two poachers entered the exclusion zone in 2006 to hunt for mud crabs. As night came, they dropped their anchor some distance from the island and started to drink heavily.

Sometime during the night, the anchor became unstuck. As the men slept, their boat drifted into the coral reefs surrounding the island. They were immediately killed by the Sentinelese the next morning, who buried their bodies into the beach. When a helicopter came to retrieve their bodies, the islanders drove it off with a volley of arrows.

The Indian government's official position is that the islanders are a sovereign people with the right to defend their borders. The Sentinelese would not be prosecuted for killing the poachers. To arrest and prosecute a Sentinelese tribesman would be clearly absurd anyhow.

Since this incident, no further contact has been made with the tribe. Aircraft and satellites keep an eye on the island, occasionally checking in to confirm the tribe's continued existence after major storms. While curiosity about the tribe remains strong, curiosity appears to be the only real reason left to make contact. In the face of the Sentinelese's clear preference for isolation, violating that isolation in the name of curiosity alone seems selfish.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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