The death of an Asian American evangelist at the hands of a primitive tribe a little more than a week ago raised awareness about how some uncontacted peoples perceive the outside world.
The tribe, referred to as the Sentinelese, is an indigenous collective of at least 15 members living in North Sentinel Island, one of the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal.
Surviving for approximately 60,000 years, the Sentinelese happen to be the world’s “most isolated tribe” according to Survival, an international non-profit that campaigns for tribal peoples’ rights.
The tribe has piqued the interest of explorers for centuries, but the fact that members repeatedly — and violently — deter all forms of contact is the primary reason little is known about their ways.
The Sentinelese, also called the Sentineli or North Sentinel Islanders, are known to be hunter-gatherers, obtaining food through foraging.
Using bows and arrows, members hunt for wildlife in the forests that cover their island, an expanse of about 60 square kilometers (23 square miles). They also fish in surrounding shallow waters on boats described as “too narrow to fit two feet in.”
While often depicted as living in the Stone Age, the tribe is in fact using metal already, recovering pieces from shipwrecks. They are also known to fashion iron for the tips of their arrows.
The tribe speaks Sentinelese, a language isolate unrelated to others in the surrounding islands. Language isolates have no demonstrable genealogical relationships with other languages, some examples being Sumerian, Ainu and Korean.
As seen from a distance, members wear what appear to be ornamental strings. Women wear them around their heads, necks and waists while men wear them only around their head and necks.
It is speculated that the tribe lives in three small bands, each having two types of houses. These are large communal huts for several families and more temporary shelters that accommodate one nuclear family.
Multiple attempts to establish contact with the Sentinelese have been recorded in history.
The earliest known contact dates back to the late 1880s, when British naval officer Maurice Vidal Portman led a group of Europeans to North Sentinel Island. The expedition captured six tribe members — an elderly man, an elderly woman and four children. Both adults died before or after their arrival in Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Gifts were given to the surviving children to show that the British were “friendly,” but such an aim was unsuccessful.
Another notable visit occurred in 1974, when a crew of anthropologists for National Geographic attempted to film a documentary. Accompanied by armed police, they brought gifts including coconuts, a live pig, a doll, a miniature plastic car and aluminum cookware. However, tribe members launched arrows as soon as they crossed the barrier reefs. The director was struck in the thigh.
The most recent documented contact before November 2018 took place in 2006, but unlike previous examples, it occurred by accident. Two Indian fishermen, Sunder Raj and Pandit Tiwari, were illegally harvesting crabs off the coast of North Sentinel Island. For unknown reasons, they decided to spend the night in the area, but as they slept, their anchor broke and drifted their boat within the range of the Sentinelese. They were attacked and killed.
The Unfortunate Case of John Allen Chau
Thanksgiving 2018 arrived with the grim news of the death of John Allen Chau, a 26-year-old man from Alabama who boldly attempted to convert the Sentinelese to Christianity. It is understood that he illegally visited North Sentinel Island, a reserved territory of the Indian government.
“John loved people, and he loved Jesus. He was willing to give his life to share Jesus with the people on North Sentinel Island,” said Mat Staver, founder of a Christian ministry that Chau was involved in as a college student. “Ever since high school, John wanted to go to North Sentinel to share Jesus with this indigenous people.”
In his journal entries, Chau, who traveled to the island alone on a kayak, detailed his first contact with the Sentinelese on Nov. 15. He described multiple instances of the tribe’s hostility toward outsiders.
“And the little kid shot me with an arrow – directly into my Bible which I was holding in front of my chest,” Chau wrote about one incident. “I grabbed the arrow shaft as it broke in my bible […] and felt its arrowhead. It was metal, thin, but very sharp.”
Chau returned the following day for another attempt that failed yet again. He would then write his final journal entry, asking his parents to forgive the Sentinelese and God if he were to die.
“This is not a pointless thing – the eternal lives of this tribe are at hand and I can’t wait to see them around the throne of god worshiping in their own language as Revelations 7:9-10 states,” Chau wrote. “I love you all and I pray none of you love anything in this world more than Jesus Christ.”
The evangelist is believed to have been killed on Nov. 17.
“He did not come back on the 17th; the fishermen later saw the tribespeople dragging his body around,” Dependra Pathak, director general of police of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, told CNN.
What the Modern World Can Learn From the Sentinelese
Chau’s death has sparked mixed reactions from all around the world. Some praised his dedication to spreading the gospel, while others dismissed it as invasive to a culture that pre-dates organized religion.
The Sentinelese are one of the few remaining uncontacted peoples who have managed to keep their ways to date, overcoming both natural and human threats for thousands of years. In 2013, estimates showed that there are only at least 100 of such tribes around the world, most of which live in South America and New Guinea.
Dr. Mark Plotkin, head of the Amazon Conservation Team advocacy group, believes that while the modern world can learn much from remote tribes, interested parties must exercise caution.
“There is a risk of us over-romanticising them, just as there are risks in accepting Jesus and that you are going to live forever, or in moving to a city and thinking you are going to have two cars and a computer,” Dr. Plotkin told the BBC. “Don’t over-romanticise how they live, but learn from it. Just like there are good things you can learn from Western religion.”
“But just as we shouldn’t over-romanticise indigenous people, we shouldn’t demonise missionaries like [John Allen Chau],” he added.
Investigation on Chau’s death is underway. Experts believe that his body may never be recovered.