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The lost tribe on the forbidden island

It's hard to believe that there are people in this world who have no idea about the internet or cell phones. These are tribes that are completely cut-off from global civilization and do not welcome any kind of contact from the outside world.

North Sentinel Island, a part of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal Ocean between Myanmar and Indonesia, is home to one such tribe. The 28 square mile island is roughly the size of Manhattan and is low-lying, heavily forested and protected by a barrier of coral reefs. The Sentinelese people are so hostile to external contact that the island has been dubbed the 'hardest place to visit' in the world.

The Sentinelese are thought to be direct descendants of the first humans who emerged from Africa. They have lived on the tiny island for almost 60,000 years. The fact that their language is so different even from other Andaman islanders suggests that they have had little or no contact with the other people for thousands of years. Their exact population is unknown; it could be as low as 40 or as high as 500.

It doesn't matter whether you are friend or enemy, whether you arrive at the island shores on purpose or by accident, the locals will greet you the same way - with spears and arrows. Gifts of food and clothing are of no importance to them. They were even hostile to rescue missions after the tsunami in 2004.

In the aftermath of the disastrous tsunami that had hit the Indian Ocean in December 2004, a group of rescuers reached out to the Sentinelese in an Indian Navy helicopter. They wanted to find and help survivors, although chances were slim. They tried dropping food parcels to the ground, but they were met with hostility. A sole Sentinelese warrior emerged from the dense jungle and shot an arrow at the helicopter. Thought the tsunami killed more than 230,000 people in surrounding countries, it appears that the Sentinelese were able to sense the coming of the tsunami and escape to higher ground before it arrived.

Not much is known about these tribal folk; their language is alien and their habits unknown. Their settlements are hidden in the thick jungle, so we have no clue about how they live. All we know is that the Sentinelese are hunter-gatherers; they do not farm. They live on fruits, fish, tubers, wild pigs, lizards and honey.

India has sovereignty over North Sentinel. After several failed attempts to make friendly contact with them since 1964, the Indian government has finally backed away. All visits to the island are banned. The Indian Navy has enforced a 3-mile buffer zone to keep tourists, explorers and other meddlers away.

The first real threat to the natives of North Sentinel Island appeared in 1858, when the British established a penal colony at Port Blair on nearby South Andaman Island to pacify the local tribes. They would kidnap a member of an unfriendly tribe, hold him for a short period, treat him well, and then shower him with gifts and let him return to his people.

In 1880 a large, heavily-armed party led by 20-year-old Maurice Vidal Portman, the British colonial administrator, landed on North Sentinel and made what is believed to be the first exploration of the island by outsiders. Several days passed before they made contact with any Sentinelese, because tribe members disappeared into the jungle whenever strangers approached. Finally, the party stumbled across an elderly couple who were too old to run away, and four small children and brought them back to Port Blair. But the man and the woman soon started to get sick and then died, probably from exposure to Western diseases to which they would have had little or no resistance. So Portman returned the four children to North Sentinel Island and released them with gifts for the rest of the tribe.

There are several horror stories of how the Sentinelese have treated their guests. People either return from the island terrified and injured, or not at all. In 1896, an escaped convict from the British prisons of The Andamans drifted on to the shores of North Sentinel by accident. A few days later, a search party found his body on a beach, punctured by arrows and with his throat slit.

In 1974, a group went there to make a documentary, and the film's director took an 8-foot arrow in the thigh. A few of the recordings from that visit were included in the larger documentary, Man in Search of Man.

Other unintentional encounters include on August 2, 1981,a Hong Kong freighter navigating the choppy waters of the Bay of Bengal ran aground on a submerged coral reef. The ship, called the Primrose, was hopelessly stuck. The crew stayed on their boat for a few days, when the saw native people advancing towards their ship, armed with spears, bows and arrows. The captain made a distress call via radio and the crew were airlifted to safety by helicopter.

Indian anthropologist T.N. Pandit conducted several government-sponsored trips to the island in the late 80s and early 90s. "Sometimes they would turn their backs to us and sit on their haunches as if to defecate," he said. "This was meant to insult us as we were not welcome."

Surprisingly, there has been only one instance where outsiders did not have to face an aggressive reception. On January 4, 1991, 28 men, women and children approached Mr. Pandit and his group. "That they voluntarily came forward to meet us, it was unbelievable," he said. "They must have decided that the time had come."

Unfortunately, the last contact with the islanders in 2006 didn't go as well. Two fishermen were killed while illegally fishing within the range of the island.

Today anyone with a laptop and internet access can use Google Earth to spy on places that are not meant to be seen by outsiders. But when you look down on North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal, all you can make out is the wreck of the Primrose, still stuck on the reef. You can’t see the Sentinelese, their dwellings, or anything else that might shed light on how many people there are on the island, or how they live there. Even when viewed from outer space, the Sentinelese remains free from prying eyes.

The Sentinelese are among the last of the uncontacted people left in the world. Perhaps it's best to leave them alone; bringing them out into civilization might not be the best thing for them.