NEW DELHI — For thousands of years, the people of North Sentinel island have been isolated from the rest of the world.
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They use spears and bows and arrows to hunt the animals that roam the small, heavily forested island, and gather plants to eat and to fashion into homes. Their closest neighbors live more than 50 kilometers (30 miles) away. Deeply suspicious of outsiders, they attack anyone who comes through the surf and onto their beaches.
Police say that is what happened last week when a young American, John Allen Chau, was killed by islanders after paying fishermen to take him to the island.
Scholars believe the Sentinelese migrated from Africa roughly 50,000 years ago, but most details of their lives remain completely unknown. Estimates of their numbers range from a few dozen to a few hundred.
“What language they speak, how old it is, it’s anybody’s guess,” said professor Anvita Abbi, a linguist at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University who has spent decades studying the tribal languages of India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands. North Sentinel is an outpost of the island chain, which is far closer to Myanmar and Thailand than to mainland India. “Nobody has access to these people.”
And, she said, that’s how it should be.
“Just for our curiosity, why should we disturb a tribe that has sustained itself for tens of thousands of years?” she asked. “So much is lost: People are lost, language is lost, their peace is lost.”
For generations, Indian officials have forbidden visits to North Sentinel, with contact limited to rare “gift-giving” encounters, with small teams of officials and scientists leaving coconuts and bananas for the islanders.
Any contact with such isolated people can be dangerous, scholars say, with islanders having no resistance to diseases outsiders carry.
“We have become a very dangerous people,” said P.C. Joshi, an anthropology professor at Delhi University. “Even minor influences can kill them.”
Many of the island chain’s other tribes have been decimated over the past century, lost to disease, intermarriage and migration.
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