The Sentinelese are not uncontacted primitives

Everywhere I go, there is news about the missionary who was recently killed on North Sentinel Island, a remote speck in the Indian Ocean. Generally, I agree with the sentiment: the man was a sanctimonious fool who wanted to bring Jesus to a people who have, over the years, made it absolutely clear that they want nothing to do with outsiders. The missionary didn’t even speak their language — no outsiders do! — so how he expected to teach them weird biblical theology is a mystery.

But another theme is that the natives of that island are totally isolated and haven’t had much exchange with Western culture, so it’s not surprising that they reacted barbarically to a naive visitor. As it turns out, that isn’t even close to true: there have been multiple visits, including by a nasty little colonial administrator for the British Empire, who landed on the island in 1880. He was not killed. The inhabitants didn’t automatically start fling spears at strangers. That behavior was learned.

Portman spent most of his time in the greater Andaman Islands, but in 1880, he landed on North Sentinel. The natives fled, and his party ventured inland to find a settlement which had been abandoned in haste.
But they located an elderly couple and a few children they were able to abduct. The couple quickly died, likely from ailments to which they had no immunity.
The children spent a few weeks with Portman doing god knows what, after which he returned them to the island. Portman returned on a couple occasions, but the Sentinelese hid from him each time.
The story related by the children was certainly passed down among the 100 or so inhabitants of the island, and even today, Portman’s fatal kidnapping is just beyond a human lifetime.

They also looted a grounded cargo ship in the 1980s — they now have metal tools. There were visits from anthropologists and Indian government officials, shown in a video at the above link. The inhabitants are a handsome and healthy-looking people, and it’s not clear what we could possibly do to improve their happiness. Bringing them Christianity doesn’t count.

But most importantly, these aren’t some brutal, primitive tribe.

And their aggressiveness is not the mark of savagery. It just that their conception of outsiders is mostly framed by some foot-faced English pervert who murdered some old people and did weird things to their kids. So let’s do them a favor and leave them alone.


  1. Bruce Fuentes says

    The jesus people are not going to be happy until they destroy every other non-Christian culture in the world. It is very telling that this yahoo thought he was entering “Satan’s last stronghold”. The idea that these Christian’s believe anyone that has not heard about their religion is necessarily evil, totally and utterly disgusts me. If there was a hell, there would be a special circle for people like this.

  2. Saad says

    The zealot was also injured a couple of times and kept going back. Attacking a colonizer is self defense. And going half way around the world to convert someone minding their own business is a hostile action anyway.

  3. mamba says

    He must have been REALLY annoying to them, though they’ve learned what most people on the planet learned…when you see a white male coming towards you telling you they’re here to help when you never had any problems, RUN!!!

  4. demonax says

    The Indian Government relaxing the very firm conditions that forbade visiting such islands must bear some of the blame for allowing such foolish people to interfere.

  5. says

    Yeah, “uncontacted” is a pretty euphemism to spare our blushes as the descendants of colonisers. It really means, “has usually had enough contact to get an inkling of how things are going to pan out, whereupon the answer was ‘oh, hell, no'”.

    A recent editorial in the National Geographic about “uncontacted” tribes in the Amazon rainforests made the same point. There are hardly any tribes in the Amazon that are truly “uncontacted” in the sense of being completely unaware of the modern world beyond their borders. Many of their ancestors did make contact with white civilisation, back in the 19th century, in the days of monsters like Carlos Fitzcarrald, said, “fuck that noise” and disappeared right back into the forest…

  6. ridana says

    He may have killed them all just by making them kill him. Who knows what diseases he brought to them. And assuming they survived him, the publicity will attract more gung-ho evangelists to martyr themselves by going there, or yahoos seeking adventure, and then Trump will have them carpet bombed for killing Americans.

    Yeah, I’m thinking there’s no “may have” about it.

  7. Colin Davey says

    Of course the Andaman Islanders were the remotest, scariest people in the Nineteenth Century. A fictional Islander plays a big part in the Sherlock Holmes tale “The Sign Of Four”. He is depicted as barely human.I don’t blame Conan Doyle for this for he lived entirely in his own time and no other.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    After the big tsunami of 2004, Indian officials reportedly worried about the Sentinelese and sent a patrol boat to investigate. Once that boat got close to the shore, a rain of spears came out of the forest (not having clearcut their barrier vegetation, those poor backward Paleolithics could weather big waves quite well), and the officials concluded that no help would be necessary.

    But since local fishermen apparently knew how to smuggle the late Mr. Chau onto the island without difficulty, I have to wonder whether the islanders have really remained as pristinely isolated as India tells us. They may also have experienced de facto pirate raids (seeking either unique and sellable artifacts, or women & children for the usual motives), which might explain why they spend so much time making spears to be flung into the saltwater and rarely retrieved.

  9. says

    If you’re going to try to contact people with a history like that, at least make some effort to show your good intentions. Maybe leave a gift of food on the beach, repeat a couple of times, and then try to talk to them. Give them just one reason to think you’re not there to kill or abduct them.

    Human beings aren’t that complicated. We like to be treated nicely and we remember those who don’t do so. Hell, that’s a quality shared by most animals. I wouldn’t trust this guy to babysit a dog for an evening.

    What made him think he could do this? How did he think they were going to react? Did he think the miracle of tongues would repeat and they’d all convert on the spot?

  10. gijoel says

    Even countries where people have heard about Jebus since the day they were born get missionaries. I live in a predominantly Christian country and regularly get JWs banging on my door. The only thing they seem to be interested in is getting everyone to think exactly like them.

    I feel sorry for his family, but he got two warnings to stay the hell away. Nothing says ‘fuck off I’m not interested’ like an arrow through your bible. He ignored them, and paid for his willful ignorance with his life.

  11. mnb0 says

    I’d like to point out that these people defended their borders in exactly the same way as the American border patrols defend theirs – and they don’t even have build a wall around their Island. What’s more, as the Indian government fortunately has realized, they have much better reasons to do so, because the threat of genocide is very real.
    The “highlight” for me though is the family of this christian fool forgiving the Sentinelese. As if they care. As if it makes any difference to them. Never has it been more clear how selfish the christian notion of forgiveness is.
    To all christian missionaries and other fools: stay away. Simply stay away. They don’t want you. They don’t want christianity. They have decided that they are better off without. Respect that.

  12. jrkrideau says

    @ 4 demonax
    The Indian Government relaxing the very firm conditions that forbade visiting such islands must bear some of the blame for allowing such foolish people to interfere.

    He smuggled himself onto the island against Indian law/policy and, the last I read, his two boatmen are under arrest.

  13. Onamission5 says

    I keep seeing (not here, but elsewhere) people talking about how he simply must not have known the danger he was putting the Sentinelese in, if only someone, somewhere had told him, he certainly would have reconsidered.

    A) I find it very difficult to believe that not a single other person anywhere informed him of the risk from diseases. No one on the plane he took? No mention of it in the law forbidding contact? Not a single one of the people from whom he got a kayak, or who he bribed to take him there? Not tourism guides? No one he informed of his intentions said it was a bad idea?

    B) It’s my experience having grown up in a similar subculture that consequences of action are something framed as though they only affect other people who aren’t doing god’s will. If you’re doing what god wants of you, you get a pass on the consequences– either you believe they cannot happen from your own actions because you’re doing god wants and thus he’ll protect everyone involved, or you disbelieve the warnings entirely as stemming from the devil’s influence. Other people’s clearly stated boundaries are tools of the devil when applied to you, less so to others, because you’re righteous and they aren’t. Someone telling you that you could straight up kill a whole people with the viruses you carry is Satan trying to discourage you, to tempt you away from your godly purpose.

  14. raven says

    Even countries where people have heard about Jebus since the day they were born get missionaries. I live in a predominantly Christian country and regularly get JWs …

    This isn’t surprising or unknown in the least.
    Most xian missionary activity is directed towards…other xians!!!

    In the USA, the Mormons, JW’s, and fundies roam the roads trying to convert each other and anyone else they can.
    I was a xian myself for almost 5 decades.
    I ran into people trying to convert me to their version of xianity all the time. The Mormons and JW’s were the worst but by no means the only ones.

  15. raven says

    John Allen Chau, the American Christian missionary who was killed, was a complete idiot who totally deserved getting killed by the Sentinelese.
    .1. This is a group of maybe 100-150 people who have been isolated for centuries.
    The chance of them getting wiped out or nearly wiped out by an introduced disease is very high.
    It happens to isolated groups who get contacted by outsiders a lot.
    This alone killed most of the Native Americans especially but not limited to smallpox.

    .2. Among these diseases would be such killers as Tuberculosis, measles, chickenpox, HIV, hepatitis A,B,C, any number of influenza strains, and a large variety of respiratory and GI viruses.

    .3. John Allen Chau was a potential genocidal vector killer and they were completely justified to kill him in self defense.

    .4. His mindlessness goes all the way down.
    As mentioned in the OP, he didn’t even speak their language.
    How do you tell people that jesus died for their sins when you don’t speak their language and don’t have esoteric ideas like “sin” and “salvation” in common?

    It’s really hard to see this as anything other than a suicide or half suicide by a young man who had nothing going on in his life and nothing to look forward to.

  16. raven says

    It is very telling that this yahoo thought he was entering “Satan’s last stronghold”.

    ??? Oh really?
    John Allen Chau seems to be cosmically stupid.

    .1. According to the NT bible, satan and the demons own the entire world.
    .2. According to the NT bible and xian theology, all non-xian religions are satanic.
    The NT says the Pagan gods are real, have power, but are really not gods but demons.
    .3. This was official xian dogman from the beginning and used to justify persecuting the Pagans and wiping them out in one genocide or another.
    .4. For many or most xians, it still is official theology.
    The Hindu gods are demons.
    Buddha is a demon.
    .5. If one wants to find what fundies consider strongholds of satan, they are everwhere.
    Hillary Clinton.
    Robert Mueller.
    Nancy Pelosi.
    The Muslims.
    The Democrats.
    The LGBT’s
    Uppity women
    There are millions of Pagans in the USA today even after 2 millennia of persecution.
    The guy who wrote the OP, PZ Myers is sure to be, by John Allen Chau’s reckoning, a satanic agent.
    There is a Pagan sitting in front of my computer screen typing this right now.

    If John Allen Chau wanted to fight satan in satan’s strongholds, he couldn’t walk more than a few blocks in the USA without finding one.

  17. Mark says

    And of course if you Goggle “North Sentinel Island,” you get the ironic Google sections “Plan A Trip” and “North Sentinel Island Travel Guide” and “North Sentinel Island Hotels,” which is a list of hotels on neighboring Adaman island, not 30 miles away. This alone is enough to encourage the idiot missionaries. I’d wager that Christian missionaries have attempted to visit North Sentinel Island in the recent past, but were unsuccessful and were never caught by the authorities. North Sentinel Island is probably on their hit list of places to visit, like how the Jehovah Witnesses make a list of houses.

  18. F.O. says

    There are few precious books that collect the evidence of the life of Native Australians before the coming of the Europeans.

    These people had 70 000 years of social technology: worked 4 hours per day (8 in times of scarcity) were physically healthy, had strong social bonds (they even had a sophisticated system to ensure that even newcomers to a group where given both help and duties) and the various Nations didn’t have too many conflicts.

    Considering to what life is today for so many Westerners, they had better lives than us.
    (Of course to this day, most white Australians think that the Aboriginals should be thankful to have been “civilized”).

    The Sentinelese know what they are defending themselves from.

  19. jrkrideau says

    @ 17 raven

    3. This was official xian dogman from the beginning and used to justify persecuting the Pagans and wiping them out in one genocide or another.



  20. says

    If you listen very, very carefully you can almost hear the sound of an entire planet applauding them silently. I mean, some people just aren’t meant to make the cut. Some people are just too dumb to live, they will always find a stupid way to get them selves killed.

    And deep down I think we all know this.

  21. demonax says

    To 13 JRK RIDEAU
    The government of India relaxed the law and tourism is to be allowed in the island group.The proselyte had no official permission but him and others of his ilk will have been encouraged by the government actions.
    The Sentinelese tribe remained isolated for years and, in fact, no census was conducted here until 1991. But this isolation also protected the tribe, argue experts while other tribes – such as the great Andamanese – suffered greatly due to incursions from outsiders.

    “In spite of all this, why did the government decide to open up the North Sentinel Island for tourism? Once the government announces that the RAP had been done away with, and it’s open for tourism – what message does it send to the world,” asked Denis Giles, editor of the Andaman Chronicle. Su unless you are on the Andaman Island Group and know otherwise that is the situation.

  22. rrutis1 says

    “then Trump will have them carpet bombed for killing Americans.” Not if the Sentineles are going to buy $100 billion or so in spears and rocks from the US…in that case it will be America First! and maybe they did and maybe they didn’t.

  23. chigau (違う) says

    demonax #22
    Your quote is from a newspaper reporter.
    Do you have a citation from an Indian Government document?

  24. chigau (違う) says

    Seriously. If you can provide a link to a Government source I’d be grateful.
    All I can find is newspapers quoting each other.

  25. microraptor says

    OnAMission5 @14:

    I keep seeing (not here, but elsewhere) people talking about how he simply must not have known the danger he was putting the Sentinelese in, if only someone, somewhere had told him, he certainly would have reconsidered.

    Given that at least some news reports are mentioning that he wrote in his journal that he knew how hostile and aggressive this tribe was to outsiders.

  26. raven says

    @ 17 raven
    3. This was official xian dogman from the beginning and used to justify persecuting the Pagans and wiping them out in one genocide or another.

    Many books have been written on this subject.
    This is well known mainstream history.

    Book of the day History books
    The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey
    The clash between the classical order and Christianity is a tale of murder and vandalism wrought by religious zealotry, evoking modern-day parallels

    Read this book.
    It isn’t even close to being complete though.
    One of the crusades was the Northern Crusade.
    The xians spent several centuries trying to conquer and xianize the Northern Pagans.
    They eventually succeeded.

  27. chrislawson says

    Re: “uncontacted”. A few years ago, a small group of Aboriginal Australians made direct contact with white people for the first time ever. It was widely reported in similar terms to the media reports on the Sentinelese. What was not reported was that these “uncontacted” Aborigines were all wearing shorts and T-shirts. They may not have met any white people face-to-face before, but through their social networks and trades with neighbours, they’d certainly had contact with the products of our culture. Obviously the Sentinelese have chosen an isolationist strategy, but the idea that they have no understanding of the culture outside their islands is extremely condescending. And the above post make it clear that they are absolutely not “uncontacted.” They had contact with British colonialism and didn’t like it one bit.

  28. raven says

    Xianity is and was one of the most violent religions the world has ever produced.
    They took over Europe and the middle east by relentless persecution of the Pagans, backed up by violence, book burnings, destruction of temples, and eventually outright murder of any Pagans still left.
    The murder of Hypatia is simply one of countless murders.

    Any history of the time before and after the fall of the western Roman empire will have details on this.
    For me to “summarize” a large number of books isn’t either necessary nor practical.
    The xians reaction to seeing another religion has always been very predictable.
    Oh look, another religion. “Let’s kill it and kill all their followers.”
    This continues to this very day.
    FWIW, like a lot of atheists and scientists, I’ve gotten countless death threats from…xians.

    Northern Crusades
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    The Northern Crusades[1] or Baltic Crusades[2] were religious wars undertaken by Catholic Christian military orders and kingdoms, primarily against the pagan Baltic, Finnic and West Slavic peoples around the southern and eastern shores of the Baltic Sea, and to a lesser extent also against Orthodox Christian Slavs (East Slavs). The crusades took place mostly in the 12th and 13th centuries and resulted in the subjugation and forced baptism of indigenous peoples.

    The most notable campaigns were the Livonian and Prussian crusades. Some of these wars were called crusades during the Middle Ages, but others, including most of the Swedish ones, were first dubbed crusades by 19th-century romantic nationalist historians. However, crusades against northern pagans were authorized by Pope Alexander III in the bull Non parum animus noster, in 1171 or 1172 [3].

  29. procyon says

    The more publicity the Sentinelese get, the less time they have left. I am surprised they have been able to avoid their own genocide this long. They need better protection from their own species. The species whose success is based on their their ability to exploit every element in their environment.

  30. says

    I wonder how long before these islanders have to start tolerating amateur drones taking footage of them and following them around at all hours, piloted from boats offshore?

  31. wzrd1 says

    @31, the Sentinelese have had plenty of publicity. Including not only throwing spears at Indian government helicopters after the tsunami, but also shooting arrows at the aircraft, which was laughably out of range of far more modern weapons.

    @29, that isn’t highly likely, due to the severity of their hostility, which obviously was well learned over the centuries. They did have some contamination via a cargo vessel that they cleared out of useful items, as it was conveniently aground on their island.

    There are few ways that I’d ever end up on that island. My airplane had an emergency sea ditching near it and somehow, I managed to survive. Don’t see that likely, in any scenario. My boat suddenly went out of control, the motor blew and I somehow couldn’t steer it into a favorable current and I ran aground. As likely as my surviving a sea ditching in an aircraft emergency. No, less likely, as I’d stay well away from that island.
    Commonsense and respect tells one to stay away from where one isn’t wanted and the law prohibits.
    But, for giggles, Scotty was drunk and beamed me to the island. First off, I let them discover me and I make fending motions to tell them to stay well away from me, pantomiming their breathing the air I breathe and suggesting that they’d die from exposure to me and using sand drawings showing I want to stay away from them and I simply want to build a nice, smoky fire to get help that stays way offshore and I swim to it.
    I’d likely, if we all get along that way, leave one of the two utility knives that I always carry and utilize at work and at home as a going away gift for their putting up with my Star Trek stunt of trespass.
    Laughably, I’ve actually done something similar, other than suggesting that breathing the same air as me would kill the people, with people that spoke languages I couldn’t make head nor tails of and a massively different culture in the military and they got the idea that we didn’t want to bother them, but were passing through.
    So, a Drunken Scotty instance, I’d give a solid 20% chance at my survival.

    That, based upon the fact that they at least buried the interloper. Frankly, in their sandals, I’d have recovered the arrow, burned it to avoid possible contact with the blood and left the scavengers have him.

    And for the record, I find the notion of my, in any means going to that island, counting Scotty as likely as my discovering cold fusion upon defecating in the toilet.
    Which is a pity, I’d love to see shit suddenly become invaluable. Oh wait, no I wouldn’t, that would make Trump a billionaire. Well, an upside is, I’d make a few hundred grand, which is enough for our modest needs. ;)
    But, the reality is, within six sigma certainty, Scotty does not exist and I have zero interest in being within 1000 miles of that island, although travel to India would be welcome. Just accumulating the recipes would be worth such a lengthy trip across the entire subcontinent. :)
    All I’d need to do so is Bill Gates bankrolling me, see Scotty existing for that likelihood.

  32. demonax says

    For Rideau and Chigau.
    I had no idea so many Xtians challenge the newspapers. However their story is correct. The Government moved from a total ban to permit under conditions tourism.
    Under the Foreigners (Protected Areas) Order, 1958, all areas falling between the ‘Inner line’, as
    defined in the said order, and the International Border of the State have been declared as

    Protected Area. Protected Areas are located in the following States:

    Whole of Arunachal Pradesh
    Parts of Himachal Pradesh
    Parts of Jammu & Kashmir
    Whole of Manipur
    Whole of Mizoram
    Whole of Nagaland
    Parts of Rajasthan
    Whole of Sikkim (partly in Protected Area and partly in Restricted Area)
    Parts of Uttarakhand
    As per
    instructions issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs on 30.12.2010, the entire area of the
    States of
    Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland has been excluded from the Protected Area regime
    notified under the Foreigners (Protected Areas) Order 1958, initially for a period of one year
    w.e.f. 1.1.2011, which has been extended from time to time. This relaxation has been extended
    till 31.12.20

    22 subject to the following conditions:

    Citizens of Afghanistan, China and Pakistan and foreign nationals having their origin in
    these countries would continue to require prior approval of the Ministry of Home Affairs
    ore their visit to the States of Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland.
    All foreigners visiting these States will register themselves with the Foreigners
    Registration Officer (FRO) of the State/District they visit within 24 hours of their arrival.
    Myanmar nationals visiting the States of Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland are also excluded
    from the requirement of obtaining a Protected Area Permit till 31.12.2022
    subject to the

    following conditions:

    All such Myanmar nationals shall obtain a visa fro
    m the Indian Missions/ Posts abroad or
    e-Tourist Vis
    a facility which has been made available to the nationals of Myanmar under
    the existing procedure.
    All such Myanmar nationals shall have to compulsorily register themselves with the
    Foreigners Regi
    stration Officer (FRO) of the State/ District they visit within 24 hours of
    their arrival.
    No such registration would be required if the Myanmar nationals are only
    passing through the State by road with no intention of staying in that particular State.
    Under the Foreigners (Restricted Areas) Order, 1963, the following areas have been declared as

    `Restricted’ Areas :

    Andaman & Nicobar Islands –
    Entire Union Territory
    – Part of the State
    A foreigner is not normally allowed to visit a Protected / Restricted Area unless it is established
    to the satisfaction of the Government that there are extraordinary reasons to justify such a visit.
    Every foreigner, except a citizen of Bhutan, who desires to enter and stay in a Protected o
    Restricted Area, is required to obtain a
    special permit
    from a competent authority delegated with
    powers to issue such a special permit to a foreigner, on application in the prescribed form
    With a view to promote tourism, some areas (notified by
    the Government of India from time to
    time) can be visited by foreign tourists, either in groups, or as a couple in the case of a husband
    and wife, or by individuals, after obtaining the necessary permit from the competent authority.
    If a foreign na
    tional intends to visit a place in the Protected/ Restricted Area for activities other
    than tourism on a Visa other than Tourist Visa, prior permission of the Ministry of Home Affairs
    shall be taken before grant of Protected Area Permit (PAP)/ Restricted A
    rea Permit (RAP) to the
    foreigner and grant of PAP/ RAP for the specific purpose (i.e. Business, Employment, Studies
    etc.) shall be endorsed on the passport of the foreigner. Besides, if a foreign national intends to
    visit a place in the Protected/ Restr
    icted Area which is not opened for tourism on a Tourist Visa,
    prior reference shall be made to the Ministry of Home Affairs.
    However, if a foreign national is holding a visa other than Tourist Visa and intends to visit the
    Protected/ Restricted Area for tourism purpose only, he/ she may be granted Special Permit for
    places opened for tourism
    In addition, the following instructions must be strictly adhered to:
    permitted to visit
    the designated places—— (Text Continues)

  33. Zeppelin says

    The missionary didn’t even speak their language — no outsiders do! — so how he expected to teach them weird biblical theology is a mystery.

    Wasn’t the wannabe missionary American? He probably expected them to learn English. Or maybe a “speaking in tongues” miracle?

  34. lumipuna says

    In his last diary entries, he lamented about not getting very close to the islanders, while trying desperately to shout them something about God’s love. I understand that English language works everywhere, but often only when shouted at close range.

    (More seriously, from his diary entries I get the impression he didn’t have much of a plan. He was just bizarrely compelled to pull this stunt, despite not really expecting to succeed or survive.)

  35. tbp1 says

    @ Raven

    “This isn’t surprising or unknown in the least.
    Most xian missionary activity is directed towards…other xians!!!”

    Yes, Mitt Romney did his mission work in France, in Bordeaux, I think. (Imagine being in France and not drinking wine or coffee!) Tim Tebow’s parents were missionaries in hyper-Christian Philippines (but since they’re mostly Catholics, I guess that doesn’t count).

    I once met a missionary whose first post had been several years on the French Riviera.

  36. says

    Basically, this idiot was just another American boy who didn’t understand the meaning of the word “no”. There are so many of them, it’s hardly surprising to discover another one. About the only thing which is unique about his story is the people who were saying “no” chose to back it up with lethal force.

    (Oh, and where I was raised, respecting someone else’s “no” is considered a mark of politeness, consideration and civilisation. Maybe we need to start colonising the USA and civilising the Evangelicals?)