On December 26, 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami wreaked havoc on our planet – ultimately claiming the lives of over 230,000 individuals across 14 different nations. And so it was that, three days after the tragedy, an Indian government helicopter flew over the Bay of Bengal in order to scan North Sentinel Island for signs of life. Then the crew saw a lone figure come into view on the beach. But that solitary tribesman only jabbed his bow and arrow defiantly at the passing aircraft. The message was clear: the “lost” Sentinelese tribe had somehow survived, and its people did not want help from anyone.
Perhaps this turn of events should have come as no surprise to the authorities. After all, the Sentinelese people have long made clear their desire to be left alone. Yet the tribe is actually settled in what was among the worst locations in the Indian Ocean during one of written history’s deadliest natural disasters. Surely a tragedy such as this would convince the tribespeople that they needed assistance.
Evidently not. This is a tribe, of course, that remains among the very last cultures to be all but uncontacted and untouched by wider civilization. In fact, the people’s way of life has stayed pretty much a mystery for tens of thousands of years. The Western world does not even know, for instance, how big the tribe actually is.
Such lack of knowledge is partly because the Sentinelese tribe has seemingly been scaring off potential invaders since at least the 1200s. And this in spite of the fact that the island is pitched on the path of what was once a significant trading route between the East and the West. The tribe even reportedly had an encounter with one particularly famous explorer.
Yes, on passing North Sentinel Island sometime in the late 1200s, well-known traveler Marco Polo described the natives as a “very cruel” people who would “kill and eat every foreigner whom they can lay their hands upon.” And Polo likely had not realized back then just how accurate his words would turn out to be.
In the years that followed, the Sentinelese duly appeared to do little to diminish this fearful reputation. Quite the opposite, in fact. In 1867, for example, the survivors of a shipwreck sought refuge on North Sentinel Island – only to be heavily assaulted by the natives.
Matters did not improve a century later, either. That’s when the Indian government first launched a number of expeditions that sought to initiate communication with the tribe. But whatever the ambitions of these initial missions, the officials involved surely would not have welcomed the outcomes. The trips were, you see, invariably met with hails of arrows and rocks.
Similarly, in 1974 a National Geographic documentary crew – alongside anthropologists and police officers – tried to make contact with the tribespeople. This time, though, the outsiders offered gifts and food in order to curry favor with the Sentinelese. And yet the outcome was much the same: the film’s director was hit in the leg with an arrow, and the assembled crew fled to safety.
The situation was such that the Indian government officially gave up trying to communicate with the Sentinelese after three decades of failed contact missions. Then again, if these tribespeople are willing to fight for their wish to be left alone, to many it would appear wise to acquiesce. And yet, inevitably, this was not to be the last that the world would hear of the Sentinelese.
In January 2006, you see, a pair of middle-aged men were unlawfully fishing in the waters around the Sentinelese’s homeland. According to a report in The Telegraph, the pair were hunting for mud crabs. But the men then apparently sank into what was likely a drink-induced sleep – and were unaware when their makeshift anchor came loose.
The pair’s boat subsequently floated in the direction of the shore, with the warnings of other fishers apparently falling on deaf ears. So it was that the boat strayed too near to the island – and the natives attacked and killed the men on board. Then, following this bloody episode, the tribespeople reportedly saw off any attempt to retrieve the corpses, too.
So what is the reason for the Sentinelese’s attitude towards the wider world? Well, it has been argued that the tribe actually has good cause for being hostile to outsiders. In 1879, for instance, a British expedition to the island was reportedly responsible for kidnapping half a dozen natives and holding them in North Sentinel’s biggest settlement.
While kept there, the tribespeople quickly became ill, and the two oldest hostages died, according to a source from the time cited by Survival International. And although the rest of the group were reportedly returned to the tribe with gifts, the incident would surely have done little to inspire much trust in the wider world among the Sentinelese.
So, without the benefit of communication with the Sentinelese, what do we really know about the tribe’s way of life? Well, the only knowledge of Sentinelese culture available has been put together from the snippets of information gathered during the brief encounters established over the years.
For one thing, it seems that despite the tribe’s pre-Neolithic or Stone Age tag, the Sentinelese have a talent for making use of metal. They have also apparently been known to reclaim iron from shipwrecked vessels – presumably for the purpose of fashioning tools.
The tribespeople are furthermore thought to lead hunter-gatherer lifestyles, free from agriculture. Yet, as already mentioned, it is not known how many Sentinelese are sustained through this existence. Population estimates in fact range from anywhere between 40 and 500 individuals.
And despite the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami having caused changes to their environment, it is clear that the Sentinelese have at least survived and made do in the aftermath. Certainly, the tribespeople were still strong – and equipped – enough to dish out grisly ends for the fishermen who washed up on their shore in 2006.
The island also made headlines again more recently, in summer 2015. It was at this time, you see, that a series of joke vacation reviews appeared on Google Plus. One witty writer praised the opportunity to “relax on the beautiful sunny beaches tied to a rotisserie,” while others recommended wearing body armor to help with dodging spears.
Today, though, a three-mile exclusion zone enforced by the Indian government protects North Sentinel Island – so a visit is probably off the cards. And given that two other similarly located tribes – the Onge and the Great Andamanese – faced decimated numbers in the wake of their contact with Westerners, perhaps it is best for things to stay this way.
There is, all told, very good reason why tribes like this one strive to protect their territories: sometimes they can find themselves in grave danger. Given that indigenous people often reside in areas that offer useful resources, the very ground on which they walk can be sought after. And when a group of illegal miners came across a lost tribe in the Amazon rainforest, a sickening turn of events apparently transpired.
In a bar in Brazil, close to the Colombian border, a group of illegal miners are spinning seemingly tall tales. The miners claim that in the wilds of the Amazon they encountered a lost tribe – one of the few communities on Earth still untouched by the modern world. Then, as their story unfolds, they start to brag about having done something truly horrifying.
From its mist-shrouded mountains to the thick swathes of the Amazon jungle, Brazil has always been a wild and beautiful place. Ever since Europeans arrived there at the dawn of the 16th century, though, there have been outsiders present – keen to exploit the country’s abundant natural resources.
At first, Europeans began exporting Brazil’s Paubrasilia trees, known for their ability to produce a precious red dye. Then the colonists started transforming large tracts of the land into sugar plantations. They enslaved the native peoples and shipped their crops across the world.
However, these developments paled in comparison to the gold rush and the rubber boom of the 18th and 19th centuries. Keen to get their hands on these valuable resources, Portuguese buccaneers began exploring the uncharted interior of the country.
Wherever they went, the settlers left destruction in their wake, decimating the landscape and destroying the indigenous way of life. Sadly, some 300 years later, little has changed. Although there are no more Portuguese bandeirantes, their legacy is difficult to ignore.
Today, more than 20 percent of the lush green Amazon rainforest has already been destroyed. In response, the local government has put regulations in place to control deforestation. Yet illegal operations continue in a region that is notoriously difficult to police.
The tribes that call the Amazon their home have found their territory growing ever smaller. The depths of the forest do, however, still conceal communities that have no contact at all with the outside world. But their numbers are in decline.
According to experts, there are around 100 uncontacted tribes in the Amazon today. Sadly, though, they are under constant threat from hostile outsiders who can easily outmatch them with firearms and who have the potential to carry diseases previously unknown to them. Concern for these communities is in fact so great that Brazil’s National Indian Foundation, or FUNAI, operates an entire department dedicated to their protection.
However, some believe that the Brazilian government is not doing enough. In fact, in April 2017 a lack of funding forced FUNAI to shut down five bases that were being used to defend and monitor uncontacted tribes. Now only 14 remain – and even those have been hit by staffing cuts.
Three of these closed bases were apparently located in the Javari Valley, a vast 33,000-square-mile territory in remote western Brazil. And given that it is the second biggest reserve in the entire country, more uncontacted tribes are thought to live there than in any other place on the planet.
However, with the withdrawal of what few resources had been allocated to protect them, these tribes now face an uncertain fate. In a sobering reflection of what could be in store, September 2017 saw a horrifying story emerge from the wilds of the Javari Valley.
Several weeks before, an unnamed individual had apparently been in a bar close to the border with Colombia when they overheard a group of prospectors recounting a then-recent experience in the valley. In Brazil, these illegal miners – called garimpeiros – are known for the destruction that they wreak across the Amazon.
According to reports, the miners in question were bragging about their encounter with an uncontacted tribe – and it was shocking, to say the least. Apparently, they had attacked and slain ten indigenous people. The garimpeiros also reportedly claimed that after the massacre, they dumped the bodies in the Jandiatuba River – though not before carving them into pieces to ensure that they sank to the riverbed.
The garimpeiros allegedly had more than just their words to support these horrific claims, too. According to reports, they also produced jewelry and tools that had once belonged to the members of the tribe. Understandably troubled by the miners’ stories, then, the witness managed to record their conversation.
When the recording was then turned over to the authorities, an investigation began. However, it has been plagued by difficulties. Perhaps most significant is the remoteness of the place where the crimes are alleged to have taken place. Indeed, it can only be reached following an arduous 12-hour boat journey into the Amazon.
“We are following up, but the territories are big and access is limited,” lead prosecutor Pablo Luz de Beltrand told The New York Times in September 2017. “These tribes are uncontacted – even FUNAI has only sporadic information about them. So it’s difficult work that requires all government departments working together.”
Investigators are still struggling to gather details of the crime from a community that is isolated and distrustful of outsiders. Meanwhile, indigenous rights organization Survival International has claimed that the incident may have wiped out a significant portion of a tribe – and that the government only has itself to blame.
Campaigner Sarah Shenker told The New York Times, “If the investigation confirms the reports, it will be yet another genocidal massacre resulting directly from the Brazilian government’s failure to protect isolated tribes – something that is guaranteed in the Constitution.”
It is the latest in a line of problems that have been plaguing the unpopular president Michel Temer. After cutting funding and opening up Amazon reserves to miners, he has faced criticism from a wide range of groups. “We had problems with previous governments, but not like this,” Leila Silvia Burger Sotto-Maior, a FUNAI coordinator, told The New York Times.
Moreover, although the case is still ongoing, the incident has raised concerns among activists that similar crimes may be going unreported. Survival International communications officer Carla de Lello Lorenzi told The Washington Post, “It’s the uncontacted versus illegal miners, who think they can get away with anything. Unfortunately, a lot of the time they do.”