The Sentinelese and John Allen Chau

Map of North Sentinel Island illustration by Jon Bordas

Imagine living in a world without technology or a grocery store, and on a diet of coconuts and fish.

That is exactly how the Sentinelese live on North Sentinel Island in the Pacific Ocean. The Sentinelese have spent the last 60,000 years living the same way, without exposure or influence from the modern world that the island. What we know about the islanders is from fishermen from surrounding islands and the Coast Guard flying over. Until recently, not many in the United States knew much about the Sentinelese. Then a young American missionary by the name of John Allen Chau was killed and buried in the sand by the Sentinelese shortly after arriving on the island.

North Sentinel Island is part of India’s Southeastern Andaman and Nicobar Islands, situated between India and Myanmar. These islands are protected by the Indian government, which means that visiting these islands is prohibited—in fact, it is illegal to go within five kilometers of the shores. The island is a little less than 24 square miles, which is six times smaller than the City of Portland. People believe the Sentinelese are hunters and gatherers since there are no signs of agriculture. They eat sea turtles and seabirds. In the last 15 years, the Sentinelese have killed three people that came onto the island. It appears he Sentinelese are territorial and do not want any contact with people from the outside world.

In 2006, a boat carrying two Indian fishermen drifted to the shores of North Sentinel Island overnight. The Sentinelese killed and buried both men. When the Indian Coast Guard flew over the island to investigate, as they attempted to land their helicopter on the beach, sand blew away to reveal two bodies chopped in many pieces and buried in shallow graves. Previous to these events it was presumed that the Sentinelese were cannibals, but this event made that seem unlikely. The Sentinelese shot arrows at the helicopter, so they never landed on the beach. This incident did not seem to receive the same broad coverage as the second, and most recent case involving the death of John Allen Chau.

Chau was a Christian missionary, spreading the word of God around the globe on behalf of an organization called All Nations. Chau went to a private high school in Vancouver Washington and was working as a guide for students at Reed College on backpacking trips to Mount Adams. According to his Instagram, he had done missionary work in South Africa, British Columbia, India, and all over the Pacific Northwest before he decided to travel to North Sentinel Island.

Chau spent many years preparing to go to North Sentinel Island. He learned emergency medicine, how to scuba dive and kayak, while intensely studying the tribe so he would be as informed as possible when he arrived on the island. He was killed by the Sentinelese on November 15, 2018, after hitching a ride with local fishermen close to the island and then kayaking the rest of the way. The Sentinelese shot Chau with arrows after he spent three days on or near the island trying to communicate with them. Local fishermen reported that Chau was buried on the beach, the same way the Indian fishermen had been 12 years earlier.

The Indian government officials say that Chau broke the law by traveling onto North Sentinel Island. They have been investigating what actually occurred on the island and have arrested the fishermen that helped Chau reach the island.

Since the Sentinelese have lived in isolation from the rest of the world for such a long period of time, Chau’s arrival on the island brought a lot of health concerns: Any contact could also introduce communicable diseases. The consequences could be fatal. A good example of this occurred at Jamestown in 1607 when over half of the colonists did not survive their first winter in Virginia because of native illnesses they were introduced to. This could potentially mean the end of one of the last truly isolated tribes in the world.

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