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Isolated tribe may have killed an American, reports say. Who are the Sentinelese?

Indian media reports said an American was reportedly killed by members of the Sentinelese people off North Sentinel Island. The Sentinelese resist contact with the rest of the world and have killed intruders.
Indian media reports said an American was reportedly killed by members of the Sentinelese people off North Sentinel Island. The Sentinelese resist contact with the rest of the world and have killed intruders. Indian Coast Guard/Survival International

An American was reportedly killed by members of the Sentinelese tribe on the remote North Sentinel Island off the coast of India in November, the BBC reported.

The island is home to a deeply isolated tribe of people who have resisted contact with the outside word for years. Police told local media the man was ferried to the island by seven fishermen, who have all been arrested because contacting the protected tribes of the Andaman Islands is illegal, the BBC reported.

Some local media said the man was on an “adventure trip,” according to the Associated Press. Others identified him as a Christian missionary named John Allen Chau, according to Reuters.

“The 27-year-old tourist took a canoe from a boat that dropped him near the island. The fishermen who dropped him have been arrested and investigations are on,” police spokesperson Jatin Narwal said, according to Al-Jazeera.

A police source said the fishermen saw the man get hit by arrows but that he “kept walking” until his body was dragged across the sand by the tribe members, AFP reported, quoting an unnamed source. His body is in the process of being recovered, according to the Associated Press.

“When a U.S. citizen is missing, we work closely with local authorities as they carry out their search efforts,” said Kathleen Hosie, spokeswoman for the U.S. Consulate in Chennai, according to the AP. She declined to comment further, the agency reported.

Who are the Sentinelese?

The Sentinelese are an extremely isolated tribe who subsist through hunting and gathering, according to Survival International, an advocacy group for tribal and uncontacted peoples.

“Most of what is known about the Sentinelese has been gathered by viewing them from boats moored more than an arrows distance from the shore and a few brief periods where the Sentinelese allowed the authorities to get close enough to hand over some coconuts. Even what they call themselves is unknown,” the group wrote.

The Sentinelese have mostly resisted contact with outsiders, sometimes violently. Two men who were fishing illegally near the island in 2006 were killed when their boat drifted too close to shore, the Telegraph reported.

“As day broke, fellow fishermen say they tried to shout at the men and warn them they were in danger,” Samir Acharya, of the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology, said at the time, according to the paper. “However they did not respond - they were probably drunk - and the boat drifted into the shallows where they were attacked and killed.”

After a 2004 Tsunami struck the area, some feared the tribe had been wiped out. But footage from a rescue helicopter showed a Sentinelese tribe member aiming at the helicopter with a bow and arrow, the Independent reported.

The population of the tribe is not clear, but was “declining,” social scientist Shiv Viswanathan said, according to the AP. “The government has to protect them,” Viswanathan said.

Survival International said the group’s isolation makes them vulnerable to disease, and contact could have “tragic consequences.”

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