North Sentinel – “The Undiscover’d Country”

by Dennis on February 6, 2010

A day or so ago, I noticed a story on the BBC news site concerning the death of the last speaker of Bo, a pre-Neolithic language of India’s Andaman Islands. This in turn led me to read about the island of North Sentinel.

Long before I started Eternal Idol, it was an article of faith for me that it was possible to peer into the past and to get a glimpse of life when Stonehenge was in its infancy, through the eyes of the people who built the monument and who conducted their ceremonies there. I’m not alone in believing this, and it was admittedly heartening to learn that Ralph Whitlock, author of “In Search of Lost Gods”, came to virtually the same conclusion long before me.

I’m as confident as I can be that I have caught the occasional fleeting glimpse into the past, while this belief is tempered by the certain knowledge that there’s no future or gain in trying to delude myself. I’m optimistic that over the course of time, there will be still more occasions when some aspect of life 5,000 years ago assumes a momentary clarity, but it does no harm at all to cultivate some humility and a sense of proportion about what I’ve chosen to try to do.

In his play Hamlet, William Shakespeare described Death as “the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns….” and while this is an appropriate reference point for trying to hear the soft voices of the Stonehenge dead, I feel it has a practical and extremely fitting reality when I come to consider the islanders of North Sentinel.

Many insightful and compelling observations have been written about the people who built Stonehenge, all as a result of the careful study of some weathered stones and earthworks, some artefacts and some bones that are fast on their way to becoming the dust from whence their original owners sprang. By way of complete contrast, the island of North Sentinel is visible from the sea and from the air; its 200 or so inhabitants have been photographed [above] and they’ve also been captured on film on several occasions. They’ve been on their island for something in the region of 60,000 years and they’ve been visited, albeit fleetingly, many times over the past few centuries, yet our knowledge of these people hovers around the zero mark.

We do not know what language they speak, we do not know what beliefs they hold, what ceremonies they perform, what their diet is, what their mythology or world view might be, while we don’t even know how they refer to themselves. We don’t know if they have a patriarchal or matriarchal society, or any other for that matter, while we know next to nothing about their customs or skills, other than they’ve learned to tip their arrows with salvaged and beaten iron. We possess several of their wonderful bows, but we have a strong suspicion that they cannot even cultivate fire, relying instead on the conflagrations caused by lightning strikes; however, it seems that they knew that the tsunami of 2004 was approaching and it also seems that they survived it.

In terms of trying to study the people who built Stonehenge, I find it very sobering to think that the island of North Sentinel, the people to whom it is home and their few known artefacts have a physical and ongoing reality, yet we know so very little about them.

One thing we do know for certain about the North Sentinelese is that they don’t share the curiosity we have about them, while to describe them as hostile is something of an understatement. They have a long track record of killing anyone who enters their domain, something that continues to the present day, while they seem to be unconcerned by modern aircraft such as helicopters. During my time on Salisbury Plain, the airfield at Netheravon was home to an Apache squadron and I often saw these fearsome machines at extremely close range while they were on manoeuvre. Clearly, I can’t conceive of not knowing what helicopters are, so God only knows what the North Sentinelese make of them, yet these ‘infernal engines’ or flying demons seem to hold few, if any terrors for them.

On the one hand, the more I read about North Sentinel, the more curious I become, not least because an intimate knowledge of these people’s lives, rituals and language could conceivably shed some light on the lives of our ancestors who built Stonehenge. However, this curiosity is outweighed by an intense admiration for these people and the way they’ve chosen to shun the rest of the world.

It’s a shame that I’ll never be able to tell the man in the photograph below of the respect I have for him, but I very much doubt that his existence will be any the poorer for this. However, my life has been considerably enriched by having seen the striking image, which surely embodies hostility and defiance, so long may it remain this way as far as the islanders of North Sentinel are concerned.

Update: For those of you who may be interested, you can find information on an interview with Captain Robert Fore, as well as previously unpublished photographs of the rescue of the crew of the Primrose.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Angie Lake February 6, 2010 at 11:28 am

Hi Dennis

I nearly sent you this story last night, only my link was from the Daily Mail website: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1248754/Last-member-65-000-year-old-tribe-dies-taking-worlds-earliest-languages-grave.html
Like you, I felt it was an insight into the lives of the ancient tribes of Salisbury Plain.
I see she tells the interpreter that the Great Andamanese, or the Bo, as her tribe was called, were suffering from the effects of alcohol, besides the obvious illnesses that foreigners brought with them.
(Maybe a few barrels parachuted in to North Sentinel might calm them down?? ;-) )

It’s interesting that you focused on the aspect of: ‘What those fierce tribesmen actually think a helicopter is’, as that hadn’t occurred to me. Brings to mind – “Was God an astronaut?” by Von Daniken.

Her face is so mesmerising isn’t it?… in a very sort of primeval way. There does seem to be a lot of hurt in her eyes though… or is that more of a, ‘Don’t mess with me’ expression?

Dennis February 6, 2010 at 2:55 pm

I wrote about Shakespeare’s “Undiscover’d Country” for the reasons I explained, but I could just as well have used another literary reference to illustrate my points about North Sentinel.

A few months ago, Henley’s poem “Invictus” was mentioned; to my mind, it pretty much defines the people on North Sentinel and I’ve just seen this truly wonderful rendition by Morgan Freeman. Today, of course, we see the most important 90 minutes of the year, when Wales play England in the Six Nations….

Talla February 6, 2010 at 3:53 pm

This is what I love about your site, Dennis. I’ve just spent a couple of hours reading Adam Goodheart’s article and then, via GoogleEarth, exploring North Sentinel at a height of 200ft. The wreck of the Primrose is still there and there are possibly a few huts on the beach in the south-west but apart from that – absolutely nothing but trees. I’m glad Goodheart didn’t get there and I’m glad they are being left alone. Meeting them would be a great disappointment – to both them and us.

As for being in any way like the people who built Stonehenge, I doubt this very much. I’m always very sceptical about anthropological parallels and have met enough people from very different cultures to my own to know that I (or we western European types) cannot possibly imagine what it is like to be them, or think like them. If this is true of people who are living at the same time as us then how can we put ourselves into the minds of people 5000 years ago?

Thanks for the post!

Dennis February 6, 2010 at 7:48 pm

Well, Talla, I have to say that I’m extremely flattered & honoured by your kind words of praise. I thought Goodheart’s essay was a real treasure and I was fascinated by reading a proper ‘old-fashioned’ account, as opposed to some formulaic journalese or some inane internet posting.

I’m sure you’re right in what you say about the Stonehenge people and anthropological parallels. However, when I was writing about the North Sentinelese, I had in mind Sir Thomas Browne’s quote “What song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture.” Or to put it another way, perhaps, it’s simply that the deep contemplation of our ancestors is so satisfying.

If by some miracle, I had some huge volume on my desk, containing every word of the North Sentinelese language, every detail of their rituals and mythology, and every detail of their world view, history and ability to fashion bows, I would happily spend as long as it took ploughing through it, as would many other people, I suspect. Just because they’re a pre-Neolithic society doesn’t mean, of course, that they’re living parallels to the people who built Stonehenge, but I’m sure there would be much to ponder by way of similarities, which might possibly throw some light on the lives of our ancestors at Stonehenge. It wouldn’t necessarily prove anything, but I don’t doubt that it would provide much food for thought and something, somewhere along the line, might possibly give one of us a “Eureka!” moment.

A lot of what I read about the North Sentinel islanders intrigued me, while I’d never claim to be an anthropologist of any kind. I suppose I was surprised that they buried the two fishermen they’d killed, as I think I was expecting to learn that they’d been otherwise disposed of. I seem to remember reading that these people buried their children with a nautilus shell on the grave, so I was baffled by why interlopers, who were killed, were disposed of in the same fashion to their own dead on such a small island.

In the same vein, I was surprised to learn that the doll had been buried, as had the pig that they’d killed. They seem to revere pigs or pig skulls, so the only common denominator that I could see is that they’re not at all keen on any other living beings entering their domain, but they liked red buckets and coconuts. The treatment of the tethered pig and their own pigs made me wonder about what took place at Durrington Walls in prehistory, but I suppose the whole thing just boils down to the sheer pleasure of having these different ‘things’ to compare and contemplate.

I’m not convinced that meeting them would be such a disappointment, although I’m thinking in idealistic terms, of course. I would hazard a guess that these people have a very long-standing oral tradition, so I’d love to hear their version of seeing off the various interlopers that have landed in their realm over the course of centuries, or possibly millennia. Marco Polo seems to have thought that they were ‘Ceinocephaloi’, so I wonder what prompted that observation? I wonder how long they have to spend learning their own history, if indeed they do such a thing at all? I wonder what form they think the world takes, outside the 44 square miles of their domain?

Having written at some length about astronomer-priests at Stonehenge who wondered about life in the night sky, I love to know what these people believe stars to be? Or helicopters, for that matter? Questions, questions…..

Gilbert Rattenbury February 7, 2010 at 4:40 pm

Thank you Dennis for this article. It was fascinating reading – for hours. Here is a little contribution comparing the Sentinelese and Stonehenge societies.

To begin with, here are two images from Google Earth.

http://www.imagebam.com/image/1c2b1167166676

The first shows the entire island.
It is flat, with few features. The land is completely covered with trees. At the edges are sandy beaches, and offshore, protective coral reefs that surround the island with very few gaps.

http://www.imagebam.com/image/58532867167607

The second image shows possibly the only interesting detail – the wreck of the Primrose, grounded in 1981.

These two images actually tell us quite a lot about what it must be like to live on the island. There are no clearings, no villages and no plantations. The inhabitants do not practice agriculture – they are a hunter-gatherer society.
Unless you are on the beach the sky and stars are not visible. During the day it is light but shady beneath the canopy of vegetation. At night it is very dark.
There are no hills no rivers no cliffs and no visible monuments. Assuming the inhabitants do not use compasses they must have a method of navigation completely different from anything we are familiar with. Perhaps they mark trees.

They have a way of life which is primitive but very enduring. Isolation is a key. Perhaps the inherent population control as well. Coming out of the ice-ages mankind began to adapt farming to support a larger population. Stonehenge was crowded and possibly made this change early on.
The Sentinelese never made this change. Here is an article that shows what a difference that made.

http://www.environnement.ens.fr/perso/claessen/agriculture/mistake_jared_diamond.pdf

Dennis February 7, 2010 at 5:44 pm

And thank you, too, for your kind words, Gilbert. I try my best to keep to the subjects of Stonehenge and Silbury Hill, both in prehistoric and modern times, but it seemed to me that the subject of North Sentinel Island was very much in keeping with the deep contemplation of our remote ancestors.

As I said in reply to Talla, Goodheart’s essay was a proper piece of engaging writing, and I’m glad I’m not the only one who found it fascinating. I realise that an anthropological analysis of hunter-gatherer societies must be a huge subject, but I was extremely interested by the contents of the link you sent in, so thank you for that as well.

I suppose we all have our individual notions of what life was like for our ancestors who built Stonehenge, and these notions must be coloured by personal preferences, wishful thinking, individual means of reasoning and so forth. On the one hand, I don’t doubt for a moment that life could be extremely cruel and violent from a modern perspective [especially if we choose to ignore the horrors in places like Irag and Afghanistan], but on the other hand, I can’t help thinking that a life without our vehicles, planes, railways and innumerable electronic devices must have been idyllic. I’m sure our ancestors were extremely happy in their way, because if life had been as grim as some like to make out, I think everyone would have keeled over and died rather than struggle on.

The mention of the hunter-gatherers inevitably brings to mind the astonishing ruins at Gobekli Tepe, something I’ve been meaning to write about for a long, long time, so perhaps this is as good a time as any to try to prepare a post that will do the subject justice.

Dennis February 7, 2010 at 8:00 pm

While I think of it, it’s well worth quoting the late, great Robert Graves in the context of the life lead by our forebears. I intend to quote from and refer to passages from The White Goddess at some length in the future, but for now, I was awestruck by the following from the introduction:

‘Nowadays’ is a civilisation in which the prime emblems of poetry are dishonoured. In which serpent, lion and eagle belong to the circus-tent; ox, salmon and boar to the cannery; racehorse and greyhound to the betting ring; and the sacred grove to the saw-mill. In which the Moon is despised as a burned out satellite of the Earth and woman reckoned as ‘auxiliary State personnel’. In which money will buy almost anything but truth, and almost anyone but the truth-possessed poet.

Dennis February 21, 2010 at 3:12 pm

I wasn’t sure whether to post this under what I wrote about the deranged Pat Robertson or not, but as it concerns the spirits warning of an impending catastrophe, I thought it might be more appropriate here. It’s a fascinating article on Voodoo in Haiti from the BBC news site:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/8517070.stm

Capt. Robert Fore May 18, 2010 at 9:31 am

Hello Dennis,

I wanted to thank you for the enjoyable observations you have made concerning North Sentinel island. Thoughtful observations about this subject must unfortunately suffice as the North Sentinelese are rather a stand offish group to say the least. During my time in the Andaman Islands it was rumored that the Japanese military forces in WWII used North Sentinel as a target range for their aircraft. I can not speak to the integrity of this statement, but I must say that it makes sense since the level of violence towards outsiders is extreme.

I am one of two helicopter pilots that rescued the crew and mascot from the M.V. Primrose which ran aground there in 1981. I wrote a response to another online article I found a few years back. You can find my response at this web address:
http://submitresponse.co.uk/weblog/2007/12/01/north-sentinel-rescue/

I apologize if it was a bit rambling in nature, but it was very late when I was writing it. I enjoyed the pictures you have here also, and was wondering if you would like to see the pictures I have which I took on the day of the rescue. They have been in long term storage, and have seen the effects of time, but they are still viewable. Just send me a message about where to send the photo files so that you will get them, should you be interested.

Sincerely,

Bob Fore

Luis Gomez de Aranda November 30, 2010 at 9:05 pm

Hello Bob,
If by chance you happen to run into this page again, I’d love to see those pictures of the Primrose rescue. I have been very interested in Sentinelese ever since I first read about them and I try to learn everything there is to learn about them – which is not much because of their well-known hostility towards anyone.
I am compiling all pictures I can find on the Sentinelese and North Sentinel Island and of course yours would be a great addition.
If you want, e-mail them to luisgomezdearanda@yahoo.es
I would love to see them, even though from what I read on your report you did not actually spot any of them. I’d imagine the noise from the helicopter scared them away.
Thank you very much Bob,
- Luis Gomez

Capt. Robert Fore December 18, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Luis, I am sending the pictures I have from the Primrose rescue to your e-mail address. Hope you will find them useful. I will also gladly send them to any other reader that might be interested. Just please e-mail your request to me at:

gryphon4@yahoo.com

I am thinking of establishing a website with cleaned up versions of these photos.

Bob Fore

brent January 3, 2013 at 3:10 am

I’m in the middle of writing a novel on the Sentinelese. Of couse it’s fictional but is based around possible scenarios and lifestyle based on what we do know, the connection with the Jangil (some say Onge but I say Jangil). I’ve given them a name they call themselves and I’ve worked around some of known Andamaese words. It’s just trying to build a historical story around what we do know or could imagine.

We’ll have to see how it comes out when I’m finished but it might help raise world awareness of the need to keep them isolated.

Dennis January 5, 2013 at 12:32 am

Brent, I’m very interested indeed to learn of your planned novel, so thank you for writing in about this and I will write to you again privately in a little while.

Luis Gomez de Aranda March 28, 2013 at 3:01 pm

Yes, put me down for another copy of that novel!

I really wish Hollywood would stop wasting their time on ridiculous movies and dedicate more time to making a film about, say, the Sentinelese finally sending a committee to discover the outside world.

Niel April 28, 2013 at 8:18 am

Thanks for a great read. I did some further research and came up with this video of the tribe interacting with outsiders.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OaPYwlXOTzQ&feature=PlayList&index=0&playnext=1&list=PL59DA02EB253C703F

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: