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American killed in Andaman made notes of how Sentinelese tribe lives, interacts

Detailing how the Sentinelese speak, John Allen Chau, noted that they “make high pitched sounds.... sounds such as the letters b, p, l and s.” Chau, the first outsider to have sneaked into the island in 12 years, also described the topography of island.

india Updated: Nov 30, 2018 08:28 IST
Prawesh Lama
Prawesh Lama
Hindustan Times,
Sentinelese tribe,US man killed in Andamans,John Allen Chau
American self-styled adventurer and Christian missionary, John Allen Chau, has been killed and buried by a tribe of hunter-gatherers on a remote island in the Indian Ocean where he had gone to proselytize, according to local law enforcement officials, in this undated image obtained from a social media on November 23.(REUTERS)

A note left by American missionary John Allen Chau, feared killed by members of the Sentinelese tribe on their off-limits North Sentinel Island in Andaman, reveals more details of the indigenous people and also Chau’s own efforts to get to know them. For instance, it puts a number to the Sentinelese - 250. It also provides some details of their social hierarchy.

The detailed note, titled “Observations”, was recovered by Andaman police from the possession of a fisherman who dropped him off at the island, S Jampo. The fisherman, along with four other fishermen, has been arrested for taking Chau to an island where outsiders, Indians and others, are not allowed. The North Sentinel island is at least three hours away by boat from the nearest village in Andaman. The note has been shared with anthropologists in the hope that it might provide some tips on retrieving Chau’s body.

To be sure, Chau, 27 an adventurer who wished to bring religion to the islanders, wasn’t an anthropologist and his observations will have to be treated as that of an amateur’s. Still, some of the details about the little known tribe are interesting.

Read| American killed by the Sentinelese in Andaman may not have acted alone

According to Chau, on the morning of November 15, when he arrived on the island he met one man who appeared to be the tribe’s leader.

The man had a white crown made of flowers (according to Chau). Missionary added that the man “took a leadership stance. ... climbed on a rock, and yelled at me.”

Detailing how the Sentinelese speak, Chau, from Alabama in the United States, noted that they “make high pitched sounds.... sounds such as the letters b, p, l and s.” Nothing is known of the language of the Sentinelese. Chau guessed in his notes that the tribespeople “probably exchanged a lot of insults” although the basis for this isn’t clear.

Chau also notes that he tried some words used by the Jarawas, a tribe from South and Middle Andaman but the Sentinelese didn’t seem to understand them.

Chau, the first outsider to have sneaked into the island in 12 years, also described the topography of island.

Describing the North Sentinel Island beach, Chau wrote that the sand is white but coarse. The seabed leading up to the beach has mostly dead coral, he observed, but with a very clear bottom. “ There is an amazing surf beach at the entrance of the south part of the cove. Saw three perfect sets of 4-6 feet high swells ....” the note reads.

Some of the huts housed around 10 Sentinelese each, including juveniles; and some could have had around 50, Chau noted. He has estimated the number of Sentinelese to be about 250. In 2004, after the Tsunami, the Indian government , which conducted an aerial survey of the island to check on the islanders, estimated their number at between 40 and 200. The islanders shot arrows from their bows at the helicopter then too.

Read| Isolated tribe kills American tourist on remote island in Andaman sea. But who are Sentinelese?

Chau says he saw no elderly Sentinelese, and guessed that this meant they lived separately on another part of the island. The women booed when they saw him, he noted.

One of the juveniles, around 10 years old, shot an arrow at Chau but it hit his Bible and didn’t pass beyond page 933.

The arrow-tip was metal, but very thin and sharp, Chau guessed. A generally held hypothesis suggests that the Sentinelese salvaged ships wrecked around the island for metal and made arrows from these. Chau also writes about the gestures of the islanders. “Arms in the air meant unarmed and friendly. Pointing with hand/finger meant pointing a location. Arrows in bow meant ready to shoot you.”

First Published: Nov 30, 2018 08:24 IST